Is It Too Late for Whitney’s Comeback?

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Despite topping the charts her first day out, the actual prospects don’t look good for a returning superstar.

 

On her new “I Look to You” album, Whitney Houston asks fans to "love me like I never left."
 
The lyric, from Houston’s duet with Akon, can resonate as both a request and plea — especially from a singer who released her last studio album in 2002. Because one of the truths for the already troubled recording industry is that being a superstar just ain’t what it used to be.
 
Released on Monday — a day earlier than CD Tuesdays, to qualify it for a Grammy — the album was well reviewed and topped both the Amazon and iTunes sales charts on day one.
 
Over the past two years, under the personal guidance of long-time Houston mentor and industry executive Clive Davis, it has been the beneficiary of huge investment and high hopes with an A-team of producers and songwriters such as Alicia Keys, another Davis protégé, Diane Warren, David Foster, R. Kelly and Akon assembled to help the singer hit all the right notes and demographics.
 
And while no plans have been announced for a tour, an extensive marketing campaign has been rolled out, including a Tuesday live appearance for Houston on “Good Morning America” Tuesday and an interview with Oprah on Sept. 14.
 
But it’s unlikely to recapture even a sliver of the glory days of Whitney’s 1985 debut, which sold over 13 million copies, or her soundtrack to “The Bodyguard,” which sold a blockbusting 44 million copies worldwide
 
One Grammy winning producer and music executive who has worked with some of the biggest acts in the music business told TheWrap that he thinks Houston’s new album will continue having a great first week — and then suffer a quick drop-off in sales.
 
“Whitney hasn’t been Whitney for a long time,” the producer said, noting that Houston’s last studio album “Just Whitney,” has sold less than 750,000 copies in the U.S. since its release almost seven years ago. “Her last album was the worst selling record of her career, and the last compilation (2007’s “The Ultimate Collection”) the label put out was a non-entity.”
 
“Things have changed,” says entertainment and music business lawyer Allen Lenard. “You can’t depend on the high level artists to carry the industry any more. Whitney Houston and other artists didn’t shrink — the world did.”
 
With sales of recorded music declining in the double digits year after year in the last decade, the digital revolution and consumer tastes shifting from albums to individual songs, the industry has seen expectations and profits fall.
 
Especially with comeback albums, it seems the days when groups like the Eagles could reunite and top the charts. Much anticipated comeback records from the likes of Guns’N’Roses, whose “Chinese Democracy” was 13 years in the making, to Eminem have stalled or crashed right out of the gate.
 
Released on November 23 2008, “Chinese Democracy” has sold barely 3.2 million copies worldwide, a far cry from the 28 million copies sold of GNR’s 1987 “Appetite for Destruction” debut. Eminem’s “Relapse,” the first new studio album by the Detroit rapper since 2004, has only sold just over 1.3 million copies in the U.S. since it came on May 15, 2009 — less than the 1.7 million his “The Marshall Mathers LP” sold in just its first week of release in 2000. (See accompanying article, "5 Comeback Stories.)
 
The sputtering of singles by Mariah Carey, whose upcoming “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel” album has been extensively underwritten by sponsorship deals her label organized, has some speculating that the singer could see a repeat performance this year of her 2001 “Glitter” debacle.
 
And while not a comeback album, superstars U2’s “No Line On the Horizon” has sold less than a million copies since its release last year.
 
Indeed, releases from country ingénue Taylor Swift, whose 2008 “Fearless” has sold almost 4 million copies in the U.S. ,and Coldplay, whose Grammy wining “Vida la Vida,” which came out in November 2008 and has sold almost 8 million copies worldwide, are proving the exception to the superstar rule.
 
“In today’s market,” lawyer Lenard told TheWrap, “you have to create a system that works from the bottom up because one of the fundamental flaw of the record industry is that they don’t have any idea who their audience is.”
 
On “Salute,” the last song on “I Look to You, “Whitney Houston, sounding a lot like LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” from 1990, sings “Don’t call it a comeback/No, I’ve been here for years.”
 
That just might be the superstar’s best and worst hope.