Mon, Jul 30, 2007 - Page 13 News List

A Teen pop label grows up

Zomba is on a hot streak again, with hits from performers like Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly and T-Pain, a rapper-turned-singer whose new CD surpassed Paul McCartney's last month to enter the Billboard chart at No 1

By JEFF LEEDS  /  NY Times News Service , LOS ANGELES

Barry Weiss, the president of the Zomba Label Group in his office in Manhattan.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Barry Weiss, the president of the Zomba Label Group, had been chatting with a guest at his label's recent party at the Ritual club here when he abruptly cut off conversation and strode toward the dance floor.

That's Right, a song by one of the label's artists, Ciara, had just begun to play at ear-splitting volume, and Weiss decided to conduct some impromptu market research.

Reaching for his glasses, he watched the partygoers dance as he stood off to one side of the darkened dance floor. "You can still get a feel" for how people will respond in clubs like this, Weiss said.

After more than 25 years in the music business, he has come to trust his instincts more than ever. It fell to Weiss to guide Zomba after the company's creative mastermind, Clive Calder, sold it to Bertelsmann five years ago for US$2.7 billion, cashing out just as the label's slate of teen pop stars like 'N Sync waned.

Today, amid financial setbacks in the music industry, Zomba is on a hot streak again, with hits from performers like Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly and T-Pain, a rapper-turned-singer whose new CD surpassed Paul McCartney's last month to enter the Billboard chart at No 1.

It is quite a turnabout for Weiss, who was one of a handful of longtime Zomba executives to stay on at the company after 2002, even as critics crowed that the label would never again match its earlier success.

"We knew what people were thinking," he said in a rare interview recently. "We weren't like, 'Oh, my God! What's going to happen here?' We were too busy trying to stay afloat and stick to our knitting."

Since the sale, Zomba, which includes Jive Records and the gospel label Verity, has managed to defy the industry's troubles by discovering new artists, like the R&B singer Chris Brown and the rockers Three Days Grace, while keeping costs down - a tough task in a business given to financial excess.

Johnny Wright, a talent manager overseeing acts including Timberlake and the Backstreet Boys, remarked, "They overanalyze every penny that's spent to make sure it's not just frivolous money being thrown away."

He added: "As a manager of an artist, you want a US$2 million video budget. Do you really need one? At the time that you're involved in it, you're feeling a little frustrated," but "at the end of the day you've made a decent video, and you have an artist that's actually getting a royalty check."

There is little argument that the label's sales and market share have slid sharply from their pinnacle during the teen pop sales surge; the industry itself has buckled under the weight of widespread piracy and other woes.

But if any of the corporate-owned labels can be described as succeeding these days, Weiss' is one of the few. Zomba has increased its share of new-release sales almost 20 percent so far this year, even as sales of new albums industry-wide have dropped 16.5 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. It has remained consistently profitable, having generated more than US$40 million in profit last year on well over US$200 million in revenue, according to executives briefed on the label's business.

Being part of a sprawling media empire has had certain advantages; a Bertelsmann reorganization three years ago shifted established stars like Usher and then-unknown artists like Ciara to Zomba's roster. But side businesses, including a studio-equipment rental service, that once bolstered Zomba's success have been sold.

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