Want to know what the nation's top record executives really think about their biggest stars?
I mean really think?
No holds barred?
Here's what one says about Eminem: "I feel his moment has come and gone."
Another on Britney Spears: "Trust me, she's over."
And U2 fans should brace themselves: "Time is catching up with them. I'd rather have Coldplay on my roster."
These weren't careless comments overheard in the valet line at the Ivy or spied in an intercepted e-mail. They came straight from the executives' mouths to our tape recorder.
We promised 21 of the industry's biggest movers and shakers -- including BMG's Clive Davis, Interscope Geffen A&M;'s Jimmy Iovine, Sony Music's Don Ienner and red-hot artist/executives Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri -- that we would let them comment anonymously in exchange for their promise of complete candor. The goal: to learn which artists they think would sell the most albums (and thus bring them the biggest bonuses) over the next five years.
No one was prohibited from voting for his or her own acts, but most seemed to bend over backward to avoid blatantly self-serving picks. Some got so caught up in the concept they called back the next day to change their votes. And most closed the conversation by saying, "No one is going to know who's saying what, right?"
The result -- the 2005 Pop Power List -- shows a vastly different pop royalty than the one we highlighted the last time we did this, in 2001. This year, Usher and Alicia Keys finished one-two in a pop world that now is dominated by R&B; and hip-hop. Neither was in the Top 10 in the 2001 survey.
It's a time of rapid change, which is why executives are scrambling to find a way to stop the fiscal bleeding in a troubled industry -- and, perhaps, save their jobs in the process.
Except for a modest 1.6% increase in 2004, album sales have been down every year since 2001 -- and this year's drop is a sobering 7% so far. Industry observers blame this on all sorts of factors, including illegal downloading and competition from video games.
The conversations with the executives offer a rare snapshot of the innermost thoughts of the men and women who run a dynamic industry that is one of the cornerstones of pop culture around the world.
One message that emerges from the interviews is this: A craving for new stars drives the business.
Consider: Only three of the artists named among the 10 hottest properties in our last survey in 2001 finished even in the Top 20 this time. Among the missing: Madonna, Shania Twain, Limp Bizkit and Celine Dion.
The big loser was rock, which landed only one act in the Top 10 (Coldplay finished third).
Usher, the R&B; singer with massive charisma on stage, is considered such a sure-fire property that 17 of the 21 executives placed him in their Top 10. Six declared him their first choice.
"He could be the Michael Jackson of this decade," says a label head, referring to Jackson's glory years. "His 'Confessions' album sold 9 million copies in the U.S. and that's almost 'Thriller'-type numbers in this era of downloading and declining sales."
Executives were almost as high on Keys, the New York singer-songwriter who is often compared to Stevie Wonder and Prince. Fifteen of the executives named her as one of the 10 hottest properties. Two listed her first. That's the strongest showing ever for a female artist on the Pop Power List, which has been assembled four times since 1985.
"Alicia has the talent to make any type of record she wants," said one label head. "She can do a jazz album, a pop album, a Broadway album and make it sound fresh and inspired."
Not everyone thinks Eminem's days are numbered. Nine executives thought so highly of Eminem's future that they ranked him among their top three artists. Yet 10 executives didn't put him anywhere in their Top 10, leaving him to finish fourth overall. The rest of the Top 10, in order: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, OutKast, 50 Cent, Kanye West and Dr. Dre.
These artists also appeared on more than three lists: Josh Groban, Green Day, U2, No Doubt/Gwen Stefani, Linkin Park, Maroon 5 and John Legend.
During the separate interviews, executives mentioned time and again the difficulty of making decisions during a time in pop in which fan loyalty seems as outdated as grunge guitars.
"There are no guarantees anymore," one executive said. "But as long as I have to worry, I'd rather worry with Usher and Alicia Keys on my roster."
Life in the fast lane
Think of the record industry as the racy cousin of the movie business -- a world where things move so fast that the film machinations appear downright glacial.
