Winners and Losers, Hits and Errors
Here’s Pop Eye’s annual Record Company Scorecard, which gauges the winners and losers among the industry’s major record companies. In show-biz, perception is reality. The following evaluations are based on interviews with several dozen key industry executives who graded labels based on industry image as well as actual sales performance. For space reasons, we’ve only given individual listings to the labels with the most distinct identities--and listed the industry’s newly formed companies separately.
A&M;: In a year of tumult and disorder, this was one of the industry’s few unqualified successes. After being written off for dead last year, A&M; sprang back to life, despite losing its top-selling act, Janet Jackson, to Virgin early this year. The rebound was propelled by double-platinum albums from Sting and Amy Grant, a huge seller from newcomer Extreme and a comeback from Bryan Adams. By year’s end, parent company PolyGram, desperate for leadership, rewarded label chief Al Cafaro with an added exec post. Cafaro insists he’s only serving as an adviser, but the move increased speculation that he’s being groomed to run Mercury Records if its slide continues.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Soundgarden.
Atlantic (EastWest/Atco): After years of strong performances, Atlantic hit the skids this year. Even a No. 1 album from rockers Skid Row didn’t help much, especially since it sold less than any of 1991’s other No. 1 rock discs. AC/DC sold another million albums this year, and Genesis is off to a solid start. But otherwise the pickings are slim. Outside of soundtrack action, Atlantic had only one other gold album, a forgettable effort from Rush. Worse still, Atlantic was forced to merge its venerable Atco label into its new EastWest label barely a year after EastWest was launched. Insiders say Atlantic tried to grow too fast, too soon--and paid for it. Its superb catalogue continues to make money, and will be helped by a new joint venture deal with catalogue-savvy Rhino Records. Also expect to see the label install manager Danny Goldberg as a key West Coast exec to bring some new blood into the company’s top ranks.
* It’s a sign of the label’s current turmoil and uncertainty that its execs couldn’t even suggest one artist to watch in 1992.
BMG (Arista, RCA, Jive Records): The industry joke goes, “The best way to stop the spread of an infectious disease is to have it distributed by BMG.” As one industry vet put it: “It’s a nightmare. The nicest thing you could say is that they’re floundering.” It was a lackluster year for Arista, though it did a good job of working its huge Whitney Houston album, had a big country hit from Alan Jackson and a solid debut from Brit hip-hoppers the KLF. At RCA, things were worse. It has country star Clint Black, but the label scored zero--that’s zero-- pop hits. RCA also lost Jive at mid-year, which took with it two rap mainstays, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Short Dogg. Some insiders say RCA chief Joe Galante is in over his head. Others say he deserves another year to prove himself.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Stacy Earl.
Capitol: Who would have guessed that at the height of the holiday buying season, Garth Brooks would not only have two albums in the Top 15, but have one album that even after 13 weeks is outselling both Guns N’ Roses albums put together? He’s a phenomenon who’ll change the way labels view the sales potential of C&W; artists forever. Capitol’s Hammer album might have looked almost as impressive if the label hadn’t gone way overboard in its pre-release hype, boasting that the album would “lock up the No. 1 album chart slot into next year.” (Uh, guys--he still hasn’t gone No. 1.) The label also had a strong follow-up with its Bonnie Raitt album and is somehow keeping its Bob Seger album alive. So far its new Richard Marx album hasn’t caught fire, its Young MC disc was a dud and its Crowded House album was a huge disappointment. The big question: Can Capitol chief Hale Milgrim use his marketing savvy to make one of the label’s young rock acts an impact artist in ’92?
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Blind Melon.
Elektra: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so label chief Bob Krasnow should consider it a compliment that so many new label presidents look to Elektra as a role-model record company. And why not? Elektra had another excellent year, transforming Metallica into rock superstars, devising a brilliant marketing vehicle for the long-lost Natalie Cole and selling tons of Motley Crue greatest-hits albums. When Krasnow signed both Cole and Sergio Mendes, people were saying he was crazy. Crazy, yes--like a fox.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Ephraim Lewis.
