Single sell

Gold records and Grammys are all in a day's work for 'Idol' alumni

While the music industry at large continues seeing CD sales trending down, one corporation is doing better than most -- in large part thanks to Fox's "American Idol." Sony BMG, which has exclusive rights to release albums from the show's contestants, gets to hear cash registers ringing regularly -- as long as the "Idol" machine keeps cranking out hits.

"It's a key component to our company's bottom line and will be for the foreseeable future," RCA Music Group executive vp and general manager Tom Corson says.

But Sony BMG's boost is just one example of how this pop-culture juggernaut has breathed new life into a business that desperately needed it. From Season 1 "Idol" victor Kelly Clarkson's double Grammy win in 2005 to Season 4 victor Carrie Underwood's three Grammys and three top 10 singles to finalist Jennifer Hudson's supporting actress Oscar win last month, the show's contestants have proved themselves to be more than a flash in the pan.

It could be the sheer talent of its contestants, or it could be that the viewing audience feels invested in the stars it has helped fashion. Either way, "Idol" has worked its way into the culture and minted an unprecedented number of chart-topping artists. "The most important thing, right from the get-go, when Simon (Fuller) created 'Pop Idol' (in the U.K.), was that this should be a vehicle for finding great talent and launching real careers," 19 Entertainment U.S. chief Iain Pirie says.

In addition to discovering talent, music industry titan and chairman and CEO of BMG U.S. Clive Davis saw "Idol" as a way to bring pop music back to television. "It was becoming more and more difficult for pop artists to break through in radio leading to the total domination by hip-hop and pop-rock artists," he says. "The game plan of 'American Idol' was to use the history of American pop music as its foundation. I liked the idea of it and the objectives of it."

However, it's not simply the music that keeps the momentum going, according to Recording Academy president Neil Portnow. "It's also about the human stories, the goofy, humorous, wacky and outlandish things that people will do to promote themselves and be part of it," he says. "Potentially, that would create a sort of looking down the nose from more of an elitist industry point of view, but the public doesn't care about that -- the public cares about being entertained."

The fact that "Idol" plays to the public is exactly why it works, says Fuller, creator of "Idol" and chief of 19 Entertainment. "The real idea behind 'Idol' is to turn over the process of finding the talent to the public and make it interactive," he says.

And the public has proved time and time again that it is willing to support the talent it helps discover. In January, the show made its sixth-season debut, drawing a monster 35.5 million viewers, and to date has racked up sales of an estimated 27.4 million albums and 13.1 million singles.

In November, the album "Daughtry," featuring "Idol" finalist rocker Chris Daughtry, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 304,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It wasn't good enough to snare the top spot, but steady sales of the album would help it hang around in the top 11 for nine weeks, allowing it to eventually climb to the top during a slow sales week in January. (The album it knocked from the summit was the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack, featuring Hudson.)

The fact that both of these artists didn't actually win the contest shouldn't go unnoticed. 19 has the option to sign any of the top 24 contestants of each season to a record contract, a merchandising sponsor deal and a management deal. "We base those decisions on the artists we have the most confidence in, whether they win or not," Pirie says. "It's what feels the most appropriate."

The initial singles by the winner and the runner-up are rush-released to the market. Albums are released about six months after the show wraps but also are on a tight schedule, especially since the budding stars are spending much of the time on the road with the "Idol" package tour.

"The A&R challenge was to use A&R in its best form, and that is to find songs," Davis says. "We were given a window as the A&R team, about a 10-week period of time to come up with songs for the artist because they go on tour right after the show ends until the summer is over, and album has to be out that year, by October or November at the latest."

Davis adds that it's the A&R process of selecting potential hits and the subsequent airplay that helps push the post-"Idol" releases into platinum sales, building upon the built-in sales of 400,000-600,000 from the "souvenir" releases related to the show.

Even with its pop focus, "Idol" has managed to churn out a diverse roster of talent, ranging from pop crooners Clarkson and Clay Aiken, R&B belters Ruben Studdard and Fantasia , country queens Underwood and Kellie Pickler and rocker Daughtry.

"Many have developed niches and peeled off to various formats now," Edison Media Research vp music and programming Sean Ross notes. "Katharine (McPhee)'s record went to top 40 first. Taylor Hicks' single went to (adult contemporary). What they all have in common is that TV has allowed them to circumvent the usually tortuous process of making an artist or record familiar to much of America."

Yet, some in the industry remain unconvinced that "Idol's" offspring will have meaningful and lengthy careers -- especially since none of the former "Idols" write their own material, save for Daughtry, who co-wrote much of the material on his band's recent debut effort.

"What blew the business up was credible artists writing their own songs that spoke from their soul. That is the antithesis of 'American Idol,'" says industry veteran Bob Lefsetz, author of the music industry newsletter and blog "The Lefsetz Letter." "They're very similar to Barbie or Colorforms. These are human beings who have reasonable voices upon which they put layers of production. This is Clive Davis' dream. They're not going to complain, 'I don't want to do this.' They're raw material. They're putty in his hands."

Still, even Lefsetz admits that "Idol" makes good television and applauds judge Simon Cowell's honesty. "The ratings are up from last year because it's a great train wreck, but nothing lasts forever. ... It will end, and the record sales will die before the television show, but how many years did 'Star Search' run?" he says.

For the record, "Star Search" ran from 1983-95 and then came back in 2003-04. Corson has no such doubts about "Idol."

"It's not a fad," he says. "It's a trend that's created other trends. It's been incredibly well-managed as a TV show. It's been sanctioned by great artists who have sustainable careers that have come out of it with a good collaboration between us and the show. Because it's been mandated by the public, the public will not let it fail."

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Single sell: Gold records and Grammys
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Magic number: Behind 19 Entertainment's success
'American' way: Everything's up for promotional grabs
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Music sharing: Music supervisor clears the air
Minor key: ‘Idol’s’ music director keeps things in tune
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