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09.22.10

American Idol's Last Chance

The American Idol announcement about J.Lo and Steven Tyler was a foregone conclusion. But could hiring music executive Jimmy Iovine as the contestants' in-house mentor save the show?

Released just three months ago, Eminem’s Recovery is one of only two albums so far this year to sell more than 2 million copies. Lady Gaga, who has sold more than 15 million albums in just two years, has transcended simply being a pop music star to become a pop-culture icon and one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. By contrast, no American Idol performer has crossed 2 million in sales since Chris Daughtry from Season 5,and only three have reached the 1 million sales plateau since then.

While American Idol’s naming of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges stole Wednesday’s headlines, despite being a foregone conclusion, the most significant development for the nation’s most-watched television show was the appointment of Jimmy Iovine as in-house mentor for the contestants. Indeed, the attention heaped on Lopez and Tyler confirms that the show’s judges have grown more popular than the talent and exposes the false conceit behind American Idol: that it is about finding the next big music star.

Music manager Danny Goldberg says about Idol, “The novelty has worn off and now it is in need of creative clarity.

As the show’s returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe noted during Wednesday’s press conference, it has been a long time since Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood were crowned winners and the biggest challenge American Idol faces is actually producing a legitimate American idol on par with their caliber of talent. (Clarkson and Underwood have sold 22.5 million albums between them.)

Iovine, who signed and developed Eminem and Lady Gaga, is the one executive in music who might actually be able to deliver on the show’s broken premise.

“If anyone is going to break an artist huge from American Idol, it will be Jimmy,” says longtime friend Irving Azoff, chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and manager of The Eagles, Van Halen, Christina Aguilera, and American Idol’s own David Archuleta. “It dramatically increases the show’s odds of finding the next Lady Gaga.”

Iovine came to American Idol after the show ditched former record label partner Sony Music for his Interscope Geffen A&M Records, which is one of the two labels that comprises Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company. From a business perspective, the show’s contestants should gain more exposure simply because of the marketing, promotion, and distribution muscle UMG has over Sony—for the week ended September 9, UMG held a 32.2 percent share of the worldwide music market versus 25.3 percent for Sony.

According to the show’s producers, Iovine will be featured working with and lending his expertise to the contestants. By elevating Iovine to the mentor role that was previously occupied on a week-by-week basis by artists such as Usher and Mariah Carey, American Idol is eschewing stars in favor of the executive that makes the records that create the stars.

“The sheer fact that there’s a show doesn’t create stars anymore,” says Danny Goldberg, former manager for Nirvana and Sonic Youth and current manager of The Hives. “The novelty has worn off and now it is in need of creative clarity. Iovine is the guy who can see the next thing rather than the last thing.”

Iovine’s short, slender frame—typically topped off with a baseball hat and wire-rimmed glasses—betrays his streetwise and tough Brooklyn upbringing. He’s a hustler in the best sense of the word. He’s equally at home in the corporate boardroom, where he has stared down such powerful overlords as former Time Warner executive Michael Fuchs, and in the recording studio, where he has produced hits for everyone from Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks to U2 and Dr. Dre. He’s at once a defender of artists’ creative vision from corporate intrusion and a reshaper of it for his own commercial gain; but he molds things for his own ends in a way that endears rather than alienates him from performers.

“Artists found they couldn’t get enough of Iovine’s shtick, even if they knew what he might do to their sister—and them—if given half the chance,” writes Fred Goodman about Iovine’s early days in the music business in his recent book Fortune’s Fool.

Though American Idol still ranks as television’s highest-rated show, it is perceived to be in a downward spiral and in need of resuscitation. The average age of the show’s audience increased to 44 last year from 32 at its inception, according to a tweet Wednesday by Horizon Media’s senior vice president of research Brad Adgate. The hiring of Lopez, 41, and Tyler, 62, while unlikely to bring the show’s average age down, can certainly provide a ratings boost similar to the one that helped revive ABC’s Dancing With the Stars last year because both judges appeal to distinct demographics that are underserved by broadcast television programming: Latinos and seniors.

In a response to complaints from contestants, producers also eliminated “theme weeks,” or episodes devoted entirely to one genre of music like Motown or country. Instead, weeks will be centered on different decades (i.e., the ‘60s one week, the ‘90s another) but performers will be allowed to remain in their chosen genre throughout the season (i.e., a rock-singing contestant can pick different rock songs from each decade rather than having to sing in a completely new style.)

A side effect of that move is that it could help Iovine nurture and develop talent that plays to their strengths. From the beginning of Iovine’s career—when he told Tom Petty that if he recorded “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks it would be a smash hit—he has been one of the best in the music industry, right alongside Clive Davis, at matching artist with material.

The music industry has changed a lot since that song was released in 1981. For one thing, it isn’t about selling music anymore. It’s about touring and merchandise and fan clubs and licensing. In short, it’s about total cultural impact. And few executives in the music industry have been as successful at creating worldwide cultural phenomenons than Iovine over the last three decades. While getting on American Idol may still be a big breakthrough for this year’s contestants, having the opportunity to work with and be evaluated by Iovine may be the best chance any of them have for a sustainable and lasting career in music.

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.