Last spring, James Durbin, a 22-year-old metal enthusiast with a booming voice, finished fourth during the 10th season of "American Idol." He was visibly upset when he was eliminated, but declared in a press conference the next day, "I haven't failed at all. This is just the beginning."
Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, the 10th season's respective winner and runner-up, have already notched top five debuts on the Billboard 200 with their first albums. While McCreery and Alaina are country acts, Durbin's oeuvre is bombastic rock: He performed on "Idol" with Judas Priest and Zakk Wylde, and new single "Stand Up," which has sold 6,000 copies since its Sept. 25 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan, features an incinerating guitar riff and the chorus, "It's time to see you stand up/Let me see your hands up."
Durbin believes that "Memories of a Beautiful Disaster," which arrived Nov. 21 on Wind-up Records, will echo the singer that fans heard on "Idol": a sensitive, passionate rock geek who has struggled with Tourette's syndrome. The album bows at No. 36 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 8 on Rock Albums with 28,000 sold.
"The underlying theme of the album is bullying and being an outsider, because growing up, I wasn't the popular kid at school," Durbin says. "I've heard from fans about how inspiring I am to their kids through singing covers on 'Idol,' and now I get to put out my record and give these people real emotion, stuff that I've gone through and someone to look up to."
Aside from 2006 contestant Chris Daughtry, whose band has moved 6.1 million copies of its two albums, according to SoundScan, no "Idol" contestant has made a long-lasting dent on rock radio. But when Wind-up senior VP of marketing Bill Richards watched Durbin's set during the American Idols Live! tour stop at New York's Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in late August, he realized the singer could break the spell.
"It's a fairly sedate show, very family-oriented," Richards says of Idols Live! "And when [Durbin] comes on he just goes, 'Everyone get up!,' and it turns into a huge rock show for his few songs, and you're like, 'Oh, OK, he's the real deal.'"
Durbin says that, after rejecting other label suitors as "too corporate," he was thrilled to join a roster that includes Evanescence, Seether and Creed. Durbin signed with Wind-up on Sept. 7 and began recording "Memories" in Los Angeles with veteran producer Howard Benson ( My Chemical Romance, Daughtry) as the "Idol" tour was wrapping up. He had an entire album ready to be mastered in less than three weeks.
Because of the album's quick turnaround, the marketing rollout will be slowly paced, with late-night TV appearances coming after street week and a return performance on season 11 of "American Idol" planned for the spring. "Stand Up" has been serviced to rock radio, and the more melodic "Love Me Bad" has been sent to mainstream and adult top 40. Durbin recently shot videos for both tracks, and the "Love Me Bad" clip was unveiled Nov. 16.
Richards expects the artist to kick off a mix of headlining shows and supporting gigs early next year. Durbin's music is already being heard in stadiums: Through a partnership with the NFL, "Stand Up" is featured on Official Gameday Music, Vol. 2, an EP released by Banshee Music that features similar hard rock tracks heard at football games. Durbin also recorded 32 custom clips of "Stand Up" for each team, which are screening in NFL stadiums.
But can Durbin overcome the "Idol" pop/country brand and be embraced by hard rock fans? "I'll be the first to admit it's not easy, but . . . it's understanding who the rock audience is and who the audience for James Durbin's brand is," manager Josh Klemme says. "We ultimately decided to work with Wind-up Records because they're a big home for rock. We solicited an NFL partnership for him because the NFL audience is a rock audience. It's about finding the right partners and the right believers that are going to push with you throughout the process."