What Ever Happened to K-Tel Records?
K-Tel Records: Then and Now
When I was a kid, K-tel Records published the sorts of compilations, on glorious, shiny vinyl, that meant I could get big hits of the day (or at least the day before) with my meager allowance. Well, if my sister and I pooled our allowances we could get a record from time to time. I still have some of those records and rejoice in watching my kids dance around to the same K-tel music I loved when I was their ages.
In the spirit of nostalgia and the Internet indulgence thereof, I wanted to celebrate K-tel Records, share my favorites, and see what I missed along the way. I thought you might enjoy a place to share your memories of K-tel, buying those great round albums and spinning them on the turntable, and watching what I remember as remarkably cheesy commercials even for the cusp of the 80s as it was then.
And of course I had to share what I uncovered about what ever happened to K-Tel Records. I had no idea what an enormous company it really was and I had a great time learning about K-Tel in general and their music arm in particular. You'll find information and links here explaining the company's history and what they're up to now.
Do You Remember K-Tel Records?
Here's Why I Wrote This Lens
To me, K-Tel Records went hand in hand with dance shows on TV. We watched American Bandstand and Soul Train religiously and played the radio non-stop between episodes (at least until MTV made the scene). At the age of eight, the living room on a Saturday morning made a fine disco.
It was these shows, perhaps sponsored by K-Tel and perhaps just playing the same music we heard in the record company’s commercials, that fueled our lust to acquire the albums like Hot Nights & City Lights. We weren’t so discriminating to concern ourselves with a record’s actual content; that K-Tel label was good enough for us. And Mom kept giving us Andy Gibb records so we had to do something!
I will always remember fondly those K-Tel records and the music they brought to my life. I thought it would be fun to see what happened to the record label in the intervening years. Did it fail in the era where vinyl was replaced with cassettes or does it cling to life perhaps disguised as those “Now That’s What I Call Music” people? It seems to me that whoever started that series must have been fans of the old K-Tel records with their focus on producing compilations of hits for various genres, despite their complete lack of creativity in naming said albums.
When we'd finally convinced her of the error of her ways she started buying the "Hooked On" series. I still have several of those, as well, and enjoy the mutation of songs on the Hooked on Classics album that introduced me to classical music in a light-hearted way. And check out the picture: where else would you find Blondie, The Jacksons, and Instant Funk on the same record?
Do You Remember These Commercials? - The Finest K-Tel Records Cheese
Just watching these had me in stitches, and lost in nostalgia, too. The sound quality on these is almost uniformly awful, but they're more than 25 years old. They just really aren't around in digital format anywhere else! I threw in one of the radio commercials. Does anyone remember when they used to advertise K-Tel Records between the hits on-air? It's no wonder we poor, easily-influenced little kids lusted after these albums! There were also things like the breakdancing set that included both the "original hits by the original artists" and a video (VHS was brand new, in those days) that would teach kids how to do the moves. I'm definitely going to add that to my Old School Rap and Hip Hop page!
So, What Ever DID Happen to K-Tel Records?
And Can I Still Get Those Groovy Records?
It seems that my child's perspective of K-Tel was rather limited. K-Tel was not primarily a record company at all. They were the folks behind so many of those "as seen on TV" products 'way back in the 70s and, surprise!, they still are. You can read an exhaustive history of the company written by founder Philip Kives at the official K-Tel web site but in short they've been around longer and are much larger than I ever thought.
Though you can explore all sorts of products on that web site, it's the Classics section that really slays me. You can hunt through their entire catalog and see the cover art (front and back) for every album they ever released. It can take some serious digging if you don't know the actual name of the album but just flipping through page after page of records like Disco Rocket and The Velvet Touch gets me grinning.
And you'll soon discover that K-Tel didn't only do compilations of hits by various artists, though it seemed that was for what they were best known. They did a metric ton of "best of" albums for everyone from Al Green and Aretha Franklin to The Tubes and Wayne Newton. While the site promises a music store "coming soon", I don't know how much will be iTunes-style individual track purchasing or whether you will be able to download whole albums. I'll update this as soon as more information appears.
Find K-Tel Hits on Amazon! - Buy the mp3s You Love!
I've only included a smattering of what's available but if you are looking for some of the K-Tel compilations you remember this is a great place to start. Am I the only one who still has the Pac Man Fever album?
