Tuesday, August 06, 2002

The New York Times Magazine had an interesting story last Sunday about the way the music industry is coping with the decline in sales from highly touted teen sensations like Britney Spears. They're looking for the next big thing, and they think they've found her in Amanda Latona. She meets all their basic needs:

Latona wasn't signed because she was an original artist. Like Britney, she was an attractive package: poised and pretty, Latona could be poured into various molds and carefully shaped to fit the marketplace. ''If her material is right,'' says Clive Davis, the C.E.O. of J Records, ''Amanda could do anything.''

And that gives the people who actually decide what will be on Latona's record (or the record that she sings on, or something) the flexibility to make their own choices:

''In the record business, today is over,'' says James Diener, Latona's artists-and-repertoire director at J. ''We have to figure out what they want to hear tomorrow.'' Diener, who is sitting on a worn couch in the studio, is the arbiter of all things Amanda. Latona is not a songwriter and doesn't play any instruments, which means that Diener's job is to create a persona for her through the vision of others who do write songs and play instruments. ... ''Some artists are resistant to ideas,'' Diener adds, checking the number of the incoming call. ''Amanda is not resistant.''

Not that that makes the job easy:

Taking his cues from [Clive] Davis, Diener is searching for ''the right spot for Amanda.'' It won't be easy; with Britney losing appeal, Diener has to predict what sound will be popular seven months from now -- and these days, that seems harder than ever. In Latona, he has a singer who wants to be a star. The question is, which star?

''I'm thinking there might be room now for a cool, young, beautiful girl in the spirit of Shania Twain,'' Diener says, as Latona leaves the studio to get some water. ''Or even more rock, like Pat Benatar from the 80's. Will it help that Amanda's stunning? Absolutely. So will the right marketing campaign. ...

But it's just so much easier when the product artist that you're trying to promote has no ideas of her own:

After Latona was signed to J, [his record label,] Clive Davis set up a showcase for a group of top songwriters to hear her sing. This event took place the day after the Grammys, in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. These songwriters were not just searching for inspiration; they were trying to define Latona as an artist. If they wrote crossover country, she'd be the new Shania. If they wrote teen pop, Latona would mutate in that direction.

In Latona's case, what they've settled on is a slightly butch, tough-chick "fed-up independant woman" attitude --- largely because Latona can be easily made up to look the part. In fact, she's a peppy beauty-pageant winner (Miss Junior Florida) who doesn't even drink, but she's hip to the program. "I want this album to be right," she says, "and if that means six different looks that look nothing like me, I'll still give it a shot." And she's a good enough mimic that given a dozen songs to ape, she quickly learns to sound tough as nails:

''One-take Amanda,'' Diener says with admiration. ''The lyric to the song is so Amanda, don't you think? It's very uncompromising.'' He pauses. ''Some artists walk in and they won't budge. Amanda is open to direction.''

Uncompromising and open to direction. What could go wrong?

The nightmare scenario for this sort of music marketing is that what is actually turning people off isn't the dressing du jour on the industry's plastic puppets, but just that they are in fact plastic puppets, poured into a commercial mold formed entirely by record executives who are completely out of touch with their audience.

On a few occasions, in the history of the industry, some producers have taken a different approach. In the early 1960s, for instance, the producer in charge of a novelty label for EMI was introduced to a bar band from Liverpool, and took the radical step of not trying to remake them into something more commercial. Most of the songs they released as singles were songs they themselves wrote (a rarity at the time); their first album, in fact, was basically their standard stage set, recorded live in the studio, featuring several original songs, including the title track, and culminating in a wild, shreiking cover of an Isley Brothers tune, "Twist and Shout". It was a smash, and the Beatles went on to make quite a bit of money for EMI.

That couldn't work nowadays of course. The world has moved on, and if they can't sell records nowadays from the talent that the marketers are trying to push, it's got to be the fault of those evil file swappers on the Innernut.


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