'American Idol': With Scotty McCreery's Successful Debut, Did Universal Learn From Sony's Mistakes?
With the season 10 winner moving 196,000 copies of his album "Clear as Day," and runner-up Lauren Alaina notching a respectable 69,000 of her debut, "Wildflower," has the "Idol" curse been broken?
Executives at Universal Music Group breathed a collective sigh of relief Oct. 11. That’s when the sales numbers came in on American Idol season 10 winner Scotty McCreery’s debut album, Clear As Day, the first full-length release to emerge from the company’s partnership with TV’s No. 1 show.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, the album from the 18-year-old North Carolina native moved 196,739 copies in its first week out, some 50,000 more than season 9 winner Lee DeWyze sold during his entire Idol tenure under the Sony Music umbrella (that number hovers around 146,000). A week later, runner-up Lauren Alaina moved 69,000 units of her album, Wildflower (to compare: Alaina’s season 9 counterpart, Crystal Bowersox, has sold a total of 205,000 albums), good for the No. 4 spot on the Billboard 200. It's the first time since 2008 when both the Idol winner and runner-up charted top five albums -- the last to claim the feat were season 7's David Cook and David Archuleta, who landed at No. 3 and No. 2, respectively.
“Nobody had a clue what to expect,” says Brian Wright, head of A&R at Mercury Nashville, the label that signed the deep-voiced McCreery as well as Alaina. “We’re absolutely thrilled.” Credit resilient country music fans, who continue to buy physical product, along with a youthful fanbase, and… Idol perma-mentor and Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine.
“He didn’t want to wait six to eight months, Jimmy wanted the record out sooner rather than later,” adds Wright. Previous Idol albums were typically released in November or December -- although season 9's Casey James, who signed with Sony Music Nashville in August 2010, has yet to announce a street date for his debut.
Clearly, Iovine studied Sony’s experience with Idol, which has seen mixed results during its nine-year partnership (it expired after the 2010 season). For every multi-platinum success, like a Kelly Clarkson or Chris Daughtry, you can count two more finalists who flopped. But Wright says he only looked to one alum as an example: Carrie Underwood. “She did a great job embracing the Nashville community and I knew that was the key,” he explains.
Still, long before McCreery made history with Clear As Day, becoming the youngest new male artist to debut atop the Billboard album chart his first time out, Wright admits he was “a little nervous,” mainly about song content.
“In country music, artists are expected to sing about cheating and drinking and that kind of stuff,” Wright explains. “But obviously, with them being so young… well, it was an issue. With Scotty, he knew what he would sing about and what he wouldn’t. There were a couple of songs where we had to get a few lines rewritten, where they mentioned beer or something, but other than that, it was way better than I expected.”
The end result was a group effort, between the label, which is run by country music veteran Luke Lewis, Interscope A&R executive Larry Jackson, Iain Pirie at 19 Entertainment and Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, the company that manages both season 10 Idols.
As Wright tells it, the label didn’t start to get involved until Idol’s final 5, and two days before the finale was the first time he and Lewis met McCreery and Alaina. So what’s his perspective now that he’s gotten to know the process? “I look at it like this: Idol made them stars, our job to develop them into super stars.”
He’s especially convinced of McCreery’s potential, promising a committed investment in the country teen. “He has that ‘It’ factor,” Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When he walks in the room, you want to know who he is. He's pure, he knows who he is and he sticks to what he believes in. That’s huge, especially right now in this country. And this is just the first chapter in the book. We always say, the most difficult record is the next one. So I’m already looking at the 196,000 and thinking, ‘Geez, now we’ve gotta beat that!’”
Talk about a hard act to follow.