Can pop artists save labels unable to live on concertos
By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff, 1/25/2004
HERE for relevant
singer-songwriter with black clothes, orange hair, and
tattoos sat hunched over his electric piano recently on
the stage at Johnny D's, a nightclub in Somerville. He
played poetic anthems to vulnerability, a dark ditty about
suffocating under cellophane, and one gently soaring meditation
on the sound his heart makes when it hits the ground.
The sensitive young troubadour's voice was sweet and pained.
His hooks were hummable. And his debut CD was released
this week by a classical music label.
John meets Tori Amos" is how Sony Classical's publicity
department is pitching Casey Stratton, a 25-year-old tunesmith
from Grand Rapids, Mich. The latest and most dramatic
salvo in the classical music industry's struggle to survive
is how many interpret the label's launch of Stratton's
"Standing at the Edge" -- an album so unambiguously
pop it can't even be lumped into the now ubiquitous classical
will chafe. Shareholders may well celebrate. Peter Gelb,
the president of Sony Classical, is trying to walk the
idea of signing an artist who really isn't a classical
artist is relatively new to us," says Gelb. "But
in a way, Casey's virtuosity is in the tradition of great
classical artistry. For a classical label to be successful,
just to stay in business, it's necessary for us to broaden
is hardly news. A cash cow for profit-strapped classical
labels for more than a decade, the crossover genre has
historically been home to classical artists who -- by
virtue of their accessible material or youth or marketing
potential -- appeal to a wide audience. The Three Tenors
spun the sheer novelty of an opera supergroup into pop
stardom. Charlotte Church, a fetching teen with a pleasant
soprano, won millions of hearts (and dollars) singing
innocuous versions of "Ave Maria" and "Danny
Boy." Josh Groban's blend of boyish good looks and
pseudo-classical confessionals landed his latest disc,
"Closer," in the No. 1 position on last week's
Billboard album charts, with sales of just under 2 million
in the nine weeks since its release.
Stratton is different. Even though he studied voice and
composition at the Interlochen Arts Academy (as did Groban)
and lists Copland, Ravel, and Debussy among his influences,
Stratton is a mainstream, middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter.
Pedigreed rock producer Patrick Leonard, who's worked
with Madonna, Jewel, and Bon Jovi, crafted the album's
glossy, techno-laced sound. The high-powered Creative
Artists Agency has taken Stratton on as a client. There
were other offers on the table, more lucrative offers,
from traditional pop labels.
know why Sony Classical needs Stratton. But why would
Stratton choose to put his fate in the hands of a company
whose experience in pop was limited to promoting a movie
soundtrack ("Titanic," which admittedly sold
well) and the little-known singer Mary Fahl?
knew there wouldn't be as much pressure to be in the Top
40," says Stratton, a self-taught pianist who genuflects
at the altar of Tori Amos and likens himself to Sarah
McLachlan and Duncan Sheik. "I knew I'd get longer
than the usual eight-week window to start charting. I
knew they treated artists well. My lawyer advised me to
take the RCA deal because they were offering more upfront.
But I had a feeling. I said no."
-- and Sony Classical and the rest of the major classical
companies -- may be onto something. As the music industry
continues its decline, major pop labels have grown more
and more risk-averse. The notion of cultivating careers
has been replaced by the pressing need to generate singles
and move albums -- which means the lion's share of time
and money is being invested in artists who are likely
to sell big and sell fast.
adult contemporary artists like Stratton, especially newcomers
who don't churn out radio tracks for the youth market,
can't possibly hope to meet the performance expectations
of a big pop label. But at Sony Classical, Stratton is
head of the label is his biggest fan," says Gelb,
referring to himself, "which means the label is devoted
to him in a way a large pop label might not be. If this
works, it's because we're going to give him the attention."
