Who's the hottest property in the record business?
That's not an easy question, but with conglomerates betting zillions of dollars on it, Calendar set out to conduct some independent research.
The first thing we did was to declare everyone--from Michael Jackson to Pearl Jam--a free agent. Then we called 25 movers and shakers in the music business and asked: What acts would you sign?
The issue wasn't favorite artists, but the ones that are likeliest to sell the most records through the remainder of the '90s.
So how did Michael Jackson, Madonna and the other big-money players fare?
Stockholders of Sony, Time Warner and PolyGram aren't going to be pleased to hear how industry insiders described some of their multimillion-dollar acquisitions:
* "In decline" (Madonna).
* "Out of touch" (Michael Jackson).
* "A manifestation of production" (Janet Jackson).
* "Looks a little lost to me" (Prince).
* "Too old" (Aerosmith)
* "Way too old" (the Rolling Stones).
None of those acts finished in the Top 10 in the poll to determine the pop world's hottest properties--and three didn't finish in the Top 20.
About Madonna, one panelist said: "She is probably the marketing genius of all time, but I think she outgenius-ed herself this time around with the book, the movie and the album. There's really a backlash. . . . I feel sorry for her."
Regarding Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star of the '80s, another panelist declared: "Image-wise he has played himself out, and musically he really isn't keeping up with what is happening to kids today. I think he is gone, over, finished."
So who was the big winner?
Rock 'n' roll.
Despite all the talk about rock's losing its commercial edge as the baby boomers turn to country and easy-listening alternatives, rock acts captured six of the first 10 positions in the poll--including the top four spots.
The top choice: U2, by a margin of almost 2 to 1. With 10 points for every first place mention, nine for every second and so forth, the Irish rock group generated a whopping 165 points. R.E.M. finished second with 95 points, followed by Pearl Jam (83) and Metallica (81).
"I think the next six or seven years in this country are going to be very politically polarized," one panelist said. "I don't see Bill Clinton able to usher in some great new consensus era of good feeling.
"That means there is going to be increasing conflict between the haves and the have-nots. . . . And I think bands like U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Metallica have a pretty good sense of the times they live in . . . and the ability to articulate what is going on around us . . . maybe even to ask more of people and try to bring people together."
To encourage frankness, panelists--drawn from Los Angeles, Nashville and New York-- were told that their names wouldn't be attached to either their choices or the comments about the various acts.
Seventy-nine acts, ranging from veterans like Jimmy Buffett to newcomers like Mary J. Blige, received at least one vote.
In a similar Calendar poll seven years ago, another panel declared these 10 acts (in order) to be the industry's hottest properties: Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, U2, Bryan Adams, Talking Heads, Sting, Eurythmics and Stevie Wonder.
Not bad. Everyone in that Top 5 has since sold at least 5 million albums in the U.S., with U2 and Michael Jackson topping the 10-million mark, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
But there were some goofs. Two of the Top 10--Talking Heads and Eurythmics--broke up before making it out of the '80s.
From No. 1 to No. 20, here is what this year's panelists had to say:
One sign of U2's dominance in the poll is that only six of the 25 panelists left the band off their lists of the 10 hottest properties and two said they passed on U2 because the band was simply too obvious a choice.
The most anti-U2 comment, in fact, had more to do with personal taste than sales prediction. "They're obviously a world-class act, but I've never been a fan," a panelist said, dismissing the group's idealistic, spiritually tinged image as "too politically correct for me."
More typical comments:
* "They've got it all . . . songwriting, musicianship, ambition."
* "Bono has the voice and songwriting capabilities to come up with six or seven hit singles on an album. If that happens, their sales could double overnight."
Any words of caution?
"The only thing I can see hurting them is if Bono gets carried away with himself," one panelist said. "I remember him from the early days when the shows had an innocence, almost a spiritual experience. Now he is doing his Elvis trip, which I know was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it struck me that he was really grooving on it a bit."