An unknown can walk into a record company with a catchy song and get signed in less time than it takes film executives to watch their latest release, much less agonize for months over script changes and then go on location, hoping the weather cooperates.
Success for music executives is based on recognizing potential, and it's not easy. Some of the biggest acts ever -- including the Beatles, U2 and Garth Brooks -- were rejected repeatedly before someone finally took a chance on them.
Correct decisions can mean hundreds of millions in record sales; wrong ones can mean tens of millions in wasted contract bonuses, promotional videos and marketing expenses.
Executives say their jobs are more difficult than ever because of a bottom-line consciousness at conglomerates that encourages labels to sign acts that can deliver immediate sales.
Things are so bad that some executives hold their breath every time they release an album -- even one by a proven bestseller. Artists' careers have long risen and fallen with each new release, but it has never been more foolish to use ink when writing executive names and titles in your Rolodex.
The cost of signing and promoting artists is so high labels can no longer afford the luxury of spending years nurturing acts who need three or four albums to develop their craft and to build their audience -- the way Columbia did in the '70s with Bruce Springsteen and Island did in the '80s with U2.
Now, it's often one album and out the door unless you have a hit, because it can cost a major label $2 million to $5 million every time it releases a new album. When labels have 40 to 60 acts on the roster, that tab escalates rapidly.
"There would be no U2 the way things are now," Bono said when inducting Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, talking about the lack of interest in career development.
Much of the excitement over Usher, Keys and Coldplay is because they are relatively young artists with substance and the ability to deliver hits.
They each score highly on most of the qualities that the executives say are important in gauging success in the music business: They are coming off hot albums, have global appeal, put on strong live shows and, crucially, make music that appeals to today's main pop-radio formats. Radio airplay continues to be the single most important factor in generating massive sales.
"Usher is the quintessential artist for today's pop market," one executive said. "He's got almost no negatives. He's got the talent, the drive, the competitiveness. Girls love him, boys love him. He's the perfect date artist."
It's a tribute to Usher's high standing that one of the strongest compliments an executive could apply to Keys is that she is like a "female Usher."
"She's an undeniable talent, a great performer who is driven and seems to be cool-headed," the executive added. "She makes music that isn't contrived or trite. She is likely to last for years."
Support for the pair was so widespread that it was surprising when one executive left one off his Top 10 list. Asked about it, he looked sheepish. "To be honest, I forgot her when I was looking over the list. Is it too late to add her?"
Keeping it real (secret)
To assist executives in thinking about possible Top 10 choices, I gave each a list of 100 or so of today's bestsellers, but they were free to vote for anyone on or off the list. Then I asked why they voted for their favorites and why they passed on other high-profile artists. And finally, when it was all over, I destroyed the tapes. I didn't want the responsibility of them falling into the wrong hands.
(Imagine the embarrassment if artists overheard some of the comments. They'd be shocked at how little some of their bosses think of their commercial future. On the other end of the scale, some artists were so highly praised that their attorneys would have lots of ammunition to march into the executives' offices and demand the artists' contracts be sweetened.)
The top artists on the list clearly benefited from being in the glow of recent albums that were both critical and commercial knockouts. Usher's "Confessions" is a frequently compelling look at sexual temptation, consequence and regret. Keys' "The Diary of Alicia Keys" was a marvelous updating of the Motown R&B-pop; tradition, while Coldplay's "X&Y;" contains some of the most gorgeous love songs in ages.
Many of the executives grew up on rock 'n' roll and said they were saddened they couldn't find more room on their lists for rock artists. Though several groups, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have generated massive sales totals in recent years, only Coldplay, U2, Linkin Park, Maroon 5 and Green Day made more than three Top 10 lists.
"Rock has really been hurt by the new reality in our world," said one executive, whose list included only two rock acts. "It's is the most stolen, pirated, whatever you want to say, genre we have now. Whatever you think you could sell with a rock album, you have to cut it by a third."
