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Can 'Idol' still turn fame to hits?

November 15, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

As must-see reality TV, "American Idol" has functioned as a highly sought-after springboard for pop stardom -- in no small part because viewers whose votes decide the finalists seem to be the ones buying their albums.

Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson has sold 5.8 million copies of her two albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And 2004 Idol Fantasia Barrino parlayed her 1.6 million-selling "Free Yourself" LP into an opening spot on rap superstar Kanye West's tour.

But earlier this year as "Idol" wrapped its fourth season, voting shifted in favor of a longhaired southern rocker and a country singer, leading some industry analysts to wonder if the "Idol" formula will still work magic at record stores.

Today, Carrie Underwood releases "Some Hearts," a countrified pop album on Arista Records. And RCA will put out runner-up Bo Bice's Lynyrd Skynyrd-influenced debut, "The Real Thing," on Dec. 13.

With their marquee value and massive exposure, Bice and Underwood have an undeniable advantage over most new artists. But their television pedigree offers no guarantee of success.

Geoff Mayfield, the director of charts for Billboard magazine, believes the novelty of buying an "American Idol" CD may have worn off.

"I suspect the show is at a point of diminishing returns," he said. "It can generate great ratings and continue as a strong TV franchise. But that won't necessarily translate into great record sales when those performers' albums reach stores." Consider "Idol's" erratic hit-making history. First season runner-up Justin Guarini's album sold just 142,000 copies and his label, RCA, dropped him. Diana DeGarmo, who was second in 2004, saw her album fade from the pop chart within a month of its release. Ruben Studdard, who won "Idol's" second season, sold 1.8 million copies of his first album "Soulful," while runner-up Clay Aiken sold 2.7 million copies of his debut album, "Measure of a Man." Lon Lindeland, merchandising leader for the Best Buy chain, a major music retailer, expressed cautious optimism about the latest "Idol" releases.

"There is such a big base supporting American Idols. We've seen great responses on the winners," he said. "There is anticipation for Carrie Underwood. We've seen somewhat of a varied response with runners-up, so with Bo, it really comes down to the quality of the music."

The show's caustic judge, Simon Cowell, predicted that Underwood would sell more records than anyone who has ever been on "Idol." Judging from the Oklahoma native's first single, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," she is off to a promising start. It was the most-added song and received the most increased plays on country radio last week, according to Radio & Records magazine.

This week, Underwood's record label product manager said the album's title track is being added to adult contemporary and Top 40 radio stations' playlists.

"The plan is to steep her in both markets but to allow her to have a country base," said Scott Seviour, vice president of marketing and artist development for J/Arista Records. "It's not unlike if she was a young Faith Hill or a Shania Twain who would reside in both worlds."

Underwood wouldn't be "Idol's" first country breakout. That title belongs to Josh Gracin, who placed fourth in 2003's competition. His album went gold (sales of 500,000 copies) and he has placed two singles in the country top 10.

"The demographic ['American Idol'] is targeting hasn't been exactly country friendly," said Lon Helton, country editor of Radio & Records. "But Gracin took a stand and Carrie did the same thing. They broke the show's glass ceiling for country artists."

Los Angeles country station KZLA-FM (93.9) has been receiving a lot of requests for "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

"It was refreshing that someone so country-oriented could win the show, and I think country fans have embraced that," said the station's manager, R.J. Curtis.

Bice, who has not released a single yet, remains something of an unknown commodity. But he has been embraced by several performers from the rock community: Former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio pulled him onstage in June at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee; Carlos Santana invited him to guest on his new album, "All That I Am," and Lynyrd Skynyrd performed on the Alabaman's "Idol" finale.

According to Mayfield, positioning the singer as a straight-ahead rock 'n' roller will limit his commercial appeal.

"If I were RCA, I might anticipate flak from rock radio for trying to portray Bo as a pure rock artist," Mayfield said. "He was discovered on a show that has a mass audience. Why would you want to cut that down?"

Aaron Borns, vice president of marketing for RCA, said Bice's album is still a work in progress.

"It's a mainstream mass appeal rock-pop record with a little bit of a Southern twinge," he said. "Most 'Idol' records are pop records but they fall into their own niche of rock."

An RCA publicist said J Records founder Clive Davis personally chose every song on the long-haired Bice's "Real Deal" -- something he has done for every "Idol" contestant's debut release. But the appearance of creativity by committee hasn't endeared Bice to rock snobs who have questioned his legitimacy on Internet blogs.

Rolling Stone magazine critic David Fricke feels Bice's television pedigree doesn't preclude the possibility for greatness.

"I don't think there's necessarily a stigma attached," said Fricke, who has not heard Bice's album. "People made fun of the Monkees and now those songs are kind of hip artifacts of song construction and artistry. History will judge [Bice's] artistic legacy."

RCA's Borns feels that what American Idol finalists have in common is ultimately more important than specific genres they choose to work in.

"There's a degree of sameness in terms of what they do at the very beginning," he said. "But by the time the records come out, they're national stars."

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