With attention still fixated on the identity of the new judges on Fox's "American Idol," producers Tuesday sent another signal that they're taking the show in a new direction by announcing a recording distribution deal with Universal Music Group, ending a long relationship with Sony Music.
Under the agreement, UMG's Interscope Geffen A&M Records will distribute, promote and market albums from "Idol" finalists and winners starting next year when the show's 10th season launches. Sony's deal expired after the ninth season ended in May. Few details were announced, including the cost of the contract, but if UMG's deal is similar to the one Sony had, the company will have right of first refusal for the final 12 contestants on "American Idol."
In a statement to The Times, "American Idol" creator Simon Fuller explained the move by lavishing praise on UMG co-CEO Lucian Grainge and Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman Jimmy Iovine.
"With 'Idol' celebrating our 10th season I wanted to inject some new power and weight behind our brand," Fuller said. "We have been quietly delivering hits relentlessly for nine seasons and Lucian Grainge and Jimmy Iovine's ambition, commitment and determination to push the boundaries and go even further with 'Idol' was very compelling."
The move can be viewed as a coup for UMG. "Idol" is estimated by a knowledgeable industry source who was not authorized to speak publicly for the company to have generated between $400 million and $600 million in music sales.
But even though album sales from past "Idol" winners and finalists have come to dominate the pop charts in the last decade — with fourth-season winner Carrie Underwood selling 11.5 million albums and Kelly Clarkson, who won the show's first season, moving 10.6 million units, according to Billboard magazine — the announcement arrives at a transitional time for the show.
Last season, "Idol's" average weekly ratings declined to 24.9 million adults — a 20% drop-off from its 2006 peak — and judge Simon Cowell has left the program to launch his own talent hunt series, "The X Factor." Seven dates on the "American Idols Live!" concert tour were scrapped last month because of lackluster ticket sales. Also, album sales from Season 9 finalists Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox have been sluggish compared with Season 8's winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert, leading to speculation by some industry observers that "Idol's" long run as a cultural juggernaut has reached its limit.
Sony Music, meanwhile, plans to marshal its resources behind the man formerly regarded as the show's linchpin. In January, Cowell entered into a long-term partnership with the label on a company called Syco to jointly produce music, television and film assets beginning with "The X Factor" — a globally popular TV franchise that debuts on Fox in 2011 and is expected to pose a challenge to "Idol."
"After enjoying a successful relationship, Sony Music Entertainment wishes Simon Fuller and 19 Entertainment well in this transitional period for the 'American Idol' franchise," Sony said in a statement that also noted that past "Idol" contestants, including Underwood, Clarkson, Daughtry and Adam Lambert, remain on the Sony recording roster.
On Tuesday, Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment continued to inch closer to sealing a deal with Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler to be judges on "Idol" this fall. Already gone are Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres, who gave her notice last week. Kara DioGuardi is also expected to be off the show. Original judge Randy Jackson is likely to remain.
Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.