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Bruno Mars: Billboard Artist of the Year Cover Story

Bruno Mars
Kai Z. Feng

Jukebox Hero: How did Bruno Mars become Billboard’s Artist of the Year? He grabbed hold of the album and single charts and never let go

It's a few days before the Grammy Award nominations are announced, and Bruno Mars is shaking off predictions with an easy laugh. Eventually, he'll score four noms-including record and song of the year for "Locked Out of Heaven"-but for the moment about all he wants to say is, "It's nice to get dressed up and take your lady out."

In part that's because right now Mars is processing another achievement: Billboard's top artist of the year for 2013. Kicked back on the arm of a gray sofa inside West Hollywood's Quixote Studios, the singer/songwriter/producer-wearing dark blue jeans, a red and black plaid shirt and black Vans, no socks-is also the first male to claim the title since 2008. As he thanks Billboard for the honor, the smiling Mars ruminates, "What makes you artist of the year? Can we throw 'best jump shot' in there?"

2013: The Year in Music

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THE YEAR IN MUSIC 2013: Main Page
YEAR-END 2013 CHARTS:
Hot 100 | Billboard 200 | Tours

During a year defined by mainstream breakouts (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Imagine Dragons), pop divas (Taylor Swift, P!nk, Rihanna, Katy Perry) and retro R&B (Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke), Mars' artist of the year nod may come as a surprise. But as if on a stealth mission, the adventurous "Unorthodox Jukebox" commanded a steady presence on the Billboard 200 following its No. 2 debut last December. Remaining in the top 20 every week since then through the Sept. 14 issue, the Atlantic album hit No. 1 in its 12th week. To date, Unorthodox Jukebox has sold 1.8 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The year-end top artist tally also factors in activity on the Billboard Hot 100. Mars' album spun off three top 10 singles: "Locked Out of Heaven" (six weeks at No. 1), "When I Was Your Man" (No. 1 for a week) and "Treasure" (No. 5). Also figured into the equation are social, ringtone and Billboard Boxscore data. In the lattermost instance, Mars' Moonshine Jungle world tour finished at No. 23 on Billboard's Top 25 Tours list (see story, page 146). Kicking off June 22 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the sold-out arena trek has thus far logged 48 dates in North America-including two nights at the Staples Center-posting a total attendance of 667,000 with a gross of $46.4 million.

The Mars machine revs up again in 2014. His world tour resumes Feb. 28 with 10 dates in Australia and New Zealand. Then it's on to Asia, beginning March 20 in Bangkok before heading to Mexico City on Sept. 2. Another North American leg, which starts this summer, will be announced shortly. But in the meantime, Mars has several other engagements to fulfill.

Bruno's Coming Back
While dates will be announced later, Billboard has snagged the list of cities for the next leg of Bruno's North American tour, starting Summer 2014: Albany, NY / Birmingham, AL / Boston, MA / Bristow, VA / Buffalo, NY / Calgary, AB / Camden, NJ / Chicago, IL / Cincinnati, OH / Cleveland, OH / Columbia, SC / Detroit, MI / Englewood, CO / Eugene, OR / Fresno, CA / George, WA / Grand Rapids, MI / Hartford, CT / Hershey, PA / Lake Tahoe, NV / Little Rock, AK / Los Angeles, CA / Manchester, NH / Memphis, TN / Milwaukee, WI / Minneapolis, MN / Montreal, QC / New Orleans, LA / New York City, NY / Oakland, CA / Omaha, NE / Ottawa, ON / Raleigh, NC / San Jose, CA / Saskatoon, SK / Toronto, ON / Tulsa, OK / Winnipeg, MB

First up, his two-day residency at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31. Next it's on to the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. While he didn't earn an album of the year nod, he is vying for four gramophones: Besides the nominations for "Locked Out of Heaven," he is up for pop solo performance for "When I Was Your Man" and best pop vocal album. Then there's the icing on the cake for the 28-year-old: playing the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVIII Halftime Show on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Between the timeless quality of his music and the precision spectacle of his TV and stage performances, Mars is on track to become that seemingly rare industry entity: a career artist.

