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This story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
“This is so goddamn cool.” Adam Levine has peeled a jet-black leather jacket off of his tattooed biceps and is marveling from the stage at the 16,000 fans packed into New Jersey’s sold-out Izod Center. The Grammy-winning Maroon 5 frontman grins widely as the sea of twentysomething sorority types (and a few of their moms) stand before him cooing, “Aaaadam, Aaaadam.”
On this late-February evening in East Rutherford, the eighth stop on the North American leg of Maroon 5’s latest tour, variations on “Marry me, Adam,” “Team Adam” and “Prom?” decorate signs that dot the arena’s rafters. Levine, 33, has been a rock star since he and some of his high school buddies began playing West Hollywood clubs as teens, but there’s no denying his stardom has rocketed into the stratosphere during the two years since he began as a “coach” on NBC’s runaway hit The Voice. A fourth cycle of the singing competition — its first with Shakira and Usher temporarily replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green — begins March 25, and it can’t arrive soon enough for NBC, whose ratings have plummeted from first to fourth place without Voice and Sunday Night Football. Its dependence on the show has turned Levine into the improbable face — if not the savior — of the network.
At the same time, Levine has parlayed that visibility into a booming business, with legions of young female fans and tentacles extending well beyond music. There’s a fledgling acting career, with an arc on FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum, a well-received hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and a film foray with John Carney‘s recently wrapped Can a Song Save Your Life? opposite Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. He recently rolled out a celebrity fragrance line, a planned fashion collection, a lucrative spokesperson deal with acne-product giant Proactiv and a record label to which Glee‘s Matthew Morrison is signed. At press time, he also was negotiating a first-look overall deal at NBC to serve as a producer on future TV projects. All of that is on top of Maroon 5’s fourth studio album (released in 2012) and tour, both cheekily titled Overexposed, suggesting Levine and his longtime bandmates are amused by his ubiquity.
“Adam is now a worldwide empire,” says veteran music manager Irving Azoff, whose former Front Line Management counts Levine among its clients. “Between The Voice and Maroon 5 breaking through to a million-dollar-plus-a-night attraction, plus all of his other activities — writing, producing and more — he’s a big industry.” Following Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, Levine has become perhaps the most successful example of the new business model for musicians in an age of declining record sales. By taking a chance on a singing show his rocker brethren might find beneath them, he has been able to showcase his likable personality on a twice-weekly platform that has allowed him to launch a multimillion-dollar business — lifting his band to new heights in the process. In fact, Levine’s growing portfolio likely will earn him more than $35 million this year, according to sources familiar with his many business dealings, with NBC paying him $10 million to $12 million for each cycle of Voice.
Asked two days before the New Jersey show if he has gone too commercial — perhaps even sold out — Levine shoots a look he might give if you had just selected Team Xtina over his. “I think that there was this generation before us that was so hellbent on not selling out that it went too far, and I feel like maybe it’s history correcting itself because it’s more acceptable now to do a lot of the things that musicians would have been terrified to do 10 years ago,” he says, acknowledging that hours from now he will give media interviews to peddle a new apparel line for Kmart. “I was never that guy that thought it was uncool for a band to be successful. I always thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to pay your bills and also be a musician?’ It’s just nice that being motivated to be successful is not a crime anymore.”
On a frigid afternoon in late February, Levine emerges in the lobby of New York’s The Mercer hotel with an apology. He landed funny while performing in Montreal the night before and tweaked his neck. “If I’m somewhat out of it, you’ll know why,” he says, his head cocked awkwardly to one side. Between sips of a red eye — a caffeine jolt of coffee mixed with espresso — he reveals himself at once charming, cocky, self-deprecating, self-aware, funny and grateful.
Accepting a gig on Voice has changed him, says Levine, turning a “lazy” rock star whose days could consist of models and motorcycles into a highly motivated businessman. “The Voice was the first real job I’ve ever had that wasn’t just messing around with music,” he says while pulling at the threads of his ripped jeans. “I don’t really know what happened, but it initiated some kind of mode in my brain. It put me on this trajectory, and I love it.” (To be sure, the Los Angeles native has not given up his penchant for motorcycles, nor has his romantic life taken a hit; Levine, who keeps a yoga instructor on his payroll and shares a Hollywood Hills bachelor pad with an old pal, is dating Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo.)
It was two years ago that Levine’s childhood friend-turned-longtime manager Jordan Feldstein, brother of actor Jonah Hill (né Feldstein), reached out to NBC about its new singing show, but at the time Levine required convincing. “I scoffed at it initially,” he admits, acknowledging that his bandmates similarly were skeptical. The genre of reality television had been a massive turnoff. “It’s just a bunch of f—ing assholes who are fame whores,” he says without naming names. (Levine’s TV tastes skew more Sons of Anarchy and The Daily Show than Housewives and Kardashians.)
A lengthy meeting with executive producer Mark Burnett — who explained that the show, an adaptation of The Voice of Holland, would promote emerging talent rather than knock it down as rival American Idol had done — changed Levine’s mind. Making the opportunity more appealing were the caliber of the coaches (“When Cee Lo decided to sign on, that was when we were all like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’ ” says Feldstein), the examples of crossover success with Idol‘s Lopez and Tyler and the somewhat stagnant state of Maroon 5. The band’s 2010 album, Hands All Over, garnered mixed reviews — Rolling Stone suggested it wasn’t “half as fun as it should be” — and subpar sales. “Honestly,” explains Levine, “the risk/reward situation was such that we thought it would be better for me to try doing it because the band was, I wouldn’t say faltering, but not doing as well at that point as we had wanted to be doing.”
NBC president of alternative and late-night Paul Telegdy recalls being particularly impressed by Levine during a late-2010 performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. During the breaks, the exec watched from the studio audience as Levine charmed the crowd with song requests. “That night sort of sealed the deal,” says Telegdy, noting that he was struck by not only Levine’s range but also his witty, self-effacing style. “He was acutely aware of what his performer qualities were, but there was just a little bit of a prankster and a clown in there as well.”
Much as it is now, Telegdy’s network was in serious need of a boost. NBC had been floundering in the ratings basement for nearly a decade, with its fourth programming chief in as many years. In something of a desperate move, the network’s brass agreed to shell out $2.3 million an episode for Voice — the most expensive new unscripted series in NBC’s history — which allowed Burnett to bring in four known quantities: Levine, Aguilera, Green and country music’s Blake Shelton.
Recognizing that the coaches’ chemistry would be key, Burnett sent the newly selected foursome — each representing a different musical genre — to L.A.’s Soho House for a night of bonding on his dime. “I thought it was important for them to go out socially, and I didn’t want producers there,” he says. “Can you think of a crazier idea than giving four music stars your credit card and drivers and sending them out to the Soho House? I remember Adam saw me the next day and said: ‘Dude, that was such a mistake. Wait until you see your American Express bill.’ ”
The tab was worth it. Voice was an instant hit with viewers and advertisers. According to Kantar Media, the third cycle delivered $268 million in ad revenue, more than twice as much as the net’s second-most-lucrative entertainment program, America’s Got Talent. (Idol still dominates, pulling in $836 million in its 11th season.) What’s more, the top-rated series — more than 12 million people watch weekly — led NBC to a rare first-place finish in the fall among the key 18-to-49 demographic, lifting rookie entries Revolution, Go On and The New Normal in its wake. (With Voice off the air, the comedies have collapsed; Revolution will return in late March.)
And while Aguilera was perceived as the big “get” when Voice premiered, Levine — and, to a lesser extent, Shelton — has become the series’ breakout. “If I have to hear any more about Adam Levine’s beautifully tattooed, pythonlike forearms …,” says Telegdy, joking about the viewer attention his network’s social media data reflect. During the show’s third cycle, #TeamAdam and @AdamLevine scored a respective 203,000 and 2.14 million Twitter mentions, besting the other coaches. At one point, “Shirtless Adam” became a worldwide trending topic. “I’d hate to characterize Adam as just man candy, though, because he’s much more than that,” adds Telegdy. “He’s extremely talented, hilariously funny, and he’s got that, shall we say, naughty-boy quality about him.”
Levine will tell you the show has propelled him because it showcases a different side to his personality. “No one knew what I was really like or whether I had anything to say. … I think that the occasional soccer mom probably thought I was a slut,” he says bluntly of a pre-Voice reputation born of a rocker lifestyle that appeared to include a bevy of bombshells on his arm. “The show put me in an interesting light to be cross-examined and analyzed by the world at large, and I think that I succeeded in making them like me.” (According to polling firm E-Poll Market Research, awareness of Levine has nearly tripled since he joined the show, and his likability has shot up more than 20 percent.)
How has he won fans over? “As a pop star, you don’t have to be that smart for people to think you’re intelligent. The bar is f—ing low; if you have half a brain, they think you’re amazing. So I have that going for me,” he jokes, before suggesting a second reason: honesty. That, too, requires clarification: “I don’t lie, and that’s unusual in a world of media-obsessed, media-trained f—ing liars who will sit here with you and totally bullshit you to further their own careers.” The comment sets him off on a longer diatribe about his image: part bad-boy rock star, part cheese-ball TV personality, which he insists is not perfectly tailored. “I say the wrong thing, I offend people, and I piss people off, all of which I like,” he adds. Levine has made headlines with such musings as “Instinctively, monogamy is not in our genetic makeup,” and, “Maybe the reason that I was promiscuous and wanted to sleep with a lot of women is that I love them so much.”
But Levine’s savvy runs deeper. He has done a masterful job not only of exploiting NBC’s many programming assets — he presented at the Golden Globes, appeared on the 2012 Super Bowl pregame show and hosted SNL — but also of using the primetime platform to further his band and his brand. Take Maroon 5’s single “Moves Like Jagger,” which strategically featured Aguilera. The duo, along with the band, performed the song — more pop-infused than Maroon 5’s previous fare and its first use of an outside producer — on a June 2011 episode of Voice, leaning on the show and its iTunes leverage to drum up attention. “No one had done it to that extent where you were really tying the show, the band and the brand all at one time, and it just kind of exploded from there,” says Feldstein. “Jagger” has sold nearly 6 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it one of the biggest digital singles of all time.
Although Levine’s involvement in Voice’s fall cycle is not yet official, sources tell THR that he’s locked in for a fifth one. (The show’s original coaches, Aguilera, Shelton and Green, are expected to join him.) “They’re going to have to physically remove Adam from the building,” says Levine’s manager. “He loves doing the show, and it’s been great for his career. We’ll be there as long as NBC wants us.”
Levine is no stranger to stardom. Having grown up in L.A., he attended the posh Brentwood School, where his classmates included bandmates Jesse Carmichael and Mickey Madden as well as other Hollywood offspring. Among the latter were Feldstein and Hill, whose father has been best friends with Levine’s father since the men were 14. Levine’s dad, who split from Levine’s admissions-counselor mother when he and his brother were young, founded the boutique clothing chain M. Fredric.
“I was a total dickhead,” says Levine of his teen years, when he was focused more on music than academics. “I didn’t do any homework; I just went home and wrote music or played guitar or had band practice,” he adds, having started playing dives with his band, Kara’s Flowers, by the time he was 13. Hill shares that recollection. “The irony of Adam’s success and my own success is that we were both the least likely to succeed growing up,” he says via email, recalling how he and Levine would sit in Levine’s room with Levine declaring, “I’m gonna be a rock star,” and Hill hypothesizing, “I’m going to be an actor.”
That the pipe dream became their reality still excites the pair. “I remember the first time I was on [Late Night With Conan O’Brien], my first talk show ever, eight or nine years ago, and [Adam] had everyone we knew over to his house to watch it live and cheer me on,” adds Hill. The actor hardly is the only friend who has found himself on the receiving end of Levine’s big heart and fierce loyalty. “It’s pretty remarkable the extent to which he hasn’t changed,” notes Madden. Comparisons have been drawn to Vincent Chase, the lead character on HBO’s long-running series Entourage, because Levine rarely is without members of his pack, which includes his longtime bandmates, assistant Shawn Tellez and writer-producer roommate Gene Hong. On his rare night off, the “homebody,” as Madden describes his bandmate, often can be found hanging out at his refurbished 1940s home with those pals and his golden retriever, Frankie, whose paw print is inked on his shoulder.
