When the clock strikes 9 p.m. inside Studio A on St. Petersburg's HSN campus, the cheering and applause is deafening. Only on television can you hear host Diana Perkovic's voice.
"If you are a country music fan, you know Josh Turner," she says. "He has sold millions of albums, and we are so fortunate we have him live in our studios here tonight!"
The fans keep cheering as the lights go up, and the deep-voiced Turner rips into one of his big hits, Firecracker, before playing Punching Bag, the driving title track to his upcoming album. After a brief interview, the cameras cut to co-host Carrie Smith, who gushes about the "amazing opportunity" viewers have before them.
"Exclusively right here at HSN, we have a two-CD bundle for you," Smith says. "So not only can you get Josh's brand-new CD, Punching Bag, right here tonight, you're also going to get Icon, which is 11 of Josh's amazing hits. Both albums included, for only $19.95. And for the first time in HSN Live history: free shipping and handling. Not a charge at all to ship it out to you. So take advantage of this."
This is HSN Live, a new series that's giving the former Home Shopping Network its big break in the ever-changing music business. Since 2009, the network has staged a handful of live concerts by big-name artists — Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole — with the goal of moving albums as easily as it moves jewelry and cookware.
From a numbers standpoint, the series appears to be a hit. According to HSN, Bennett sold 16,000 copies of Duets II during his hourlong broadcast. Richie sold 20,000 copies of Tuskegee. Stewart's Fly Me To The Moon … The Great American Songbook Volume V: 25,000. With record companies continuing to struggle to find new ways to sell albums, those numbers are nothing to sneeze at.
"The artists' management and record labels are coming to us in droves now, because we really have shown that we know what we're doing," said Andy Sheldon, HSN's executive vice president of television and executive creative director. "We needed to build our credibility and prove ourselves a little bit, and we've done that."
Though HSN has staged live concerts only since 2009, the concept has been around much longer. QVC has been selling music since the mid '90s, airing live performances by acts like Justin Bieber and the Beach Boys. In 1998, QVC attempted to spin its success into a music label, Q Records, though it folded within a few years.
Sheldon pushed for HSN to do more with live concerts when he joined the company 51/2 years ago. He saw them as win-wins — for HSN, it was unique programming; for the artists, it was an hourlong sales pitch on live TV. That's valuable exposure even to greats like Stewart and Bennett. "As much as he might have a fan base, Lionel Richie getting a song played on the radio from a new album is pretty much impossible now," Sheldon said.
There were technological barriers to work through — "Cutting music and doing a live show is very, very different from selling fashion or cookware," Sheldon said — but once crews were trained, the network explored how the events could become even more audience-friendly. HSN followed Richie's concert with a bonus performance of Hello streamed live on Facebook. And after his hourlong concert on May 25, Turner engaged in a 20-minute Facebook chat with HSN viewers and fans.
Sheldon says the music shoots are "a lot more labor-intensive" than traditional HSN programs — bigger sets to build, complex lighting, more equipment to load in — but ironically, the turnaround time is much shorter than on other celebrity lines, where product design and production can take months. In Turner's case, the planning began about 12 weeks before the concert, but "we can do it much quicker," Sheldon said. "Once you know when an album's coming out, they could tell us two weeks before, and in theory, we could turn it around and get it on air."
As a younger artist, Turner, whose Punching Bag comes out June 12, was a different choice for HSN Live. But he knew female fans play a key role in country radio airplay and record sales, and women are a core part of HSN's audience. He'd even called in during a previous performance by his mentor Randy Travis. (Travis, in turn, promoted Turner's concert on Twitter.)
"There was no hesitation on my part at all," he said before the show. "There's going to be a lot of my loyal fans out there watching and tuning in, but at the same time, I think there's going to be even more people who have never heard of me, and never bought a Josh Turner record, tuning in and watching this. That's what really has me excited and intrigued. I want to be able to reach that group that has never really been familiar with who I am and what I'm about."
Over the course of his studio hour, Turner played 10 songs to an enthusiastic crowd of 120, including 50 who won tickets through his fan club. More importantly, though, he presold 4,000 copies of Punching Bag — and attracted some 20,000 new fans to HSN's Facebook page.
Figures like that have HSN executives thinking bigger. If nontraditional music companies like Starbucks and Red Bull can not only sell hit albums, but produce them, why not HSN?
Though Sheldon was tight-lipped on the prospect of starting an in-house record label, he described HSN Live as a "foundation-building" process.
"If we can brand that as a music destination, we can do so much more," he said. "There are many major artists who are without record labels right now."