Like U2, R.E.M.--the Georgia band whose guitar-ringing folk-rock largely shaped college-rock radio for much of the '80s--is deeply respected. The words integrity , taste and quality were frequently cited by panelists.
And the gap between the two bands may be less than suggested by the poll results. More than half of the panelists who didn't include R.E.M. on their list of 10-hottest properties said the band would have been on a list of 15.
* "My guess is they have 15 years ahead of them and possibly solo records. It's a real franchise act."
* "The last two albums were big even though the band didn't tour. When they do tour again, everyone's going to want to see them, and that will help push sales through the ceiling."
"What if they don't tour? Being away from the public too long could cause people to look for new heroes."
This Seattle band has come a long way with one album, a commercial blockbuster that has been on the national sales charts for more than a year. Though not as critically acclaimed as U2, R.E.M. or even fellow Washington alternative rockers Nirvana, Pearl Jam has a charismatic lead singer in Eddie Vedder.
Just ask the judges:
* "Eddie has to be one of the best front men I've seen in years . . . incredible."
* "Whatever happens to Pearl Jam, this guy is going to be an immense star."
"You can say what you want about Eddie Vedder being a star and the band having its finger on the pulse of today's young rock audience, but they've only had one record."
The Grateful Dead of heavy metal.
That's how one panelist described this veteran Bay Area band because of the loyalty and sense of community among its hard-core followers.
* "Incredible fan loyalty."
* "Every 14-year-old kid who wears a black T-shirt buys a Metallica record, and they always will."
The dissenters said they simply aren't into metal--or they see it still as a limited sales genre.
"They'll probably continue as a steady seller, maybe even 3 million or 4 million copies per album, but they're just not the kind of band that is likely to break through to the 8- to 10-million sellers."
The highest-ranking non-rock act on the list, country singer Brooks--who sold an estimated $231 million in records last year--is viewed as someone "for real" by the pop panelists.
Among the pro-Brooks comments:
* "He knows, like Madonna to a certain extent, how to market himself and how to stay just controversial enough without offending his core audience."
* "If his sales dropped in half next year, you'd still be talking $100 million in albums. I'd settle for that."
But 13 people left Brooks off their lists. Among the reasons cited:
* "He's so huge that I can't help but thinking there's going to be a backlash--and if this country thing winds down, he could be in double trouble."
The panel was sharply divided. Some view Houston as the preeminent female pop singer of the '90s . . . absolutely money in the bank. Others downgrade her as a great voice without any supporting vision--someone who is at the mercy of record producers and songwriters.
Her critics argued that the timing of the poll--at the height of the "I Will Always Love You" success--is one reason she finished so high. A year ago, they pointed out, some viewed her career as stalled.
"She's the Michael Bolton of women . . . too much exaggerated emotion," one panelist snapped.
Others were more flattering in their remarks.
* "With the right career decisions, she could be the Barbra Streisand of the '90s . . . a recording star and a movie star."
Guns N' Roses
The word used most often--by supporters and detractors alike--in describing Axl Rose and company was volatility .
Panelists who worry about the group's explosive nature:
* "A question of how long they are going to be together. Why take a chance when you can invest in R.E.M. or U2?"
* "I would be scared that they would just destroy themselves."
Panelists who made a case for volatility:
* "That volatility is what makes them so famous . . . the possibility that they just might explode--and when they don't, they just get that much bigger."
Boyz II Men
The young R&B group's classy vocals and demeanor have won it a lot of support. It also didn't hurt that Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" stayed at No. 1 on the pop charts for 14 weeks last year, breaking the record of 12 weeks set by Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" 27 years ago.
"In a way, Boyz II Men are the male counterpart of En Vogue . . . an excellent vocal group with the ability to grow," said one panelist.
The concern: The boyz are awfully young.
Thanks to the splendid hit single "Tennessee" and the striking "Revolution" track from Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X," this group rose quickly during 1992 to a position of leadership in pop and rap. The ninth-place showing is remarkable when you consider no other rap artist made the Top 20--a sign of the high turnover in the street-oriented genre.
