Madonna's 'MDNA' is No. 1: Guy Oseary, Jimmy Iovine on the Art of the Album Roll-Out

The pop queen's longtime manager and brand new label head reflect on the road taken straight to the top of the charts and answer a nagging question: three decades in, is Madonna still selling scandal?

When Madonna’s 12th album, MDNA, debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 today with Nielsen SoundScan-certified sales of 359,000, she'll not only have the biggest first week of the year, but will instantly reinstate her place at the top of the pop heap.

That’s right. In this digital age of naysayers, haters, critics and cynics, Madonna now has three decades of relevance under her belt. With MDNA, she trails only Barbra Streisand for the most chart-toppers ever by a female artist (Babs has nine, Madge is one shy) -- an extraordinary musical and cultural feat. Still, some will inevitably credit controversy for MDNA's out-the-gate success.

Have your pick of which one from recent months -- the album title, which is a letter away from MDMA, the common name for the drug ecstasy; the Super Bowl halftime performance during which guest M.I.A. gave some 150 million people the finger; a permanent ban by Piers Morgan and subsequent Twitter spat between the talk show host and Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary; or a surprise appearance at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in March, where Madonna took the stage alongside Avicii and instantly riled up a crowd of 100,000 by asking if anyone had seen “Molly,” the street name for ecstasy, a comment that prompted superstar DJ Deadmau5 to take her to task publicly. All have kept Madonna’s name in the headlines just as new music hit the market.

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“All those things didn’t start with us,” Oseary tells The Hollywood Reporter, shrugging off any insinuation that scandal is a step in the rollout plan. “It's just part of the gig.” Indeed, Oseary and his client of 22 years can explain away each one -- the title has multiple meanings and came about like this, according to Oseary: “[Madonna] told me one day, ‘Here's what I'm calling my album.’ And I went, ‘Cool.’ She had a vision.” As for M.I.A.? She acted on her own accord; Piers Morgan’s people continue to reach out for a booking despite the ban; and Madonna was referring to a song by producer and DJ Cedric Gervais called “Have You Seen Molly,” not the staple drug of all-night dance parties. What may be harder to wrap the head around is the continued omnipotence of the '80s-bred pop star, who’s already topped the iTunes charts in 35 countries with MDNA presales alone.


Truth be told, Madonna did little in the way of traditional promotion for the album, her first for Interscope after some 30 years at Warner Bros. She skipped the club shows, the late-night lead guest slot and the Diane Sawyer interview. Her only broadcast sitdown was with Jimmy Fallon on Facebook. She premiered her single at the Super Bowl and her video on American Idol (Interscope is the show’s music partner) rather than MTV or Vevo. If there’s a plan, says Oseary, it was for the music to speak for itself, and thanks to the popularity of EDM (electronic dance music), it seems the former Danceteria regular is having her day yet again -- and at 53 years old.

“Anyone who can have a career as long and as healthy, strong and consistent as Madonna's, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime artist,” says Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine. “It's incredible what she's done. You can have an act earn money like her, but you can't have a career like that.” 

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Curiously, though her touring sets have featured many of her greatest hits, sometimes going deep into the catalog, like her first No. 1 dance smash, 1983’s “Burning Up,” Oseary says both he and Madonna rarely look back themselves. The decades spent at Warner Bros.? They hardly gave it a second thought when “friend” Iovine came into the picture. “I have a lot of faith in him,” says the 39-year-old Israel-born Oseary. “I didn't shop a deal. I didn't go meet with every label and play the field. I was pretty confident with [Universal Music Group chairman and CEO] Lucian [Grainge] and Jimmy as partners.” (Iovine returns the admiration, telling THR, "Guy is honest, straight-headed and talented -- a great combination.") Besides, adds Oseary, “One of the things that I've learned working with Madonna is you just move forward. It's really rare that she ever brings up the past.”

On this album cycle, she really doesn't need to “go retro” as so many veteran artists do. Always one step ahead of the latest sounds and production trends (Martin Solveig, Benny Benassi and William Orbit were all enlisted for their studio skills on multiple MDNA tracks), her brand of dance music meets delectable pop comes at a perfect time, just as EDM has, to put it plainly, taken over. “Dance music is Madonna’s base,” says Oseary, who can’t recall exactly how many club hits she’s had but knows it’s more than 40. “It's what she likes, it's what she listens to. It's not anything other than that. She doesn't read what's on the charts. And if it's on time, great. This is who she is.” 

Still, there are those pesky detractors who insist Madonna’s MDNA motif -- from the cheerleader costume she wears in the video for “Give Me All Your Luvin’” to the album’s title to her Ultra appearance just before midnight on March 24, are simply age-inappropriate, a slag Oseary doesn’t take to kindly. “Didn’t Lionel Richie just make a country album?” he barks. “No one is giving him a hard time ... and God bless him -- I love Lionel and should be able to do what he wants to do, like Madonna should, too. Both are having success and I applaud them. If you don't like it, don't buy it. The ageism criticism is getting old. It’s, like, let's just talk about the music. Do you like it?”

VIDEO: Madonna's Super Bowl Halftime Performance

Clearly, people do, what with first week sales of MDNA beating her last studio effort, 2008's Hard Candy, by more than 50 percent -- her best showing in over a decade. Partly to thank: a U.S. promotion where customers who bought a concert ticket had the option to receive the album as part of their purchase. These opt-in sales counted towards the chart's tally, according to Billboard. And Oseary says she’s also engaging more with her fans. Although Madonna has been reluctant to hop on the Twitter bandwagon, she’s logged on for one-night events (a second is coming up on Wednesday at 10 p.m.; the handle: @MadonnaMDNAday) and fielded hundreds of questions from fans, no doubt convinced by active tweeter Oseary.  

All the awareness when you add the Super Bowl audience to that of Facebook and Twitter users coupled with a Smirnoff-sponsored dance contest that provides key primetime television advertising and an international tour kicking off May 29 in Tel Aviv, and you’re looking at more than a billion potential impressions within four months time. 

But while the numbers make for a nice security blanket, positive reception from critics, fans and peers is ultimately how Oseary quantifies success, and so far, he’s more than pleased. “People are really digging it,” he says. “We feel good about the album, I’m proud of the work she’s done, [the EDM community] is giving the love back. It's her 12th album and the same story she had 30 years ago. That’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin