The Report: When Idols Don’t Sell

Vince Bucci/FOX/PictureGroup
Ryan Seacrest (left) and Season 9 American Idol champ 
Lee DeWyze.

Season 9 winner’s new album bombs just as UMG takes label rights from Sony.

Today’s pop quiz: Who is Lee DeWyze?

The most recent American Idol winner, whose first album, Live It Up, debuted Nov. 16 with little fanfare and even fewer sales, isn’t exactly a household name. That might be one reason why Sony Music isn’t crying over losing Idol recording rights to Universal Music Group beginning with the Fox series’ upcoming season.

“We’ve moved on,” says Tom Corson, executive vp and GM of Sony-based RCA Music Group. “We’re very proud of our association with Idol.  They made their decision, and we wish them all the success they deserve.”

Indeed, as the Simon Cowell-less TV juggernaut faces the riskiest transition of its 10-year existence, many in the music biz are watching just as closely to see what the future holds for the recording side of the $2.5 billion Idol franchise. The latest news isn’t promising. Season 9 winner DeWyze, one of the last artists signed under the Idol licensing deal with Sony that expired in August, was predicted to sell about 40,000 albums during the first week, the poorest showing ever by a winner of the No. 1 Fox show. (The previous title holder, Season 8’s Kris Allen, moved twice that number last year.) How much attention the 24-year-old Chicago native will get at the label that’s home to Beyoncé — or whether he’ll keep his deal — is now questionable.  

DeWyze isn’t alone. More than half of the contestants who have signed with the Sony-owned labels that release the various Idol albums (among them RCA, J and Jive) are no longer on the roster, despite pocketing advances north of $300,000. Others made solid debuts when the TV buzz was still fresh but floundered with follow-ups. For instance, Season 7 wunderkind David Archuleta’s debut sold more than 763,000, but his latest has yet to crack the 43,000 mark.

True, in Sony’s nine-year recording partnership with 19 Entertainment, the Simon Fuller shingle that also manages Idol alumni, they’ve seen plenty of successes—to the tune of about 55 million units sold. But for every Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry and Carrie Underwood, others like Season 5’s Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, Season 6’s Blake Lewis and Season 8’s Allison Iraheta have quietly been dropped. “You have to weigh the realities and decide what the artist’s potential is,” Corson says of the decision to part with an Idol. “These are not cheap deals, and they sometimes don’t justify the expense.”

When Season 10 premieres in January, Universal and its colorful chairman Jimmy Iovine will be tasked with turning TV personalities into music stars. And all signs point to Iovine taking just as much if not more of a hands-on role as then-RCA chairman Clive Davis did during early Idol seasons. Iovine, a seasoned producer before embarking on the executive track, will serve as a permanent advisor on the show and has made his presence known throughout the summer and fall audition process.


“Jimmy is one of the great music people left in the world,” says industry veteran Tommy Mottola, former head of Sony who has known Iovine for decades. “It was important for Universal to get the alliance, the brand association and prestige that comes with Idol. These days you need everything you can get.”

The UMG connection also will mean more of the company’s artists likely will appear as mentors; producers like Timbaland and Polow Da Don are expected, and sources say Dr. Dre’s “Beats” headphones will get prime placement. But the strategy behind the move is about boosting the bottom line immediately. “Idol is like a short-term investment,” says one executive privy to the deal-making. “The business helps P&L and market share. Sony did well having it, and Universal should, too, but developing artists is an uphill battle, no matter where you find them.”

Announcing the deal in August, just-installed UMG chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge boldly declared, “We like delivering hits and new artists at UMG, and American Idol is the right combination at the right time.” 

Corson winces slightly at the verbiage but applauds the effort. “It’s tough because you have a mature brand that they need to reinvent — and they’re going for it,” he says.

Sony, of course, will remain just as involved with the past Idols it’s still responsible for — 14 in total including fan favorites Clarkson, Adam Lambert and Season 7 winner David Cook, all of whom will release new albums in early 2011, in time for the close of Sony’s fiscal year. As chief creative officer, Davis, 78, still helps shape their sound and choose their songs. It’s not like in the Clarkson My December days, when Davis and the Season 1 winner engaged in a public war over her desire to co-write songs for her third album. That led to a snub by Davis on the show — a low point for Idol-Sony relations.  

DeWyze made the light-rock album 19 and RCA wanted, but the reviews have been brutal. Season 9 runner-up Crystal Bowersox is expected to fare better when her album bows Dec. 14, but the beauty of Idol is that the next big success always could be around the corner.
“In terms of selling music, there’s still potency and Idol remains one of the strongest brands out there,” Corson says.  

★ Kelly Clarkson ( SEASON 1 )
The most profitable Idol, with several hit albums and singles.
✖ Ruben Studdard ( SEASON 2 )
Dropped by J Records after releasing three albums.
★ Fantasia ( SEASON 3 )
Controversy and a reality show has helped fuel sales.
★ Carrie Underwood ( SEASON 4 )
Arista Nashville’s crown jewel with 12 million albums sold.
✖ Taylor Hicks ( SEASON 5 )
Dropped by Arista in 2008, two years after debut disc.
★ Jordin Sparks ( SEASON 6 )
Has seen solid chart sucesss with three Top 10 singles.
★ David Cook (SEASON 7 )
Rocker’s debut album has sold an impressive 1.3 million.
★ Kris Allen ( SEASON 8 )
His debut saw the slowest first week among Idol winners.
★ Lee DeWyze ( SEASON 9 )
His husky acoustic vibe hasn’t stirred album buyers so far.

★ Chris Daughtry ( SEASON 5 )
Fourth place and 6 million albums sold proved RCA was right in signing the rocker.
★ Adam Lambert  ( SEASON 9 )
The showy runner-up was RCA’s surprise hit of 2010, with nearly 1 million albums sold.