Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Three Years Later, Clay Aiken Is Too Popular to Be Idle

Lucky for us . . . berkeley has become a member of The ConCLAYve. Until we can get her able to post on her own -- here's her first contribution to the blog.

Clay Aiken remains the Anomaly.

He is The One Who Didn’t Win, But Enjoys Record-Breaking Success.

The finals of American Idol, Season Two, seem so long ago, and three years is a long time in terms of pop culture. I’ve long since stopped watching the show, but I’m forever a fan of one remarkable singer.

Clay endures, creating music industry-stirring buzz with the mere possibility of an appearance on the AI5 finale.

I was sad, for a little while, when Clay didn’t win, but that ceased to matter to me after the sales numbers for the Number 1 hit “This Is The Night/Bridge Over Troubled Water” proved he had tremendous commercial appeal, beyond the allure of a television show and its toll-free voting numbers. In an era of free file-sharing, his debut single opened to sales of 392,975 --- the highest selling first week ever for a solo male pop artist, excepting Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997”, the tribute to Princess Diana.

It was the first single by anyone from American Idol to be certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and was the only platinum certified single in 2003 --- by any artist. Clay is the only singer launched on AI to be platinum certified for one million physical copies of a single (which were priced at $3 and above): in the digital format, where RIAA platinum certification is 200,000 downloads and most downloads are ninety-nine cents, Kelly Clarkson is certified 5M (1.2 million downloads) and Carrie Underwood is platinum at 200,000.

Tonight, Taylor Hicks or Katharine McPhee will become the fifth person named the American Idol. The winner’s first single will likely do very well, but with digital downloads now the norm, it doesn’t require the Amazing Kreskin to predict that no one from season five will touch Clay’s singles sales record.

With the chart-topping “Measure of A Man” selling just under 613,000 CDs out of the gate, Clay holds the record for first week sales of a post-AI debut album --- by far. Each year, only the elite among artists have higher first week sales, with a rare few surpassing a million. No one from AI is even close to Clay’s first week sales.

Clay was RCA’s top selling artist for 2003, and one of the most remarkable success stories of the year. On the cover of everything from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly, he has an American Music Award and a Billboard Music Award to mark those astonishing times.

Clay’s “Solitaire/The Way” was the second highest selling single of 2004, and his song “Invisible” has recently been certified gold.

In 2004, Clay released “Merry Christmas with Love”. Niche albums are not expected to break records, but Clay shattered the debut week sales record for holiday albums, formerly held by country superstar Garth Brooks, and tied Celine Dion for highest first week chart placement for a holiday title ever. Certified platinum in its first holiday season, the CD has now sold over 1.2 million copies.

Clay’s name --- and often his first name alone --- is a cultural touchstone, showing up regularly in music and entertainment columns, but also in columns about sports, politics and other fields entirely unrelated to his career.

No one ever asks “Who?”

He is often referred to as a “winner” of American Idol. Clay was not first in his season, but he has proven to be deserving of being called a winner in the music industry.

Clay has toured six times in three years: as part of the AI ensemble in 2003, as a co-headliner with Kelly (Independent Tour 2004), and headlining two pop tours (Solo Tour 2004 and Jukebox Tour 2005) and two holiday tours (Joyful Noise 2004 and 2005), writing and creating the last show. His tour numbers have ranged from excellent to okay overall, with the oversized houses for JNT 05 pushing his per show average down. That doesn’t seem to matter: with concert ticket sales totaling $27,823,748.00 since December 2003 (, Clay is the most popular concert ticket draw from the show.

There are, of course, all of the things that are tangential to Clay’s singing, but are important indicators of his personality and his commitment to service: author of the inspirational memoir “Learning To Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life”, a New York Times bestseller; small forays into acting on “Scrubs”, “Ed” and “Saturday Night Live”; being selected to sing “Proud of Your Boy” for the reissue of Disney’s “Aladdin” DVD; executive producing his own Christmas special; acting as special correspondent for the Emmy Awards on “The Insider” entertainment show; and extensive humanitarian and philanthropic work as a UNICEF ambassador, co-founder of The Bubel/Aiken Foundation, national spokesperson for Toys for Tots, NEA Read Across America, appearances for Ronald McDonald House, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, America’s Promise, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, keynote speeches at the Fearless Caregivers Conference and the Pac Rim Conference on Disabilities, and work with many other causes to which he has lent his name, his time and his heart. While not directly related to his career in entertainment, this helps to paint a picture for the general public of the kind of person Clay really is.

It took over two years and the cross-over appeal of country - pop for anyone to approach and, just recently, to overtake Clay’s overall sales record for debut CD (more than 2.7 million), but with 2.8 million CDs sold, Carrie now has a slight edge in sales of her well-received debut CD. It’s too early to know what Carrie will sell in the long run, just as it is too soon to guess how many additional copies of MOAM will be sold to people who discover Clay when he releases his “highly anticipated” sophomore effort. MOAM will get that triple platinum certification in time and perhaps sell tens of thousands of copies or more to new fans over the coming year. The title of top selling debut CD by an AI alum could change hands more than once.

