January 25th 2004

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Can pop artists save labels unable to live on concertos alone?
By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff, 1/25/2004

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A 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.

"Elton 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 crossover category.

Purists will chafe. Shareholders may well celebrate. Peter Gelb, the president of Sony Classical, is trying to walk the line.

"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 our horizons."

This 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.

But 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.

We 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?

"I 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."

Stratton -- 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.

So-called 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 top priority.

"The 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.

"If we were signing Yo-Yo Ma for the first time today," says Gelb, "he would go to Odyssey."

The 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.

Even 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.

"I'm 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 new things.

"At 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."

This 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.

"If 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?"

Jones, 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 Joni Mitchell.

Later 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.

"We 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."

The 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.

"Classical 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 empty."

Sandow 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.

Asked 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."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.


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