* "The debut album was remarkable--subtle, poignant, full of surprises."
But most panelists couldn't overcome their worries about any young rap act.
"You are hot for a couple of albums and then someone comes along and does it better," warned one panelist. "Remember De La Soul? Remember Run-DMC?"
Nine Inch Nails
NIN's Trent Reznor is the darling of industrial rock, but the band--which won't make its major-label debut until this spring--seemed a long shot to make the poll's Top 10.
"The industrial rock genre is ready to explode and this looks like the act with the ambition and talent to benefit most from that," one panelist explained.
* "Two big 'ifs': What if industrial rock proves to be a dud? What if Nine Inch Nails' album proves to be a dud?"
The Second 10
En Vogue: This quartet is often called the Supremes of the '90s--a comparison that led six voters to label En Vogue one of pop's hottest properties.
"They have a great sense of style and are probably the most talented singing group out there right now, so they should be around for years," said one backer.
Janet Jackson: If Whitney Houston benefited from the timing of the poll, Jackson probably suffered from it because she has been inactive since the enormous success of her "Rhythm Nation" album in 1989. But the doubts ran deep on the woman who was signed by Virgin Records two years ago to a $30-million contract.
* "Lots of questions here. What if she breaks up with (producers) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis? What happens if the film (she stars in John Singleton's "Poetic Justice") proves to be a big hit and she starts dividing her time between movies and music?"
Yet Jackson had support:
* "She's young, incredibly driven, talented in so many areas . . . music, dance, performance. She's a winner."
Madonna: Only five panelists put Madonna on their Top 10, but everyone had a strong opinion about her.
Typical of the support:
* "She's as big a star as there is and people will always buy her record."
* "She's a sharp cookie . . . shrewd enough to pick herself up and see where she might have gone wrong over the past year and turn it around."
Signs of the backlash:
* "She has had a remarkable streak, but I think she has finally worn on everybody."
* "She has always been based more on style than on substance and the danger is that when styles change and you're no longer right in step with the moment, you're going to get nuked."
Michael Jackson: The debate over the King of Pop was no less intense than that over Madonna--and the central issue again was image.
Sample comments from the true believers:
* "No matter what I think about his look or his face, I think he is incredible and that he has the ability to do whatever he wants to do."
* "Even though his coolness quotient has way peaked in this country, he probably still has the biggest name value in an ever-expanding international marketplace. That means he is still capable of pulling off a 20-million hit."
Thanks, but no thanks:
* "His image is so tarnished that he may never be able to recover the kind of popularity he had."
* "It's sad to say it, but he's on the verge of self-parody."
* "What can I say? I just don't feel it anymore."
Bruce Springsteen: The man who topped a similar Calendar poll in 1985 only picked up four votes this time around, even though almost everyone surveyed mentioned their respect for the man who used to be called the Boss.
Typical of many panelists' attitude: "One of my favorites and I'm pulling for him, but I think I'd sign someone else. I don't see him in this (Top 10 sales) class anymore."
The voices of support:
* "People are going to be sorry if they let the 'backlash' talk keep them from signing Springsteen. That backlash was like a weekend in May in the guy's career--and it's already past."
* "Bruce is a great writer. You can't stop that. It's not a style thing. He's gonna make some more great records. You think Eric Clapton sold records with an acoustic album? Wait till Bruce makes his."
Michael Bolton: Critics aren't the only ones with reservations about Michael Bolton's melodramatic vocal style--and staying power.
* "I don't consider Bolton a threat in any way. He could disappear in a minute. The guy could be Barry Manilow in five minutes."
On the positive side:
* "It's no accident that he's selling millions of records. He's a great singer who should sell millions of records as long as he doesn't start alienating the public the way he does the press."
Mariah Carey: One panelist dismissed Carey as unproven, another called her a lightweight--"She's to Whitney Houston what Bryan Adams is to Bruce Springsteen."