EMI (SBK, EMI, Chrysalis): They laughed when we predicted last year that EMI would merge with SBK--but that’s what happened. The big winner in all this is SBK’s big-spending boss Charles Koppelman, who lost money but put his new label on the map. He’ll run the whole show now, with crack promotion wiz Daniel Glass as his right-hand man and music lawyer Fred Davis (yes, Clive’s son) overseeing the labels’ A&R; departments. Thanks to massive layoffs, the merger will make EMI lean ‘n’ mean, but it’s too early to say whether it’ll be a hit-making machine. SBK gets credit for launching rock faves Jesus Jones while EMI had a huge hit with Queensryche and a big break with EMF. Chrysalis was quiet this year, but has Slaughter and possibly Sinead O’Connor coming next year.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Blur.
Geffen (DGC): The label’s A&R; stars keep shining. First John Kalodner scored with Aerosmith, then Tom Zutaut with Guns N’ Roses and now Gary Gersh with Nirvana, the surprise rock hit of the year. Couple Nirvana’s success with a strong showing from the label’s one-two Guns N’ Roses punch and you have a good year. It certainly makes up for a string of duds, led by Robbie Robertson, Edie Brickell and Rickie Lee Jones (and a disappointing Tesla album). The label’s prestige took a beating over ex-DGC chief Marko Babineau’s role in the industry’s sexual-harassment scandal, but it’s positioned to remain a rock powerhouse for years to come.
* Artist to Watch in ’92: Teenage Fan Club.
MCA: Even without a Bobby Brown album, the label’s black music division was hot. Guy and Ralph Tresvant went platinum with Heavy D and Jodeci not far behind. Thanks to Tony Brown, its Nashville wing scored too, delivering four platinum albums. MCA also flexed its distribution system’s muscles, silencing critics (like Pop Eye) who prematurely dismissed UNI as a lightweight operation. What MCA lacks, industry execs say, is leadership. The label has been limping along with weak promotion and A&R; departments (its one pop surprise, “The Commitments” soundtrack, came from MCA Group chief Al Teller himself). MCA badly needs to trim the fat from its bloated artist roster, which is loaded with CBS Records rejects like the Outfield, Colin Hay, Adam Ant and Patti Smyth. It did go gold with two hard-rock hair bands, Trixster and Steel Heart, but there’s no guarantee that either is a career artist. For now, the label’s best hope for growth is from its new overseas companies in Japan and Germany.
* Artist to Watch in ’92: Lyle Lovett.
Motown: Despite an ugly legal battle with MCA, which found Motown switching its distribution ties to PolyGram, Motown didn’t miss a beat. It had huge records from Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation, plus another strong showing from Johnny Gill. No wonder one insider dubbed Motown chief Jheryl Busby the black Bob Krasnow. He has savvy commercial instincts, carefully picking hits that are hard enough to reach the New Jack street hipsters, but smooth enough to attract a mainstream audience.
* Artist to Watch in ’92: Shanice.
Polygram (PLG, Mercury, Polydor, Island, Delicious Vinyl): Industry vets describe this as a company plagued by a dearth of leadership. Turmoil reigned at Mercury, which started the year with a dual presidency, then abruptly fired co-chief Mike Bone, installing Ed Eckstine as president, and then just as suddenly named A&M;'s Al Cafaro to a new exec post that makes him look like he’s waiting in the wings if Eckstine fails. Mercury did have a big hit with Scorpions and kept selling Cinderella albums, but had slow going with its John Mellencamp album--and completely lost its Richie Sambora solo outing. Over at PLG, Island bounced back with its U2 album and a suprise hit from P.M. Dawn, while Polydor finally went gold with its Cathy Dennis album (after four Top 10 singles). Mercury is looking forward to ’92 releases from Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, but PLG needs to develop a new generation of artists to prove it can be a formidable player.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: James.
