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Lasting? Lost it? What insiders say when the door's closed.

July 24, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Want to know what the nation's top record executives really think about their biggest stars?

I mean really think?

No holds barred?

Here's what one says about Eminem: "I feel his moment has come and gone."

Another on Britney Spears: "Trust me, she's over."

And U2 fans should brace themselves: "Time is catching up with them. I'd rather have Coldplay on my roster."

These weren't careless comments overheard in the valet line at the Ivy or spied in an intercepted e-mail. They came straight from the executives' mouths to our tape recorder.

We promised 21 of the industry's biggest movers and shakers -- including BMG's Clive Davis, Interscope Geffen A&M's Jimmy Iovine, Sony Music's Don Ienner and red-hot artist/executives Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri -- that we would let them comment anonymously in exchange for their promise of complete candor. The goal: to learn which artists they think would sell the most albums (and thus bring them the biggest bonuses) over the next five years.

No one was prohibited from voting for his or her own acts, but most seemed to bend over backward to avoid blatantly self-serving picks. Some got so caught up in the concept they called back the next day to change their votes. And most closed the conversation by saying, "No one is going to know who's saying what, right?"

The result -- the 2005 Pop Power List -- shows a vastly different pop royalty than the one we highlighted the last time we did this, in 2001. This year, Usher and Alicia Keys finished one-two in a pop world that now is dominated by R&B and hip-hop. Neither was in the Top 10 in the 2001 survey.

It's a time of rapid change, which is why executives are scrambling to find a way to stop the fiscal bleeding in a troubled industry -- and, perhaps, save their jobs in the process.

Except for a modest 1.6% increase in 2004, album sales have been down every year since 2001 -- and this year's drop is a sobering 7% so far. Industry observers blame this on all sorts of factors, including illegal downloading and competition from video games.

The conversations with the executives offer a rare snapshot of the innermost thoughts of the men and women who run a dynamic industry that is one of the cornerstones of pop culture around the world.

One message that emerges from the interviews is this: A craving for new stars drives the business.

Consider: Only three of the artists named among the 10 hottest properties in our last survey in 2001 finished even in the Top 20 this time. Among the missing: Madonna, Shania Twain, Limp Bizkit and Celine Dion.

The big loser was rock, which landed only one act in the Top 10 (Coldplay finished third).

Usher, the R&B singer with massive charisma on stage, is considered such a sure-fire property that 17 of the 21 executives placed him in their Top 10. Six declared him their first choice.

"He could be the Michael Jackson of this decade," says a label head, referring to Jackson's glory years. "His 'Confessions' album sold 9 million copies in the U.S. and that's almost 'Thriller'-type numbers in this era of downloading and declining sales."

Executives were almost as high on Keys, the New York singer-songwriter who is often compared to Stevie Wonder and Prince. Fifteen of the executives named her as one of the 10 hottest properties. Two listed her first. That's the strongest showing ever for a female artist on the Pop Power List, which has been assembled four times since 1985.

"Alicia has the talent to make any type of record she wants," said one label head. "She can do a jazz album, a pop album, a Broadway album and make it sound fresh and inspired."

Not everyone thinks Eminem's days are numbered. Nine executives thought so highly of Eminem's future that they ranked him among their top three artists. Yet 10 executives didn't put him anywhere in their Top 10, leaving him to finish fourth overall. The rest of the Top 10, in order: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, OutKast, 50 Cent, Kanye West and Dr. Dre.

These artists also appeared on more than three lists: Josh Groban, Green Day, U2, No Doubt/Gwen Stefani, Linkin Park, Maroon 5 and John Legend.

During the separate interviews, executives mentioned time and again the difficulty of making decisions during a time in pop in which fan loyalty seems as outdated as grunge guitars.

"There are no guarantees anymore," one executive said. "But as long as I have to worry, I'd rather worry with Usher and Alicia Keys on my roster."

Life in the fast lane

Think of the record industry as the racy cousin of the movie business -- a world where things move so fast that the film machinations appear downright glacial.

An unknown can walk into a record company with a catchy song and get signed in less time than it takes film executives to watch their latest release, much less agonize for months over script changes and then go on location, hoping the weather cooperates.

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