Keeping up with the Joneses

Singer-songwriters still face slow going despite thrush's breakout

HOLLYWOOD — When Norah Jones walked away from the Grammys with five trophies in February, the thrush’s success ostensibly signaled a return to prominence — and bankability — for singer-songwriters.

But three months later, music mavens are still waiting for the next singer-songwriter phenom to emerge. The record industry would, in fact, love to be awash in singer-songwriters who go the extra mile to market their work with the potential of doing business on the scale of Jones — or Dave Matthews or John Mayer — selling 2 million to 4 million copies of an album.

Indeed, Jones’ success was a sign that if an album is marketed savvily, sales and audience size will build gradually.

The problem is, every new act needs a new approach.

The key for establishing these artists, says Columbia Records president Will Botwin, is not jumping levels, going from one to 10. It’s about investing in the process. It’s about spending time to create a marketing approach and using a lot of creativity.

“There wasn’t a place on the map to break John Mayer,” Botwin says. “If we started by trying to get registered on the pop radar, he wouldn’t be where he is now.”

Over the past several months, Columbia has embarked on reintroducing solo singer-songwriters Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins and Matthew Sweet under the aegis of the Thorns, a power pop group combining all three talents.

They’re signed to Aware Records, which has an A&R agreement with Columbia. The Chicago indie expanded its traditionally less-than-six-figure budgets to bring in producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising”), drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Roy Bittan of the E Street Band.

The Thorns spent much of March and April on the road doing acoustic gigs for record and radio biz types.

They also shot scenes for NBC’s “American Dreams,” appearing as buskers singing the Beach Boys’ “Warmth of the Sun” and an original tune titled “I Can’t Remember.”

Singer-songwriters have long been record companies’ ideal performers — if for no other reason than they represent the complete, integrity-laden, package.

But they were pretty much discarded in the second half of the 1990s in favor of manufactured pop acts and rappers that need far less artist development and generate quick sales out of the box.

Suzanne Vega, a beacon of songwriting in the late 1980s-early ’90s, for example, is currently unsigned.

Legions of male singer-songwriters turned to self-releasing albums, diversifying or diluting their sound and looking for opportunities via the Internet.

Others — like Tom McRae and the singularly named Wood — got a chance to release one album on a major and then quickly returned to the indie world when slow sales turned off the majors.

Labels have tried hybrids — teen singers who play their instruments and compose — and there’s a shift in the wind that suggests the real deals (Ryan Adams, Pete Yorn, Lucinda Williams) are finding more open doors at music congloms.

But their efforts won’t be found in singles charts, as there’s no suggestion that they’ll cut into the 80-90% average that rap and R&B run in the top 20. Albums, too, require a stick-to-it attitude from execs that industry observers say is impossible to find in the current “we need hits today” climate.

Singer-songwriters also need the artist development departments that have largely disappeared from the majors.

“There’s no sense of the value of talent,” says Richard Thompson, the Brit folk-rock guitar virtuoso who has recorded for four labels over the course of 31 years and whose “The Old Kit Bag” (for the Cooking Vinyl indie label) just bowed at No. 121 on the Billboard album chart. “With a small label you are in partnership and you’re privy to their every decision. The downside is a lack of clout.”

There are exceptions to the malaise.

Columbia has been consistent in its support of singer-songwriters; genre staples Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have been with the label for more than 40 and 30 years, respectively.

And Yorn did the label proud with a debut week of nearly 73,000 units sold between April 15 and 20. It made him the only singer-songwriter in the top 20 besides Jones.

“Pete Yorn never sold more than 14,000 copies (of his debut) in a week, but there was a lot of talk,” Botwin says. “Yet it went gold and we felt there was a significant response to him.”

Getting Yorn to a sophomore album was a no-brainer for Botwin, who asks a series of questions about any act that doesn’t instantly race up the sales charts.

“We’re always looking at factors other than sales,” he says. “Is the audience building? Is it active? Are they passionate? And hard work can never be underestimated — are they touring and stopping by radio stations, performing six days a week?”

Norah Jones is a perfect artist by those definitions. But with a tour slated for summer, she won’t have a second album out until after March 2004.

Jesse Harris, who won the song of the year Grammy for writing “Don’t Know Why” for Jones, has spent the last nine months or so co-writing with young artists such as Virgin Records act Rick Fonte. Harris’ major label debut — “The Secret Sun,” on Universal’s Blue Thumb — hit stores May 20.

While he’s certainly appreciative of the fact that the Jones connection offers a built-in audience, Harris notes, “Anybody expecting a male Norah won’t find it.”

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