Sony (Columbia, Epic): The Power Station. Led by hitmeister Donny Ienner, Columbia muscled mega-platinum hits out of popsters Mariah Carey, C+C Music Factory and Michael Bolton, while also scoring big with rappers Public Enemy and jazz sex symbol Harry Connick Jr. The only knock against Columbia is that it lives and dies with its pop hits. Outside of raucous rock contenders Alice in Chains, it doesn’t have a credible rock band (at least until Aerosmith arrives later in the decade). As for Epic Records, it had strong showings from Luther Vandross, Firehouse and even Ozzy Osbourne, who just went platinum--and is still going strong. And of course, it had Michael Jackson, who re-upped with a “Star Trek"-size contract. Is he worth it? The rule of thumb: Never sign a pop star on the downside of his biggest album, especially not a star who inspires so little passion from his fans. As long as The Gloved One gets massive radio play, he’ll sell records, but so far “Dangerous” looks like a solid hit, not a smash.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Pearl Jam.
Virgin: It was a lean year for the team of Jordan Harris and Jeff Ayeroff. Once known as pop visionaries, they’ve now been dubbed “hip Charlie Koppelmans.” In industry parlance, that means they’ve been spending a lot of money aiming for pop hits--with mixed results. They deserve full credit for maximizing Paula Abdul’s sales--despite a near-disastrous appearance at the MTV Awards--and for the shrewd signing of Janet Jackson, who could outsell her brother the next time around. (The label’s $45-million deal with the Rolling Stones is a riskier proposition.) The label also went to the wall for Lenny Kravitz--and the Divinyls, who went gold, but couldn’t follow up their irresistible “I Touch Myself” hit. However potential hit-makers like Stevie Winwood and Soul II Soul were big disappointments. EMI almost bought the label earlier this year. Don’t be surprised if someone makes a bid again next year.
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Sam Phillips.
Warner Bros. (Reprise, Sire, Def-American): The showhorse of the music-biz stable. Year in, year out, the Big Bunny makes money, breaks new artists and does business with a touch of class. The label had a few defeats: Its Karen White single went No. 1 and her album still hasn’t gone gold. It broke Jane’s Addiction and then the band broke up. But the label had a huge success with R.E.M., did a great job with its Van Halen and Rod Stewart albums, re-energized Prince, who went platinum easily, and broke Chris Isaak. Better still, as the year went on, the Black Crowes, Paul Simon, Depeche Mode and Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection” kept on selling. Industry wags may gossip about Warner chief Mo Ostin’s feud with Warner Record Group rival Bob Morgado, but don’t expect anyone to match Ostin’s track record. As one envious label exec put it: “They make it look easy.”
* Artist to Watch in 1992: Life Sex and Death.
NEW KIDS IN TOWN: Asked which new label they would prefer to see their artist on, most managers offered the same choice: Interscope Records. With Jimmy Iovine at the helm, it has signed impact artists, from popsters like Marky Mark to rock contenders like Primus. The label stumbled with its mega-bucks “Bill & Ted” soundtrack, but it has a quality A&R; staff and the kind of artist roster that gives it the look of a major player for years to come (especially with budding stars Nine Inch Nails apparently joining the label’s 1992 roster). . . . Not far off the pace was Giant Records, run by Irving Azoff, who shrewdly used its “New Jack City” soundtrack to propel Color Me Badd into the Top 5. However, observers say Giant has signed far too many acts and wasted too much money working one-shot singles artists like Tara Kemp and Icy Blu. . . . Morgan Creek Records made money from its huge “Robin Hood” soundtrack, but still needs to prove it can sign an impact artist. . . . The same goes for Zoo Records, which hasn’t hit the radar screen yet, and Charisma Records, which had a novelty hit with Enigma, but flopped with the Knack and hasn’t shown that acts like Nia Peeples or .38 Special can actually sell albums. . . . That leaves Disney-owned Hollywood Records as the runt of the litter. After a year of Keystone Kop-style management decisions, it seemed like the height of chutzpah for label chief Peter Paterno to deride his industry rivals when he’s the one who’s signed the likes of Liza Minnelli, Roseanne Barr and the Party, a New Kids knockoff that is the label’s top seller. Insiders say Paterno’s infamous quote (“What can we lose in a year--$20 million? We’ve got $700 million. Who cares?”) will come back to haunt him, especially at Disney, a company that always cares when it loses money.