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‘American Idol’: How Disney’s Approach to the Winner’s Music Breaks From the Past

A new strategy is emerging as Hollywood Records prepares its first release from the franchise.

ABC’s inaugural “American Idol” season comes to a close on May 21. But for Disney’s powerful marketing machine, to use a term ripped from the hit reality show, the “journey” is just beginning.

The singing competition, which studio executives recently renewed amid ratings momentum, is set to launch a promotional assault for the show’s remaining finalists. And Disney plans to support the winning singers using the full breadth of its $150 billion empire, including theme parks, television networks and music divisions. There’s everything but a chorus of “Star Wars” Imperial stormtroopers.

Disney, known for its acumen in turning out lucrative franchises, wants to bring the sort of firepower that previous seasons were either missing or neglected. Fox’s track record in producing hit acts among the winners varied dramatically during “Idol’s” 15 seasons on the network, with only a handful of names like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson breaking into the big time.

“Something I was pretty emphatic about, that always felt like a miss for the show, was that we have to continue telling the story of the winner,” Disney Music Group president Ken Bunt tells Variety. By tapping into built-in Disney assets, the label can tell that story in a variety of ways, he adds. “More opportunities with ABC, when you think of the specials they have; what we could be doing with the parks; maybe a TV show on Freeform,” he posits. “Previous ‘Idols’ never did that. We want to keep the talent from the show at top-of-mind for the rest of the year.”

Bunt, whose group is the force behind the Oscar- and Grammy-winning soundtrack “Frozen” and pop stars like Demi Lovato, is already carefully planning the finalists’ next steps. For instance, Disney recently canvassed music publishers, songwriters and managers with a detailed one-sheet requesting fresh music for the aspiring singers (see it below). The wish list included a request for “acoustic-leaning pop songs with a very genuine message” for folksy contender Maddie Poppe and “cool, dynamic rock songs” for long-haired Cade Foehner (eliminated on May 13).

Bunt says the aim is to give “Idol” contestants more of a say in their future at Disney, which operates Hollywood Records, Walt Disney Records and Disney Music Publishing. “It’s a much more collaborative way of working.”

With a five-member A&R team headed by SVP and head of creative Mio Vukovic, each of the “Idol” finalists was played four songs, Bunt explains. “Songs that [DMG] writers had written on, ones we found on the outside and songs that were submitted, and we let them pick what works for them. It makes them feel authentic and empowers them.”

AMERICAN IDOL - "115 (Top 10 - Disney Night)" - "American Idol" heads to the happiest place on earth, Disneyland Resort, then returns to the Idol stage with a sprinkle of magic to perform fan-favorite Disney songs, as the search for AmericaÕs next superstar continues on its new home on AmericaÕs network, The ABC Television Network, SUNDAY, APRIL 29 (8:00-10:01 p.m. EDT/5:00-7:01 p.m. PDT). (ABC/Eric McCandless)DONALD DUCK, LIONEL RICHIE, MINNIE MOUSE, KATY PERRY, MICKEY MOUSE, LUKE BRYAN, GOOFY, RYAN SEACREST
CREDIT: ABC

That’s a departure from the show’s sometimes controversial past. In 2007, Clarkson and then-Sony BMG chief Clive Davis — who became music partner to “Idol” when the show launched in 2002 — famously clashed over the direction of her albums. The singer alleged during the feud that Davis stifled her ability to write her own songs.

“Idol” producers Fremantle Media and Core Media got a new music partner in 2011 when Universal Music Group came in and Jimmy Iovine took over the A&R reins (he also appeared on the show regularly as a mentor). The UMG era spawned a bonafide success in season 11 victor Phillip Phillips. In 2015, Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records (home to Taylor Swift) stepped in for Iovine and offered the more country-leaning finalists a home. The label is set to release a debut album, “You Got ‘Em All,” by season 15 winner Trent Harmon on May 18.

But even as the prize value, a recording contract, has also diminished over time, from an advance of $250,000-plus in its early years to a quarter that amount as the Fox run ended, some tried-and-true “Idol” tactics remain from the pre-Disney era. Among them is the immediate release of a “coronation song,” followed by press and radio promotion on both coasts and a summer tour featuring the final seven. Disney is also prioritizing making a music video and recording a batch of holiday songs.

Will the company be able to transform the finalists — Poppe, Gabby Barrett and Caleb Lee Hutchinson — into marketable megastars? “It’s going to test the mettle of that label,” says one “Idol” source.

Another insider suggests that the biggest hurdle is that much of the focus is on the TV show and not necessarily the music. “It can’t just be casting,” says a TV music veteran, who adds that, in past years, “part of the problem has been that the labels aren’t getting involved from the beginning and plugging into the A&R process. You need full engagement and it has to be a much more cohesive partnership even months before the show starts.”

To that end, Disney, which specializes in developing young stars (see: the Jonas Brothers, Lovato, Selena Gomez), may have a unique advantage, so long as the music matches the performer. Says Borchetta of his “Idol” experience: “It was an extraordinary education on the TV side. On the label side, you hope that you can get that right song so you can come out the box with something really competitive. But it is not easy.”

With additional reporting by Michele Amabile Angermiller

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