Blige is Grammy's comeback kid

The triumphant return of the Grammy Awards sweetheart offers comfort to an ailing record industry.

Sunday, no matter what happens during the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony at Los Angeles' Staples Center, Mary J. Blige can hold her head up high. The R&B star leads this year's field with eight nominations, and her 2005 Geffen album, "The Breakthrough," sold 1.8 million copies to become the 12th-highest sseller last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Not bad for an artist whose 2003 release, "Love & Life," proved so disappointing that many thought her career had run its course.

"My customers went nuts over it," influential Chicago-based indie retailer George Daniels says of "Breakthrough." "It took off, and it kept on selling."

That's music to the ears of anyone in the recording industry, which has seen global sales plummet for the seventh consecutive year in the face of the increasing popularity of digital downloads. That rare artist who can come out of the gate strong -- "Breakthrough" sold roughly 727,000 copies in its first week of release -- and continue to move albums week after week is exactly what feeds industry lifeblood.

Of course, sales figures don't always translate into awards, and Blige will face stiff competition on Grammy night from such artists as Corinne Bailey Rae, James Blunt and Dixie Chicks in two of the big four categories: song of the year and record of the year.

Grammy favors the Chicks, who have collected eight trophies thus far and also are in the running for the best album prize for "Taking the Long Way"; they will compete against Gnarls Barkley's "St. Elsewhere," Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Stadium Arcadium," John Mayer's "Continuum" and Justin Timberlake's "FutureSex/LoveSounds" for the night's biggest award.

Blige, who previously has won three Grammys, also is up for best female R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for the first single from "Breakthrough,"

"Be Without You," which went on to become her first No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart since 2001. "The minute the song came into the building, people were saying this could be a Grammy contender," recalls Ashley Fox, a former Geffen marketing executive who now works with Blige through her independent consulting company the Afox Group.

Executives had so much confidence in Blige's new material, which she had begun to showcase at a handful of concerts sponsored by Verizon, that they decided to move up the release date of "Breakthrough," putting it ahead of the artist's planned greatest hits collection, "Reflections -- A Retrospective," which was issued December 2006 instead.

Determined to help shape the campaign for the album, Blige insisted on attending weekly marketing strategy meetings with the label. "We had to figure out how to capitalize on her clarity and focus," Fox says. "She was a driving factor on keeping everyone microscopically on point."

Geffen took a broad approach designed to reach Blige's 12-50, largely female demographic, and TV appearances were plotted out with military precision to cover the spread. "It wasn't just saying, 'She'll be on (NBC's talk show "Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show"),' it was, 'What will she talk about?'" Fox says. "We were crazy about it, and we had a ball."

Geffen turned to a number of corporate partners to cross-promote the release. "The changing dynamics of the music business and the reduction in the money spent on marketing individual artist's releases validates the importance of strategic marketing," explains Brad Gelfond, head of Los Angeles-based marketing company Strike Up the Brand.

Blige continued her partnership with Verizon and linked with Pepsi for a ringtone campaign, video and signage in New York's Times Square. She also played a private concert for Pepsi bottlers. "When you're spending the kind of money that Verizon and Pepsi or any mass-market brand does, it is going to reach a much wider audience than Geffen could," Gelfond says.

The onslaught certainly helped with sales -- whether it will help Blige walk away with coveted statuettes at the Grammys remains to be seen. Daniels is confident that Blige will take home five trophies at Sunday's event, and he predicts that sales for "Breakthrough" could increase 25% over the life of the Grammy campaign, with the majority of the sales coming after the CBS telecast.

Should she win, however, those sales could climb higher still. Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me," which spawned eight wins in 2003, returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 post-Grammys and sold nearly five times what it had sold the week prior to the awards ceremony. But Blige is taking no chances -- she's slated to sing on the show, and performers traditionally see even bigger increases in sales than winners.

Additionally, Daniels is hoping the singer's victories -- Blige already has snared two BET Awards, two American Music Awards and nine Billboard Music Awards for "Breakthrough" -- will send a comforting message to the ailing industry.

"Hopefully, it will wake up some of these so-called executives on the types of artists they sign and the quality of material they put out," he says. "We're top-loaded with one-hit wonders right now who have to sing to track when they perform because they can't really sing."

That's one accusation no one will ever hurl at Blige -- Grammy night or any other.