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'Idol' sweet music to RCA

“American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson may have the magic to put RCA Records back on top.

All the major record labels are pulling out their big-gun releases for the fourth quarter in hopes of hitting some high numbers to make up for the year’s extreme sales dip. RCA has been struggling overall because of a weak release schedule. The label has thus far scored hits only with Dave Matthews Band’s “Busted Stuff,” which has sold more than 1.2 million units, and critically acclaimed postpunk band the Strokes, whose “Is This It” has passed the half-million mark.

Clarkson’s two-sided single release, featuring “A Moment Like This” and “Before Your Love,” will hit stores Sept. 17. If sales even come close to the 1 million singles sold by Will Young, the winner of the United Kingdom’s version of “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar,” RCA will end the year on a much-needed high note. Given that more than 18.7 million people tuned in to view the show’s finale, chances are high that consumers will want their piece of “Idol.”

“We’ve had a terrible release schedule,” RCA general manager Richard Sanders said. “Post-Sept. 11, there was a creative meltdown. Artists themselves had a difficult time to define musically what they were about and kind of the sentiment of a record they’d like to make. A lot of releases now, which were supposed to come out in spring and summer, are now coming out in the fourth quarter – not just for RCA but for all the labels.”

Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States does not have a singles market. Record labels ceased releasing singles years ago because they felt it cannibalized album sales. Sanders said many retailers were reluctant to stock Clarkson’s single, which will sell for $3-$5. To combat this, Sanders and his RCA team devised a specialized marketing plan.

“This is not a single; this is a memento of the show,” he said. “It’s no different from buying a key chain, calendar or souvenir guide. If you want a keepsake from ‘American Idol,’ this is it.” As a result, retailers and other outlets came around. Walgreens and Costco have agreed to sell the release, and more than 400,000 copies will be shipped initially.

Only moments after Clarkson won, RCA downloaded both of the songs to radio, and stations nationwide are already spinning the tracks (RCA had prerecorded versions from all the finalists). RCA also has plans to release an “Idol” compilation album featuring the 10 finalists in October.

American audiences already have had their taste of TV-made groups with the WB Network’s “Popstars,” which spawned Eden’s Crush, and boy group O-Town from ABC’s “Making the Band.” The Eden’s Crush album sold only about 375,000 copies. O-Town landed a record deal with Clive Davis’ J Records, and the band’s self-titled debut sold more than 1.6 million units. The second O-Town album is due out later this year. Music industry insiders have speculated that made-for-TV groups generally lose their audience quickly and fall victim to the “15 minutes of fame” syndrome.

But “Idol” is different, Sanders said, because the viewers have a chance to vote. “(The audience) got attached because for the first time they were the judges in the talent show,” he said. “Yes, they could listen to what the (judges) said, but ultimately they decided. That’s what created the fandom.”

Now RCA has to help create Kelly Clarkson, the artist. Sanders said the label plans to release her debut album before year’s end. Top songwriters and producers Diane Warren, Desmond Child, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis already have been brought on for the task, and RCA’s top brass along with one of the show’s judges, BMG executive Simon Cowell, have been screening potential songs throughout the competition.

“Now we have to get to know who Kelly Clarkson is,” Sanders said. “What is the musical statement she wants to make? What’s lyrically and stylistically correct for her? Everything that she sang other than on the last shows were covers and standards. Yes, they were good TV, and they created a good element to judge her by, but is that what she is musically? Absolutely not. Now we have to get into the heart and soul of her and make the best record we can.”

Clarkson, a 20-year-old Texas native, may be entering the music market at exactly the right time. With Britney Spears, ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys all grown up, there is a void of artists who can reach 10-year-old fans. Clarkson, thus far, has been presented as a wholesome “girl next door” type who can reach a broad-ranging and younger demographic.

” ‘American Idol’ is family entertainment,” Sanders said. “As far as contemporary music, you don’t want your younger kids watching MTV. This is the only kind of family musical event.”

RCA also has the option to sign any of the 10 finalists. Sanders said RCA will decide in the next few weeks which other finalists they will add to the label’s roster. “We feel confident that we’re going to sign at least three of the artists,” he said.

RCA also has secured the rights to sign and release the stars from “American Idol 2,” which begins its talent search next month. The label’s close ties with the show stem from its parent company BMG’s long-standing relationship with “Idol” creator Simon Fuller. Additionally, Fremantle Media, the TV production arm of BMG parent Bertelsmann AG, partnered with Fuller’s 19 Entertainment Group to create the show.

“We still have to make a great record,” Sanders said. “Yes, we can sell a lot of singles. Maybe we’ll sell a lot of compilations. But we want to sell an artist. We didn’t go through this exercise to slap something together and just sell it. We really believe in Kelly and believe we’re going to make a great record. She can be a real artist. She can be a movie star. She can be singing in musicals. She can do it all.”

RCA’s other big fourth-quarter guns include new albums from Christina Aguilera, Foo Fighters and David Gray as well as the compilation “Elvis 30 #1 Hits.”

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