The goal of “American Idol,” a dozen seasons ago when it started, was to create stars out of unknowns. It did so for Simon Cowell, perhaps the most famous A&R man on the planet, who has surrounded himself with television and music projects here and in the U.K. since his days as a judge on “Pop Idol.” It did the same for Randy Jackson, an A&R executive and producer whose bass-playing credits include stints with Bruce Springsteen and Journey, but whose name was little known in the general public.
But Cowell departed “Idol” at a peak. Jackson, who announced Thursday he would leave the Fox show after this season, is checking out as “Idol” is at its nadir in terms of ratings and influence. As the jovial judge, he always played up the role of being the contestants’ confidant, the guy who understood the singers’ plight and had their backs. His approach, the contestants could reasonably guess, was like that of a supportive manager. Considering how the music business has changed since Kelly Clarkson took the first “Idol” crown in 2002, its not surprising that Jackson is opting to focus on his management business rather than return to the immediately to the label world.
Jackson said he would be concentrating on his management company/record label Dream Merchant 21 and new yet-to-be named businesses. No doubt Jackson has had loads of success as a producer and bass player, but the management side has not been a strong one for him.
Now that music competition shows emphasize celebrities over industry professionals, there has been a greater sense that the shows can be used as springboards for projects. It cannot be overlooked that in the early years of “Idol,” it was not the projects of the judges getting the promotional boost but the artists associated with BMG that had the rights to release 19’s “Idol” music. Back then, only a decade ago, it was more important to have an association with music industry veteran Clive Davis than Cowell or Jackson.
Still, access to the greatest music platform in the world — 30 million-plus viewers were tuning in twice a week in the middle part of last decade — should have resulted in some rub-off. In the years Jackson has been associated with “Idol” he has never brought an artist to the marketplace who succeeded.
Through much of the mid-2000s, Jackson worked long and hard to revive the career of Van Hunt, a talented multi-genre performer pitched as the next Prince, and the third album Hunt turned in while under Jackson’s tutelage was never released. (EMI put him on Capitol for two albums then moved him to Blue Note, which rejected the album.)
During his “Idol” tenure, Jackson had little commercial success with any of his projects: producing Sam Moore’s critically well-received “Overnight Sensation,” the compilation “Randy Jackson’s Music Club Vol. 1” that had no sequel and making former “Idol” finalist Kimberly Locke the first signing to his Dream Merchant 21 label. Her single, “Strobelight,” has only sold 6,000 downloads in the three years since its release.
His long musical association with Mariah Carey resulted in Jackson becoming her manager for a spell recently. No longer in that role, no albums were released or tours commenced while he was her manager.
Jackson, whose pre-“Idol” projects included the relaunching of Immature as IMx and Jesse Powell, has been linked with the Los Angeles indie-rock band He’s My Brother She’s My Sister and two other signings to his Dream Merchant 21 operation — Grace V, a Russian-born dance artist, and Brunette, a Pussycat Dolls knockoff. Considering that Jackson intends to devote himself to his two-year-old company, it’s curious that Dream Merchant 21 does not even have its own website.
Beyond Cowell, TV has not been kind to anyone from behind the scenes. Songwriter/publisher Kara DioGuardi struggled to find a role on “Idol” in her two seasons there; Epic’s L.A. Reid went on a signing spree after season one of “X Factor” and has little to show for it and no album from the season one winner.
That Jackson survived shake-ups in the executive producer ranks and on the judges’ panel owes as much to his personality as the relatively lower cost of his services compared to the likes of Carey or Jennifer Lopez. Carey is pulling in at least $17 million this season, followed by Nicki Minaj at $12 million. Jackson is earning somewhere between $5 million and $6.5 million. It’s expected that an entirely new judging crew will be cast for next season.
Ratings, which have set new all-time low records a few times this season, don’t warrant those types of salaries. “Idol’s” 30-second ad rate took a nosedive this season and its primed to do so again. One easy cost-cutting measure would be to get the salary pool for three judges in the $25 million range and hold onto the one stabilizing force on the show, Ryan Seacrest, who earns a reported $15 million per year for being the host.