Want to sell CDs? Just appear on `Idol,' `Oprah,' PBS

Pop-star hopefuls use TV to capture ears of the public

Pop Music

March 14, 2004|By Neil Strauss | Neil Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES - Let's compare two recording artists who have little in common.

R&B singer Kelis has a song that's been all over the radio, "Milkshake." On the Billboard singles chart for months, it reached as high as the No. 3 spot. But meanwhile, Kelis' full-length CD, Tasty (Arista), was not doing nearly as well, slipping down the Billboard chart.

Josh Groban, on the other hand, has not had a song on the singles chart. But when his latest CD of operatic pop, Closer (Reprise/Warner Brothers), was released, it beat out OutKast and Alicia Keys for the No. 1 spot. In its first 13 weeks, his label said, he sold more than 2 million CDs.

So how did Josh Groban become so popular without exposure on the radio?

The answer is that other medium, television. "Every single time he goes on television, you can bank on the fact that the next day his album is No. 1 on Amazon," said Diarmuid Quinn, the executive vice president of Warner Bros., referring to the online store.

As the Internet changes the distribution of music, it is also changing the way fans respond to marketing. A smash hit single is no longer enough to guarantee strong CD sales. A music fan can hear almost any single on demand online free and legally, or even see the video at sites like mtv.com and launch.com.

`Idol' worship

Perhaps the greatest pop franchise of the moment is the television show American Idol. (The premiere of this year's third season drew more than 28 million viewers.) It has created artificial pop stars, then released their music on real-world record labels.

This has produced three No. 1 albums. Add to this a recent No. 1 CD by Hilary Duff, the star of Disney's Lizzie McGuire show, and it seems as if television exposure is more of a sure thing than radio these days.

Groban is just as much of a television-created celebrity. Every milestone of his career has occurred on TV.

David E. Kelly heard his music and cast him on Ally McBeal in a singing and acting role. When Groban's self-titled first CD was released, it was ushered in by another Ally McBeal appearance. After that came Larry King Live, the Today show, the NFL Thanksgiving Day game and even The View.

Six months after the CD was released, 20/20 did a profile of Groban, and his sales increased tenfold.

"From there, he did more TV," Quinn said. "He went on Oprah and boom, there was another explosion. It kept building, so we created a PBS special and the record went huge - to 2 million. So for the new record, the clear path was to put him on TV to launch the release."

Hiring a pitcher

For recent successes by older acts like Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart and the Eagles, the promotional campaigns have centered on television advertising and television appearances. For newer artists who sing pop or opera, the same has been true.

Many labels now hire so-called TV pitchers, whose job is to find ways to get their artists on television shows. Lori Feldman, who fills that role at Warner Brothers, for example, has been promoting R.E.M.'s greatest hits CD by putting the band on Boston Public and putting the premiere of its video not on MTV but on CNN.

To many in the music industry, the question is whether the new breed of television-bred pop stars will have lasting careers. But perhaps there is a more serious matter at hand.

It is fortunate, for example, that a forthcoming vote-in reality show, American Candidate, in which would-be presidential candidates will battle to be No. 1, will be on Showtime and not on a major network. If the ratings are as good as those for American Idol or Survivor, there's a chance that the candidate could actually end up in office.

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