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Isn’t it time for radio to rise to the challenge and make risk-taking fashionable again? No guts, no glory.
ON RECORDS:
FINDING THE UP IN DOWN
What's Up? Ponder These Encouraging Signs
by Lenny Beer and Jon O'Hara

It may seem as though negativity and a general air of gloom and doom have taken over the industry, but it’s important to remember that there are some positive things happening out there, and that the day-to-day business continues to move ahead. Here are a few positive recent developments people are finding worthy of discussion:

Over at Sony, new leader Andrew Lack makes the rounds and finds two labels in peak form. Columbia’s #1 overall marketshare streak remains intact, as this week’s #1 Dixie Chicks and John Mayer make a strong case for the label’s artist-development prowess. And those two will be joined on the Grammy stage by Columbia mainstay Bruce Springsteen (coming off one of his best years ever), for what should be a night to remember, performance-wise. Epic, meanwhile, is hotter than ever, with the monumental success of the Chicago soundtrack—which is already showing all the signs of being this year’s must-have coffee table album—now heading up a pack of winners that includes Jennifer Lopez, Good Charlotte and B2K. Whatever happens next at Sony, which has had one of the most stable and productive music companies in recent memory, it’s clear that many have inherited far worse situations than that which Mr. Lack and company now face.

Speaking of the Grammys, in addition to the hotly anticipated appearance of the aforementioned Mr. Springsteen, buzz is building over several other aspects of the upcoming show, including the number of nominations for hugely deserving breath-of-fresh-air artists such as Norah Jones and current free agent Raphel Saadiq, as well as the public debut of new NARAS leader Neil Portnow.

As for Ms. Jones, who garnered five Grammy nominations, her understated, deeply soulful approach continues to connect with people far and wide, as evidenced by the fact that her Blue Note debut is driving steadily toward 4 million in U.S. sales. Yet, incredibly, Top 40 radio programmers continue to say her music in not right for their audiences.

Here’s a thought: Could it be that the whole industry would be in better shape if programmers actually took an interest in playing what the public actively craves, rather than just programming for the “comfort zone”? Could it be that sales for Norah Jones, the Dixie Chicks and other left-of-center smashes—and in turn, radio ratings—would be higher if programmers supported great music instead of a strictly formulaic sound? Indeed, they might even find that their audiences would appreciate hearing something “out of format” like “All That Jazz” from Chicago, as they might have had they played “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the huge-selling O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Isn’t it time for radio to rise to the challenge and make risk-taking fashionable again? No guts, no glory.

As for Mr. Saadiq, who rose to fame as the founder of  Tony! Toni! Ton!, most are finding it hard not to root for a man with his depth of talent. His five Grammy nominations span his work as artist, writer and producer, including a Best R&B Album nod for his latest heady “Gospedelic” opus, Instant Vintage. He’s also up for his work with stars Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Common. Though he’s currently between deals, thanks to the current corporate need for instant, hit-single success, it’s a safe bet the recognition afforded by the Grammys will help change that—and we’re betting it’s his next label that will end up the big winner here.

And as for Mr. Portnow, who has stepped into some rather large (and controversial) shoes, reports on his early tenure are universally positive. We’ve yet to hear from one person who isn’t psyched about having a Recording Academy leader who’s accessible, humble and downright friendly. Who has ever been welcomed to a potentially contentious, high-profile gig with this level of support and good wishes?  So far, so good, Neil.

And finally, a few random thoughts on artists and trends to watch in the coming months, some of which just might reward your optimism:

How great is it that consumers are finally discovering the brilliance of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood To The Head? With a Grammy appearance ahead, and a current, major hit single with “Clocks,” look for this one to sell throughout 2003.

How great is it that Atlantic’s The Donnas are doing what many considered impossible, by having an all-female hit record aired predominently at male-ruled Alternative radio? Hopefully, The Donnas will help break open the format for great female rock again and wake A&R departments up to the fact that signings shouldn’t be limited to what’s being played by a particular format right now.

How great is it that the best-reviewed and possibly most interesting new rock band in the marketplace, Interpol, is on indie stalwart Matador, distributed by ADA? They’re winning over increasing numbers of consumers and programmers the old-fashioned way: organically.

How great is it that the return of singer-songwriters to prominence, heralded last year by poster boy John Mayer, is now being bolstered by Elektra newcomer Jason Mraz? This genre is alive and well—just add compelling new talent.  

You see, there is hope. Great music can always find an audience—with or without initial gatekeeper love—and keep the industry exciting and consumers excited. Even in the toughest times, a burst of new talent and positive energy can make good things happen. Hang in there.
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