What of the others who have come from that show? How does Clay stand in relation to them?

With a debut CD that sold a quarter million fewer copies that Clay’s, but with the tremendous success of her sophomore album, Kelly now has the highest number of CD sales overall (7.7 million combined sales) and a couple of Grammys on her mantle. It took until her second CD, but she has now clearly escaped the AI stigma. She’s had several tours, with box office second only to Clay, but she has completely conquered radio, releasing a string of top ten singles. Her future seems quite promising.

Ruben and Fantasia both had strong debut sales (1.8 and 1.7 million respectively), with Fantasia also enjoying considerable critical acclaim. Ruben had notable success with his second (niche) CD, a gospel album that went gold and spent many weeks at the top of the gospel charts. They both received nominations for Grammys, Billboard Awards (with Fantasia winning two), and BET, Soul Train and NAACP Image Awards, where Ruben won Best New Artist in 2004 and Fantasia was named Outstanding Female Artist in 2005. (Fantasia also had a bestselling autobiography and will star in a Lifetime television movie based on her story.) Neither tours strongly, but that seems to be an inherent weakness of the urban market, where even well-established multi-platinum artists often combine with other big names to tour --- and still often fail to break into the upper echelon of concert draws.

Though some mistakenly believe that one or both have not been particularly successful, the urban market has embraced both artists and their sales are solid. Ruben’s sophomore CD, due sometime this year, promises a return to his signature sound. Though short of superstar status, I list both as “time will tell” --- their next albums will say a lot about how much they have grown in this industry. I wouldn't write off either one.

Carrie has become the darling of country pop and is benefiting from being in a genre that accepts rather than derides singers who were introduced on AI. Her debut CD, now six months old, continues to sell briskly, supported by generally strong critical reviews. She has also won two prestigious CMT Awards and a Gospel Music Association Award. Carrie is set to tour as the opening act for Kenny Chesney (something Clay has never done) as well as headlining a number of dates this summer. Still riding on the strength of her first effort, she has started out very strong indeed.

With the fifth season of AI about to end, I flipped it on for the first time this year for Tuesday’s final performances --- just as I did last year. Having learned the tricks of the trade from working in film and television, it’s not worth my time to continue following a show I find so blatantly manipulative (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”) It’s a pleasant enough evening of entertainment, though, to check out the two who will compete for the title --- with the mute button at the ready during the all-too-predictable judges’ comments, of course. *g* It helps, when analyzing sales and reviews to come, to have seen a few performances.

Newspapers and blogs have started the annual ritual of “You don’t have to win to be successful” and any number of eliminated contestants have taken up the refrain. That depends on the definition of success, I suppose, but do you have to win to succeed on a grand scale?

Unless you are Clay Aiken, yes, you do.

Yes, it is possible for non-winners to have a solid or a modest career in music.

Other than the Anomaly that is Aiken, of course, Josh Gracin, who has sold 660,000 albums, has the highest sales among non-winners. He is solid gold as a country artist, enjoying the personalized support of a smaller label. He has also gained respect in his genre, with a Number 1 single and with several nominations in top categories for country music awards. He’s off to a very good start.

Bo Bice is next, with just over 600,000 CDs sold to date. His promotion was hampered by his health problems, but the bigger problem with his debut seemed to be the label’s decision to try to turn a country rocker into a pop star, resulting in weak material that didn’t fit the artist. Now, with a current single getting more airplay than the first, the album looks to be headed to decent level of success. He will be just one of two runners-up to get a second shot from RCA --- and the other has outsold him by over two million. With luck, his follow-up will be a better reflection of the artist.

Kimberley Locke was all over the radio with “8th World Wonder”; her sales are modest, at around 210,000, but radio play separates her from the other three with similar sales. Like Josh, she is at a smaller label that is dedicated to taking the time to nurture her career. It will be interesting to see how her sophomore CD fares.

Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo and Tamyra Gray all sold short of 200,000 total of their debut CDs. To date, Justin has been unable to gain traction with any of his announced endeavors. Diana has found some success on Broadway with “Hairspray” and Tamyra, in addition to various acting roles, has become part of the 19 stable of songwriters.

Several former contestants --- John Stevens, RJ Helton, George Huff --- have sold a few thousand of their CDs, souvenirs for those who followed them. College classrooms or congregations are ahead for them, with George receiving a Dove Award nomination for his gospel CD, RJ releasing a Christian album and John off to Berklee College of Music.