Where Was K-Tel in the 80s and 90s?
Learn How the Bankrupt Firm Turned Itself Around
K-Tel declared bankruptcy in 1984 not because they couldn't sell records, although the wane of disco very much took its toll on sales, but because they were spending their money on unrelated things like real estate. Should you doubt the expansiveness of their offerings, take a peek at the list of albums at discogs (two pages' worth). The oldest one I saw on the list was released in 1970 and the newest appears to date from 2005. That's a lot of badly-recorded cheese and wildly-uneven records!
If you want a fairly exhaustive look at the business side of K-Tel, check this lengthy article at Funding Universe. The gist of the matter is that the label and its parent company had a difficult time in the 80s for several reasons, in part because of those pesky NOW That's What I Call Music compilations (and those from Rhino Records and Ronco) that did just about the same thing at a time when K-Tel was having trouble making ends meet and in part because they got a little too crazy with the investing.
But while the US sales were slumping and the company fought to stay alive it was expanding in Europe and the United Kingdom with direct-sale TV spots. You can find a huge number of these records on the sites museum page. K-Tel took over products from other companies, including Ronco, and marketed those, as well. Then they grabbed the ERA label and started reissuing records in the 90s. Things were looking up!
They started licensing their name in the 90s as well and diversified more carefully this time. They moved more into the video side of media as well as better marketing for their infomercial products. Check the K-Tel Today page on their site for an idea of the sorts of services they've developed in the past fifteen years, with much of the emphasis on licensing and distribution rather than producing new content. They may have made it to 2010 but they've still got that great 70s cheese flavor that made many of us remember them so fondly.
But they hung on to those licenses and re-recordings for which they were so famous (and widely reviled). In the late 80s they started expanding their catalog and working through third parties. Gone were the high-energy TV commercials that seemed to blanket the airwaves ten years before. (Happily, the dreadful cover art and some of the over-the-top album names remained, for a time.) They branched out into the "Hooked On" series and recorded all sorts of wacky things with the London
Want to Read More? - Proof that I'm Not the Only One Who Loved K-Tel Records
Something about K-Tel makes people want to write with exclamation points, me included. I presume it's the excessive adjectives and really, really excited voice-over guys in the commercials. Whatever it is, you'll notice most of these include an exclamatory title. That's how I feel about it, too!
- In Praise of K-Tel Albums
Kit O'Toole has even more to say about the joys of K-Tel than I do!
- Explosive Dynamic Super-Smash Hits!
An Austin Chronicle article from 2001 about K-Tel Records declaring bankruptcy and celebrating the albums.
- K-Tel: The Secret History!
A fabulous article exploring what happened to K-Tel and why the records have started making a come-back.
- Top 25 Brands: K-Tel
This one's a little discombobulated but the footnotes in the comments offer a huge pile of information about the company.
- K-Tel Presents
I included this one because of the great graphics. This is also one of the many, many places you can read about how K-Tel managed to get 22 hits on a single record album.
- Basement Songs: K-Tel's High Voltage
A review of the album and some great K-Tel nostalgia from the fine folks at Popdose.
Get Out-of-Print K-Tel Compilations - There's Always Someone Who Still Has One
In my quest to find the albums I remembered from my childhood, I discovered that you can always find something as obscure as a K-Tel compilation from 1978 but you might have to pay an awful lot for something that cost less than ten dollars brand new. Those pack rats among us will feel justified in keeping those strange and seemingly throw-away records for so long now that vinyl is back in style!
What Do You Think? - Was K-Tel Terrific or Terrible?
Whether you still have a K-Tel record lurking in your basement or you deplore the sort of badly-edited, re-recorded tripe the company parlayed into a music empire, share your opinion here.
K-Tel Records: Great or Dreadful?
If you remember the moldy-oldies days, let me know which album you remember having. The odds are pretty good that, as a kid, it never crossed your mind that the songs had been mutilated to fit 22 onto a single record (but what a deal!) or had been recorded with one person from the original band and a bunch of studio musicians standing in for the rest of the group. Back then there wasn't an Internet on which people could point out every flaw on the album to ruin the seer enjoyment of listening to The Village People and Gloria Gaynor during their glory days.
Let me know what you loved, what you hated, and whether you admit to buying K-Tel records one by one or by the dozen. Don't be shy...I've admitted my love for them. You can, too!