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May 19, 2007

Paul McCartney's new album "Memory Almost Full" will be released June 5 in North America (one day earlier internationally) as the first release on Hear Music, the new label formed by Starbucks Entertainment and Concord Music Group. Thus ends his near 45-year association with Capitol/EMI, and thus begins a new dawn for the former Beatle.

McCartney's 21st solo album is a spirited set with occasional echoes of his '70s work with Wings. It's also his first to be available digitally—and, as he reveals exclusively in a Q&A with Billboard, there are signs of a settlement in the long-running digital-distribution saga involving EMI, Apple and his former band.

McCartney started recording "Memory" as long ago as October 2003, but put the project on hold to complete 2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard." In North America, the lead song from the new set, which was recorded at various studios including Abbey Road, Air and RAK in London, is the upbeat "Ever Present Past."

The international emphasis track is the album's opening song, "Dance Tonight," on which McCartney plays his new discovery, the mandolin. He says, "In searching the instrument to try and find chords, which I did with the guitar when I was 14, probably, that freshness was brought back. It stops you getting jaded, and I'm a born enthusiast."

"Ever Present Past" is one of several tracks with an autobiographical, sometimes retrospective lyrical flavor. "It's quite personal," McCartney says, "but that often happens unless you set out to write an 'arm's length' album, which I hardly ever do."

Hear Music is distributed worldwide by Universal Music Group—the label has grown from the existing relationship Universal has with Concord. UMG has distributed Concord in North America since July 2004, while a worldwide international distribution and licensing agreement was put in place at the end of 2005.

"Chaos and Creation," which earned three Grammy Award nominations and another for Nigel Godrich in the producer category, has worldwide sales of more than 1 million, according to EMI, of which Nielsen SoundScan reports 534,000 in the United States. That's well up on its studio predecessor, 2001's "Driving Rain," at 399,000 in the States and 650,000 globally. But 1997's "Flaming Pie" has sold 676,000 units in the States and a worldwide total of 1.5 million.

"Memory" arrives only 21 months after the release of "Chaos" and a mere nine since McCartney's classical piece "Ecce Cor Meum." That set won the best album award at the Classical BRIT Awards May 3 in London (see Global Newsline, page 16).

Conversations between Starbucks and McCartney heated up two-and-a-half months ago, after the company learned that the former Beatle's existing deal with Capitol had lapsed. At the same time, Starbucks was talking with Concord about launching Hear Music. While the notion of McCartney signing to a label from a coffee retailer might have seemed implausible to others, that didn't occur to Starbucks executives.

"We didn't consider ourselves a long shot," Starbucks Entertainment president Ken Lombard says. "Starbucks has always been in a unique position to help artists like Paul McCartney in putting their music in front of the consumer in a way that no other retailer can."

Starbucks Entertainment VP of content development Alan Mintz was dispatched to London to pitch the McCartney camp on becoming the first artist signed to Hear Music.

"It was a very thorough discussion of Paul's thoughts on the record [and] what he was looking for in terms of a partner," Lombard says. "Our job was to make sure he walked away with a true sense of not only our commitment as a company to providing our Starbucks customers with a music experience, but our commitment to the music industry as a whole."

Indeed, in establishing itself as a full-service label, Starbucks and Hear Music had to ensure that it would be focused on not just distribution through its own retail locations but across all retail outlets. The company pointed to its previous venture with Concord, which oversaw marketing, radio and distribution for Ray Charles' Grammy-winning "Genius Loves Company," as evidence of how it could move beyond a Starbucks-only focus in working a record. McCartney and Starbucks then reconvened in New York weeks later to firm up a deal. Once that was in place, Hear Music had to reach out to the industry at large.

"One of the things we maintained to other retailers is that this would be a joint venture that would maintain a level playing field," Concord GM Gene Ramsey says. "That there would be no windows of exclusivity or exclusives."

At the same time, Starbucks and Concord executives have been playing up the fact that they will drive major awareness for the album to encourage support across a variety of retailers.