Go to www.boston.com/ae/music to hear audio clips of Casey
Stratton's CD "Standing at the Edge." "Standing
at the Edge" is out on Odyssey, an older imprint
that Sony Classical reintroduced in 2001 specifically
for artists who don't belong in the classical section
of the record stores, according to Gelb. The Odyssey roster
includes rock singer Fahl, the jazz pianist Christopher
O'Riley (who released an album of Radiohead covers last
year), New Age harpist Catrin Finch, and Sakamoto Rosa
Passos, the Brazilian vocalist featured on Yo-Yo Ma's
"Obrigado Brazil" album.
we were signing Yo-Yo Ma for the first time today,"
says Gelb, "he would go to Odyssey."
audience for the esteemed cellist's recent "Appalachia
Waltz," "Silk Road Journeys," and Brazilian
music collection is vastly larger than the audience for
his traditional classical-repertoire recordings. "Obrigado
Brazil" has sold more than 250,000 copies, compared
to 22,000 for "Paris: La Belle Epoque," also
released last year.
the diehard keepers of the flame acknowledge that in the
face of the industry's deepening financial woes, crossover
is the answer for classical labels.
not the most loved person in this company because I don't
like to bastardize what we do in the classical realm,"
says Robert Woods, president of Telarc Records. "I
worry about dumbing things down. But there's a shrinking
market, and we're all looking in new directions and trying
Telarc we're diversifying, too, and we'll be headed in
more of a popular vein," Woods says, although he
declines to elaborate. "I think we're going to land
a couple of artists this year who will give us a new identity."
new direction and revived sense of purpose cuts both ways.
As pop labels spent the last decade pursuing the youth
market to the exclusion of nearly everything else, classical
-- and jazz -- labels have begun stepping up to the plate
to service a vast and, until recently, largely ignored
adult fan base. And it only makes sense, says Geoff Mayfield,
director of charts for Billboard magazine.
you look at the charts for the last few years, you see
that adults have been an active consumer in a declining
market," says Mayfield. "You see it in the success
of Norah Jones in 2003. Barry Manilow, Alan Jackson, and
James Taylor had the biggest sales last year that they've
ever seen. If you're a classical or a jazz label and you
have music that already appeals to adults, why not try
to amplify what you can sell to them?"
the biggest adult contemporary story of the decade, is
signed to Blue Note Records, a jazz label that's recently
added Al Green and Van Morrison to its roster. Verve Records
is launching the US debut of 24-year-old British singer-songwriter
Jamie Cullum in March. Nonesuch has set the standard for
intelligent crossover, with an eclectic roster of artists
from Dawn Upshaw and the Magnetic Fields to Wilco and
this year the London-based classical label Decca will
release the debut album by 24-year-old Canadian crooner
Matt Dusk, a Frank Sinatra sound-alike who performs new
material that harks back to the big band era.
wouldn't touch dance or garage," says Decca president
Costa Pilavachi, whose crossover successes include Andrea
Bocelli, Russell Watson, and the new teen songbird Hayley
Westenra, whose version of "Amazing Grace" (produced
by Sir George Martin) is a massive hit in the UK and has
already hit No. 1 on the Japanese pop charts. "We're
not interested in the latest trend. But I think there's
a real hunger for real artists. And it's potentially the
biggest audience in the music business."
question remains, of course, whether classical and jazz
experts have the ears and the sensibilities to navigate
the world of pop. Nonesuch has provided a nurturing home
for exceptional talent but so far hasn't developed any
young artists. Decca's Dusk, like Harry Connick Jr. and
Michael Buble, is a throwback. And Sony Classical's Stratton
-- with his crystalline countertenor and manicured arrangements
-- is in the end as watered down as the crossover titans
who've preceeded him.
music as a whole is trying to redefine itself more as
an adult market," says Greg Sandow, a critic for
the Wall Street Journal who writes and speaks frequently
about the future of classical music. "But they've
forgotten about art. Truly adult music isn't slick and
makes a fair point. But it would be folly to underestimate
the appetite for a smooth, soothing pop song. Particularly
among the quiet throngs of grown-ups who have slipped
between the pop-cultural cracks.
who he believes Stratton's audience will be, Sony Classical's
Gelb replies: "People who have been wounded. People
who are sensitive. He touches me."
Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.