The American Idol judge reveals in an interview with Anderson Cooper that acts he has signed to Sony BMG have sold more than 100 million records over the past five years. Springsteen, on the other hand, has not had what music industry insiders would call a blockbuster since Tunnel of Love. Still, there’s a reason that Springsteen commands a degree of attention at his record label, and I’ll show you why.
For an industry criticized for selling older music to older people, this influx of new artists from the Idol juggernaut is keeping sales popping, especially for Sony BMG. And, from Cowell’s point of view, Idol is hugely profitable. The costs of artist development and promotion for American Idol contestants are borne almost exclusively by Fox. Even contestants who have been voted off the show can still book promotional appearances far more easily than established musicians. (Who are you more likely to see on your local television morning show this week, Antonella or OK Go?)
It’s amazing to realize that he was signed to Columbia Records thirty-five years ago. And it’s that deep connection to fans that had led to record breaking concert dates, especially the unmatched string of ten sold-out nights at Giants Stadium.
However, it took three years from Springsteen’s signing to Columbia before Born to Run was released. No record label in today’s quarter-to-quarter business environment could hope to sustain a new artist for three years. And it look another nine years for Springsteen to release Born in the U.S.A., another tentpole of his back catalog. Many Idol contestants will be lucky to stay signed to a major label for nine months if their albums perform at the same level as some of the records Springsteen produced during that interim. That’s a testament to Springsteen’s fans, and an indictment of a music business that has no interest in investing in artists’ careers.
Sure, his solo and acoustic tours may not bust a vein at TicketMaster’s data center. But a deep, lasting relationship with his core fans allows Springsteen to focus on creating the kind of work he wants to create. His record label — grudgingly, I’m sure — indulges him by releasing niche records like the Seeger Sessions, they can sleep tight knowing that his next record with the E Street Band (when he gets around to it) will give them the kind of pop on the charts that they need to keep shareholders happy. When you remember that most artists earn the bulk of their income from ticket and merchandise sales, it’s telling that you see far more fans wearing Bruce Springsteen t-shirts than any merchandise related to Idol contestants (that aren’t Clay Aiken).
So, as you’re thinking about your own career, think about how Springsteen’s record deal has played a smaller and smaller role in his success over the last thirty-five years. Think about what you must start to do now to create those legendary, memorable live gigs that your fans will remember fondly thirty-five years from now. And start making an action plan to keep track of those fans today, so you can show a potential label how many sales you can guarantee them in the first week of release.