Labels once held sway over show's first acts

It takes a lot of pull to get the Police and Simon & Garfunkel to appear onstage.

One would think such lightning-in-a-bottle Grammy openers are the brainchildren of savvy music managers and record label execs who lean on the show’s producers. After all, an artist’s Grammy performance translates into an immediate bump in record sales — something akin to cold spring water in an industry that’s been parched by online music sharing.

Yet when it comes to jumpstarting the Grammys, the labels nowadays have nothing to do with it.

“It all comes out of Ken Ehrlich’s head,” vouches the show’s talent exec, Renato Basile, about the Grammys’ executive producer, who is in his 29th year running the kudocast.

Music insiders contend there was a time in the early ’90s when the major labels, especially those that controlled most of the Grammy-nominated talent, would attempt to leave their fingerprints on the Grammy lineup. As the industry has buckled, however, the suits have lost their sway. In fact, record labels shy away from the subject of their involvement with the kudocast simply because it’s Ehrlich’s show.

“When Beyonce and Prince performed together in 2004, it was Ken who made a phone call to them,” Basile says. In staging the Prince/Beyonce duet of his “Purple Rain” and her “Crazy in Love,” “Prince laid out beat-by-beat what he wanted to do,” Ehrlich says.

While the opening act is typically not the highest-rated segment of the Grammycast, it may be viewed as the hook that reels viewers in. It’s also the benchmark for the night’s other performers to top. This year nominees such as Coldplay, Katy Perry, Paul McCartney, the Jonas Brothers and Radiohead are skedded to take the stage. But the opening act is always kept under wraps.

“Our agenda is to kick off the show and to create those watercooler moments,” Ehrlich says. “The Grammys is always about the family of music, and you want to take artists who typically don’t tour together and create a moment.”

Among the Grammys’ adult 18-49 audience over the past seven years, the Prince/Beyonce opener ranks as the highest-rated first 15 minutes for the show, garnering a 10.2 rating. The second highest rated belonged to the 2003 Simon & Garfunkel reunion with “Sounds of Silence” (9.9), followed by 2007’s Police reunion performance of “Roxanne” (7.6).

The quarter Nielsen ratings for the kudocast tend to swell after the opening, hitting a high an hour in before gradually sliding toward the end.

Ehrlich and Basile contend they don’t have any rules when it comes to their Grammy lineups. But they will typically lead with a musical icon, such as Madonna, who has opened for the show three times since 1999. Fresh acts like the virtual band Gorillaz are typically paired with an icon, as was the case in 2006 when that band’s song “Feel Good Inc.” was grouped with Madonna’s “Hung Up.”

“If there is a pattern, it’s that I keep thinking about the live audience,” Ehrlich says. “It’s critical to get them excited about the show.”

There are anomalies to the pattern when a fresh face alone will open the show. However, as former Sony Music topper Tommy Mottola points out, the act “has to be a secret weapon, and that act has to blow the audience away.”

Ehrlich took the chance in 1982 by opening with a then-burgeoning James Ingram, who sang the ballad “Just Once” off of Quincy Jones’ album “The Dude.”

“Not many people knew of him, but I had fallen in love with this song,” Ehrlich says. “When I told Quincy that I wanted to open the show with it, he nearly fell over. But Ingram received a standing ovation — a moment that in recent times was equivalent to when Ricky Martin performed (in 1999).”

With its nostalgic appeal, last year’s Alicia Keys piano duet with a screen version of Frank Sinatra on his standard “Learning the Blues” marked a significant departure from 2005, when Ehrlich ambitiously strung together six acts — Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, Eve, Maroon 5, Franz Ferdinand and Los Lonely Boys — in a 10-minute stretch. Each played a song back to back, climaxing with all them singing their own tunes simultaneously.

It was “an audio nightmare since the segments had to be seamless,” Basile exclaims. “You’ll never see us stage that again.”

Ehrlich adds, “We initially planned that number backwards, starting with the artists’ ultimate mash-up, then giving them their own moment.”

Unlike the Oscar production team, which promptly begins working on their opening number for the show upon the announcement of a producer, Ehrlich doesn’t decide what’s first until he has two-thirds of the show booked.

“I don’t like to fall in love with an idea, because then I’ll hesitate to change it,” Ehrlich says. “I keep an extremely open mind until I have enough information to make a considered judgment.”

Tip Sheet

What: The 51st Grammy Awards

When: Sunday 8 p.m. ET/ PT on CBS; 5 p.m. PT at venue

Where: Staples Center, L.A.

Web: Grammy.com

Wattage: Coldplay, Lil Wayne, Paul McCartney, Duffy, Radiohead, Kanye West and others

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