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As industry ebbs, veteran artists run for covers

Barry Manilow became one of the world’s best-selling artists by making timeless classics out of unknown songs. But these days, he’s more likely to rely on other people’s classics than interpret new material.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barry Manilow became one of the world’s best-selling artists by making timeless classics out of unknown songs. But these days, he’s more likely to rely on other people’s classics than interpret new material.

And he’s not alone. From Rod Stewart to Aaron Neville to Art Garfunkel — who this month is releasing an album of Rodgers & Hammerstein standards — veteran singers are increasingly turning to cover albums or other gimmicks in order to find chart success in their graying years.

“As much as my true fans love these original albums, they don’t sell as well as the cover albums,” Manilow said in an interview last year as he was promoting “The Greatest Songs of the Sixties,” the follow-up to his surprise platinum success, “The Greatest Songs of the Fifties,” also released in 2006.

“It’s a handful of great artists who can still do it — like Sting can still come up with a great original album and sell, and the same thing with Paul Simon, and the same thing with Prince,” Manilow said. “But there are others who can’t, and I think the record companies want to play it safer.”

It seems to be a winning formula, one that has only grown in popularity in the past couple of decades. Linda Ronstadt “What’s New” album of classics was a huge success, as was Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning, multiplatinum “Unforgettable: With Love,” featuring her singing along to her father’s ’50s songs. More recently, Rod Stewart has had platinum success with his “Great American Songbook” series of albums.

And pairing Frank Sinatra with contemporary chart-toppers like Bono to sing Ol' Blue Eyes' best-known songs on the 1993 album “Duets” made Sinatra a hitmaker once again and created a formula that is still being replicated today, with great success. Santana’s “Supernatural” paired the veteran guitarist with young hitmakers on new songs and was a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning sensation, as was Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company,” which featured the music legend singing classics with a variety of musical guests.

“I think somehow a generation of people are now reaching their mid-40s ... (and) are reminiscing about certain things. There’s something about stuff that’s over 20 years old that ... reminds of you of your good days,” said renowned music producer Phil Ramone, who produced Sinatra’s “Duets” album.

He also produced Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” and most recently worked on a duets album by Tony Bennett and a disc of Gladys Knight singing jazz classics. Ramone credits the success of Sinatra’s “Duets” album with the proliferation of such projects today — especially in a declining music industry hungry for hits.

“Somehow that seemed to trigger something in people,” he said. “I think there was no rush to do new material. ... One success sometimes breeds another. I think it’s been a phenomenal good four or five years, from Rod to other people, who have done an album that may have not been heard, especially if it was new material.”

Burgundy Records, an imprint of Sony BMG created in 2005 to cater to older artists and their fans, last year released Aaron Neville singing “The Soul Classics” and Julio Iglesias singing “Romantic Classics.” This month, they also have America making a comeback with a two-disc set that features Ryan Adams and other younger talent, as well as a live disc with their old classics.

Matt Stringer, a top executive at Burgundy, said coming up with a way to easily connect with listeners is key, especially for an older artist.

“Some of the avenues for the most broad-scale exposure aren’t available to them, like massive radio airplay or top-10 singles,” he said. “In many respects, the marketing for these artists becomes much more intensive, so I think that in many instances for these artists the concept for the record ... becomes basically as important as the artists themselves.”

Antonio “L.A” Reid, chairman of Island Def Jam, home to artists ranging from Kanye West to Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie, says classic songs work for older artists because their fans aren’t as keen on experimentation.

“The adult audience isn’t very receptive to new material,” said Reid. “Adults grow out of that phase of discovery and they grow into comfort, and there’s comfort in the known and discomfort in the unknown.

“They would rather hear a song that they’ve heard before sung by an artist they are familiar with than they would to hear a new artist, for example, or a new song.”

That’s not to say that older artists are not making any new material. Bob Dylan’s release of “Modern Times” last year was not only acclaimed as one of his best in years, but also debuted on top of the album charts. Other baby boomer acts who had notable splashes with their releases included Prince (“3121”), Bruce Springsteen (“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”) and Richie, whose “Coming Home” album earned him the best commercial success he’s had in years.

Richie believes a key to that success was being open to new ideas.

“The worst thing you hear sometimes from veteran artists is, ‘I don’t do it that way,’ ” Richie said in a recent interview. “The first thing I said to them, all of the writers I was with, was, ‘What does Lionel Richie sound like to you in 2006?’ ”

He also said he resisted the idea of doing a theme album because “I’m known for being a writer. ... so for me to stop and go over and do a medley of someone else’s stuff is just not what they’re expecting.”

Island Def Jam also has other veteran acts that have done well with new material, including the Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley and Bon Jovi.

“It’s interesting,” Reid said. “Saleswise ... Bon Jovi sold great doing original material. Lionel Richie is going to have his first platinum album in many years doing material. Rod Stewart, on the other hand, has sold a ton of records doing covers. So I think there is room for both.” (Reid plans a new Babyface album that will be covers, mainly of acoustic material in the vein of Babyface hits like “Change the World.”)

Today’s pop market can be particularly challenging for older artists, said Burgundy’s Stringer: “I can’t think (of) the last time an artist that was 45 years or older had a hit song on the radio.”

However, he knows the audience is there and waiting.

“It’s worth the valiant effort to figure out how to get these artists exposed,” Stringer said. “It’s also absolutely providing a service to the consumer market place.”