Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Sanjaya Effect, & What the Media Isn’t Telling You: What Happens if Sanjaya Malakar Wins American Idol? (And Do Howard Stern & the Saboteurs Win?

Warning: For those who don’t know, I have two interchangeable uniforms: the jeans and tennis shoes of a former musician-songwriter, and the suit of an agent-manager-business person who’s worked with enough non-artistic business guys to know how they think when they’re wearing their suits. This entry gets into the head of someone in a very tight suit and does not reflect my musical sensibility… nor my artist development philosophy.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of media buzz about what happens if Sanjaya Malakar wins American Idol Season 6. For those of you who’ve been in temporarily stranded on a deserted island, Sanjaya Malakar is a 2007 American Idol contestant with teen idol looks and charisma, but with a voice that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. DJ Howard Stern and several American Idol-hating websites are encouraging people to vote for the least talented contestant. (More backstory on Stern angle.)

Currently, though American Idol producers insist otherwise, it’s contributing to Sanjaya’s continued stay in the competition…as singers with better voices get booted off.

“So if he wins, what happens?” the media asks in a panic. “Will it take down American Idol?” “They have to give the winner a recording contract, right?”First off, Sanjaya is unlikely to win, because the producers probably have backup plans to prevent such things. To borrow an oft-used phrase from Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, this isn’t their first barbeque.Secondly, although I haven’t seen the American Idol contract, the recording contract is probably a “first look” deal rather than a binding recording agreement. (A first look deal means the label has “first dibbs” on the artist and can then sign or pass the artist at their discretion.)

But, just for fun, let’s say Sanjaya actually does win the competition, and that the recording contract is a binding recording agreement. Here’s what will likely happen:


What the media isn’t telling you is, a recording contract is simply that: a recording contract. A recording contract in no way, shape or form implies that a record label ever has to release a CD it deems unacceptable. At the label’s discretion, a whole project can be scrapped and written off as tax deduction.

In other words, if Sanjaya wins and has a binding recording agreement, they’ll weigh the costs of releasing his solo CD vs. taking a tax deduction…a situation nearly every major label artist finds himself in at some point.

Should the American Idol artist development team decide to go for the CD, a decent vocal is easier to get than ever, thanks to Pro-Tools technology. And, like it or not, Sanjaya does have a cult following of tweens, because he’s “cute.” So speaking from a financial standpoint, the AI team could do OK by making a low budget CD, selling them mainly via download instead of hard CDs, and focusing on Tween-oriented merchandising, personal appearances, and acting...Which is essentially what occurred in the 1970’s with the recording careers of Tiger Beat teen idols like Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Tony DeFranco, Scott Baio, and Kristy and Jimmy McNichol. (Thanks to regular appearances in Tiger Beat magazine and his starring role in a popular TV show, Shaun Cassidy was actually a major concert draw with a string of sold-out arena shows.)

My hunch is, if Sanjaya wins, financially, the American Idol artist development arm actually comes out better than if he doesn’t win, because in their eyes, they’ll have the best of both worlds: a musically credible artist with a non-fickle demographic (in the form of one of the stronger-voiced contestants, a la 2006’s Chris Daughtry), plus, in the form of Sanjaya, a manufactured teen idol with the preferred tween demographic and all its inherent merchandising possibilities. (Young girls buy their idols’ stuff).

Musical sensibilities aside, these two musical entities have co-existed in the industry since the late 1950’s. As a microcosm of the music industry (or as a mini music industry unto itself, for that matter), why would American Idol be any different?
Regardless, the American Idol show will be fine. From a publicity standpoint, the Sanjaya Effect is probably a good thing for Idol: after several years of success, every fan base tapers off and needs new blood, and the media attention is bringing a new crop of viewers to the show (via curious former non-Idol watchers tuning in to see if “that Sanjaya kid” is really that bad after all).

And, I’m guessing that new rules and voting procedures for next year are probably being drawn up as we speak.

