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American Idol Contracts Resurface

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Absorbing and well-researched story by Anthony Breznican for AP on Simon Fuller and the economics of the American Idol and Pop Idol franchises:

    As creator of the “American Idol” franchise, Fuller manages every aspect of the careers of Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Kelly Clarkson and all other instant “Idol” celebrities.

    But Fuller earns far more than the typical 15 to 20 percent that most managers keep from their clients’ gross earnings. As the “American Idol” phenomenon begins its third season Monday on Fox, Fuller’s franchise is raising questions about exploitation and the price of fame.

    Fuller says that as the primary imaginative force behind these artists, and the one with the connections to transform Clarkson from struggling Texas waitress to pop diva, he deserves a larger percentage of their earnings.

    “If you think of Andrew Lloyd Webber, if he creates ‘Phantom of the Opera’ he owns it. He hires Michael Crawford to take the lead. Crawford doesn’t get a cut of `Phantom of the Opera,’ and no one questions that,” Fuller said. “My deals are the best in the world. I create ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and then say to Michael Crawford, ‘Let’s be 50-50 partners, or 60-40 – whatever the deal is.'”

    ….In an interview last summer, he described many of his “Idol” relationships as “partnerships” in which he receives from 25 to 50 percent of all earnings. The Sunday Times of London estimated that Fuller earned about $44 million in 2002 and $60 million in 2003.

    It’s unclear how much the “American Idol” stars have taken home for their work. But in 2002, the first “Pop Idol” winner Will Young collected an estimated $750,000, according to the Sunday Times.

    Fuller’s company, 19 Entertainment, oversees not just the recording deal for “American Idol” stars, but also controls merchandising, touring, sponsorship and movie deals.

    ….”Most artists working on the old-fashioned model, how do you keep track of your publisher, your record company, your merchandise, your sponsorship agent, your touring agent? There could be 10 different people dealing with different areas of your life,” Fuller said. “This is one-stop shopping.”

    But Gary Fine, a Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney, advised one client not to participate in the first “Idol” series after examining the contestant’s contract. Fine does not condemn Fuller’s deals, but said he would not recommend them for everyone.

    “If I had an artist whose music was quirky and might take time to develop, then Simon’s organization is not the one I would recommend getting involved with,” he said. “On the other hand, if I have a client whose primary interest is fame and fortune, then Simon’s organization is certainly worth considering.”

    ….”It unfortunately takes two for exploitation,” said Jayne Wallace, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “And in the U.S. music business, people are so desperate to get in they’re willing to sign everything away.”

    She would not comment specifically on Fuller’s practices, but said generally “most artists would sign a bad deal to get the break.”

    ….Ruben Studdard told The Associated Press last summer that he had no complaints with Fuller, and described him a helpful career-shaping force who watched out for his well-being.

    In an interview with Rolling Stone, however, Studdard wondered if “American Idol” had taken advantage of the contestants, citing commercials they filmed for free as part of the broadcast.

    “Without the show, we wouldn’t be recording artists,” he said. “But we did a lot of commercials, dawg. … We were exploited but not exploited. It just taught us a lot about the business. `American Idol’ is what we like to call a crash course on the entertainment industry.”

As you can tell from reading a bit between the lines, no other AI contract information has been leaked, rather remarkably, since we revealed the contestant’s contract for the first American Idol 1 series in September of 2002 (and we very much appreciate the courtesy of the link from Breznican’s story!), which was further developed in a Salon story.

With the new season upon us, I sense a quickening in the Idol pulse. Look for more soon. We have a very large number of Idol-related stories from both seasons – just put American Idol in the search box at the top of the page.

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About Eric Olsen