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Grammys reward the unconventional

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

NEW YORK -- For the second straight year, Grammy voters celebrated an album that fell outside the range of today's pop and racked up multiplatinum sales through word of mouth.

With little help from commercial radio, the pop-jazz sounds of Norah Jones' ''Come Away With Me'' snagged eight Grammys, including album of the year, on Sunday.

On the heels of the success of last year's ''O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' soundtrack, a bluegrass-country disc that was barely heard on country radio yet netted five Grammys, some believe that Jones' victory may prod radio station and recording industry executives to rethink what they traditionally consider a hit.

''What it says to the industry is that real music with emotional connection can resonate with people, and that's a very good sign for us,'' said MCA Records executive Tom Sarig. ''(It shows) music that isn't necessarily so prepackaged can connect with the wide swath of the public.''

Jones' debut disc, released with modest expectations on the jazz label Blue Note in February 2002, has sold more than 3 million copies without conforming to a slick pop sound; her album contained smoky, lush ballads that one is more likely to hear in a jazz club.

Her biggest hit, ''Don't Know Why,'' wasn't a big hit; it peaked at No. 41 on the Hot 100 chart, yet still managed to win both the record and song of the year categories.

In comparison, the other record of the year nominees -- Vanessa Carlton's ''A Thousand Miles,'' Eminem's ''Without Me,'' Nickelback's ''How You Remind Me'' and Nelly and Kelly Rowland's ''Dilemma'' -- were among the year's most played records.

Steven Stolder, senior managing editor for music at Amazon.com, where Jones' disc was a top seller, said her win shows that the public is seeking more than what's on the radio or on MTV.

''If you would have argued a few years back that a collection of mountain music would have been a top seller, people would have said that was ridiculous, and 'O Brother' showed it was not,'' he said. ''The conventional wisdom of who the record-buying public is, in terms of let's give them radio pop, doesn't necessarily correspond to what they want to buy.''

Zach Hochkeppel, director of marketing at Blue Note, said they were targeting the thirtysomething fan who had become disenchanted with commercial pop when they promoted Jones' disc.

Many adult fans had become disenfranchised by the teen pop, gangsta rap and hard rock that was being boosted by the industry as the hot new thing.

''I think that alienated a lot of folks who had grown up with music as a big part of their life and who all of the sudden thought that the music wasn't for them,'' he said.

At first, they looked to print media and noncommercial radio to build buzz. VH1 played Jones, and MTV made her one of their ''Buzzworthy'' artists, though the video never reached ''TRL'' popularity.

Her music became a phenomenon despite, or perhaps because of, its underground appeal, selling based on good word of mouth.

However, even after the disc went platinum, Hochkeppel said it was difficult to get mainstream radio stations to jump on the bandwagon.

''They didn't know how to play it next to other songs,'' he said, recalling that many of them worried about how Jones would sound ''next to Eminem or Ashanti.''

''Radio used to be, 20 or 30 years ago, (a place where) odd hits could come from all directions,'' Hochkeppel said.

Sharon Dastur, assistant program director at New York pop radio station WHTZ, acknowledges that fans won't hear the eclectic mix of music on commercial radio that they used to.

''Especially in the Top 40 world, we've been living in the world of extremes, either extreme rock or extreme hip-hop,'' she said.

Still, the radio station started playing Jones' ''Don't Know Why'' in August, when her album became a certified sensation, although the airplay was light.

The song has gotten more popular in recent weeks, thanks to her Grammy nominations. Dastur says Jones' success will help get more unconventional songs on pop radio.

''I think programmers are going to take notice that the extreme period is coming to a close and more of these down-the-middle types of records will appeal to their audience,'' she said.

Sarig thinks the Jones victories will also have a larger impact on the recording industry to back music that is more artistic and heartfelt, instead of a sure-fire hit.

''A lot of that good old gut instinct that used to be a big part of (the industry) has gone out,'' he said. ''Something like (a) Norah Jones should teach us that we should just stick with it ... more often than we do.''



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