Music show's big award: Getting to perform on TV

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When it comes to tonight's Grammy Awards, the savviest musicians know winning isn't everything. Playing on TV is.

Every year, music executives line up to threaten, beg and cajole the producers of CBS' 3½-hour Grammys telecast, all in the hopes of winning their artists a few minutes of on-air performance time.

The reason: More than taking home a trophy, jamming on national television can send your career into the stratosphere.

"Getting a performance on the Grammys is absolutely more important than winning an award," said Gary Borman, who manages the careers of country singers Faith Hill and Keith Urban — two of more than 50 artists who will play live on tonight's show. "When people tune into the show, it's for the music. If an artist wins, it only takes about 10 seconds to accept the award. But if they perform, the impact can last an entire career."

After the sultry-voiced newcomer Joss Stone performed on last year's award show with Melissa Etheridge, she lost in all three categories in which she was nominated: best new artist, best pop vocal album and best female pop vocal. Nevertheless, sales of Stone's albums increased 94% the next week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

No wonder music executives go to the mat to secure a coveted spot on the lineup. In 1998, for example, then-Sony Music head Tommy Mottola threatened to withhold future appearances by Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child if an unknown Latin singer named Ricky Martin was not given airtime.

"I used every form of manipulation and pressure you can imagine to make it happen," said Mottola, who said he even called CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves to make his case. Martin sang "La Copa de la Vida" at the 1999 Grammys, where he also won the best Latin performance award. By the end of the year, the singer had sold 9 million records, an eightfold increase over his previous sales.

Ken Ehrlich, the Grammy telecast's producer for more than two decades, says he is not swayed by the gift baskets, handwritten appeals, whining or threats. There's only one reason an act is asked to perform, he said: "We think it will entertain hundreds of millions of viewers."

But that spurs the labels to pitch him only harder and make the strongest case that their artist, like no other, can deliver what Ehrlich calls once-in-a-lifetime Grammy moments. One textbook moment came in 2001, when rapper Eminem, who had been criticized for homophobic lyrics, performed with outspoken gay singer Elton John and then hugged him onstage.

With that and similar benchmarks in mind, executives at Capitol Records secured the New York Philharmonic to accompany the band Coldplay in advance of the 2003 Grammys, hoping the pairing would tempt Ehrlich. It did. Coldplay appeared on the show, and the performance "fundamentally changed how people saw the band," Capitol President Andy Slater said.

The Grammys' unique power to make careers, music insiders say, stems from the broad audience that tunes in each year. Since the mid-1990s, the Grammys have been the dominant music awards show, drawing as many as 1 billion viewers from more than 180 nations.

Ehrlich and his team say they built that following by highlighting the show's performances.

"When the show first started airing, it was considered pretty middle of the road," Ehrlich said. So he and his co-producers played with the formula, cutting down on the number of awards presented on-air and increasing the number of artists onstage.

This year, TV viewers will see awards handed out in only 11 of 108 categories, with the remainder distributed off-camera. That will make time for performances by, among others, Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Coldplay, Jay-Z, Linkin Park, Herbie Hancock, Jamie Foxx and gospel singer Hezekiah Walker.

Many of those artists will perform for only a few minutes, or will share the stage with other musicians, a rare concession for big stars.

"Sometimes managers argue that their artists deserve the stage to themselves," Ehrlich said. "But because we control access to the largest musical audience in history, managers usually end up seeing things my way."

Jason Flom, president of Virgin Records, was happy to see things Ehrlich's way this year. One of Virgin's Grammy nominees, the Gorillaz, was already booked on the show when Madonna's publicist contacted Ehrlich to discuss an on-air role for the Material Girl. Ehrlich proposed pairing the Gorillaz, a "virtual band" that performs via animated projections, with Madonna for the opening number.

"This will introduce the band to a whole new type of fan," Flom said. "I couldn't say yes fast enough."

Almost everyone agrees that executives are saying yes to Ehrlich faster than they used to. As record sales decline, the desire to boost careers with a Grammy performance has become more desperate, executives say. Now, the labels need Ehrlich more than he needs them.

"At the end of the day, we hold most of the cards," Ehrlich said.

But music executives say when you've got a top-flight act, lobbying still can work.

One label head, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that when he learned that his top-selling, Grammy-nominated singer was slated to perform for only two minutes on this year's show, he called Ehrlich.

"We explained that the singer had sold millions of albums, and they came back with 2½ minutes," said the label executive, who declined to be named for fear of alienating Ehrlich. "We argued that other artists with fewer accomplishments were getting more airtime. That got us another 30 seconds. We fought tooth and nail, kept pushing again and again, and eventually we got a whole song."

Ehrlich confirms that once an artist is on the show, such back-and-forth is common. But no amount of sweet talk gets him to book an artist. One of the most successful executives in the music industry says he called Ehrlich a few weeks ago to lobby on behalf of a young rock band.

"My argument was, rock is an important category in the Grammys," said this executive, who also requested anonymity. "I told them they needed to feature one of the year's breakthrough acts."

Ehrlich replied that the show was going to focus on icons such as McCartney and U2's Bono.

"How do you respond to Bono?" the executive said. "I pretty much knew the conversation was over."

Bagging a Grammy performance can require more than persistence. It often costs a label money. Record executives say they are often asked to shoulder some of the production costs associated with their artists' performances.

One label executive said his company would pay about $1 million this year for the special effects, stage crews and additional musicians its bands required.

Although the labels subsidize part of the show's cost, they don't get a share of the millions of dollars in licensing revenue that CBS pays the Recording Academy each year for the rights to broadcast the Grammys.

"It's a real kick in the gut to get a bill for a show when someone else keeps the profits," said one record executive, who said label heads sometimes talked among themselves about refusing to pay. "But no one wants to be left out in the cold. Those performances are too important."

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said that labels were asked to pay only when performances required special resources, such as full orchestras or expensive pyrotechnics.

"The benefits to an artist of a Grammy appearance are priceless," Portnow said.

"Nothing a label pays for the show approaches the value they receive."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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