In 2001, WhitneyHouston and MariahCarey both signed new recording contracts worth upwards of $100 million, signaling a shift in the music business.
Here, we take a look at a moment in time when recording industry optimism failed to match with reality, with two quickly disastrous superstar mega-contracts.
where Carey crashed the set with an ice cream cart, did an impromptu striptease, and went on a discordant rant about therapy, prompting host Carson Daly to remark, on camera, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mariah Carey has lost her mind.”Shortly after, Carey checked herself into a rehab facility, and her rep announced she’d experienced a breakdown, brought on by exhaustion. Carey’s recovery delayed the
Glitterfilm and soundtrack release, and the LP was pushed to the unfortunate date of Sept. 11, 2001. With limited previous promotion;as retaliation for Carey leaving Sony, including rushing J. Lo’s “I’m Real” out ahead ofGlitter’s lead single “Loverboy,” which featured the same sample; the added shadow of a national tragedy all but guaranteed the album’s failure. (The movie was also a commercial and critical disappointment, grossing just over $5 million in box office receipts and drawing roundly negative reviews.)
At the same time, EMI Group announced a new chairman for their music division, Alain Levy, brought in to stop the label’s eroding profit margin. As part of his house cleaning, he fired the executives who brokered the Carey deal, then terminated the contract before it was even a year old. Virgin’s price to make the break quick and smooth was $28 million dollars, on top of the $21 million advance Carey had already received at signing. So Carey walked away with over half the contract value with just one under-promoted album. headtopics.com
From the vantage point of 2021, knowing how the rest of Mariah’s career has played out, EMI pulled the cord too fast, and the industry press were too quick to write Carey off -- walking away with nearly $50 million of an $80 million contract free and clear to sign somewhere else immediately doesn’t exactly sound like a death knell. Even in a rapidly changing landscape, an artist of Carey’s track record could afford one bomb before abandoning the partnership - especially when ending the relationship costs $28 million. (It’s also worth noting that even with a “failed” record, Carey still had the
highest selling single of 2001with “Loverboy.”) Carey’s next contract, signed later in 2002 with Island/Def Jam, was valued around a much more modest $20M for three albums through her own imprint. The second album in that deal, 2005’sThe Emancipation of Mimi
, returned Mariah to the top of the charts, and added anotherBillboardfeat to her accolades, as “We Belong Together” ended up the longest-reigning Hot 100 No. 1 single of the 21st century to that point with its 14-week run on top. How Britney Spears' 'I'm A Slave 4 U' Shifted Her Career and Pop’s Direction
While EMI may have been too hasty in cutting their losses with Carey, Arista Records may not have exercised enough prudence extending their relationship with flagship artist Whitney Houston. Around the same time Carey announced she was checking into rehab at the top of August 2001, Arista Records confirmed they’d renewed Houston’s contract for $100 million, touted as possibly the biggest recording contract to date at the time. When Houston’s mentor Clive Davis was ousted from Arista and started his new venture, J Records, there was great speculation on whether Houston, the biggest act on Arista’s roster, would follow. Instead, Whitney committed to the new L.A. Reid-helmed regime with an agreement for six studio albums and two greatest hits compilations (she still owed several albums under her existing contract), with a $25 million advance. headtopics.com
Houston was expected to go into the studio almost immediately -- but instead of continuing the momentum of 1998’s multi-platinumMy Love Is Your Loveand 2000’s multi-platinum greatest hits compilation, Whitney was on the precipice of the painfully public downward spiral that would tragically end with her overdose in 2012.
Erratic behavior from mega-stars wasn’t a new or novel thing, and Houston had been making both tabloid and regular news for years with then-husband Bobby Brown. But a new pattern was emerging by 2001; Whitney had canceled some domestic dates during her 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour
,including a show in her hometown of Newark after concert goers were already in seats, raising concerns anew about her health. There was also speculation about the state of her voice, as the singer, known to be careless about protecting her instrument, increasingly failed to hit the big notes in signature ballads like “I Will Always Love You.” In early 2000, she skipped a performance for Clive Davis’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and later in the month pulled out of a performance for the Oscars telecast. On both occasions she canceled with only a day’s notice, citing ongoing throat issues, but rumors persisted in the wake of public drug dustups with both her and Brown.
Still, Reid was facing enormous pressure stepping into Clive’s forcefully vacated seat, and retaining Houston was an important strategic move to start his tenure -- so perhaps these incidents weren’t concerning enough to weigh into negotiations. But Arista’s parent company BMG Entertainment was headtopics.com
reportedly forecastinga $150 million loss for 2001, so it wasn’t without risk. And by September, Houston was increasingly in headlines for things that had nothing to do with her music: The star’s incredibly gaunt appearance at the first of two live concerts celebrating Michael Jackson’s solo career sent fans and outlets into a tizzy. When she was a no-show for the second tribute on September 10th, rumors broke that the singer had succumbed to an overdose. Her publicist and Arista execs made it clear Houston was still very much alive, and fortunately the story was overshadowed when the world’s news cycle shifted significantly on the morning of September 11th.
Houston’s first album under Reid,Just Whitney, changed release dates multiple times, finally bowing in December 2002. The LP generated Houston’s highest first-week sales, but didn’t spawn any major hits and was only a modest seller altogether. Speculation about her well-being and viability only grew as she promoted the project: An infamous sit down
with Diane Sawyeraround the album’s release, meant to be Whitney’s redemption moment, only raised eyebrows further as the singer proclaimed, among other things, that she never did crack because it was too cheap: “I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight, OK? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is whack.”
Houston’s public descent continued even as the singer moved to GA in hopes of a quieter life for her family, but she and Brown were tabloid and blog staples by then -- generating news as they traveled, as Brown was incarcerated, and then, explosively, when they allowed cameras to follow them for Bravo’s single 2005 season of
Being Bobby Brown, in which any remaining facade of the polished pop princess Davis had cultivated for Houston over the years was completely wiped away. In 2006, she entered rehab, filed for divorce and started working with a vocal coach to rebuild her voice -- but it would be 2009 before she released another studio album.
By that point, Reid had long since been removed from the helm of the label, in part due to disappointing returns on big signings like Houston and Boyz II Men, whom Reid brought to Arista in the wake of their lowest career sales, and resulted in only one lukewarm album with the label. The warmly received
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