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Guest-Stars the Rage in Music Lately

November 19, 2002

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NEW YORK _ In the music business, one is fast becoming the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.

Record labels are piling more vocals on the average hit single, lacing a primary musician’s voice with cooing and chanting from a host of guest artists or groups. As a result, the charts have been filled with singles that often include little more than a few vowel sounds or a musical turn of phrase from a young up-and-comer or, sometimes, an industry heavyweight _ who then gets marquee billing.

``Is this a legitimate art form or is it a gimmick?″ asks New York entertainment attorney Andy Tavel. ``It’s a little of both.″

While pop musicians have collaborated on records for decades _ Stevie Nicks paired with Tom Petty to memorable effect on 1981′s ``Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,″ for example _ now ``there is a sense,″ adds Tavel, that the ersatz jam session these current singles seem to capture ``is not as organic as it once was.″

In fact, the new songs are ``not really duets,″ notes Gary LeMel, president of worldwide music for AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Brothers music division. ``They’re like guest appearances.″ Even so, they seem to work.

Of the top 10 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for the week Nov. 23, five include featured artists. Among the highlights: California ska-rock group No Doubt taps Lady Saw on its reggae-inflected ``Underneath it All″ on Vivendi Universal SA’s Interscope label, and Jennifer Lopez enlists rappers Jadakiss and Styles to enliven ``Jenny From The Block″ from Sony Corp.’s Epic. Also worth noting is the rather incongruous pairing of guitarist Carlos Santana with teen rocker Michelle Branch on ``The Game of Love″ from Bertelsmann AG’s Arista.

In December, rebounding diva Mariah Carey will lean on rappers Jay-Z and Freeway on ``You Got Me,″ one of 15 tracks on her upcoming release on Vivendi’s Def Jam. Toni Braxton enlists the help of an artist known as Loon on one cut from her new Arista album due out Nov. 19.

This current round of vocal mixing is said to have been pioneered by, among others, rap-entrepreneurs like Irv Gotti, whose Murder Inc. records is the force behind rapper Ja Rule and songbird Ashanti. The guest-star method, if done properly, builds buzz for a rising or unknown artist or lends street credibility to a more established artist’s mid-career disc.

While the phenomenon is successful in the rap and hip-hop arenas, it is certainly starting to spread. ``A lot of these rock and rollers or alternative rock stars or creative rock stars are trying to start to try to be hipper and cooler by marrying with the hip-hop culture,″ notes Peter Visvardis, a director of A&R research at Sony’s Columbia label. Besides, ``it definitely always helps you with the spins″ on radio, he notes. ``People like a story behind the record.″

As of late, however, the tale has several difficult plot points.

Radio playlists are narrower than they were two decades ago. What’s more, record sales are slipping. Overall unit sales as of the week ended Nov. 3 fell 12.9 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan, to about $526.2 million from $604.2 million a year earlier. Sales of singles are down 62.4 percent for the same period. And rap album unit sales have steadily fallen since 2000, when the genre mustered sales of 105.5 million units. Last year, the industry sold 89.3 million units. Year to date, Nielsen says, rap albums account for only 64.4 million units.

The process raises certain legal issues. ``There is an added cost and an added complication that comes into play,″ says Michael Friedman, a News York entertainment-industry attorney. Guests expect some type of advance or payment, and the issues of royalties and promotion usually surface.

Have the musical guests outstayed their welcome? Judging by the charts, certainly not. Yet, as the pair-ups move from rap to pop, the labels might want to listen to the music.

``When it just doesn’t fit together, it’s forced,″ Friedman said. ``And the public sees it as such.″

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