Now Free From Her 'Idol' Contract, What's Kelly Clarkson Worth?

Emerging from American Idol's shadow after 13 years, the show's inaugural winner -- now a free agent -- looks to a new and more lucrative recording contract.

Kelly Clarkson has notched another American Idol first. Arguably the biggest star to emerge from the Fox show (she's tied with Carrie Underwood at three No. 1 albums), Clarkson is the first alum to fulfill the recording contract she won in 2002. And with the release of her seventh studio album, Piece by Piece, on RCA (it debuted at No. 1 the week ending March 8 with 97,000 track-equivalent albums, according to Nielsen Music), she's now a free agent who could command a hefty new deal.

So where will the pop star, who has notched 10 top 10 hits and sold 13 million albums, end up? Sources tell Billboard Clarkson is in early talks to directly sign with Sony Music's RCA, as opposed to her current structure that goes through Idol's recording arm, 19 Recordings. (It's worth noting that advances for Idol grads have dropped dramatically. Today, a winner's advance could be as low as $100,000. Three years ago, an Idol champ commanded $250,000, and back when Clarkson won, $500,000 or more -- $650,000 when adjusted for inflation.)

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What might Clarkson fetch today? Between $1 million and $3 million per album, depending on terms, say insiders, with skeptics pointing to the lower end of the scale due to the singer's age (almost 33) and already mature career. And while normally the incumbent label holds a home-field advantage because it has the artist's catalog, in Clarkson's case, it comes with some heavy baggage.

In 2007, Clarkson and then-Sony BMG head Clive Davis clashed in a bitter public feud over the direction of her dark album My December. Coming off her biggest hit, 2004's Dr. Luke and Max Martin-helmed "Since U Been Gone," Davis felt the album wasn't commercial enough, in part because Clarkson wrote most of it herself. Clarkson would later say that Davis "told me verbatim that I was a 'shitty writer' ... and how I should just shut up and sing." (Davis currently holds the title of chief creative officer at Sony Music, which owns RCA.)

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A number of sources speculate that if Clarkson doesn't re-sign with RCA, Big Machine Label Group could be a leading contender for several reasons: Its pop success with Taylor Swift (aided by Universal's Republic Records) has proved the Nashville-based shop can work both pop and country, and Clarkson has stated her desire to make a country album; BMLG president/CEO Scott Borchetta is now a mentor on Idol (which partnered with Universal Music in 2010); and, on a personal note, Clarkson's mother-in-law, Reba McEntire, is very close to Borchetta and recently signed to his new Nash Icon label. (Clarkson's manager, Narvel Blackstock, is McEntire's husband; Clarkson is married to his son, Brandon.) Borchetta and RCA declined to comment, but Blackstock tells Billboard, "We love the team at RCA. They're great to work with." 

It's worth noting that most artists whose contracts are imminently due to expire would renegotiate on album number 6 (as Britney Spears did with RCA), but in running out the clock, Clarkson has much more leverage. “That’s a good time to mention you’re a free agent, when you have a No. 1 album,” notes one manager of major pop acts. Also, Clarkson has a proven track record at radio. Says Jim Ryan, program director at New York top 40 station WWFS: “She’s a core artist for the format. Our listeners have watched her grow up. The last album had three huge hits for us, so it only made sense to embrace this one.” Indeed, Clarkson’s latest single, “Heartbeat Song,” was played 466 times through March 21, according to Nielsen BDS. “We’ve got a lot of good friends at RCA,” adds Ryan. “We would hate it if [they] lost out on her music.”  

Still, when asked if Clarkson planned to re-sign with RCA, Blackstock adds that it's too soon to say. "She hasn't focused on it. Her new album just came out."

This article first appeared in the April 11 issue of Billboard.