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For Now, Yesterday Is Here to Stay

Record execs think Eminem and Dr. Dre are long-term players. But the honchos tell a Calendar poll they would rather bet on the Beatles than many hot acts today.

April 22, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

What does it tell us about pop music when the nation's top record executives have more faith in a band that has been defunct for 30 years than almost any act on their labels?

Things have changed-big time.

That executives would have the Beatles on their mind is understandable following the spectacular success of the group's "1" anthology last year. But the idea that the group is likely to sell more records over the next few years than most current hotshots is a radical notion-and not a comforting one to the record industry.

The Beatles were selling tons of reissues in 1985 when Calendar first polled execs to determine pop's hottest properties, but the label heads were too bullish on contemporary acts to tie their fortunes to the past.

The hot acts at the time-Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Michael Jackson-were selling so many millions that it was inconceivable that even the Beatles could match their commercial firepower during the next few years.

Industry titans were equally forward-looking in 1993 and 1995 when two more Calendar polls found U2, Pearl Jam and R.E.M. to be the most prized properties. The assumption again was those stars were going to be turning out hits for years.

No longer.

The uncertainty about today's artists isn't so much a reflection of waning artistry as it is of changing marketing conditions and buying habits.

Blaming the rapid turnover of pop stars in recent years on everything from Internet technology and media overexposure to declining fan loyalty, executives worry about artists being unable to deliver more than one or two hit albums before fans turn their attention elsewhere.

"It's a sad time," said one label head, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid offending his artists. "Nobody has real shelf-life anymore. If you get past two hit albums, three at the outside, it doesn't matter how much integrity or credibility you have built up, your sales are going to fall."

Adds a rival executive, "I guarantee you that most of today's hit-makers won't be anywhere near the Top 10 five years from now. Would I rather take a chance on the Beatles repackages than most of today's acts? You bet."

The latest Calendar survey supports this theory of diminishing returns.

Only two acts from the last Calendar Top 20 survey, in 1995, are on the latest short list of today's bankable players: U2 and Dr. Dre.

Dethroned: Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Seal, George Michael and the Cranberries.

And the news isn't good for acts hoping for a comeback-such as Jackson and Garth Brooks. Referring to Jackson and his image problems, one executive noted, "That's one of the most difficult calls in the record business. It's like predicting where the bottom of the Nasdaq will be."

The new kings of pop, according to the Calendar panel: Eminem and Dr. Dre, who finished one-two in the balloting.

They are the only ones who seem to some of the smartest minds in the industry safer bets than the Beatles, who finished third.

Who's the hottest property in the record business?

It seems like an easy question, but the complexity was apparent in interviews over the last two weeks with 22 of the most powerful executives in the record business.

For the survey, Calendar asked the executives to pretend that all recording contracts were voided and that they could have their pick of any 10 acts. They were asked to name in order the ones they think will sell the most records over the next seven years, the life of a standard contract. To encourage candor, we agreed not to reveal who voted for whom-or identify who said what about the various artists. In tallying votes, 10 points were given for each first-place mention, nine for every second and so forth.

Each panelist was given a ballot with 75 current best-sellers. The Beatles were put on the list as a sort of lighthearted afterthought, acknowledging the success of "1," which has sold more than 7 million copies since November. But the more panelists talked about the problems facing the industry-including the factors that cause such limited shelf-life of artists-the less of a joke it seemed to pick the Beatles. Ten panelists eventually named the Beatles to their Top 10 lists, enough for 67 points.

The survey winner, rapper Eminem, captured 90 points by being named on 12 of the 22 ballots. Eminem, who has sold more than 12 million albums in two years in the U.S. alone, finished first on six ballots. Dr. Dre received 73 points.

Besides the anxiety over the increasingly short shelf-life of high-profile artists, the most revealing aspect of the poll was the growing respect for rap music. Long considered as much of a passing trend as today's boy-band genre, rap landed only one artist (Dr. Dre) in Calendar's Top 20 list in 1995.

Executives placed six rap-related acts on the new list. Joining Eminem and Dr. Dre: rap-rockers Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, rap-R&B stylist Lauryn Hill (with the Fugees) and hard-core rapper DMX.


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