Coldplay was the only rock group that executives across the board saw being able to match those numbers. The "new U2" tag came up often in the interviews.
The comparison is far from perfect. Coldplay doesn't have the thematic range and depth or sheer musical originality of U2, but the group's best songs have a wonderfully warm, engaging feel that makes it acceptable on mainstream radio.
"I just thank the pop-music gods that there is a band like Coldplay," one executive said. "They play mainstream pop-rock that gets on the radio and is lovely without being fluffy."
Others warn against being too focused on genres. "When I think about signing an act, I don't ask myself, 'Is this hip-hop or rock?' " the label head said. "I look at the artist's strengths.
"It's not hip-hop or rock that sells a ton of records, it's great artists or great personalities that do. Garth Brooks didn't just sell millions of records because he was a country artist, but because he was Garth Brooks. If Eminem had grown up listening to rock rather than hip-hop, my guess is he would have sold just as many albums."
Ultimately, most executives agree, you have to go with your gut in signing acts -- your commercial gut. "The biggest mistake," one executive warns, "is just signing acts you like. You've got to remember, the goal is to sell records."
If you love an act but don't think he can sell a lot, let someone else sign him, the exec advises.
"That way you can enjoy his album and let someone else worry about whether it's going to help them reach their third-quarter numbers."
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic for The Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The 2005 Pop Power List panel
President, Geffen Records
Chief operating officer, Sony Music Label Group, U.S.
Executive vice president, Warner Bros. Records
Senior partner, Universal South Records
Chairman and CEO, BMG, U.S.
President, urban music, Virgin Records
President, A&M; Records
Chairman and CEO, Atlantic Records Group
President, V2 Records
CEO and president, Sony Music, U.S.
Chairman, Interscope Geffen A&M; Records
Co-chairman, Universal Music Group Nashville
Antonio "LA" Reid
Chairman, Island Def Jam Music Group
President, Motown Records
Founder, American Recordings
Chairman and CEO, Virgin Records, America
Chairman, Russell Simmons Music Group
President and CEO, Capitol Records
President and CEO, Zomba Label Group
Founder and CEO, Getting Out Our Dreams (G.O.O.D.)
Chairman and CEO, Warner Bros. Records
Here's how the 10 hottest properties in Calendar's 2001 executive survey did in domestic sales of albums released since that poll was conducted. Figures, rounded off to the nearest million, are estimates based on Nielsen SoundScan's list of the 200 bestselling albums each year, including through June 19 of this year.
1. Eminem ... 18 million
2. Dr. Dre ... 0*
3. The Beatles ... 1 million
4. Dave Matthews Band ... 7 million
5. Madonna ... 2 million
6. Destiny's Child/Beyonce ... 10 million
7. Shania Twain ... 8 million
8. Limp Bizkit ... 1 million
9. Faith Hill ... 3 million
10. Celine Dion ... 5 million
Notes: Dr. Dre hasn't released an album since 2001, but as a record company executive and producer, he helped launch both 50 Cent and the Game during the last four years. Only Beatles repackages since 2001 count. Executives voted the Beatles onto the list after seeing the whopping sales impact of the 2000 Beatles' "1" collection.
FIVE WINNERS SINCE 2001
These acts, in retrospect, would have been shrewder choices than some of the panel's Top 10 picks:
Usher ...13 million
N' Sync/Justin Timberlake ... 8 million
Britney Spears ... 8 million
Linkin Park ... 8 million
Jay-Z ... 7 million
OUT OF NOWHERE
Exploding on the scene since Calendar's spring 2001 poll was taken:
Norah Jones ... 13 million
50 Cent ... 11 million
Alicia Keys ... 10 million
Nobody was allowed to engage in character assassination, but when it came to dishing about the career prospects of the artists who finished in the Top 10 -- and those who didn't -- our panel of executives didn't hold back. Here's a sampling of evaluations that a few of the artists received:
"He's a monster, so innovative, and he has both a sense of the street and what it takes to make a mainstream pop hit," an admirer said.