Others --- Frenchie Davis, Jennifer Hudson, Josh Strickland and Diana DeGarmo, as mentioned above --- have had various levels of success and the chance for further exposure on Broadway or in movie musicals. Stars, staples or gypsies, who knows, but they’re taking advantage of these opportunities . One or more could still hit big: if Jennifer impresses in her “Dreamgirls” movie debut, she could become a major star.

A dozen others have shown up on the cable television circuit, on circus tours, in men’s magazines, low budget movies (erotic and otherwise) or singing in small venues in their communities.

It is a very good thing when people are able to realize their dreams to any degree at all. I don’t denigrate that, but I do like to keep things in perspective. There are very few stars from American Idol.

In real-world terms, on the Billboard charts, on Sound Scan and HDD sales lists, and with PollStar concert ticket sales, in comparison with their industry peers who came up through different means, the people from AI who have had real and considerable success are Kelly, Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie --- and Clay, the five winners of American Idol to date.

Platinum artists all.

And as for Clay’s future: from a long-ago disappointment to the promise of the future, my opinion has never wavered. His is a blue-moon talent, and he has it in him to be an artist for the ages. His gift is as an interpreter of songs --- and he has shown signs of brilliance already in his young career.

Some have wondered if it is better for Clay’s sophomore album to be a commercial success or garner critical acclaim, but I have always believed that, given the material and top-notch production, it could be both. The Vox, of course, will be there, more supple, more varied, more powerful and more nuanced than ever. He has grown so much and developed so remarkably in the last three years, and is far more versatile than many remember him to be. Clay is a charming, engaging and compelling all-around entertainer, with a voice that always wins him the respect of anyone who has the ears to listen.

I was fascinated by all of the small indications of what might make up the “initial album” that Clay spent a year working on with Jaymes Foster, starting with a songwriters’ conference in Nashville in May of 2005, but I have had to let that go. After meeting with Clive Davis in December, Clay now says that his sophomore CD will be a conceptual album of favorite love songs, with some original “gems” as well --- and critical and commercial success will still be determined by what songs are chosen, how Clay sings them and how the material is produced. I’ve thought a lot about it: even if it’s a collection of familiar Top 40 fare, it will be sung to perfection and it could sell very well to people who loved Clay from his television roots. I’ll be eager to add it to my collection, because Clay is just that good.

Critics aren’t likely to rave about the reinterpretation of a collection of mainstream songs, but I think they might be very favorably impressed with more eclectic choices, songs that have some depth of meaning and are finely crafted lyrically, made new when performed by the finest voice of his generation. For a man who has covered Prince, U2 and the Goo Goo Dolls, I can’t wait to see what surprises are among the songs Clay and company choose. If others have had success reinterpreting a song or a songbook, why would I predict less for the man who makes every song his own?

Tonight, an artist is hard at work. He has dreams, but he is a practical man and he knows the task before him. He seeks perfection. He will give his best.

That night three years ago is merely a shadow, a memory, a milepost on a lengthy road. Along the way, there have been incredible successes, worthy challenges, and a few ridiculous frustrations.

Clay may not be ready to give an album his name, but he always gives his best effort to his work --- and his best touches on brilliance.

He may not be where he belongs, but he is where he needs to be for now, learning, growing, trying new things, reaching new heights as he develops his artistry.

Every time he steps before a microphone, in a studio or on the stage, he reaches deep within and finds a way to surprise and to delight.

When Clay Aiken sings, he makes a special kind of magic with his music.

Now that’s a winner to me.
(c) 2006 by berkeley

Here at The ConCLAYve we're all looking forward to the AI finale. Good luck to two very talented finalists, Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee. You both will have wonderful careers ahead of you!

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lizzybutts said...

oh Berk...I love to read heart just gets bigger and bigger...he truly is amazing. Thank you for putting this together and with love too, I can tell... hugs

Vox Vixen said...

Beautiful words....

Just seeing all this in black and white just gives me the chills.

Pink Armchair said...

This is just a wonderful piece of work...a fantastic assessment of American Idol's lasting effects on the music industry, and of Clay's success. I'm so proud to see it posted here.

beauzzartz said...

Now that's how you make a grand entrance! You are so right, Clay definitely has it in him to be an artist for the ages. I'm so glad you're here! Welcome Berk! *muah*

gothedistance said...

As always, berk makes me smile, think, and swoon. You always capture the Clay-moment in a way that speaks to the heart while acknowledging the truth. Thank you.

lakecat said...

Berkeley, you are the ultimate Clay Aiken historian and seer of the future. Thank you for the reminders of how varied and prolific Clay is.

claycherie said...

Berkely I have always been an admirer of your work, and once again you did not disappoint. I wish some journalists would follow your example, - you give all the facts that you have researched yourself (apparently an unfamiliar word to many writers and media!) I do not diss any of the contestants as they all have some degree of talent, but I agree with you that very few stars emerge from AI. I enjoyed reading this.