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Author Topic: 12/5/03 MORE THAN IDOL GOSSIP  (Read 1779 times)


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« on: May 16, 2010, 12:19:50 AM »
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« on: December 05, 2003, 11:09:15 PM »   

More Than Idol GossipLA Times

You'd think they'd never seen a pop star here at the BMG record company offices in Beverly Hills, the way they crowd and cluster around Ruben Studdard as he walks past their cubicles on his way to a conference room for an interview.

Starry-eyed employees shake his hand and wish him well. Some offer him CDs. When he sticks his head into a woman's office and asks if he can come through and pose for some photographs on the terrace, she puts down her phone and says yes, if he'll sing to her. He responds with a brief, gospel-flavored trill.

During his procession, a representative of his management company, who's accompanying him on this day of interviews and photo sessions, tells him that he has to make a decision about a proposal that's been sent to him. Studdard takes the fax from her and reads it quickly. "Super Bowl tickets?" says the former college offensive lineman. "OK, I'll do it."

So it goes for the reigning champion of "American Idol." These heady and hectic times have stretched long beyond Studdard's TV moment in May largely because the Fox network's blockbuster talent contest is having the kind of impact on the record charts that it previously did in the television ratings — records by the "Idol" stars have become legitimate hits rather than ephemeral souvenirs. Studdard's album finally comes out this week, and instead of being yesterday's news, he is that massive shape right in the crosshairs of the public's awareness.

Much as he insists that his term with the show, its rivalries and the honed "reality" that brought him here are over, its populist "he's one of us" sensibility is one he's tied to — for better or worse.

So while his grounding in gospel music and his admiration for such substantial singers as Luther Vandross and Donnie Hathaway might give him a better shot at musical credibility than his "Idol" peers have shown, the program's please-'em-all mind-set holds sway. If your goal is to win as many people as possible, you're not inclined to be daring or challenging. Listening to the music produced by the contestants so far, the word "cringe" comes to mind.

Studdard might be a different kind of singer, but his own goals for his album reflect the "Idol" process. He wants something for everybody, in the manner of an old-fashioned, inoffensive, all-around entertainer.

Still, the rewards are clear enough. Kelly Clarkson, last year's winner, entered the national sales chart at No. 1 in April when her debut album, "Thankful," sold nearly 300,000 copies in its first week, starting it on its way toward total sales of more than 1.5 million. Clay Aiken lost to Studdard in a close showdown that ended the series' second season, but that didn't stop his "Measure of a Man" album from opening with sales of more than 600,000 in September, one of the highest one-week figures this year. It's since risen to 1.3 million. When Studdard and Aiken both released singles in June, Aiken started at nearly 400,000 and Studdard at almost 300,000.

Aiken takes the lead

In an odd twist, Aiken's showing makes Studdard something of an underdog in a game he's already won. Though he pooh-poohs the idea of a rivalry between him and his little buddy Clay, this brings a bit of drama to Tuesday's release of "Soulful" on J Records, part of the BMG-owned RCA Music Group. It's not just an album, it's the payoff of a protracted plot line that's been extracted from its "Idol" incubator and played out in public.

And the story won't be so much the music that people will hear starting Tuesday as the numbers that will be posted Dec. 17, when the first-week sales figures are released. Prevailing opinion among industry handicappers is that Aiken stays in front, but advance orders for "Soulful" are more than a million, and the combination of the "American Idol" brand and the R&B and hip-hop elements the show's first African American winner brings to the table could make it interesting.

Given this kind of visibility, things couldn't be better for the cozy alliance of record company and "American Idol" empire, which launches its third season with shows on Jan 20 and 21. But there are those who see evil afoot. Some critics lament the music's mainstream-geared mediocrity, while others even see signs of a possible surrender by the music industry to the dictatorship of public opinion — after all, why should labels maintain teams of high-salaried talent scouts with fat expense accounts when a TV show with a phone bank is equally effective at finding bland hitmakers?

And in a time when the business is reeling, anything that trims expenses ("Idol" stars come pre-marketed) and minimizes risk (they're also pre-approved by the audience) will be given a close look. The concept has already spread to other fields — country music's "Nashville Star" program has produced a hit in singer Buddy Jewell.

Other "Idol" variations have flopped, though, including Debbie Allen's "Fame" and two shows from the company that created "American Idol" — "American Juniors," for kids, and "All American Girl," a combination beauty pageant and talent contest. And on the recording ledger, Clarkson's runner-up, Justin Guarini, stiffed with his album, and reports circulated last week that he has been dropped by RCA. So maybe "American Idol" won't become the new business model for the music biz.

"Is it a trend? I don't think it can be, just by the nature of what it is," says Marc Geiger, an industry veteran who now is an agent at William Morris and the head of iMusic, a record label of more modest proportions. "The TV show is the driver, not the artists. If the TV show had bad ratings, (a) it wouldn't be on and (b) those records wouldn't sell. I think this one goes as long as it can, but you have to have a successful TV show, otherwise the impact on the record business would be nil."

Clive Davis, who inherited the deal that brings the show's winners to RCA when he became chairman and CEO of the group of labels a year ago, scoffs at the notion that the music business could become a passive assembly line.

