The Historical past of Ok-Tel, the Innovator Behind the ‘As Seen on TV’ Compilation Album

When you’ve got ever discovered your self browsing by way of tv infomercials within the early hours of the morning and wound up with a novelty blender within the mail 4 to 6 weeks later, you may have Philip Kives to thank. The Canadian entrepreneur pioneered the long- (and short-) type gross sales pitch on TV, peddling all the things from Teflon pans to fishing lures to what might have been his crown jewel—the Ok-Tel collection of compilation report albums, a superb method to market catalog music that acted as a vinyl model of Spotify and turned Kives and Ok-Tel from a hit right into a sensation.

And all of it started with polka.

Kives (pronounced Kee-vuss) obtained off to an auspicious begin along with his enterprise ambitions. As a baby in Nineteen Thirties Canada, he trapped weasels and offered their fur for 50 cents a pelt, a gross sales strategy he later felt predicted his born-ready entrepreneurial thoughts. (One other model of his rags-to-riches story has him dealing in gopher tails, which had been worthwhile to show into native authorities as a result of animal’s overpopulation within the area. Maybe it was each.)

Finally, Kives moved to Winnipeg, the place he labored as a taxi driver and offered kitchen utensils door-to-door. When he was in his early thirties, Kives had made his method to Atlantic Metropolis, the place the Boardwalk was house to a litany of road barkers peddling their wares—some real, many providing purchaser’s regret. However Kives honed his expertise, and when he returned to Canada in 1962, he produced and starred in a tv demonstration for a brand new marvel product. For 5 full minutes, Kives extolled the advantages of a frying pan, which allowed cooks to work with a nonstick floor. Since Kives paid for the airtime, it’s believed to be the first-ever tv infomercial, although it wasn’t with out its issues: The fabric wasn’t completely prepared for its official roll-out, and wound up sticking to the eggs.

That wasn’t preferrred, however the notion that tv may attain an enormous viewers was intoxicating to Kives. “Whenever you’re working in shops, you’re [pitching] to a dozen, a half dozen folks at a time,” he advised The Age in 1978. “I had heard of individuals right here and there who had been starting to make use of tv to display merchandise and I stated, Effectively, if that is the case, as an alternative of [pitching] to a dozen folks at a time, I can work to hundreds of individuals at a time on tv.”

The eventual success of those and different devices expanded the Kives empire. He traveled to Australia to promote the Feathertouch Knife, which was his first runaway hit. The blade was so sharp it may slice by way of a tomato with out collapsing it and was additionally powerful sufficient to eat by way of shoe leather-based, making it preferrred for visible demonstration. Kives offered one million of the chef’s blades, netting $1 apiece. He additionally purchased the rights to distribute objects just like the Pocket Fisherman moveable fishing line from Sam Popeil, father of fellow infomercial pioneer Ron Popeil.

In comparison with toiling on his household’s Canadian farm, product pitching was “simple,” Kives stated. His pitches had been typically punctuated by a legend seen each on the display and on packaging: “As Seen on TV.” Kives additionally utilized the now-iconic “However wait, there’s extra!” Kives often wrote and directed the spots, and enlisted Winnipeg radio voice Bob Washington to do the voiceover.

By 1966, Kives’s firm, Ok-Tel—which was shorthand for “Kives Tv”—was in full swing. That’s when Kives had an thought that will propel him into one other stratosphere of success. He obtained the Canadian distribution rights to 25 Nation Hits, a compilation report album of two dozen well-liked nation and western tunes. Every monitor was successful versus the hit-or-miss association of particular person act information.

On the time, the idea of a compilation album was largely unknown to the report business. As soon as an album was launched, that music wasn’t actually revisited. Kives was in a position to license singles from report firms for as little as 2 to 4 cents per monitor per report, serving to them monetize their again catalog. In return, he may promote a brand new monitor association to listeners who preferred a style however needed a little bit selection. The hook was within the numbers. With “20 unique hits” from “20 unique stars” or “30 masterpieces,” folks had been offered on quantity. Thanks partly to a Bobby Darin “bonus” single, 25 Nation Hits moved 180,000 copies.