In effect, from American Idol’s point of view, financially the Howard Stern / Internet Sanjaya Sabotage Plot may actually turn out to be the best thing that could have happened in several seasons. Now wouldn’t that tick Howard off?

Copyright 2007 Randi Reed and All rights reserved.

Backstory on Howard Stern’s anti-Idoltry.

Aside from whatever Howard Stern’s official reason is for encouraging his fans to thwart American Idol’s system of choosing the winner, I have an additional theory: Professional jealousy.

For years, New York-based Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed “King of All Media,” was the most visible radio personality. In addition to his syndicated radio show, Stern was visible on E!,late night talk show appearances, award show appearances, movies, and God knows what else. Aside from ticking off the FCC now and then, he was pretty much untouchable in broadcasting.

Meanwhile, in the late 1990’s, at a Clear Channel station out in Los Angeles, a young DJ from Atlanta named Ryan Seacrest starts gaining visibility. Nothing too major, just stuff a hardworking DJ does to make a living in an expensive city…An appearance on Beverly Hills 90210 here, a talk show pilot or game show there, lots of voiceovers, and taking on lots of extra projects at the radio station. Then, celebrities start tuning in to Seacrest’s radio show because he’s gaining a reputation as a good interviewer, in addition to having a fun radio show. He switches from the evening shift to the more visible Afternoon Drive, picks up a sidekick named Lisa Foxx, and the buzz gets bigger as more celebs tune in while they’re stuck in traffic on the way home from the studio or picking up their kids from school. The ratings follow suit, Seacrest moonlights on the TV show Extra and on E!’s Talk Soup, and the buzz in the broadcasting biz really starts taking off.

Then Seacrest auditions for—and gets—a job cohosting a new TV show called American Idol. The show’s a hit and is picked up for the next season, but with Seacrest as the sole host. His afternoon radio show ratings soar, he starts getting ink in national magazines, and he and radio partner Lisa Foxx start winning awards, including the radio industry’s prestigious Radio Personality of the Year award.

Meanwhile, the FCC is coming down hard on Stern in the form of fines. In addition to the Infinity-owned stations that carry his show, Stern’s show is carried by some Clear Channel-owned radio stations. Stern’s thinking of leaving Infinity, but his contract isn’t up yet. Meanwhile, fines at the Clear Channel stations are exceeding Stern’s Clear Channel worth. Cut to Clear Channel hot shot Seacrest: He’s pretty agreeable, has a more family-friendly audience, and seems really happy to be there. Hmmm…Casey Kasem and Rick Dees shows need new hosts. What if…?

So, Clear Channel has Stern exactly where they want him and turns their focus soley to Seacrest. (As American Idol’s success continued, soon Seacrest was in talks for a TV talkshow, too, with opportunities for cross-promotion.)

To add insult to Stern’s unhappiness, some of the media begin referring to Ryan Seacrest as “the next Dick Clark,” “the real king of pop” and “the new king of all media.” Ouch. Seacrest appears on Stern’s radio show to promote one of his projects, and is a good sport when Stern starts ribbing him about the “new king of all media” title. Except Stern doesn’t sound like he’s joking as he defensively points out that Seacrest isn’t the “king of all media” because he doesn’t have a movie or a book. Seacrest is still a good sport.

Not long afterward, Seacrest replaces Rick Dees as the host of influential pop station KIIS-FM’s morning radio show and drops Stern’s syndicated show from their remaining 6 Clear Channel stations. Stern’s show on E! goes bye-bye, too. Stern makes a deal to take his show to Satellite radio. Much later, Seacrest joins E! as News Editor and anchor.

So…if Stern was a little ticked at Ryan Seacrest and wanted to take down American Idol, it would be a little understandable. Also pathetic, because Seacrest was just working his butt off, doing his own, very different thing, but a little understandable. But mostly it would just be pathetic, because Howard Stern and Ryan Seacrest are both damn good at what they do.

Copyright 2007 Randi Reed and All rights reserved.