"It's been an incredible year," says manager Brandon Creed when asked about Mars' ascension in the last 14 months. "We definitely had goals going into this project to support the artist, his music and performance. But we tried to do everything for a purpose, nothing gratuitous. And we're continuing to lay and build the foundation for him to evolve musically and continue to connect with the audience."

"No one is handing Bruno Mars a record to make," Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says of Mars' career drive. "He's writing, producing with collaborative partners, singing, playing, choreographing-a quintuple threat who's great at executing his vision."

After working hard to crystallize his creative vision for Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars says simply that "now is the fun time" as he lives out the life his success has made possible. "My dream was to not get a day job but to sleep, wake up and do my music. And hopefully, my music does all the talking. I want to keep that dream forever. That's it. That's what I love to do."

Year-End Chart: Top Artists of 2013

This time last year, industry observers were wondering if fans would love "Unorthodox Jukebox." During a preview of the album for Billboard two months earlier (Billboard, Oct. 6, 2012), Mars declared his artistic freedom. "This is me... recording and writing whatever I want. You're going to feel a little more me and what I stand for."

The album was full of unexpected turns, and it confused some early listeners. Mars' infectious laugh and musical passion pepper his conversation as he recounts some of the comments he heard before the album's release. "People were saying, 'Man, the second album is the most important because there's the sophomore jinx.' Or, 'Did he get lucky? Will he be able to do it again?' I'm like, 'Where is this coming from?' I didn't know whether people or radio was going to like it. I just knew that I need to love it, that I gave it everything. That's the feeling I tried for with every song I put on this album and with everything I write."

Whereas Mars' platinum 2010 debut, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," carried an easygoing pop and retro-R&B vibe, including hit singles "Just the Way You Are" and "Grenade," Unorthodox Jukebox is more ambitious, but no less catchy. The 10-track set veers from pop anthem "Young Girls" to the sex-themed rock of "Gorilla" (with its opening boast "I've got a body full of liquor and cocaine kicker") to soulful ballad "When I Was Your Man." In between are the hook-laden R&B of "Treasure," the reggae-fused "Show Me" and the new-wave skank of the single that got Mars' sophomore party started: "Locked Out of Heaven."

With its refreshing guitar riffs and retro influences recalling the Police and Bob Marley, the track didn't sound like anything else on the radio. Mars underscored that when "Saturday Night Live" invited him to host and perform it (as well as "Young Girls") for the first time. Then in February, the Grammys came calling. Although Mars wasn't nominated for an award, producer Ken Ehrlich asked him to perform in a tribute to Marley with Rihanna and the Marley family. And that morphed into a performance of "Locked Out of Heaven" with Sting.

"I told Ken, 'If you can make that happen, it will be an honor,'" Mars says. "It turned out to be the coolest way to kick off an album."

Mars, of course, was no stranger to the Hot 100 at that point. He began amassing a string of hits in 2009 as a member of songwriting/production trio the Smeezingtons (with Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence). In addition to writing Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" and Travie McCoy's "Billionaire," the Smeezingtons also churned out hits for Mars including "Grenade" and "Just the Way You Are." The latter gave the singer his first Grammy for best male pop vocal performance.

Asked why these songs and his current crop of "Unorthodox Jukebox" tracks have clicked with fans, Mars points to the trust that he, Levine and Lawrence have built in seven years of working together.

"I may say, 'Yo, I like this song,'" he says. "But if Ari or Phil say it's the corniest shit they've ever heard, I trust them. And the other way around. We all know when we're onto something, like with 'Locked.' It was, 'Man, there's a good pocket on this song right now. Let's keep it going.' We also know when something's not jelling. And that's the thing you pray you will always have. You can't believe that everything you do is hot."

Levine points to the musical influences the three of them share, including the Beatles, Police and Motown to Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson and disco. "It's about finding ways to mix the classic we all love with modern songs," he adds. "That's why people connect to the music on multiple levels: It's familiar-sounding but new-classic songwriting and instrumentation with a little twist."

