Contestants top charts: Fox's 'Idol' makes mark on music marketing

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Four of the top 20 best-selling music CDs on Amazon last week were from artists that were unknown to the U.S. audience just a year ago. But Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson are burning up the charts thanks to the support of their "American Idol" fans.

As a contestant on Fox's hit "American Idol," Kelly Clarkson spent ten weeks last summer in front of 25 million viewers. Her debut album, "Thankful," was released April 15 and in less than a month had gone platinum. Last week, "Thankful" was No. 19 on Amazon's list. At No. 9 was "American Idol Season 2: Classic Love Songs." As for this season's top two, Ruben and Clay, their renditions of "Flying Without Wings" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" won't even be available until tomorrow, but last week each had pre-sale orders on Amazon that launched Clay to No. 1 and Ruben to No. 4. Both were ahead of Norah Jones, who won this year's best new artist Grammy.

"It's a killer launching pad," said Tom Curson, exec VP-worldwide marketing for J Records, the RCA Music Group label that is working with Mr. Studdard.

Key to the "American Idol" experience is the voting, and how that points to the contestants' appeal. More than 24 million votes were cast for Mr. Studdard and Mr. Aiken for this year's finale, in one of Fox's highest-rated shows. That's the built-in fan base RCA has to work with when it releases CDs from "American Idol" artists.

good for the business

"It's healthy for the business," said Tom Calderone, exec VP-content and talent for Viacom's MTV Networks. "This gives you the platform to sell more records. You see the sales increase. Anything that gets people into [music] stores-you go for it."

RCA Music Group has the rights to the high-profile "American Idol" talent. But Clive Davis, RCA Music Group chairman and legendary music developer, said he plans to treat them as any other RCA talent. He has already supervised the release of Ms. Clarkson's "Thankful" and is working on upcoming albums from first season runner-ups Justin Guarini and Tamyra Gray, and for the second season's Mr. Studdard and Mr. Aiken.

"My approach is to put blinders on when I make records with artists like Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini, and Tamyra Gray," said Mr. Davis recently in published reports. "I see their roots on `American Idol' as a fringe benefit, but I don't want to trade on it. They've got to compete as new recording artists."

typical numbers

According to Bryan Ferrish, president of Bryan Ferrish Radio Promotion, Sherman Oaks, Calif., a new promising artist that secures a starting contract worth $1 million will see the majority of that go for radio promotions and airplay. The remainder is split between public relations, appearances and retail promotions. PR, the goal of which is to score consumer magazine covers, cameos in films and appearances on TV talk shows, costs approximately $10,000 a month.

For the American Idols, "It's a little bit more. It's a better bet, so you spend a little more," Mr. Curson said. But the Idols have a PR head start, having already shown up in titles like Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly and People and Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing teen book YM. Few major music release budgets can spend $300,000 for a 30-second network spot on a show with ratings like "Idol." And the exposure has made it easier for Mr. Guarini and Ms. Clarkson to get on late night talk shows especially as Fox Filmed Entertainment's summer movie, "From Justin to Kelly," is set to open this week.

Another difference for "American Idol" singers versus other talent is that they are being marketed both as "breakout" artists and, to some extent, established artists.

atypical targets

Music retail store displays for the "American Idol" brand feature both Mr. Studdard and Mr. Aiken. "They haven't proven themselves as [individual] record sellers," Mr. Curson said. "We are taking the time to make the right records. But they do have a built-in audience." That audience is primarily made up of pre-teens and their parents, two demographic groups that are atypical music-company targets. And the industry could use a boost-according to Nielsen Soundscan, total album sales were off 10.7% in 2002.

But some music executives warn that quick rises can also lead to quick declines-the curse of the one-hit wonder. Traditional music marketing efforts by RCA hopes to avoid those short-term blues.

As good as the revenue numbers are from the sale of a platinum album, some music executives don't believe the "Idol" approach is in the industry's best interest.

"For the long-term health of the music business, it's terrible," said one veteran music-marketing executive. "What this does is promote one-hit pop songs. It's not good for developing talent. It's pre-packaged. In this environment, Dave Matthews would never get a record deal."

contributing: katie johnson

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