For 'Idol,' R&B a tough sell

CDs by the black winners haven't done as well as those by the white ones. Industry observers blame their genre.

Published May 25, 2007

Midway through Wednesday's American Idol finale, Clive Davis offered his State of the Idol address.

As the man in charge of Idol record-making rattled off names of past winners, runners-up, even fourth- and seventh-place finishers, he omitted one of the Idols: Season 2's Ruben Studdard, the first African-American winner.

Each season, tens of millions of television viewers use their dialing power to catapult some wannabe singer from unknown to instant celebrity. But as Studdard and Fantasia, the other African-American winner, have learned, those votes do not translate into record sales.

Except for Taylor Hicks, last year's top vote-getter, the white winners have outsold the black ones.

"Idol has not found its Beyonce yet, the rare, core R&B artist who crosses over and has legitimate pop success," says Jon Caramanica, music editor of VIBE magazine.

To be sure, Studdard and Fantasia have done well for themselves. They've gained entry into a world that, without Idol, would have been inaccessible. But their success has been confined to a narrower audience than that of more successful Idol alums.

The disparity isn't so much an issue of race as it is genre. Studdard and Fantasia sing a throwback style of R&B, which "is in absolute free fall," says Kyle Anderson, assistant editor of SPIN magazine.

It doesn't appeal to the young, MTV generation that has made Idol a pop juggernaut. Top 40 radio stations don't give it much airplay. And "that's a genre that has always been victimized by bootlegging," Anderson says. "You are able to get records in other places."

Understand, too, that the voting and buying audiences aren't one and the same, says Caramanica.

"The trick with Idol is, they sell you a narrative, but you have to buy a record, and a record is not a narrative," he says. "There is some disparity between the type of person who's going to vote for a contestant because of their narrative and a person who's going to go actually purchase an album. Fantasia's story was one of the things that made her compelling. However, when you purchase an album, you're purchasing a song, not personality."

Wednesday, Jordin Sparks won this year's edition of American Idol. A record 74-million votes were cast, the majority of them going to the bubbly 17-year-old with the big voice.

But as the third person of color to win Idol her dad is African-American; her mother, white, is history any indicator of her record-sales potential?

"There are so many variables," says Keith Caulfield, an analyst with Billboard magazine. "It depends on the act, the songs they collect and how they're introduced into the market.

"Did anyone ever think that Kelly Clarkson would have a really successful first album and then completely breakaway from American Idol and become a superstar? Come on. That's just nuts."

Anderson says it boils down to the people steering Sparks' career.

"I think the missteps of Ruben and Fantasia will play in her favor," he says. "These are rich people who didn't get rich being stupid. I think they have learned from those mistakes and may be able to package her in a way that will sell records."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at (727) 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.


Album sales by the numbers:

Here are the American Idol winners and other notable contestants, the albums they have released and their sales figures:

Kelly Clarkson

Season 1, winner

Thankful - 2.6-million

Breakaway - 5.7-million

Ruben Studdard

Season 2, winner

Soulful - 1.8-million

I Need an Angel - 448,000

The Return - 226,000


Season 3, winner

Free Yourself - 1.7-million

Fantasia - 380,000

Carrie Underwood

Season 4, winner

Some Hearts - 5.5-million

Taylor Hicks

Season 5, winner

Taylor Hicks - 679,000

Clay Aiken

Season 2, runner-up

Measure of a Man - 2.8-million;

Merry Christmas with Love - 1.3-million

A Thousand Different Ways - 511,000

Chris Daughtry

Season 5, third runner-up

Daughtry - 2.5-million

Source: Nielsen SoundScan