Norah Jones opened the door to 'young fogies'

Critical Eye

October 23, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

SHE STARTED SOMETHING. FOR BETTER or worse, Norah Jones' out-of-the-blue, multi-platinum success nearly three years ago sparked a small "movement" that has been gaining strength. Her amiable, coffeehouse blend of country, folk-pop and jazz -- sounds steeped in yesterday -- was a cool relief from the overheated, hip-hop-slathered pop that dominated the mainstream.

The mammoth sales of Jones' bare-bones 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, and its equally sparse follow-up, 2004's Feels Like Home, proved that adults still bought CDs and that understated, subtle music could still make money.

So Jones opened the gates for more artists like her: 20-something singer-songwriters who also happen to be camera-friendly. These performers include Nellie McKay, Amos Lee, Lizz Wright and Jamie Cullum.

All have released critically acclaimed albums within the last year -- sets warmed by organic, spacious, sometimes jazz-kissed arrangements and well-meaning lyrical interpretation. McKay and Cullum are the more exuberant of the bunch, imbuing their self-penned songs with biting wit.

Catching Tales, Cullum's experimental second release on Verve Forecast (whose roster includes Wright), appeared in stores last week. And Columbia Records is scheduled to release McKay's sophomore album, Pretty Little Head, in December. Both are charming extensions of what critic Will Layman calls the "young fogy movement": Young singers who seem to base their styles on the past as they appeal to young and older fans.

But if you're an MTV and Clear Channel radio junkie, you probably won't hear music by these artists. Record companies have found alternative ways to market these "young fogies."

"It's not about hit singles or radio," says Ron Goldstein, president and CEO of the Verve Music Group in New York. "This is about artist development. We actually held Lizz and Jamie's records back while the artists did some touring, so the records wouldn't hit the streets cold.

"With the touring and press, they had a built-in audience [by] the time the record hit the streets." In addition to touring and slowly generating a buzz with club dates, Verve worked with lifestyle marketing companies that place such soothing, mature music in certain restaurants, boutiques and retailers like Starbucks. The idea is to hit spots likely patronized by discerning music lovers who don't listen to much contemporary radio.

George Howard, a professor in the college of business at Loyola University in New Orleans and former president of the independent Rykodisc label, specializes in music industry studies. He calls the marketing of such young, jazz and folk-tinged artists the "cocktail party theory," which is basically another way of saying word of mouth.

He says casual music fans, people who buy 5 to 10 albums a year, hear about artists like Jones, Lee, McKay and Cullum on an NPR show or read about them in a newspaper. These people frequent cocktail parties and "at this party are 4 or 5 couples who each buy 1 or 2 records a year. The music being played is of the ilk of Norah Jones," he says. "The music becomes something of a topic of conversation, and at least one of the guests goes out and buys the CD. This phenomenon repeats over and over and record sales explode."

Largely through a few key TV appearances and word of mouth, or the "cocktail party theory," Jones' record sales snowballed. Come Away With Me eventually sold 18 million copies worldwide. Though embraced by critics for his or her nuanced approach, not one of Jones' "followers" has sold anywhere near that many records. Amos Lee, for instance, was promoted as the "male Norah Jones" when his dusky self-titled debut appeared last spring. He and the Texas-raised beauty are on the same jazz label, Blue Note, and Jones and her band even played on Lee's album. But that didn't translate into big sales.

"It's tough to predict what will sell and what won't," says Verve's Goldstein, a Baltimore native. "You have to depend on a lot of word of mouth. It's persistence and sticking with it. That's all there is to it."

Yes, money has to be made. But Goldstein says he wants to also allow room for his artists to grow and experiment, even if that means losing a little momentum. With its gospel-inflected, jazz-soul feel, Lizz Wright's 2003 debut, Salt, garnered glowing reviews. Cuts from the album received regular airplay on smooth jazz and adult urban radio stations. But her latest effort Dreaming Wide Awake, released in June, is a much starker, folkish album with virtually no adult black radio appeal.

"We knew we were in danger of losing her urban audience with her new record," Goldstein says. "It's dark; it's moody. But she's young, and she's trying to find her own voice. We wanted her to make the record she felt she had to make."

It's very unlikely that artists like Wright or Cullum, whose sophomore releases feature drastic style risks, would have the opportunity to explore their muses at major labels focused squarely on hits.

"We're obviously not a real big pop label," says Goldstein, whose roster also includes the gold and platinum-selling Diana Krall. "Our goal is to sell 100,000 to 150,000 albums on an artist. I'm looking to be a medium-sized label, not a small one, somewhere in the middle."

Although this "young fogy" movement offers little originality and punch, it is an encouraging sign that jazz phrasing and thoughtful interpretation isn't completely absent in pop.

"Jamie, Lizz, Amos Lee and others are a breed of artists in the truest sense," says Jozef Nuyens, a three-time Grammy-nominated producer and co-founder of PassAlong Networks, a digital music technology company in Tennessee. "They don't need to be marketed as product but marketed as artists."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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