In a first, Starbucks is creating a special global listening event on June 5 in which more than 10,000 locations in 29 countries around the world will play "Memory" on a dedicated basis throughout the day. Starbucks estimates that, globally, more than 6 million people will hear at least some of the new album that day.

Such initiatives are the fresh promotional impetus McCartney was hoping for. "I must say my great dread, and it became a byword for this album, was that about a year ago, I said, 'You know what will happen? I'll say to people, "What are we going to do for the new album?" and someone will say, "You've got to go to Cologne." And I'll go, "Why?" '

" ' "Well, because it's central Germany and we'll bus everyone in." And you go, "Oh, god, one of those days of the same interviews 59 times." ' I love Cologne and it's a beautiful city with lovely people, but I started to go, 'Oh, no, there's got to be something better.' "

Starbucks will also position the album prominently in its stores at the point of sale and in other areas. It will also roll out a limited edition Paul McCartney Starbucks card, something the company hasn't done since Charles' "Genius Loves Company" album.

What's more, it will support the record with everything from in-store signage; to satellite radio play, via both Starbucks' XM channel and a special dedicated McCartney channel; to special tie-ins with in-store Wi-Fi partner T-Mobile.

In another first, the new album will be available for digital download via online retailers, and Starbucks plans to give prime positioning to the album via its area in Apple's iTunes store.

Internationally, the record will be marketed by hand-picked teams within Universal Music Group International companies, coordinated by Mark Crossingham, GM of the Concord Music Group at UMGI. Mercury will handle marketing duties in the United Kingdom and France.

But since a Mercury division does not exist in every UMGI territory, other Universal labels will step up to the plate elsewhere. Billboard understands that Universal Music Japan chairman/CEO Kei Ishizaka is taking a hands-on interest in the project. Ishizaka worked with McCartney during his time at Toshiba-EMI.

Crossingham says there will be a "huge digital focus" for the album's promotion. "Paul has delivered an incredible amount of tools that'll start to roll out over the next two weeks across all our international online and mobile partners," he says. "We also have an amazing Michel Gondry-directed video for the first international single, 'Dance Tonight.' "

Japan is set to be the first territory in which McCartney's music will be available via mobile phone, according to Universal Music Japan.

UMJ released a master ringtone version of "Dance Tonight" May 10. All the other tracks from the new album will be released as master ringtones and mobile-based full-song downloads (including "Dance Tonight") June 6, the same day as the physical CD's release.

McCartney spoke to Billboard about "Memory Almost Full," other upcoming work and the fresh challenge of working with a new label as he approaches his 65th birthday on June 18. ••••

Additional reporting by Brian Garrity.

You must be aware that in current circumstances you're under greater scrutiny than ever with the lyrics on this album?

Yeah, well—what else is new? Remember "How many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" [from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life"]? I got a question on that last week at a football match. It was just some mate. He happened to be from Blackburn. So they're still asking questions, still examining the lyrics—and that was a year or two ago [now] . . . I don't mind. It's when they stop examining them that you've got a problem, I suppose.

People will think about your personal life and say, "Oh, he's throwing himself into his work," but haven't you always done that?

I don't mind work. I don't work that much. I'm never in any office before 11, I don't work every day of the week and most of what I do is playing music. I often point that out to people. It's something I love, and I always say, if I didn't do it for a living, I'd do it as a hobby.

Was the Starbucks deal in the works for a long time?

About a year ago, I was talking to my producer David Kahne. We were in the throes of the excitement of making an album and loving it.

I said, "The only thing is, I'm kind of dreading releasing it." Because there comes this sort of wall you hit—a bit like the marathon—and everyone sits around in suits and rather glumly listens to it, then gives you a half-smile and says, "Nice album." And you go, "Oh, thank you." Somehow it doesn't capture the spirit you had when you were making it.

So I said, "We've got to try and do something to keep it exciting." When we first released records, every single little thing about it was exciting, even doing the photo session. David himself knew Alan Mintz, who had just been appointed head of the music division at Starbucks.

