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Sony Hopes Cuts Won't Give Rivals Pop's Next Star

After dropping Alicia Keys and 50 Cent in the past, it is trying to trim its roster with extra care.

May 13, 2003|Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writer

Is Sony Corp. about to dump the next megastar?

Insiders at the Japanese conglomerate's music division sure hope not.

Senior executives have begun deciding which recording artists will be slashed from the roster as the Japanese conglomerate restructures its $5-billion-a-year music operation. And they're trying to avoid a replay of the past, when Sony dropped artists who went on to major success elsewhere.

After Sony's Columbia Records label ditched her, R&B ingenue Alicia Keys emerged on a competing label with an album that sold 5.5 million copies and drew five Grammy Awards. Hip-hop songstress Ashanti got the shove from Epic Records and then reappeared to turn in one of last year's biggest debuts for a rival, selling about 3.3 million copies. Rapper 50 Cent, unloaded by Columbia, came back with a blockbuster 4.5-million-selling album that currently ranks No. 1 on the pop chart.

It isn't unusual for major labels to shrink the artist ranks, particularly with the industry sinking under the weight of global piracy and a bloated cost structure. But with its history of giving the ax to soon-to-be-stars, Sony is under extra pressure to prune with care.

Many of the acts likely headed for the chopping block, such as hip-hop act the Duvell Boys, are little-known. Sources say the list of expected castoffs also includes higher-profile groups that aren't selling, such as the rap-rock band Crazy Town. Representatives for those acts couldn't be reached for comment.

Sony Music Entertainment executives who have been reviewing the conglomerate's roughly 230-act U.S. roster say they will decide various artists' status as their contract-option periods near. Acts are being evaluated primarily on their musical potential, though industry insiders say it's inevitable that unrecognized talent will slip through the cracks.

The company wouldn't comment on the details of the process, saying in a statement, "Like all music companies, our rosters are constantly evolving as we add and develop new artists."

The review of artists is the latest effort to reshape Sony Music under the chairmanship of former television executive Andrew Lack, who was handed the reins after the ouster of veteran Chairman Thomas D. Mottola four months ago. The review is being overseen by Don Ienner, the former Columbia chairman recently promoted to president of Sony Music's U.S. operations.

Sony decided not to pick up the option for another album from Ozzy Osbourne's daughter Kelly Osbourne after the poor performance of her debut, though the family released a statement last week saying she had planned to leave since Mottola's exit. It is unclear whether Osbourne himself will remain on the label, though the family said in the statement that he wanted to quit.

Company insiders are sensitive to the embarrassment that can result from cutting the wrong artists and privately have defended past decisions that sent tens of millions of dollars in revenue to rivals.

Sony executives note, for instance, that Keys didn't fit with the team producing her work at the company -- though the music giant recognized enough talent in the young singer to demand, as a condition of her release, a small percentage of the sales of her album, which turned out to be the chart-busting "Songs in A Minor" for Bertelsmann's J Records.

As for 50 Cent -- who was stabbed during a fight at a recording studio and shot nine times in another incident when he was with Columbia -- sources say there were questions at Sony about whether he would be able to promote his recordings.

Despite the success elsewhere of some former acts, Sony retains one of the strongest reputations in the business for building the careers of young talent. Rock icon Bruce Springsteen, pop diva Jennifer Lopez and rapper Nas all began as unproven performers on the label.

And analysts say the label has been proved correct in parting ways with some, including Mariah Carey, whose two albums since leaving the conglomerate have made poor showings.

But manager David Sonenberg, whose client Wyclef Jean last week left Columbia for J Records after Sony declined to match J Record's offer, said Sony might regret its current round of cuts.

"They're dropping a couple of acts right now that I think they're crazy to drop," Sonenberg said. "If it's an artist with something to say, you keep it. The question that has to be asked is, why have record companies been so poor at judging what's worthwhile?"

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