"We listen and go see artists," says Davis, an executive famed for both reviving faded stars (Santana, Rod Stewart) and finding new ones (Alicia Keys). "I'm still out there going to see artists, and my A&R staff is combing the corners of the country to find the artists. There's no dangerous trend. Here is a situation which might provide one or at most two artists a year. I don't think that it's anything that's going to affect [the music business]."

What does Studdard think of all this?

"You always give people what they want," he says. "If you give it to them they'll buy it. If people like corn flakes, don't give them raisin bran. If people want Coke, don't give 'em Pepsi."

This is the post-conversion Studdard speaking. His first impression of "American Idol" wasn't too favorable.

"I saw the end of the first season. It was fun to watch, though I didn't think I would ever be doing it. I thought it was kind of cheesy." He smiles. "Now I'm the king of cheese."

In the mix

"Do you mind if I play a CD?" asks Studdard, standing in front of the conference room stereo as he gets ready for the interview. "I'll let you pick the volume."

He takes the new Cee-Lo single from the stack of CDs he gathered on his stroll through the office, and the music thumps gently in the background as he lowers his large frame into a chair.

Studdard, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., singing gospel music and admiring old-school R&B artists, has taken a little heat for messing with hip-hop. His album includes a duet with rapper Fat Joe, "What Is Sexy?," and also includes work by hip-hop producers including Swizz Beats and Jazze Pha.

"I grew up in the hip-hop era, and I'm a big fan of hip-hop," says the 25-year-old singer. "It's kind of silly to act like I don't have hip-hop influences in my life, and I wanted to express that in my album in some way. And on the flip side, I grew up in the church, so I always wanted to make sure I had some gospel music on there …. Everything about me is shown musically on this album."

That means traditional material such as Hathaway's "For All We Know" and some songs he sang on "Idol," including the Bee Gees' (via Al Green) "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and Westlife's "Fly Without Wings," along with the hip-hop and gospel tracks.

"I wanted to make an album that everybody could love," Studdard says. "I have grown-up songs for grown-ups, and I have songs that will appeal to everybody. And of course we have a lot of original records for the now generation. It's a fun record. I wanted a record that was feel-good and that people could play while they were cleaning up on Saturday morning."

"Often when you have such a devoted following they want just Ruben as they know him," says RCA's Davis, who is also the executive producer of the album. "The challenge here would be to have that side of him represented but to show that he could stretch out and do material which gives him much more of a foothold for a professional recording career."

These are busy days for Studdard, who followed an "American Idol" concert tour with an "American Idol" Christmas TV special. He'll sing with Aiken on the American Music Awards two days after the interview, and then come the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and, of course, the talk-show rounds for the album's release. (He's scheduled to be featured on "Dateline NBC" tonight.)

Studdard says he's unaffected by it all. His old friends are still his friends, his old bandmates now play behind him, and he plans to stay in Birmingham, where he recently purchased a condominium.

But he seems a little armored as he talks, adopting a polite but slightly detached, programmed manner. That's his way of dealing with the demands.

"I love my job — and I do look at this as a job. This is my profession, this is how I pay the bills, and I look at it as such. I disassociate work from my personal life. People recognizing me and stuff, that's still a job. That's part of the gig."

At least Studdard didn't come into all this totally raw. He grew up performing gospel music in the Baptist church his family attended in Birmingham, and he led a jazz-pop group that he says was one of the biggest club draws in Alabama.

He had left Alabama A&M University, where he was studying music education, after 3 1/2 years, giving himself five years to succeed as a singer. He auditioned for "American Idol" in Nashville halfway through that period.

Now that real-life scenario has been overtaken by the TV reality of "Idol" and the ongoing plot that it spawned.

Rivalry? What rivalry?

"Everybody wants to perpetuate the competition between me and Clay just because we were on the show together," Studdard says. "The show's over. I didn't even feel competition with Clay during the show, because we're two different people."

But this seems like a token objection, especially when he begins to crunch the numbers.

"Clay outsold me in singles, but only by 100,000 singles. Everybody always looks at the negative — 'Clay sold 970,000 and Ruben sold 830,000.' What other two artists this year sold that many singles? Nobody. Like, I won the show, yeah, Clay sold 100,000 more singles than I did, yeah, OK, but you show me more artists that sold more singles than I did other than Clay.

"The success we had on the sales chart with singles was unprecedented, and I think it's gonna be the same with my album. Clay sold 600,000 copies in the first week. Nobody does that. Kelly sold, what, a million five records in five weeks?

"We're continually showing people that we're real artists. Everybody wants to sell a lot of records. Of course, I'll be disappointed if my album doesn't sell a lot. I mean, that's understandable. I want to win — not to beat Clay, but just to be on top."

And what better way to measure artistry in an "Idol"-mad world than by prevailing in the popularity contest that plays out at the cash register?

LA TIMES CALENDAR LIVE (registration required)


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« Reply #1 on: May 16, 2010, 12:20:23 AM »
« Reply #1 on: December 06, 2003, 11:09:13 PM »   

ahh good article
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