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Cover Story : Few Pillars, No 'Thrillers' : Twenty-five music executives rank pop's commercial powerhouses. The Artist Formerly Known as King isn't among them.

October 22, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Remember the days of "Thriller" when record executives would hyperventilate at the thought of signing Michael Jackson to a contract?

No longer.

If you throw out any votes he may have received from representatives of his Sony Music family, Jackson didn't get enough support to finish among the first 20 artists in a Calendar poll to determine the hottest recording properties in America.

How bad was Jackson's showing?

Consider this: Jackson even finished third among artists with the same surname--far, far behind his sister Janet Jackson and country star Alan Jackson.

Some of the harsher comments of panel members were humbling for the man who proclaims himself the King of Pop.

"He's wounded as a commercial property."

"More trouble than he's worth."

"I think it is over."

"Over."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Labels--Howie Klein's label affiliation was misstated in last Sunday's article about pop's hottest properties. Klein is president of Reprise Records.

So, it's official. As of this day--Oct. 22, 1995--the term the King of Pop can be laid to rest.

*

Jackson is not the only big name whose ego will be bruised by results of the poll of 25 of the industry's sharpest executives. The ranking of today's commercial powerhouses is a stinging rebuke of the pop royalty of the '80s.

The best that pop's onetime queen (Madonna), prince (or rather, the artist formerly known as Prince) and court jesters (Guns N' Roses) could do was pick up three scattered votes--collectively.

By contrast, more than 60% of the panel members voted for the rock bands Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and U2, who finished one-two-three in the balloting. Six other acts--including Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Garth Brooks--picked up 10 or more votes each.

High-profile veterans weren't the only losers in the poll. Scores of newcomers--from Hootie & the Blowfish and Stone Temple Pilots to Sheryl Crow and the Spin Doctors--may have sold millions of records over the last two years, but they are viewed with suspicion in an age where a hit video on MTV can mean instant multi-platinum success for even the most routine act.

"MTV is bringing 'em in and burnin' 'em up . . . the good and the bad," says one label president. "This is the most transient period in the record industry in memory. That's what makes bands like Pearl Jam and R.E.M. look so attractive. They've shown a consistency--even if it is just three albums in the case of Pearl Jam. The same with a Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey.

"Once you get beyond a few top names like that, the charts seem filled with acts that have the look and feel of one-hit wonders. Most of them aren't going to be around in three years, much less seven."

*

The issue with Michael Jackson isn't so much a lack of faith in his talent as a feeling that he has self-destructed image-wise. The result: Most panelists wouldn't feel comfortable betting their company fortunes on him--even with his continued popularity overseas.

The main problem in this country, according to a panel consensus, isn't a backlash against the 1993 child-molestation allegations but that Jackson has gone in the public mind from the King of Pop to the King of Hype.

It's important in pop that fans can relate to your music and your personality, several panelists said. But Jackson has concentrated so much on image that many fans find it hard to relate to him anymore.

The challenge for the legendary performer is to refocus attention on his music.

"The thing he doesn't understand is that he'd be better off in the long run if he made a great record that only went to No. 20 on the sales chart than if he hyped another mediocre record to No. 1," one panelist said. "The thing he needs is credibility."

But is Jackson capable of another great album along the lines of "Thriller"?

"I would never say never about anyone with that kind of talent, but it is a tremendously difficult time for him," said one panelist. "The same is true of Prince. Nothing seems to work for them. They can still sell records, no question about it. But they are not the dominant figures they once were--or even close to it.

"It is like they need to stop for a moment and take a breath and try to figure out what they should be doing. It's sad in a way what's happened because they are both so brilliant."

*

In the poll, conducted over the last three weeks, executives were asked to name, in order, the 10 artists they believe will likely sell the most records over the next seven years, which is the life of a standard record contract. Acts were given 10 points for every first place mention, nine for every second and so forth.

To encourage candor, the panel members--drawn from Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Atlanta--were told their names wouldn't be attached to either their choices or their comments about the artists.

Pearl Jam's first-place finish is impressive for a still relatively young band, but not as dominating as U2's victory in a similar Calendar poll in early 1993. At that time, U2 almost doubled the point total of runner-up R.E.M.: 165 points to 95. Pearl Jam was third with 83 points.

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