Labels Take the Talent-Show Prize

Programs like France's Star Academy are boosting music sales in Europe, and American Idol may do the same in the U.S.

In the space of a year, Jenifer Bartoli has gone from a totally unknown teenager to a top-of-the-charts French star. Jenifer, as she signs her albums, shot to fame when she won on the 2001 French reality-TV show Star Academy, beating out her housemates, all wannabe singers. The prize? A contract with Universal Music. Ten months later, she has already sold 600,000 copies of her debut album J'Attends l'Amour (I'm Waiting for Love) and a million more of her two first singles. "My bet is that in 10 years, Jenifer will still be on top of the charts," says Pascal Negre, who heads Universal Music in France.

If you watched Fox Network's 2002 summer blockbuster, American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, or even heard the buzz about it, you now know where it came from. American Idol may be based on the 1980s show Star Search, but Fox's approach was modeled on a format that has been a huge success in Europe. It's no surprise that the year's best-selling U.S. single belongs to Kelly Clarkson, the first season's winner, even though it entered the market only at the end of September. European winners had exactly the same sort of success.


  Thanks to the boost from homegrown singers like Bartoli, who are finding their road to fame on the small screen, France has been bucking the downward trend in world music sales. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry calculates that the worldwide market contracted by 9.2% in the first six months of this year. During the same period, sales in France grew by 5.2%, on top of a 10% gain last year.

A new generation of artists is also refreshing a tired industry elsewhere in the Old World. The trend started with the hit Spanish TV show Operacion Triunfo, where viewers vote on who will become pop's latest star. Operacion Triunfo, now into its second season, fused the music and TV industries by using the show as a launch pad for Spanish stars. Contestants live and train together -- and then kick each other off the show, Survivor-style, in conjunction with a voting audience.

During the program's 12-week run, the contestants get up on stage and perform together at a prime-time weekly variety show. "People just love it. This is not only about music or TV, it's a real social phenomenon," says Elizabeth Comabella, International Director of Vale Music, the Spanish record company that signs Operacion Triunfo winners.


  Spain's music industry has been bowled over by the show's success. Vale Music, a small player two years ago, was lucky to have partnered with TV producers Gestmusic. The local record company saw its share of the Spanish market increase to 40% this year, from 23% in 2001. The show was such a hit that all 16 contestants landed contracts, not just the winner. Among them, they've sold a staggering 6 million albums, and the push has been to wring as many stars as possible out of the show. In France, Universal Music signs not only the winners of Star Academy but also of Popstars, a copycat show on rival network M6. Now, Italian and British TV are starting their own pop-star programs.

And the record labels are catching on to what their customers want to hear. Forget full-length albums -- these fans are into singles or compilations. That's why the French singles market has grown by 12% through September, while its U.S. counterpart has plunged. In Spain, Vale Music released weekly compilations of songs performed on Operacion Triunfo and sold them at below-average prices.

"By introducing this concept, we were totally in tune with the market," says Comabella. But it's not only the youngsters whose sales soar thanks to the pop shows. Older stars like Phil Collins and Ray Charles recently have stopped by Star Academy to belt out a tune or two with the youngsters, and each saw his album sales skyrocket.


  The shows are also highly profitable -- while record sales are rising, the labels' costs are falling. Remember Mariah Carey's catastrophic contract, the one that cost Virgin Music $28 million for one album? Well, these singers want their 15 minutes of fame so badly they would probably pay for it. Gone are the multimillion-dollar long-term recording contracts. If these singers have a couple of singles in them, that's good enough for the industry.

U.S. music outfits are hoping for a similar boost from American Idol. RCA Records, a subsidiary of BMG Records, which inked a deal with Clarkson, is betting that a full album of her songs, scheduled for release in January, will be a hit. Clarkson will rejoin her former castmates early next year to film their first movie. After that, a new group will get a shot at success when the second season of American Idol kicks off. RCA's hope is that the trend amounts to more than a mere 15 minutes of fame.

By Karim Djemai and Christina W. Passariello in Paris

Edited by Thane Peterson

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