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POP EYE

The Paradox of Neil Diamond

April 09, 1989|PAUL GREIN and PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Neil Diamond has broken his own record.

Diamond's eight-night run at the Forum beginning June 28 has established a new record for the most concerts at the 19,000-seat arena by a music artist during a single engagement, surpassing the seven-show mark that Diamond set in 1983.

"He's a phenomenon," said Michael Lippman, who co-manages George Michael. Lippman's partner, Rob Kahane, agreed, calling Diamond "the Springsteen of MOR (middle-of-the-road) music."

With all this concert success, you would think that Diamond's current album, "The Best Years of Our Lives," would be in the Top 10--or at least the Top 20.

But the album, released last December, never even came close: It stalled at No. 46 on Billboard magazine's national sales chart, becoming Diamond's first new studio collection in 20 years to miss the Top 40. The Columbia album made so little impact that some industry insiders were surprised when it went gold, signifying sales of 500,000 copies.

Ron Oberman, a vice president of artists and repertoire at Columbia, notes that this isn't the first time that Diamond has had an album that just went gold and a tour that, in effect, went multi-platinum.

"If you take a look at his touring statistics over the last number of years, he does incredibly well whether there's product out or not--and whether it's hit product or not," said Oberman. "He's got a tremendous live following which is there 365 days of the year, no matter what's going on with his recording career."

True enough: Though Diamond hasn't had a Top 10 album or single since "Heartlight" in 1982, he has continued to set concert records throughout the '80s. His 14-show sellout at the Greek Theatre in 1986 set an all-time attendance record for the theater, as did his eight-show sellout at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1986.

If Diamond's fans are this loyal and devoted, why haven't they continued to buy his albums in great numbers? One reason: His core audience has aged out of the primary record-buying demographic group. They still like their favorite stars, but they're intimidated by the thought of going into a record store with its stacks of albums by unfamiliar rock, rap and heavy metal artists. To woo these fans, it takes an "event" album, like Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album" or Linda Ronstadt's "What's New."

Brian Murphy, president of Avalon Attractions, who is promoting the Forum shows, said that his surveys show that 50% of the audience at a typical concert has bought the performer's current album. The percentage at Diamond's shows will be much lower.

"I don't know why Neil's audience doesn't support his album the way fans would support a Genesis album or a Phil Collins album," Murphy said. "Maybe his audience listens to (easy-listening stations) KOST and KBIG and just doesn't spend money on stereos and albums and CDs."

Kahane, a former booking agent, cited another reason that Diamond's album sales have dropped off.

"I'm a big Neil Diamond fan, but I don't think his material in the last five years compares to what he did prior to that. And I think eventually that's going to affect his attendance."

Sandy Gallin, who has managed Diamond for the past five years, acknowledged that he was disappointed by the performance of the current album, but said that Diamond can still be a major record seller. "It's just that in the last few years, he hasn't hit on that single which is attracting the CHR radio station," said Gallin, referring to the Top 40 format known as contemporary hit radio.

These factors help explain why Diamond's album sales have tapered off, but they don't explain why he is such a phenomenal concert draw. Such other middle-of-the-road superstars as Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross and Olivia Newton-John have also seen their album sales diminish in recent years, but they couldn't do anywhere near this concert business.

Murphy said that the key to Diamond's success is that he appeals to such a wide range of fans. "It's not just women over 40, it's everybody 25 to 55. For his audience, there's no other artist like Neil. The only comparable performer is Barbra Streisand, who hasn't toured in 20 years."

Claire Rothman, general manager/president of the Forum, agreed. "He's just a phenomenon, and regular rules don't apply."

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