Gray's newfound freedom-paying for her own studio time through a dirt-cheap deal with a studio owner in Tarzana, Calif., and handpicking a select group of musicians, co-writers and producers-energized her to re-establish herself in the marketplace, doing music her way. Her finished project, the tongue-in-cheek-titled "The Sellout," arrives June 22 on Concord Records and is being hailed as a return to form.
Lead single "Beauty in the World" is No. 2 for a second week on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs chart. With notable spins at such adult top 40 stations as KVLY McAllen, Texas, and KWYE Fresno, Calif., as well as Sirius XM channel the Pulse, the song debuts at No. 40 on the Adult Top 40 chart as it bubbles under the Adult Contemporary and Triple A tallies. The song's video, directed by Tom Petty's daughter Adria, is in rotation at VH1. It was also picked up as the end-title song for the recently released feature film "Killers" starring Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. "Kissed It," the next single from "The Sellout," serves as the theme music for cable network Bravo's new promotional campaign, "Summer by Bravo."
Beyond the early buzz and high-profile synch placements, however, a lingering question still hangs in the air: Can a quirky 42-year-old artist regain a foothold in today's youth-centric music world?
In Gray's case, it means playing up her strengths as a unique vocalist and compelling lyricist while bearing in mind some key realities of the contemporary music scene. Chief among them is the simple fact that pop radio has changed.
"Short of Gwen Stefani and Madonna, there aren't too many 40-year-old artists-men, women, black or white-getting played on pop radio," says Merck Mercuriadis, who co-manages Gray with fellow industry veteran Michele Anthony. "Most artists would like to be a Madonna or Elton John with 25- to 30-year runs at pop radio. But that's changed. The focus there is 18-21, so you have to be innovative. And you need great advocates who can communicate and strategize on your behalf."
The foundation for Gray's return was laid 16 months ago, when the singer's agent at Creative Artists Agency, Jenna Adler, asked former Elton John and Axl Rose manager Mercuriadis to meet Gray, who was previously managed by Violator Management CEO Chris Lighty. After listening to demos of songs the singer/songwriter had recorded, Mercuriadis contacted former Sony executive Anthony to join him as Gray's co-manager. The new association marked a reunion for the singer and Anthony: The latter was at Sony when ex-Epic president Polly Anthony signed Gray to her first deal.
The new management team's goal, Anthony says, was to reconnect with her core fan base and create new fans by focusing on her skills as a singer and songwriter.
"Despite her earlier success, she's still not given enough credit for the talented songwriter she is," Anthony says of the former University of Southern California screenwriting student. "This album verifies that."
Mercuriadis adds, "She's one of the industry's most underrated lyricists: 'I try to walk away and I stumble'-very few people can express love in those terms. Now she has come up with a record that shows this life evolution from her big success to coming out at the other end as a 40-year-old who still has something to say that's emotionally compelling and relatable."
With the help of Gray's publisher, Universal Music Publishing Group, Mercuriadis and Anthony put the first step of their strategy into motion: introducing a broad audience to Gray's new music through synch opportunities. The first placement occurred last December, before Gray had a label home for the album, when "CSI: Miami" used uptempo album track "Lately" in an episode.
"The blogosphere was going crazy," UMPG director of A&R and music for film Joe Maggini says. (He's also Gray's product manager.) "That was our first clue that people wanted to hear new Macy Gray music."
Since then-working in tandem with Concord music licensing executive John Baldi-several other high-profile synch placements have been secured. In addition to its use in the "Killers" film, uplifting single "Beauty in the World" was played during the season- and series-ending final episode of "Ugly Betty." Another ABC series, "Private Practice," used "Beauty" for its season finale. A major coup was securing "Kissed It," a sassy ode to good sex and the project's next single, as the theme for Bravo's 15-week "Summer by Bravo" promotional campaign. Premiering May 24 and running until Sept. 19, the promotion features the network's various stars (including Kathy Griffin and Rachael Zoe) and is also appearing in movie theaters.
"The uses we've seen aren't small background, end-of-show montages," Maggini says. "We can only pitch as good as the songs we have, and Macy has written a strong, life-affirming record."
Unlike last album "Big," Gray describes "The Sellout" as very raw. "There were things we were going to do but couldn't because I didn't have a label behind me at the time," Gray says. "But I like that it's not completely polished and tweaked.
" 'I don't regret 'Big,' " she continues. "I worked with great people like Will.i.am, whom I've known for years, and Justin Timberlake. But fans can always tell when an album is coming from the heart. They connect with it emotionally; it makes them dance or go have sex. However, there were people working on 'Big' that I didn't know were working on it, and I had never worked like that. I know my music and myself better than anyone. If my name is on it, it should come from me."
Co-written and executive-produced by Gray, "The Sellout" was mixed by Grammy Award winner Manny Marroquin (Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Kanye West). The singer worked with a host of young producers, including Kaz James & the Brothers Rise, Kannon "Caviar" Cross & Cory "Oz" Simon and Phillip White. Featuring guest collaborations with Bobby Brown, Velvet Revolver and Gray's own Moonslice Records artist Romika, the album captures what made Gray a breakout star 10 years ago: a diverse mix of music that defies categorization, as does her distinctive rasp.
But Gray still had another hurdle to overcome, which she blogged about recently on the Huffington Post: musical age discrimination. "We went to some majors, and they all told me 'no,' " Gray recalls. "They said I was too old." At one point she considered putting out several EPs independently. Then she met with Concord executives, "and we just clicked."
Concord CEO Gene Rumsey cites the label's success with Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company" album as he recalls the decision to work with Gray. Like Charles, she was a prime example of a talented artist who'd enjoyed major success but for whatever reason had grown disconnected from her fan base.
"Macy's new songs are beautiful and more mature now, without losing the hipness factor," Rumsey says. "However, we want artists who are in business with themselves before they get in business with us, who know who they are and have management whose vision and relationships bring added value to the table."
Outside the United States, "The Sellout" will be released June 21 in the United Kingdom by Island Records and internationally by Universal Music Group. Prior to Island, Gray's U.K. releases were handed by Sony. Launched at the beginning of May, the U.K. campaign is also focused on reconnecting Gray with "fans who bought the first album and have since tailed off," Island Records U.K. GM Jon Turner says. Gray will perform shows at London's 500-capacity Leicester Square Theatre beginning July 13 and make two major daytime TV appearances, including "GMTV" on ITV1.
"We're building a nicely phased-out campaign," Turner says. "It's not all front-loaded. Her U.K. fan base is larger than the 12,000 total sales of her last album here suggests."
While tour plans are still being discussed, Gray has been very visible domestically as well. She's helming "Diary of a Sellout," a YouTube video series countdown to the album's release. Concurrently, the singer has launched the Beauty Shot sweepstakes, a Twitter contest in which users are being asked to tweet photos of what "Beauty in the World" means to them. The winner will receive $1,000 and the opportunity for his or her image to become the official cover of Gray's "Beauty in the World" remix e-single released on iTunes later this summer. Performances at South by Southwest and on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" are being followed by upcoming guest stints on "The View," "Good Morning America" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
Between the synch licensing, live performances and other routes, there are plenty of opportunities for Gray to engage core and new fans beyond exposure on pop radio, Mercuriadis says.
"If it happens, it's cream on the cake," he adds. "But that's not the way we're focusing our strategy. What we're doing means a lot of hard work on everyone's part; all staying on the same plan as we move from A to B, then C to D and so forth. With each of those increments comes more wins exponentially-and the chance to give Macy the success she so richly deserves."
Additional reporting by Richard Smirke in London.