Cover Story : Few Pillars, No 'Thrillers' : Twenty-five music executives rank pop's commercial powerhouses. The Artist Formerly Known as King isn't among them.

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Remember the days of "Thriller" when record executives would hyperventilate at the thought of signing Michael Jackson to a contract?

No longer.

If you throw out any votes he may have received from representatives of his Sony Music family, Jackson didn't get enough support to finish among the first 20 artists in a Calendar poll to determine the hottest recording properties in America.

How bad was Jackson's showing?

Consider this: Jackson even finished third among artists with the same surname--far, far behind his sister Janet Jackson and country star Alan Jackson.

Some of the harsher comments of panel members were humbling for the man who proclaims himself the King of Pop.

"He's wounded as a commercial property."

"More trouble than he's worth."

"I think it is over."

"Over."

So, it's official. As of this day--Oct. 22, 1995--the term the King of Pop can be laid to rest.

*

Jackson is not the only big name whose ego will be bruised by results of the poll of 25 of the industry's sharpest executives. The ranking of today's commercial powerhouses is a stinging rebuke of the pop royalty of the '80s.

The best that pop's onetime queen (Madonna), prince (or rather, the artist formerly known as Prince) and court jesters (Guns N' Roses) could do was pick up three scattered votes--collectively.

By contrast, more than 60% of the panel members voted for the rock bands Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and U2, who finished one-two-three in the balloting. Six other acts--including Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Garth Brooks--picked up 10 or more votes each.

High-profile veterans weren't the only losers in the poll. Scores of newcomers--from Hootie & the Blowfish and Stone Temple Pilots to Sheryl Crow and the Spin Doctors--may have sold millions of records over the last two years, but they are viewed with suspicion in an age where a hit video on MTV can mean instant multi-platinum success for even the most routine act.

"MTV is bringing 'em in and burnin' 'em up . . . the good and the bad," says one label president. "This is the most transient period in the record industry in memory. That's what makes bands like Pearl Jam and R.E.M. look so attractive. They've shown a consistency--even if it is just three albums in the case of Pearl Jam. The same with a Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey.

"Once you get beyond a few top names like that, the charts seem filled with acts that have the look and feel of one-hit wonders. Most of them aren't going to be around in three years, much less seven."

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The issue with Michael Jackson isn't so much a lack of faith in his talent as a feeling that he has self-destructed image-wise. The result: Most panelists wouldn't feel comfortable betting their company fortunes on him--even with his continued popularity overseas.

The main problem in this country, according to a panel consensus, isn't a backlash against the 1993 child-molestation allegations but that Jackson has gone in the public mind from the King of Pop to the King of Hype.

It's important in pop that fans can relate to your music and your personality, several panelists said. But Jackson has concentrated so much on image that many fans find it hard to relate to him anymore.

The challenge for the legendary performer is to refocus attention on his music.

"The thing he doesn't understand is that he'd be better off in the long run if he made a great record that only went to No. 20 on the sales chart than if he hyped another mediocre record to No. 1," one panelist said. "The thing he needs is credibility."

But is Jackson capable of another great album along the lines of "Thriller"?

"I would never say never about anyone with that kind of talent, but it is a tremendously difficult time for him," said one panelist. "The same is true of Prince. Nothing seems to work for them. They can still sell records, no question about it. But they are not the dominant figures they once were--or even close to it.

"It is like they need to stop for a moment and take a breath and try to figure out what they should be doing. It's sad in a way what's happened because they are both so brilliant."

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In the poll, conducted over the last three weeks, executives were asked to name, in order, the 10 artists they believe will likely sell the most records over the next seven years, which is the life of a standard record contract. Acts were given 10 points for every first place mention, nine for every second and so forth.

To encourage candor, the panel members--drawn from Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Atlanta--were told their names wouldn't be attached to either their choices or their comments about the artists.

Pearl Jam's first-place finish is impressive for a still relatively young band, but not as dominating as U2's victory in a similar Calendar poll in early 1993. At that time, U2 almost doubled the point total of runner-up R.E.M.: 165 points to 95. Pearl Jam was third with 83 points.

This time, Pearl Jam registered 136 points, edging R.E.M.'s 126 and U2's 119. Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston are next with 94 and 74 points, respectively. Toni Braxton was the top rookie with 31 points, which was good enough for 11th place.

"We're dealing with three great bands here," said one panelist of the three leaders. "They are all smart and talented. It's just that U2 and R.E.M. are a bit further along on the age curve. Pearl Jam seems the freshest to me at this point."

Here are representative samples of what panelists said about the 10 hottest properties:

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam's showing in the poll was all the more impressive when you consider the only reason some panelists didn't put the Seattle band on their lists was they feared lead singer Eddie Vedder, who has had problems adapting to rock stardom, might one day walk away from the band.

Typical comments:

* "Vedder is one of the handful of people in rock over the years who connects with people and defines an era. He's also got that special drive, like Bono."

* "They have created a sense of community around themselves the way R.E.M. has, and they haven't been gobbled up by the media machine by doing videos and 1,001 interviews."

* "Not only will Pearl Jam continue to sell multi-platinum, but they will also help your label attract other artists because the other artists will feel safe in your hands."

The dissent:

* "The concern is their stability. I wonder if the whole thing isn't going to implode at some point, which is the same reason I don't have Guns N' Roses on my list."

R.E.M.

It's no accident that R.E.M. and U2 finished so close to each other--panelists used many of the same qualities to describe both bands: integrity, class, great music.

* "They have lots of things that give you confidence in them. They've never made a record that wasn't wonderful, they are not overexposed, their touring base is really solid and they are smart."

* "A remarkably broad base of both the young alternative crowd and the older mainstream audience. They know how to write great hit singles and they understand video. Very solid."

