Brickman speaks up for pop

April 11, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

From the first, Jim Brickman knew his music was going to be a tough sell.

It wasn't that what he played was dissonant or demanding; quite the contrary. As he makes plain on his current release, "By Heart," his songs are tuneful and direct, with all the melodic charm and rhythmic uplift expected of a pop hit.

Trouble is, Brickman doesn't sing; he plays piano. Not jazz piano or new age piano, but pop piano. "I'm not as much of a pianist as I am a songwriter who uses the piano to express myself and my ideas," he explains, over the phone from a tour stop in Reno, Nev. "I think the approach that I'm taking is more of an emotional approach, and my interest is in connecting with people."

While that approach has left listeners swooning over the likes of "Angel Eyes" or "If You Believe," it didn't help with radio. Because as any programmer will tell you, pop instrumentals are considered a thing of the past.

Why? According to Brickman, instrumentals were tossed out when radio made the shift from old-fashioned "easy listening" fare to more vocal-oriented "adult contemporary" programming.

"When adult contemporary radio started to kick in, there was a big fear of being labeled an 'easy listening' or 'beautiful music' station," he says. "So they shied away from instrumentals quite a bit, because they didn't want to be perceived as 'the old people music station' or something."

Consequently, he says, there was an "unspoken but really well-known" rule against instrumental music. "If you played an instrumental, you were thought of as a 'beautiful music' station," says. "I still come up against that quite a bit."

But Brickman's listeners weren't a "beautiful music" audience. "I would look out into the audience to see who I was playing for, and I realized that this is a pop audience," he says. "These are not jazz aficionados, these are not classical music buffs; these are people who go to Whitney Houston concerts, to Elton John and Billy Joel. They're my fans, and they're the same demographic that's listening to Lite 102. So why shouldn't my music be on Lite 102?"

That's why Brickman decided to take "the Loretta Lynn approach" and began to visit radio stations around the country, asking them to play his music once.

"I knew it was an uphill battle and that my main competition was Madonna, Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey," he says. Fortunately, he'd spent years as a jingle writer, and the fact that he was the man behind such melodies as "Just for the fun of it, Diet Coke" was enough to convince some of these stations to give him a shot.

"What started to happen was, every time they would play my song, the phones would light up," he says. "And in that radio format, nobody ever responds. It's a very passive audience. They don't call the radio station."

No wonder, then, that "By Heart" has sold more than a quarter-million copies in the last year. Brickman, after all, still knows how to sell a song. "Certain songs, like 'Angel Eyes' or 'If You Believe,' have the same qualities as some of my commercial jingles. They're something people can hum and remember," he says.

"It's just that they're a lot more personal and a lot more heart-and-soul than selling kitty litter or toilet bowl cleaner."

Jim Brickman

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Mechanic Theatre

Tickets: $19.50 and $24.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Jim Brickman's new release, "By Heart," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6111. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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