Studio Report Card: DreamWorks

Artist-friendly air draws acts, not greenbacks

Dreamworks continued on its well-established path of offering albums known more for their creative spark than commercial success, while offering a creative-friendly environment for both acts and its execs.

Label poster artists such as Elliott Smith and the Eels released widely praised followup discs, and newcomer Rufus Wainwright topped many best-of lists, though none of the discs earned sales-related headlines.

The big ink of the year was earned by the label’s release of the three “Prince of Egypt” soundtrack albums, with pop, country and inspirational music, respectively.

The discs have been creeping up the sales charts since their Thanksgiving bow and are led by the pop album — which is being driven by the Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet “When You Believe.” The discs have collectively sold more than 1 million copies.

DreamWorks caused some industry head-scratching with its jump into country music that heralded the return of Randy Travis. Once a genre giant, Travis had Music City execs wondering if his growing interest in acting and the shift toward a more pop-flavored country music had diluted his cache among fans and retailers.

And DreamWorks’ entry into the urban marketplace and the hiring of former Motown Records and Mercury Records chief Jheryl Busby was widely viewed as late, but the timing defended by label chiefs as propitious, given the leveling off of the genre’s red-hot environment.

Indeed, several labels who depended on the genre in 1997 had a less- than-auspicious 1998, and are now regrouping.

The most frequent criticism heard from envious rival label captains, under intense pressure from parent congloms to boost profits and cut costs, is that DreamWorks boasts too many chiefs, has a big overhead and has gone too long without a breakout hit record. These are criteria, they note, that at any other label would have resulted in massive staff cuts to help boost bottom-line numbers.

Yet the label keeps growing, and despite industry sniping and the lack of big hits at the four year-old label, DreamWorks co-captains Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and Michael Ostin remain at the top of the lists of both artist managers seeking deals for their clients, and industry execs seeking new jobs.



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