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will sarah make it?
Sarah Hudson's first single was released to radio stations on May 3 and her first album is scheduled for release in July 2004. Here, journalists Melinda Newman, Dave Marsh, Leonard J. Beer, and Jeff Leeds, plus Nic Harcourt, music director of KCRW and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and Michael Guido, Sarah's attorney, analyze the challenges ahead and handicap Sarah's chances.

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Melinda Newman
West Coast Bureau Chief, Billboard Magazine

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What's ahead for someone like a Sarah Hudson is really having to build a career step by step. If you're a singer/songwriter, you really have to just go out and hone your craft. You need to be on the road, and that means what you try to build are just really small steps. Like maybe you play a 200-seat club in a town. And then the next month, the next couple of months, you come back and if you fill that, that's great. You move to a 300-seat club. It's really incremental, step-by-step process at that level.

She comes in with a bit of legacy in that her father's a very well-known songwriter. He's written hits for a lot of people. That could help her; that could also hurt her. That isn't necessarily going to be an entrée for her in any way. It's a footnote in her bio more than anything else. What she has to do is just steadily build a story, just like any artist does these days. And you have a short shelf life. You might not have enough time to do that before the label says, "We're on to the next. We've invested as much as we can. Sorry."

What are the odds, if you handicapped?

For any new young artist, the odds are almost insurmountable. I think if they knew the odds, they would never get in it in the first place. You know, the vast, vast majority of records go absolutely nowhere. There are about 30,000 albums released a year. There are may be 100 that are hits, are certified hits. Now, that includes all the indie labels. It's not, you know, major labels. The vast majority of those are indie labels. But the chances of you having a hit are just almost infinitesimal. …

And how long normally -- I know this is a generalization -- will they stay with her? Will they push her out? Will they spend money on her? Generally speaking, how soon will they know that it's not going to take long?

… In general for the larger major [labels], you have a very short shelf life. If they don't start to see some kind of action, like if you're not breaking out of a city, if you're not getting airplay somewhere, if you're not touring and starting to see some kind of action, they generally aren't going to have you make a second record. There has to be a compelling reason these days for you to make a second record.

And it's not always based on sales, by any means. It could be based on critical acclaim. It could be: Here's a record that tons of critics liked and we feel like we've built enough of a press story. It didn't sell much, we haven't made back any of the money that we spent. We're still very much at a deficit. But we think we have an artist that we can build here.

So it really depends upon the deal the artist's lawyer made; where the label is in terms of how much capital it has to put into new artists; what the commitment is to the artist; if the people who signed the artist are still there, which in many cases is not very likely a lot of the time; and really just the general feeling about the artist and the artist's long-term prospects. …

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Michael guido
Attorney, Carroll Guido & Groffman, LLP; Sarah Hudson's lawyer

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Sarah's got as good of a chance as one can have right now, which is probably a 20 percent chance. They're going to put her song out to radio. Now the song itself sounds like a hit. It feels like a hit. The problem again, with these restricted formats, is the radio stations are getting, I don't know, five or 10 new singles a week. Or over a couple of weeks they're getting five or 10 new singles, of which they're going to maybe add one to their playlist.

That sounds like about a 10 to 20 percent chance there. Again, if the song is as we think it is, in that it is potentially a hit, and the gods are smiling on her and everything lines up, it can happen. And hopefully it will on her first single. What I do hope happens for her is that if her first single does not succeed, or if her first album does not succeed, that she be allowed to continue to grow and develop and be in the game. Because you can't take this snapshot and decide someone does not have a career in this business. …

Does she have that kind of a deal?

No, she doesn't. It's going to be a decision made at her label, if it does not succeed, whether to continue with her or not. Whether to continue to back her.

How long will it be, how long do you figure they'll give her before that decision?

Well, you know, the real tragedy that occurs day in and day out is that that kind of decision is made four to six weeks after a single comes out. You know the real tragedy that I see in the business, on a daily basis, is some artist works for years to get a record deal. They struggle and they fight through, over all the obstacles, and through all the battles, and they succeed in finally having somebody say, validating them, "Okay, we're going to let you in the game. Welcome to the game."

They feel great, they then spend another year to make their album because they've got to wait for the right producer, and that producer's schedule, and go through the A&R process of choosing the songs to go on the album, then making the album, and having it mixed, and maybe re-mixed. And then people generally want three or four or five months to set up the album so that there can be some press and coordinate it with the album release.

Finally the big day comes, the album comes out, and in three weeks or four weeks it's decided that it's over. Because their first single is not responding at radio, immediately. That's what I mean about the one-trick pony. That happens day in and day out. Which, anybody thinking about this business, and saying, "That's not logical. How do you invest all this money in an artist, that you've believed in for this entire time, and then pull the plug on it after three weeks? What kind of business are you people in?"

It wouldn't make any sense to any outsider. What is concerning is that people in the record business accept that as the norm. And you find these radio promotion people saying, "Well what can I tell ya, single didn't react. The spin's are flat. I've got to put four more singles out next week, I can't work this anymore, goodbye." So there's no logic to that.

That happens everyday. …

Is that different than it ever was?