Levine’s music career got a significant boost near the end of high school, when Warner Bros. Records signed Kara’s Flowers to its Reprise label. “We thought we were rock gods at that point,” he quips of an era in which the band, which included current members Carmichael (keyboard) and Madden (bass), put out an album, booked gigs and even nabbed a guest spot on Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210. “I mean, we were The Beatles in our minds.” But by age 20, Levine and his buddies got a reality check. After the band’s first album sputtered, they were dropped by the label and forced to rethink their career choice. “Suddenly, we were just these tainted kids who are in this band that no one wants to sign,” recalls Levine, who segued into a series of odd jobs, including a production assistant gig on CBS’ Judging Amy (writer-producer Barbara Hall is a family friend) before packing his bags for a brief stint at Five Towns College on Long Island, purportedly to study music.
Not long after, the band reunited, adding guitarist James Valentine and changing its name to Maroon 5 (the origin remains a tightly guarded secret). In 2002, the group put out its debut album, Songs About Jane, featuring the slow-build, Levine-penned hits “Harder to Breathe” and “This Love,” and spent the better part of three years promoting it. During the decade that followed, the band would pick up three Grammys (including best new artist in 2005), open for The Rolling Stones and sell more than 9.5 million albums in the U.S. before losing much of that momentum with its third album. That is, until Voice re-energized the band and its fan base.
“A lot of bands that were following that trajectory probably wouldn’t have made it back,” says Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms at Clear Channel Radio. “They’ve done what everybody wishes they could do.” Looking to repeat the “Moves Like Jagger” formula, the band enlisted more pop hitmakers including Max Martin, Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco for its fourth album. The move — a departure for a group that pre-“Jagger” wrote all of its music — began paying off immediately. Overexposed‘s first single, “Payphone,” which the band relies on to kick off each concert, sold 496,000 singles during its first week, the most to date by a group. The album already has sold 1.2 million copies. Says Levine, “The Voice wound up being way beyond the best thing that’s ever happened to me and to the band.”
Meanwhile, he was approached by American Horror Story‘s Ryan Murphy, another longtime friend, and Can a Song Save Your Life? director Carney to try his hand at acting. “I’m not very good at it,” he confesses, having shot three episodes of the former (he played a doomed newlywed) and a starring role in the latter (as a musician working through a relationship with Knightley’s character). Still, it doesn’t intimidate Levine the way performing with the band once did. “You get onstage and perform in front of 10,000 people, and if you f— up, it’s your ass,” he says with a smile that suggests he has done so on more than one occasion. (He famously played his first professional gig at the Troubadour with his back to the audience because he was so nervous.) “How scary is it to go into an intimate setting that’s totally comfortable and do something 500 times until you get it right? That’s not pressure.”
To Levine, the key to a successful transition has been to find directors who can tell him what to do and how to do it. “I’m the director’s bitch,” he says, acknowledging that he recently saw an early cut of Save Your Life and was surprised at how “not shitty” he was. “They’ll probably say that I’m a better actor than I am a singer or something,” he jokes of the critics who haven’t always been kind to him. “They’ll find some way to f— me with something negative.”
Murphy says he was impressed, even noting he’d like to bring Levine back to AHS in a bigger role, but Levine’s schedule won’t allow it. “If he got the right parts in film, I really feel like Adam could do a Justin Timberlake thing,” adds Murphy, “because he has the chops, and, more than that, he has the ambition.” (Although Levine is coy about future acting opportunities, Feldstein suggests it long has been a “personal passion” for him: “It’s something that he’s legitimately been talking to me about for 15 years.”)
The decision to launch a fragrance line arguably was more perplexing, considering it was Levine who once tweeted to his nearly 4 million followers: “I also would like to put an official ban on celebrity fragrances. Punishable by death from this point forward.” He defends the earlier comment by noting his isn’t a typical celebrity vanity play but rather another product for which he has been intimately involved in the creative process. “I want it to do well,” he says of the time he’s put in, adding: “If you’re going to get paid to do this ridiculous shit, you’ve got to put f—ing effort into it.”
It’s not hard to see Levine is having a ball with all of this. “I so appreciate you,” he shouts to his fans, new and old, from the Izod Center stage, taking a few seconds to soak in the moment before adding, “And I love you.” Madden, who has watched as his bandmate’s calendar has swelled with opportunities, suggests he is thrilled but not at all surprised by Levine’s rise. “Having known Adam for so long, it all seems to fit a script he’s had for himself ever since he was young,” he says, laughing as he completes his thought: “My standard line on Adam is that fame just justified his personality.”
Additional reporting by Kim Masters and Shirley Halperin
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