As the final song list for Cities 97’s 30th anniversary “Sampler” CD came together a few months ago, one track proved especially complicated for approval. The estate of late Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan got involved. So did the record company for the young Los Angeles band Bad Wolves. Negotiations went well past the deadline.
The local boss at Cities 97 radio station (97.1 FM) actually relished the predicament.
“This is the last time we’re doing this, so of course there had to be at least one track that caused us that kind of stress,” said Rich Davis, director of programming at the adult-pop Twin Cities station. “But it was definitely worth it.”
The past 29 years of “Sampler” busywork have been so worth it, too.
Through countless mediations with artists’ representatives and sometimes endless on-air hype, the popular charity CD series has poured nearly $13 million into Minnesota charities while putting a lot of rare David Gray, Jason Mraz and Sarah McLachlan recordings out into the world.
Like the numerical code journalists use to signal the end of a story, the “30” emblazoned on the cover of this year’s “Sampler” CD marks its last installment. The final edition features 19 live recordings by recent “Sampler” mainstays, including Imagine Dragons, ZZ Ward and Matt Nathanson, as well as relative newcomers such as Leon Bridges, Portugal. the Man, Jade Bird and the aforementioned Bad Wolves (whose cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie” caused the hang-up).
“Sampler, Vol. 30” hits metro area Target stores Tuesday morning after several weeks of pre-order availability. There’s a release party Thursday at Myth in Maplewood with Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Dean Lewis and local fixture Tim Mahoney, who’s also featured on “Vol. 30.”
Once this year’s discs are gone, the series will be mothballed. The main reason for its cancellation should be as obvious as the dwindling size of the music aisles at those Target stores where the “Samplers” are sold.
“Nobody is buying CDs anymore,” Davis said flatly. “That’s really the only format we can work with in this case.”
Lauren MacLeash, the former Cities 97 program director who steered the “Samplers” through their heyday, lamented, “Technology has changed, and there’s no turning back. But at least those of us who still have CD players can hang onto them and play them for years to come.”
The first few “Samplers” came out on cassette in addition to CD, and their track lists might seem humorously dated to the series’ latter-day fans.
Back in 1989, the station was still independently owned by entrepreneur couple John and Kathleen Parker, whose original vision for Cities 97 included light jazz, smooth rock and acoustic music. Thus, some of the names on “Sampler, Vol. 1” include Yanni, Kenny G, Leo Kottke and new-agey duo David Lanz and Paul Speer (plus long-term Cities favorites Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Cockburn, Peter Himmelman and Aimee Mann’s old band ’Til Tuesday).
Through a series of consolidations and ownership changes that eventually led to media conglomerate Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) running the station, the “Sampler” series reached its height of popularity around the mid-2000s, just as CD sales peaked on the whole.
That’s the era when 35,000 “Sampler” copies were printed up each year and usually sold out within a day or two. Fans would line up hours ahead of time to make sure they got a copy; more CDs couldn’t be printed due to song publishing rules and general limits set by record companies.
“We know of people who met and got married in line, and whole circles of friends built up around the ‘Sampler’ community,” MacLeash marveled.
In recent years, though, demand for the “Samplers” dwindled along with overall CD sales, and as Cities 97 lost listeners after altering its format to more of a youthful Top 40 playlist heavy on Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Ed Sheeran and the like.
Only 15,000 copies were manufactured of this year’s “Sampler.” The price has also dropped from the $22.97 of recent years — or $33.97 in the double-disc years — to just $14.97.
Even with the recently added option to pre-order online, the “Vol. 30” CDs likely won’t sell out nearly as fast as they did a decade ago.
“A good buddy of mine who’s very into [the ‘Samplers’] was giving me crap because he doesn’t even have a device that can play CDs anymore,” said Paul Fletcher, program director and afternoon host at Cities.
Fletcher pointed out that the “Sampler” discs still always show up as the No. 1 selling album on Nielsen SoundScan’s Twin Cities chart the week after their release. But he conceded that’s not the feat it used to be.
“It’s one of the hard realities of the music industry these days,” he said.
Adapting the “Samplers” to the times would be very difficult, too. Song licensing gets a lot more complicated if the collections became available via streaming or download formats, Cities reps say, and most artists and their handlers wouldn’t give the necessary approval anyway.
MacLeash said getting those approvals could be difficult even in the CD age “just because there might be a lot of people involved,” but she said the musicians themselves were always eager to contribute their songs to the effort.
“We always made sure there was a high quality level to the recordings, which was always important to the artists,” she said. “And then obviously a lot of them were thrilled to see or hear of all the good these things did.”
For Fletcher, the regular donations off CD sales to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics and the Ronald McDonald House — just two of the more than 280 organizations to receive “Sampler” funds — remain deeply personal.
“My family is forever indebted to both those organizations,” said the station’s program director, whose daughter, now 6, had to endure abdominal surgery at just 11 days old.
Fletcher pointed to the headliner of this year’s party — who’s now been featured on five “Sampler” editions — to exemplify the kind of artist who made the “Samplers” succeed: “Matt Nathanson doesn’t just write a lot of songs that sound great on the radio,” he said, “but he also is a really great guy who does a lot of good for people. That’s been true of a lot of the artists.”
Nathanson, in turn, praised the Cities 97 crew and the Studio C space at the station’s St. Louis Park offices, where most of the “Sampler” tracks are recorded for broadcast.
“Playing live in Studio C was always the highlight of a tour,” said Nathanson, who’s from the Boston area. “There’s just a killer vibe in that room, like a cool, intimate club. It was always easy to lose yourself in the music there. You can hear it in the performances on the ‘Samplers’ every year.”
Some of the local musicians who’ve been featured on the “Samplers” say they’re sorry to see them go. With support for Twin Cities acts often scant at corporate-owned FM stations, getting a track on the “Sampler” was for a long time a rare way to reach a broader local radio audience.
“Getting played on the radio a few times a week gets you in front of a lot more listeners than playing a few club gigs every week,” said Tim Mahoney, who’s now been on two “Samplers” with this year’s inclusion of “Lucky Ones,” a sweet ode to his fiancée. “It’s an honor to be featured on the last one.”
Adam Levy of the Honeydogs — which got a big boost from the station in the late ’90s with the poppy classic “I Miss You” — said the “Samplers” helped make the song something of a local classic.
“I think we might have some kind of record for being on them the most — with the same song,” quipped Levy, who wishes the station had given more Honeydogs tunes a shot but acknowledged, “Either way, the repeated inclusion was a boon for booking and regional recognition for sure.”
The end of the “Sampler” comes just as Cities 97 is starting to reconfigure its on-air format back to more of a “classic” Cities 97 sound and less of a modern Top 40 jukebox. Davis insisted, though, “What’s going on with the format has never changed what’s going on with the ‘Samplers.’ ”
The Cities leader said, “We’re all very sad to see them come to an end, but at the same time, we’re extremely proud of what they accomplished.”
Here’s a look back at Cities 97 Sampler artists over its 30-year run:
Biggest names: Adele (’09, ’11), U2 (’90), Ed Sheeran (’12), Imagine Dragons (’12, ’18), Sting (’91, ‘04), John Mayer (’02, ’04, ’10), Coldplay (’02, ’03, ’10), Mumford & Sons (’11), Bonnie Raitt (’02, ’06), James Taylor (’92), R.E.M. (’04), Maroon 5 (’04), Mark Knopfler (’05), Dave Matthews Band (’95, ’06), Bob Dylan (’96).
Oddest names: Yanni (’89), Kenny G (’89), Mannheim Steamroller (’90), David Lanz & Paul Speer (’89, ’93), Widespread Panic (’93, ’97), Chalk Farm (’97), Julian Lennon (’99), Nickelback (’02), Bob Dylan (’96).
Most appearances: “Babylon” singer David Gray (six times), Matt Nathanson and Jason Mraz (five apiece), Brandi Carlile, O.A.R., Counting Crows, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Ingrid Michaelson, Marc Cohn (all three or four).
Local favorites: The Jayhawks (four appearances), Semisonic, Jonny Lang, Keri Noble, Honeydogs, Peter Himmelman, Martin Zellar, Mick Sterling.
By the numbers
Total money raised: $13 million (counting this year’s expected sales).
Copies sold: Around 750,000 (counting cassettes early on).
Performances captured: 539 (not counting unused sessions).
Minnesota charities to benefit: 283.