NEXT PAGE: Why Mars Landed the Super Bowl

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And there's also the fearless factor. In addition to the Smeezingtons, Mars personally asked such producers as Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker to collaborate with him. "It's not about what's hot on the radio or the fastest way to make a buck," Mars says. "These guys are fearless, doing the music they want to do."

While melody and lyrics are important, Mars remembers the biggest lesson he was taught when he started writing songs focused on rhythm: Does it make you move? Make you dance? Whether the song is up­tempo or a ballad, Mars says, "there has to be a heartbeat in back of it. There needs to be a pulse in the song."

Since kicking off the Moonshine Jungle tour in June-with opening acts including Ellie Goulding and Fitz & the Tantrums-Mars has been keeping audiences dancing in various arenas across North America through the summer. Then, following a performance at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas on Sept. 21, he traveled to the United Kingdom and Europe for a two-month arena tour.

2013: The Year in Music

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THE YEAR IN MUSIC 2013: Main Page
Bruno Mars: Artist of the Year Q&A
YEAR-END 2013 CHARTS:
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Co-manager Creed says playing arenas was on the list of goals he and Williams Morris Endeavor music division partner John Marx had for this year after the groundwork had been laid in smaller venues on behalf of "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" -- which turned out to be underplays that worked to their advantage now. "We probably left a lot of tickets on the table with the first album," he says of opportunities offered then to play larger venues than theaters and ballrooms. "But it was so we could come bigger this time.

"Something happens when Bruno performs on TV and in concert," Creed continues. "Having poured himself into his songwriting, then singing and recording the songs, they flow through his veins-it's his pulse. And at the end of the day, that's what people want: a connection with someone speaking the words they wish they could say. And on the other side, Bruno and the band are having a blast onstage, so you can't not have a good time. It's an infectious environment, the show you can't miss."

Smeezingtons partner Lawrence adds, "There's nothing contrived about Bruno. He's a genuine person who's extremely passionate but also likes to be silly and cracks. And that's what sucks people into this special kind of energy. It harkens back to Earth Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson when people came to a show and got a show."

And that's exactly what made the NFL offer Mars the Super Bowl halftime slot. Compared with recent halftime headliners the Black Eyed Peas, Madonna and Beyonce, Mars has fewer years in the spotlight. But he matches them in live performance power, as the NFL's Sarah Moll and Tracy Perlman realized when they saw the Moonshine Jungle tour several times this summer.

"If you go to his concerts, it's 11-year-old girls to 65-year-old women-it's everyone," director of entertainment and TV programming Moll says. VP of entertainment marketing and promotions Perlman adds, "Our fans engage with music regardless of genre or gender, and people like Beyonce have helped us hit on all cylinders. We really feel we'll be able to do the same with Bruno this year."

Moll, who books the halftime performers, and the NFL's entertainment team started working with Mars and his management on the halftime set list around Thanksgiving week. They'll spend the remainder of 2013 mapping out the production and staging, not to mention the guest list. "He's got a few calls to make," Moll says, hinting that Mars' 12-minute set won't be an entirely solo affair.

In the meantime, Mars and his band have been "fooling around, having a blast" prepping for the high-profile gig at the outdoor MetLife Stadium during tour sound checks. "But being from Hawaii, me and the cold don't really speak that often," he says with a shudder. "And everyone is saying there's going to be a blizzard. So how do you rehearse for that? Go perform in meat lockers?"

When the Moonshine Jungle tour picks up again in late February, fans can expect some tweaking of the set list and opening acts. For now, however, Mars is reveling in being a rolling stone without a schedule. He's been catching up on concerts (Beyonce's Dec. 3 show at Staples), eating ice cream and getting into "American Horror Story" on Fox ("Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates are killing it").

As for his next studio album, Mars says his "in" box is empty right now. "There's going to be a point on the tour where I'll wish I had a new song or 10 more songs to sing. That's when the excitement comes back and you start working that muscle, ready to get back into the studio.

"But I'm good right now," he hastens to add. "If you put me in the studio, I don't know what I'd come up with, because I'm so enjoying this moment right now."

Additional reporting by Andrew Hampp in New York.