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And the Winners Are ... Performers on the Show

February 08, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to tonight's Grammy Awards, the savviest musicians know winning isn't everything. Playing on TV is.

Every year, music executives line up to threaten, beg and cajole the producers of the Grammy telecast, all in the hopes of winning their artists a few minutes of on-air performance time.

The reason: More than taking home a trophy, jamming on national television can send your career into the stratosphere.

"Getting a performance on the Grammys is absolutely more important than winning an award," said Gary Borman, who manages the careers of country singers Faith Hill and Keith Urban -- two of more than 50 artists who will play live on tonight's 3 1/2 -hour show on CBS. "When people tune in to the show, it's for the music. If an artist wins, it only takes about 10 seconds to accept the award. But if they perform, the impact can last an entire career."

After the sultry-voiced newcomer Joss Stone performed on last year's award show with Melissa Etheridge, she lost in all three categories in which she was nominated: best new artist, best pop vocal album and best female pop vocal. Nevertheless, sales of Stone's albums increased 94% the next week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

No wonder music executives go to the mat to secure a spot on the lineup. In 1998, for example, then-Sony Music head Tommy Mottola threatened to withhold future appearances by Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child if a relatively unknown Latin singer named Ricky Martin was not given airtime.

"I used every form of manipulation and pressure you can imagine to make it happen," said Mottola, who said he even called CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves to make his case. Martin sang "La Copa de la Vida" at the 1999 Grammys, where he also won the best Latin performance award. By the end of the year, the singer had sold 9 million records, an eightfold increase over his previous sales.

Ken Ehrlich, the Grammy telecast's producer for more than two decades, says he is not swayed by the gift baskets, handwritten appeals, whining or threats. There's only one reason an act is asked to perform, he said: "We think it will entertain hundreds of millions of viewers."

But that spurs the labels to pitch him harder and make the strongest case that their artist, like no other, can deliver what Ehrlich calls once-in-a-lifetime Grammy moments. One textbook moment came in 2001, when rapper Eminem, who had been criticized for homophobic lyrics, performed with outspoken gay singer Elton John and then hugged him onstage.

With that and similar benchmarks in mind, executives at Capitol Records secured the New York Philharmonic to accompany the band Coldplay in advance of the 2003 Grammys, hoping the pairing would tempt Ehrlich. It did. Coldplay appeared on the show, and the performance "fundamentally changed how people saw the band," Capitol President Andy Slater said.

The Grammys' unique power to make careers, music insiders say, stems from the broad audience that tunes in each year. Since the mid-1990s, the Grammys have been the dominant music awards show, drawing as many as 1 billion viewers from more than 180 nations.

Ehrlich and his team say they built that following by highlighting the show's performances.

"When the show first started airing, it was considered pretty middle of the road," Ehrlich said. So he and his co-producers played with the formula, cutting down on the number of awards presented on-air and increasing the number of artists onstage.

This year, TV viewers will see awards handed out in only 11 of 108 categories, with the remainder distributed off camera. That will make time for performances by, among others, Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Coldplay, Jay-Z, Linkin Park, Herbie Hancock, Jamie Foxx and gospel singer Hezekiah Walker.

Many of those artists will perform for only a few minutes or will share the stage with other musicians, a rare concession for big stars.

"Sometimes managers argue that their artists deserve the stage to themselves," Ehrlich said. "But because we control access to the largest musical audience in history, managers usually end up seeing things my way."

Jason Flom, president of Virgin Records, was happy to see things Ehrlich's way this year. One of Virgin's Grammy nominees, the Gorillaz, was already booked on the show when Madonna's publicist contacted Ehrlich to discuss an on-air role for the Material Girl. Ehrlich proposed pairing the Gorillaz, a "virtual band" that performs via animated projections, with Madonna for the opening number.

"This will introduce the band to a whole new type of fan," Flom said. "I couldn't say yes fast enough."

Almost everyone agrees that executives are saying yes to Ehrlich faster than they used to. As record sales decline, the desire to boost careers with a Grammy performance has become more desperate, executives say. Now, the labels need Ehrlich more than he needs them.

"At the end of the day, we hold most of the cards," Ehrlich said.

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