So he introduced me to Alan, who started having some real bright ideas and had a nice twinkle in his eye. He's a bass player, after all, so I said, "We've got to definitely stick together." So he started to outline the Starbucks thing, and then I met with [Starbucks chairman] Howard Schultz and the boys when we were finishing the album in New York. They've got a lot of passion.

It's a different world now. Is part of the attraction of that deal being able to get to potential listeners in different ways?

Yeah, that's the thing. A lot of the major labels, I've noticed for a while, have been floundering a bit, and it's shown in some of their results.

But that wasn't so much what I was thinking about. You don't want to stay in a gang of mates who don't know where they're going; it's a bit unsettling. I'd rather have people who say, "We're going there." And you know what, it's worked. Starbucks are really keen.

I'd noticed for years people saying to me, "Oh, the biggest [music] retailer in America is . . . Best Buy, Wal-Mart." Over here, Tesco's. All these people. What with that and the whole online phenomenon, I just sensed the majors were not quite sure what to do. So I thought, "Let's try something different." It certainly is exciting, so I've accomplished my first ambition.

Was it a reaction to anything EMI did or didn't do on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" in 2005?

No, not really. I must say I didn't really notice whether they did or didn't. I just knew then that I couldn't do downloads, which was very disappointing because of the Apple dispute with Steve [Jobs]. But now that's been cleared up, so I thought, "That's another excitement." We're going to do a whole load of things with [iTunes].

I'm not a great blamer. I don't like people who say, "Oh, my album failed. It was the record company." I did very well really, got Grammy nominations and stuff with "Chaos," so I was really pleased. I thought they did a good job. But as you said, it's a different world now, and you've got to be with people who are in that world and stay up to speed.

I've got nothing against record [company] people; they're my family. I think many of them will tell you themselves they've been rather overtaken—I know the people I talk to at EMI will admit that—and they're all madly rejigging, to get themselves back in the picture. So this is different, and it's not exclusive. We will work with all the normal retail people. I didn't want to knock anyone out of the frame. I'll be considerate of all the normal outlets.

It may seem stupid, but the fact that [Starbucks] had 400 stores in China interested me. I don't know why, but it did. [laughs] Because it's different, I suppose. It doesn't take much to amuse me.

You started "Memory Almost Full" in 2003, so was there a period when you had three albums in the works, including your 2006 classical piece "Ecce Cor Meum"?

Yes. I've always got a few things on the [go]. I like to be able to work that way, because if suddenly your producer's not available or whatever, it's nice to be able to pick up another thread. Now, even though I've got all this happening, I've got a guitar piece in the works—an orchestral guitar concerto? I never know what to call it. And I've got a photographic project I've been working on for a while. It's nice to have a bit of variety.

Was there any bleed-through of songs from "Chaos" to the new album?

It was the same pool of songs. Some of them crossed over. Some of them we nearly did on "Chaos," but mainly it was pretty separate. Anything we'd started, I didn't want to remake for "Chaos," so I kept what we'd started, then wrote new stuff for it as we went along. That was one of the fun things we used to do with the Beatles. John and I would have seven or eight things ready by the time we went into the studio, and then we'd try and write the other six or seven.

What about the five-song medley toward the end?

That's something I wanted to revisit. It's a nice form for a song sweep, and nobody had been doing that for a while. So I just sat down one day and started off with "Vintage Clothes," and realized I was looking forward, looking back. Then we went to school days and teachers in the second song ["That Was Me"] and it progressed from there. It was a purpose-written suite of songs, unlike the "Abbey Road" medley, which was bits we had knocking around.

Is the discussion about the Beatles' catalog going online anywhere nearer to being settled?

Oh, yeah, very much so. It's virtually settled. And in a virtual world, that's something.

So we should expect an announcement soon?

Hopefully, yeah. I don't want to pre-empt anything, but we're well on the way to something happening there, which is very exciting.

And are you planning to go back on the road?

I'm going to do some little bits and pieces to support the album, but it won't be a major tour until possibly next year, and that's basically down to personal circumstances—"he said" [laughs].

Touring is obviously something you still enjoy.

I do love it, and while the audience seems to love it, I will. All that singing and playing—it's good for you.




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