Originally created 02/25/97

Music stars lack staying power

NEW YORK - The Spin Doctors were on magazine covers once. So were Belly, The Gin Blossoms, Candlebox, Tone Loc and Weezer. All are consigned to oblivion, or are racing toward it.

One-hit wonders have an honorable place in music history, but now they're the norm rather than the exception.

The paucity of artists who develop a brand name, with loyal fans who follow their careers through twists and turns spreading over many years, is worrying the music industry as its leaders gather in New York City for the Grammy Awards this Wednesday.

U2, with a new album coming out March 4, is one of only a handful of artists who can be counted on repeatedly. Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins are others. R.E.M. and Pearl Jam were thought to be dependable, at least until the lukewarm responses to their most recent albums last year.

Changes in how the industry operates itself deserve a lion's share of the blame for the way things are.

A win-at-all costs mentality has infected the corporations that control most of the music released in this country, chewing up artists who are searching for their voice and an audience. Musicians are disposable now as never before.

Remember the Spin Doctors? They were thought to be in the vanguard of bands that made their mark through live performances in 1991. Their debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, sold 6 million copies. They made the cover of Rolling Stone.

Less than six years later, after two other albums flopped, the Spin Doctors lost their record contract. Their manager is forced to look hard for bright spots, such as a remake of That's the Way I Like It struggling up the charts in Japan.

He likens the Spin Doctors to John Travolta - a comeback in the waiting - but admits it will be tough.

"It would be easier to promote a band that nobody ever heard of than to come out with the Spin Doctors," manager David Sonenberg said.

Crowded House is another sad story. Their debut a decade ago was bristling with pop smarts, and hits such as Don't Dream It's Over. Their music only deepened in quality, and they were big stars internationally, but the United States subsequently turned a cold shoulder. That was a factor in their recent breakup.

Musicians love to ridicule the men and women in suits, often irrationally. Yet it's become clear that the music industry, as it matures, has become less about music and more about industry.

Although a healthy number of independent labels serve as farm systems for the industry's big players, most of the music released today is from labels that are part of huge corporate monoliths.

Instead of being seen as an artist to be nurtured, a musician is like any other corporate employee who can be let go if they don't perform.

"Ten or 15 years ago, a first album was supposed to fail," said John Sykes, president of VH1 and former chief of Chrysalis Records. "It was really the seeding phase for an artist's career. Now ... there's a lot more pressure on these artists to succeed immediately."

First tries often aren't a true measure of an artist's worth. Bruce Springsteen's first album was a pale imitation of Bob Dylan, his second one a step up. His third album, Born to Run, was his first triumph.

Although Billy Joel had an early hit with Piano Man, his real commercial breakthrough didn't come until his fifth album, with Just the Way You Are. Stevie Wonder's masterpieces came more than a decade after he dropped the "Little" from his name. And John Mellencamp might be just a trivia question - who was Johnny Cougar? - if he didn't have handlers who showed patience.

Freedy Johnston is just the type of artist today who would benefit from a deliberate approach.

A perceptive pop-rock songwriter with a plaintive voice, he released a much-praised album, Can You Fly, on a small label in 1992. He was snapped up by Elektra, and his debut for them had the minor hit, Bad Reputation.

His second album for Elektra will be released the last week of February. While happy with the support he receives from his record company, he knows the atmosphere now is different.

"If I was signed in 1974 instead of 1994, they'd sign me for seven records and just let me make records," he said. "If things started to happen, they would happen. There would be less risk. There would be less incentive to let me go if I didn't turn a profit ... Now they spend five times as much to make something happen, so they want five times the success."

Mr. Johnston considers himself lucky in one regard, though.

"I'd hate to be in the position of being in a young band that is the flavor of the moment," he said. "You come out with a second record, radio begins to back off and you're back working for your dad in Schenectady. That's terrible."

Tune In

The 39th annual Grammy Awards air from 8-11 p.m. Wednesday on CBS (WRDW-Channel 12). Ellen DeGeneres is the host for the show honoring excellence in the recording industry.


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