A concern:

* "They have been around for a long time by rock standards and that makes you begin to wonder whether they might not lose some of their drive."

U2

Admiration remains high, with some panelists blaming the Irish group's slight drop in the poll to recent inactivity.

* "The concern as a band begins to age is that they'll start taking longer and longer between records . . . which may or may not be true in U2's case. My guess, however, is if they had a hot new album out right now, they would have returned to the top of the list."

* "They're an icon . . . a band that keeps reinventing itself musically and whose appeal touches fans of all ages. There are lawyers I know who will go stand on seats at Shea Stadium for U2; so will 15-year-olds."

* "They may have peaked, but this is such a great band that their leveling out period is going to last 10 years. The worst case scenario is they are going to be like the Stones--always a big live act that is going to come through once in a while with a blockbuster album that everyone is going to want."

Some concern:

* "There's something that just tells me their best records are behind them. They ooze with credibility, but I don't see them writing another song like 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.' "

Janet Jackson

Where voters were almost all favorable to the first three choices, there was lots of debate over Jackson and Whitney Houston--with detractors dismissing them as too dependent on record producers for their musical vision.

The supporters:

* "On this last album, she has shown herself to be a major world-class superstar, and it has enabled her to move permanently out of Michael's shadow."

* "She's an all-around natural talent. I don't buy the argument that there's no depth there. I think Janet is the concept and the producers just build around the concept she gives them."

The doubters:

* "She's always an inch away from her last hit. There's no there there. She could fade away as fast as Paula Abdul."

Whitney Houston

* "Clive Davis [the Arista Records president who has helped guide her recording career] has done a great job with her. I'm not sure she could survive without him."

* "I don't know how committed she is to music. What if she decides she wants to spend more time making movies?"

* "People used to ask the same question about Barbra Streisand years ago--about making records or movies. Well, Streisand showed you could have successful careers in both fields and Whitney can do the same thing. Whenever she does step up to the plate, she hits a home run."

Mariah Carey

* "She's still in her early 20s, but she already writes and produces her own stuff, which is one big advantage over Whitney and Janet. She's also very driven and totally committed to the studio."

* "She's still a one-dimensional artist who only exists through records and videos. She does not tour regularly and that's a problem with me."

Garth Brooks

Despite the recent boom in country music, Brooks is the only country artist to make the Top 10.

* "He's not only huge domestically, but he is the one country artist with a big chance to explode internationally if country finally cracks the overseas market."

Metallica

* "The Led Zeppelin of today. When kids think of hard-rock, they turn to Metallica. They own the franchise." . . . "There's something timeless about what they do, almost a Grateful Dead sense of community about them and their fans."

Boyz II Men

* "They are sort of your Hallmark greeting card type of artist. You hear their records everywhere . . . from weddings to high school graduations. This is probably the first R&B; group in years that has a chance to stay in the business for generations, like the Four Tops and the Temptations."

Nine Inch Nails

* "I think Trent Reznor is a genius. I'd sign them in a second. Who'll ever forget that Woodstock performance?"

* "The secret of signing acts is picking the ones on the way up, and that's why I'd love to sign Nine Inch Nails. Their best years are ahead of them. They may be seen as extreme now to the average music fan, but they'll eventually define the mainstream--not because they'll soften their sound, but because the mainstream will come around to where they are."*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE PANEL

Michele Anthony

Executive Vice President

Sony Music

Dallas Austin

CEO

Rowdy Records

Steven Baker

President

Warner Bros. Records

Janet Billig

Senior Vice President

Atlantic Records

Tony Brown

President

MCA Records/Nashville

Cliff Burnstein

Q Prime Management

Al Cafaro

President and CEO

A&M; Records

Tim DuBois

President

Arista Nashville

Gary Gersh

President and CEO

Capitol Records

Michael Goldstone

Senior Vice President,

A&R;

Epic Records

Andre Harrell

President and CEO

Motown Record Co.

Ramon Hervey

President

Hervey & Co. Management

Don Ienner

Chairman,

Columbia Records Group

Jimmy Iovine

Interscope Records

Howie Klein

President

Sire Records

Monica Lynch

President

Tommy Boy Records

Jim Ed Norman

President

Warner/Reprise

Nashville

Peter Mensch

Q Prime Management

Roberta Petersen

Senior Director

A&R;/Administration

Geffen Records

L.A. Reid

Co-President

LaFace Records

Ed Rosenblatt

Chairman and CEO

Geffen Records

Rick Rubin

Owner

American Recordings

Russell Simmons

CEO

Del Jam/RAL

Al Teller

Chairman and CEO

MCA Entertainment Group

Lenny Waronker

SKG Records

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Top 20

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Total Artist Points* Ballots (25 total) 1. PEARL JAM 136 18 2. R.E.M. 126 17 3. U2 119 16 4. JANET JACKSON 94 14 5. WHITNEY HOUSTON 74 10 6. MARIAH CAREY 66 9 7. GARTH BROOKS 63 10 8. METALLICA 62 10 9. BOYZ II MEN 59 11 10. NINE INCH NAILS 52 10 11. TONI BRAXTON 31 5 12. GREEN DAY 30 7 13. SOUNDGARDEN 29 4 14. DR. DRE 27 6 15. BABYFACE 26 6 16. SEAL 25 6 17. SMASHING PUMPKINS 25 5 18. ALAN JACKSON 19 3 19. GEORGE MICHAEL 18 3 20. CRANBERRIES 17 4

*--*

Total number of artists receiving one or more votes: 68.

Scoring: 10 points for every first place finish, 9 for second, etc.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction Labels--Howie Klein's label affiliation was misstated in last Sunday's article about pop's hottest properties. Klein is president of Reprise Records.
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