But Carey's supporters spoke passionately about her:
* "She has the combination of an amazing vocal ability, songwriting ability and studio production ability . . . and she's 21."
Red Hot Chili Peppers: The colorful Peppers broke through to the commercial big time last year, but only five panelists were encouraged enough about the band's future to place them in their Top 10.
"They've learned the art of writing a song . . . learned what melody can do," said one panelist of the group's breakthrough.
Countered another: "A bit outclassed by this field."
Nirvana: "Nevermind" will stand as one of the great rock albums of the '90s, but will the band itself be able to repeat either its critical or commercial wallop? Lots of respect for Kurt Cobain as a writer, but also lots of questions about the pressures on him and whether he wants to be a mainstream hero.
"I think Kurt is one of the best songwriters in a long time, along the level of a Tom Petty or a Neil Young," summarized a supporter. "When you get a songwriter that young, you have an investment for years."
But the pressures worry many.
* "I'd be more concerned about Nirvana's volatility than Guns N' Roses'," said another panelist. "At least Guns has been in the rock spotlight for six or seven years now. Nirvana has only been in it for six or seven months."
George Michael: The Grammy glow and commercial punch of 1987's "Faith" seem a long way away now. Several panelists see Michael as a problem case. They blame the sales decline of his last album on Michael's reluctance to tour and star in his promotional videos. And his current lawsuit against his record company, Sony, hasn't helped soothe the concerns.
"You never know what this lawsuit business will do to him," one panelist said. "Sometimes artists bounce back from that just fine, but other times it seems to take something out of them. . . . My personal feeling is that he has kind of lost his way."
The problems don't bother some panelists: "He's a great songwriter, just in his early 30s, and I think he will continue his trek through a much more socially conscious music making."
Michael Anthony, Executive Vice President, Sony Music
Ken Barnes, Senior Vice President and Editor, Radio & Records magazine
Tony Brown, President, MCA Records/Nashville
Glen Brunman, Senior Vice President, Epic Soundtrax
Jheryl Busby, President & CEO, Motown Records Co
Al Cafaro, CEO & President, A&M Records
Reginald C. Dennis, Music Editor, The Source magazine
Rick Dobbis, President & CEO, PolyGram Label Group
Tim DuBois, Vice President and General Manager, Arista Nashville
Ed Eckstine, President, Mercury Records
Danny Goldberg, Senior Vice President, Atlantic Records
Trudy Green, Manager, HK Management
Andre Harrell, Chief Executive Officer, Uptown Entertainment
Jimmy Iovine, Co-Head, Interscope Records
John Kalodner, A&R Executive, Geffen Records
Howie Klein, Vice President and General Manager, Sire Records
Bob Krasnow, Chairman, Elektra Entertainment
Monica Lynch, President, Tommy Boy Records
Benny Medina, Senior Vice President for A&R, Warner Bros. Records
Hale Milgrim, President & CEO, Capital Records
Richard Palmese, President, MCA Records
L.A. Reid, Co-President, LaFace Records
Sylvia Rhone, Chair & CEO, EastWest Records America
Rick Rubin, President-Owner, Def American Records
Evelyn Shriver, Owner, Evelyn Shriver Public Relations
The Top 20
Artist Total Points* Total Ballots** 1. U2 165 19 2. R.E.M. 95 13 3. Pearl Jam 83 12 4. Metallica 81 12 5. Garth Brooks 75 12 6. Whitney Houston 69 11 7. Guns N' Roses 54 8 8. Boyz II Men 44 7 9. Arrested Development 40 10 10. Nine Inch Nails 38 7 11. En Vogue 30 6 12. Janet Jackson 30 5 13. Madonna 29 5 14. Michael Jackson 27 5 15. Bruce Springsteen 22 4 16. Michael Bolton 20 5 Mariah Carey 20 5 Red Hot Chili Peppers 20 5 20. George Michael 18 3
* The point system: 10 points for every first place mention on the 25 ballots, nine for every second place, etc.
* * 25 Possible