... Now it's just over a lot faster, you don't have that chance to connect. It can take nine months for a single to connect, and there are enough stories in this business where that has happened. Because somebody believed enough in a certain artist, that an album was going along and was apparently dead in the water, and somebody believed and kept going and going and going and then it connected and sold millions of copies.

Okay, here's Sarah Hudson. You know this, she's broke. Whatever money she got advanced to her, is long gone. Will she make any money from the sale of this album, unless it sells 2 million?

No. She won't make any money unless she sells a million albums. When all is said and done, the structure of these deals is such that, on a major label situation, when all the advances are recouped and all the recoupable costs are recouped, you won't make any money off that album, probably until a million albums if not more.

What can happen though, is that you might be able to make money from other sources, if you do sell a million albums. But if you only sell a few hundred thousand albums, which is again, not a bad start, you're probably not going to make any money in any area. …

So what happens to Sarah, how does she make a living? Between now and the potential for album two.

She struggles, and she's rolling the dice completely here on her success. And she hopefully will hit that success point, and make money, and be able to keep doing this for as long as she wants to do it. Because she's making enough money. Probably 80 percent of the people that are in Sarah's position at any point in time in the history of the record business, never made any money and are doing other things. I don't know the actual number, but I would think it's at least 80 percent. ...

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Dave marsh
Editor, Rock and Rap Confidential; former contributing editor, Rolling Stone

Sarah's chosen the single hardest thing to do, because it's the single narrowest opening into success. You know, it is the eye of a needle, where you're trying to squeeze 32,000 [new releases every year] through a needle that will accommodate four to five new ones a week. And most of those are going to go to established people first.

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Leonard J. beer
Editor-in-Chief, Hits Magazine

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I'm sure because of who she is and who's behind her that she'll be visible. People will get a chance to decide. Which is really hard to do. She'll get some exposure, I'm sure she'll get some People Magazine, she'll get some TV shows that other people wouldn't get. She'll have a chance.

And the chance is good -- by the way, most people don't have a chance. They're fighting to get that chance. So she has the chance, a better chance. Will she make it? I don't know. Too early to tell.

What's she up against?

She's up against everything. She's up against Lord of the Rings. She's up against Madden No. 6, she's up against the LeBron James bobble head, as well as every record there is in the world. She's up against the new Avril Lavigne record that just came out this week. …

Plus, the record labels only have so much time to spend and so much money to spend on their new artist and they're looking for one that goes boom. At some point, if she doesn't go boom, she just gets pushed aside. And it's bad, and it's hard, and it's awful, and the closer you are to anybody that's trying to do this, the more torturous it feels.

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Nic harcourt
Music director, KCRW (Santa Monica, Calif.) and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic"

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Sarah [Hudson]'s story is an oft-told tale I suspect. What's ahead for Sarah?

Well, at the end of the day it's, does she have a song that can get played on the radio? Because you still have to get played on the radio to break, most of the time. There are other stories, as we talked about; the live story being the big one. Artists like Dave Matthews who toured and toured and toured, had a huge fan base and sold a lot of records on his own before he signed with the record label. There are examples of that. Ani DiFranco is someone who does that independently. Does it very well doing it independently.

But, they are not the norm. Usually you have to be able to get airplay on the radio. And if it's somebody like this who doesn't have a touring fan base, and it really does come down to "I made this record, can we get somebody to play it on the radio?" then she's got to have the right song. Does she have the right song that is going to get played on the radio? That's my first guess that that's what she needs.

And it's possible that she might have [it]. It's possible that commercial radio will want it. It's always possible that non-commercial radio might want it, and be able to build a story like they did with Norah Jones. So, without hearing it, I can't really tell it. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to, have you got a song that can get played on the radio?

And the odds are?

I don't know. Astronomical. I mean, there's a lot of stuff competing for the attention. What I will say is the record label has a good track record. We're working with a young artist right now called Joss Stone who is beginning to break. And they actually sort of started that off here as well.

So, maybe the label has got a plan in place that will involve getting her out there and doing other non-obvious or non-traditional promotion.

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Jeff leeds
Reporter, Los Angeles Times

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What does the business do with the Sarah Hudsons? What are the economics of what she's probably come up against to the extent that you don't have to be specific to her, but a young artist, what's the kind of trajectory?

I think the trajectory for a young artist is that they're going to take their shot and have a record company that is behind them, that's going to do their best to run them through this massive [media machine] that's been created. They're going to be going to radio stations. Maybe they'll be making a video. And then it's up to the record company to try to promote them. They're going to have to try to get that video on MTV. They're going to try to get radio stations to play that song. And then they're going to sort of hope that what they've produced is going to connect with the public and connect with enough of the public that people will go and either try out that music for free on the Internet, and then buy it, or just go to the record store and listen to it, and buy it.

They're going to be hope that this new sensation that they've tried to create is going to be powerful enough that people will pay for them. The trick thing is the economics aren't having to change this dramatically. The record business is still about finding that untested talent and rolling the dice, and seeing what happens. The odds are against every new person, every new band, every new singer, every new rapper that comes out, because, like I was saying, there's only so much room in the media outlets that we've got -- radio stations are only going to add so many songs a week to their playlist, and MTV is going to do the same thing. And so it's tough. It's really tough to be a brand-new singer, or a brand-new rapper or a brand-new band and make it. …


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posted may 27, 2004

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