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Artists Formerly Known as Hits

Record retailers, burned by lackluster sales of some big-name acts, don't want to get their holiday hopes up.

November 10, 1996|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

Pearl Jam couldn't do it. Neither could R.E.M. Nirvana also failed, as has Sheryl Crow--at least so far.

None of these acts' new albums has been able to rack up the massive sales figures that had been predicted, dashing record retailers' hopes that at least one would kick the business into high gear as the pre-Christmas shopping season got under way.

In recent weeks, only Celine Dion's "Falling Into You" has sustained weekly sales above the 100,000-copies mark.

So now hopes rest on a crop of brand-new and upcoming releases.

Can Van Halen's new "Best of Vol. 1" or the Beatles' third "Anthology" installment provide the jump-start? Do retailers still have faith in the Whitney Houston soundtrack for "The Preacher's Wife"?

Is the album tied to the Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes film "Space Jam" still a sure slam dunk? Will the hip-hop triumvirate of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre and the late Tupac Shakur (under the pseudonym Makaveli) provide ample Christmas rapping?

And can the Artist, which is what the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince now wants to be known as, make a major comeback with a three-CD set?

With their confidence shaken by the slow sales of the big names already out, the retailers are reluctant to make any solid predictions.

Lew Garrett, vice president of purchasing for the Ohio-based Camelot stores chain, makes ample use of the qualifier ought when discussing the expected performances. "Tupac's album ought to be huge," he says. "And 'The Preacher's Wife' ought to be big--[Houston] hasn't had a bad record yet."

And so on.

Those seem to be easy calls to make. But then, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and R.E.M. all seemed to be easy calls as well.

Still, the retailers are buoyed by what looks like a strong new wave of albums. Van Halen's debut two weeks ago registered 233,000 first-week sales in SoundScan's figures, a marked improvement from the top sellers of recent weeks. The Beatles' 236,000 debut last week continued the upward trend. That should carry through this week with the posthumous Shakur/Makaveli release and next week with Bush's follow-up to its nearly 6-million-selling debut.

The three favorites for the kind of sustained sales that really drive the market, though, are movie-related projects built around stars who reach beyond the normal pop music audience: "The Preacher's Wife," "Space Jam" and the Madonna showcase "Evita."

No one expects "The Preacher's Wife" to outsell the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard"--that Houston vehicle is the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time at more than 11 million. But the collection of pop ballads and gospel numbers is expected to do at least as well as last year's "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack, which featured Houston and other contemporary pop divas on tracks written and produced by Babyface--whose own new album also figures to be among the season's big sellers.

"Space Jam" is benefiting from a big promotional push for the film and the marketing magic that surrounds Jordan. Radio is already embracing several songs from the album, including Seal's version of the Steve Miller hit "Fly Like an Eagle," the new R. Kelly track "I Believe I Can Fly" and "Hit 'Em High," featuring Coolio, LL Cool J, B-Real, Busta Rhymes and Method Man.

The question mark here is "Evita," which puts Madonna in unfamiliar territory, playing Eva Peron in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical. But the nature of the project itself is expected to transcend any doubts. The first single, "You Must Love Me," entered the chart last week at a strong No. 24.

" 'Evita' as well as 'Space Jam' will be enough of event releases to generate excitement no matter what they sound like," says Bob Bell, new-release buyer for the Wherehouse chain.

And then there's the Artist, a wild card entry with the three-disc "Emancipation," the first release after his exit from Warner Bros. Records.

"This is the record to watch out for," says Gary Arnold, vice president of marketing for the Best Buy discount retail chain. "It's all new material, a style of music that's passionate and emotional and just what people want from him."

"Emancipation" is due in stores Nov. 19, with the first single, a version of the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow," out Tuesday.

But where are the young rock acts and the hot phenoms? This year has yet to produce a breakthrough along the lines of the two dominant albums of recent years--Hootie & the Blowfish's 1994 "Cracked Rear View" and Alanis Morissette's 1995 release "Jagged Little Pill." The latter is still selling 70,000 copies a week and has passed the 10-million mark.

One that could pick up some of that slack, as well as the alternative-rock void left by Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and Nirvana, is the second album from Bush, "Razorblade Suitcase." The Wherehouse's Bell also points to a series of smaller-level new-act breakthroughs that have kept the rock market active and that cumulatively provide the kind of exciting numbers the industry is missing from any single new act.

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