After success in his native Canada, Kives and Ok-Tel shifted focus to the USA. His third album after the psychedelic Groovy Greats was 25 Polka Greats, which moved 1.5 million items, making Ok-Tel’s compilation enterprise an authorized hit and one thing that will outline their enterprise within the Seventies.

Titles like 60 Flash-Again Greats of the ‘60s (a four-record set), the funk-loaded Tremendous Unhealthy full with the theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes, and 24 Nice Truck Drivin’ Songs that includes Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been In every single place” had been rapidly snapped up.

The choices had been a hit largely as a result of shopping for one of many albums at $4.99 was far cheaper for customers than shopping for particular person 7-inch singles. Generally, a label would promote a single to Kives offered he additionally seize a much less profitable recording. It was a win for all events, although some listeners complained the audio high quality on the information left a little bit to be desired. In an try to cram in as a lot music as attainable on vinyl, the grooves had been a little bit too shut collectively, and a few songs obtained clipped for time.

Compilations weren’t the one music effort Kives pursued. His Hooked on Classics noticed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra re-record classical greats with a disco tempo, revising them for a recent viewers. Like 25 Nation Hits, it was marketed till it penetrated the cultural consciousness. (On Saturday Evening Dwell, Dan Aykroyd lampooned Kives and his energetic supply by shilling for the Bass-o-Matic, which may liquify a fish in seconds. It was a spoof of Ok-Tel’s Veg-o-Matic, which obliterated greens.)

What made the compilation albums distinctive was that Kives didn’t direct customers to music shops for them. They had been out there in drug shops or malls or {hardware} shops. Kives was additionally dealing immediately with artists when attainable. Liberace, he stated, invited him over for dinner; Sammy Davis Jr., apparently unmoved by a enterprise supply, yelled at him.

By one estimate, Kives offered greater than 500 million copies of the information. Executives from CBS as soon as traveled to Winnipeg to solicit advertising ideas from Kives. By 1978, the albums made up 80 p.c of Ok-Tel’s enterprise, with $33 million spent on tv promoting. The margins had been slim however worthwhile: $4 million was a very good yr within the Seventies.

The compilation albums helped Ok-Tel thrive till the Nineteen Eighties, at which level Kives made a collection of self-admitted awful enterprise choices. The corporate purchased up actual property earlier than an oil crash noticed the market plummet; he additionally bought rival Candlelight Music and subsequently suffered an $18 million loss. A Chapter 11 chapter submitting adopted.

Kives rebounded within the Nineties, refocusing Ok-Tel on compilations and infomercials. His 101 Nation Hits, a 10-CD set, was offered direct-to-consumer by way of TV spots hosted by musician Eddie Rabbitt; the identical went for The Final Historical past of Rock’N’Roll, one other large assortment endorsed by Bobby Sherman.

Many of those spots drew in viewers with a way of urgency. There was no level in ready as a result of the primary callers would get one other CD or report free of charge. The compilations and the percussive advert pitches had been emulated by Now That’s What I Name Music!, an assortment of latest chart-topping singles that debuted within the UK in 1983 and the U.S. in 1998. Music assortments fairly than albums would change into the dominant method of distributing music, significantly when streaming grew to become viable.

However Kives was extra than simply an inspiration for in the present day’s streaming wares. As a result of Ok-Tel owned greater than 200,000 songs, he was later in a position to assist populate Apple’s burgeoning iTunes format. As we speak, Ok-Tel remains to be in enterprise, licensing songs for movie and tv: They helped place “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms in season 2 of Stranger Issues.

Kives by no means stopped peddling the As Seen on TV line-up. He was in fixed search of merchandise just like the Fishin’ Magician and the Miracle Brush, which was actually only a glorified lint curler. A see-through birdhouse (it was known as, with a determined lack of sensationalism, The Birdhouse) allowed customers to look at chook eggs by way of clear plastic.

By the point he handed away on the age of 87 in 2016, Ok-Tel had made its mark and Kives had a compilation of his personal—one success story after one other.

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