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At EMI, could digital music kill the 'record' promo?

In a departure from traditional promotional efforts, French singer Yelle was promoted in the U.S. through the digital music only. Apparently, CDs and vinyl aren't even good as promos anymore.

French singer Yelle is helping to usher out era of disc promos
EMI Music

Sweet faced and playful, French electro-pop star Yelle seems an unlikely figure to stick a dagger into the heart of a much-loved but quickly disappearing staple of the music industry.

She is unwittingly helping The EMI Group, one of the four largest music companies, to push CDs further into the shadows. Already a star in her own country and a growing nightclub favorite in the U.S., Yelle was being promoted until recently in this country exclusively through digital means.

For decades, music labels trying to break in an act pressed thousands of vinyl records or CDs to distribute to disc jockeys, record stores, journalists, and fans. Those types of promotions have grown too expensive in an era of shrinking music sales, says Jeff Rougvie, general manager of EMI's Caroline Records, who is leading Yelle's U.S. campaign.

"We're definitely spending less than on a traditional campaign," Rougvie said. "It doesn't make sense when you're going out the door to spend a lot of money putting out a physical product and taking in costs before you know what (the demand is)."

For an industry that has been decimated by digital technology, this is an example of how at least one of the four largest music labels is putting it to work.

Caroline Records specializes in introducing international music stars to U.S. audiences. Naturally, this means executives are often less sure of whether a foreign performer can find a niche audience here. Spending big on untested and unknown acts doesn't make sense. As part of the digital-only promotion, EMI didn't seek radio airplay for Yelle's music and didn't buy banner or print ads in traditional music magazines like Rolling Stone or Blender.

Instead, executives took to MySpace, music widgets, and powerful music blogs like Pitchfork. The label started digital and stayed digital until it reached a critical mass. On April 1, EMI finally released a CD version of Yelle's album, Pop Up.

The movement to phase out discs as promotional devices has been around for some time. Last year, EMI drastically scaled back the numbers of CDs it sent out as promos. Just a few years ago, the label may have sent out CDs as complete albums. Now it distributes secure online access where retailers or reviewers can hear songs.

Beyond the cost savings that digital music offers, Rougvie says there is growing need for an act to obtain a "groundswell of digital support" from music blogs, download stores, and MySpace to prove to a label that it can attract fans and is worthy of a larger investment. For that reason, focusing on digital at the beginning of a promotion makes sense.

EMI says it has already seen positive results.

Last year, the label brought Utada Hikaru, Japan's top recording artist, to the United States. EMI helped the singer find an audience in the U.S. without pressing any CDs initially. But the U.S. digital-only campaign was at best an effort to put otherwise hard-to-find product in front of her U.S. fans. Before digital music, those fans might wait months before an expensive import CD hit our shores.

Digital allows EMI to get product to niche audiences affordably as well as generate incremental income for the company. Hikaru would later go on to sell 7.2 million downloads worldwide.

Naturally, EMI is trying it again.

The label couldn't have asked for a better test case than Yelle. The 25-year-old from St. Brieuc, France, told CNET on Wednesday that she grew up with the Internet and fully understands its power to promote and distribute music.

Yelle, pronounced Yeah-elle, was discovered by EMI's unit in France one week after she posted "Short Dick Cuizi," a song that took swipes at a member of a rival band. She renamed the song "Je veux te voir" and then released Pop Up, which features three songs, "Je veux te voir," "Parle a ma main," and "A cause des garcons" attracting big audiences at YouTube.

A version of "A cause des garcons" has been viewed 3.5 million times since August. Her songs have also been heard on such TV shows as "The Hills" and "Entourage."

While Yelle is a fan of digital music and technology, she says there is still a place for plastic.

"I don't know when my first EP on vinyl will come out," said Yelle, whose real name is Julie Budet. "I don't know whether it will come out. I think it's a bonus if it does. It's a plus. I think now you can download music, buy CDs, and that's what people really want. But I would be really proud if my album will be out in vinyl."