"Don't believe in him as an artist," scoffed another. "Like a lot of rap artists, he may have a two- [or] three-year career span, and then it's downhill."
"A definite talent, but too volatile. You don't know if she's going to shoot herself in the foot."
The "American Idol" franchise
"I think it's pretty much history."
"Great performer, great personality, strong songwriter, very committed to her career, and she's going into movies," said one.
"I don't think there is a lot of depth there and that will eventually catch up with her," complained another
"She has made a remarkable comeback," an executive said, summarizing the feeling of many panel members. But he wasn't alone in adding, "Still, I don't think it's going to last."
"I think they are going to have a hard time with country radio because of the President Bush comments, but they could be even stronger in the pop market if they come up with the right record."
"He may be the most influential guy in pop music in the last 25 years, and has a great ear for a pop hook," said one executive, reflecting the widespread respect for the artist-producer.
"The problem is he works with so many other artists and takes so much time on his own records that you may not get another Dr. Dre album over the next five years," another offered.
"Not as important as he was ... , so who knows how relevant he'll be in another five years," said one detractor. Someone else countered: "He sold over 4 million copies of the last album without even promoting it. He's a star everywhere in the world."
"They're here to stay," one booster predicted. "They connected with a new generation of kids with 'American Idiot.' "
"Lots of upside," said one of several executives who like his future chances. "He's a unique talent with an adult audience that actually buys records, doesn't just download them."
"A great, quality artist," was a typical comment, but others worry. "I don't get the sense she wants massive stardom enough to traipse around the world all the time, promoting the records," a executive said. "I think sales are going to fall off substantially," suggested another.
"She's got a lot of other interests these days, so I don't know if she's going to work as hard at her career as she once did."
"It's sort of a vanilla choice, but they write songs that get in your head," an executive said. "But I don't find them particularly credible."
"Cool music and young. Has lots of good years ahead of him," one panelist noted. Another disagreed: "Don't feel the excitement there."
No Doubt/Gwen Stefani
"Gwen is a great entertainer who is unbelievably charismatic and likable. I don't think the music is always great, but she transcends the music."
"I had lost faith in hip-hop a few years ago, but OutKast renewed it," a supporter said. "Even if the break-up talk is true, you might get great solo albums from them."
"Talk about rolling the dice," another exec cautioned. "What if the split is for real? What if the solo albums aren't as strong as the OutKast records? What if Andre is distracted by films?"
"She's a pop diva, yes, but she has integrity and artistry. Big future."
"There's too much to overcome. She can't sing and her life has become a soap opera every day."
System of a Down
"The music is powerful, meaningful, defiantly unique and they are a hit all over the world."
"No one gave him a chance to get past the whole N' Sync image, but he's reinvented himself," one executive noted. "The next record is going to be huge. He has the feel of a winner."
"I'm not so sure he's really erased the boy-band stigma, and there's lots of talk about him going into movies," another said. "If the film flops, that could hurt his music career."
"This is where you really have to be disciplined," an executive said. "They're one of the greatest bands of all time, but they may become more of a touring presence, like the Stones, than continue to sell millions of albums."
"He could be the next huge star in country because he's got enough rock for him to have big crossover appeal."
"He's fabulous," an admirer said. "He could be the Dr. Dre of his generation. He not only makes great albums, he finds other great talent and helps them make great albums."
"This may sound strange, but he may be too gifted for the marketplace," an executive suggested. "He is so talented and so willing to be daring that he might be more interested in making great records than commercial records. That's why I would also not put the White Stripes on my list, though I love their music."
The White Stripes
"Jack White may be the most exciting figure in rock," a panelist said, but cautioned, "The problem is he may also be too hip for the room commercially."
The 2005 Pop Power List
Here's how we kept score: Artists were given 10 points for every first-place mention on an executive's list, nine for second place, etc. The second figure is the number of executives (of 21 surveyed) who put the artist on their Top 10 list.