When clients like united airlines and sears need tunes for in-flight programming or promotional CDs, they turn to a growing company in pasadena that's hitting lots of high notes

When Bill Clinton is winging around the world, he listens to music compiled by a small company in Pasadena that has surprisingly big clients.

Disc Marketing puts together compilation music CDs for major corporations like Home Shopping Network and Sears, Roebuck & Co., in-flight music programming for United Airlines and Air Force One, and has an upcoming deal to provide in-transit music for Amtrak's Surfliner train.

In between running the company, Chief Executive Tena Clark also pens songs for motion pictures, such as the title song for the recent Ashley Judd/Natalie Portman release "Where the Heart Is."

Four years ago, Clark foresaw that the Internet would lead to major changes in the music industry. She realized it would be more difficult than ever for record labels to make a name for themselves, establish a solid brand and foster customer loyalty.

"I decided, I don't care about Tower Records or Blockbuster," Clark said. "The idea was to sell CDs everywhere they're not already sold. That's 99 percent of the world."

Competing with the giants

Clark founded Disc Marketing in July 1997 to create specialized CDs for major corporations and retail outlets, which then either slap their own labels on and sell the discs or give them away to coincide with an event or promotion. It's a tough market to crack, given that many of the major record companies have "special markets" departments producing just such compilations for identical purposes.

"The difference is that they're trying to recycle their catalog (recordings in a music company's library). They have an agenda, a product to sell," said the Mississippi-born Clark.

Disc Marketing, in contrast, licenses music from all the record labels, so clients don't have to stay within the confines of any particular label. Clark often hires musicians and singers to record new versions of popular songs, so the company only has to pay the cost of licensing the song and not the cost of licensing the original recording by a popular artist. The musicians she typically hires are not well known by the public because they provide backup music and vocals for major musical acts.

When the company was just four months old, it scored a coup by landing United Airlines as a client. The airline wanted to recognize its Mileage Plus frequent flyer members, so Disc Marketing developed a plan to send out promotional CDs to members in the company's hub cities.

The first promotion, "Chicago: Our Kind of Town," featured 10 songs about the Windy City (also United's headquarters city) from Tony Bennett's version of "Chicago" to "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce. The disc caused such a stir that additional copies were ultimately put up for sale through the Internet.

Next came a similar effort for Los Angeles. Currently in the works are discs for New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

As Disc Marketing executives were busily striking deals with other corporations to provide promotional CDs, United added a new wrinkle to the company's business plan: the airline proposed that Clark and her team provide United's in-flight music programming.

"I'm usually not into that. It all seems very Muzak to me," Clark said. "And I was scared. This was a brand new company. I didn't want to jump into a huge monster. It could have sucked the life out of our original business plan."

Disc Marketing came back to United with a counterproposal. It would program the music for United flights, if it could completely revamp the whole lineup. To Clark's surprise, United executives replied, "OK, great."

Rapid expansion

To accommodate a growing team of staffers who work exclusively for United, Clark purchased the house next door to her company's headquarters on a quiet street in Pasadena. That department works on United promotional CDs and in-flight music, which is reprogrammed every 60 days.

"I was looking for an emotional tie with our customer base and they were very able to deliver," said Ann Storbeck-Peterson, United's manager of marketing programs, who oversees the CD promotions. "We are a huge company, but what I liked was that they had a lot of vision, great ideas, and because they were a small company we were able to get a lot of things done very quickly. Their credibility stood out very quickly."

Through its strong ties with United, which just signed a new five-year contract with Disc Marketing, other customers came calling including the White House. Every 60 days, Disc Marketing comes up with a new series of music selections to be played on Air Force One and Air Force Two, the planes that cart around President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, respectively.

"Gore has his likes, Clinton has his. They definitely have an opinion, which trickles down to us," Clark said. Clinton tends to like saxophone music, jazz and blues, while Gore's tastes run more to country music.

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