We’re rooting for Mariah Carey since her hospitalization for exhaustion last week. It can’t help that this weird episode came on the heels of her single "Loverboy" pretty much tanking. You have to feel for Mariah — her whole image has been built on the myth of an unbroken string of chart hits.
But were they hits? For example, Billboard ranked "Loverboy" at number 2 this week, up from number 60. But according to Radio & Records, which actually measures the airplay for records, "Loverboy" is not in the top 30 on its pop chart, ranks dead last at number 30 on the rhythmic chart, and is number 19 on the Urban chart.
So why is it number 2 on Billboard? If it’s not being played, why did it sell so many copies last week?
Mariah, like a lot of other pop stars, owes the success of her singles not to her fans but to a few distributors who control the record business. Primary among them is Trans World Entertainment of Albany, the company that owns Coconuts Music & Movies, FYE (For Your Entertainment), Camelot, Planet Music, Record Town, Saturday Matinee, Spec’s Music, Strawberries, The Wall, and Waxie Maxie's. Trans World has been deep discounting Mariah’s singles for years, selling them for a quarter of the price of other records.
Trans World’s business with Carey goes both ways. They recently made a big donation to Carey’s Camp Mariah, which is part of the Fresh Air Fund. Mariah accepted the check from the Albany-based music retailer at her in-store signing at the Roosevelt Field Mall in Long Island. (Carey is one of the few celebrities who actually donates a lot of money to charity and is consistently generous with her earnings.)
In October 1999, when Carey’s "Heartbreaker" was released commercially and zoomed up the charts, this column spoke with Vinnie Berbeglia, the buyer for Trans World Entertainment, who conceded that this was a regular part of their marketing. They account for more than 1000 record stores. At the time a survey of Trans World stores showed that they were selling "Heartbreaker" for 49 cents, as well as other Columbia Records acts like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez.
The average price of a single not deep discounted is $1.99.
As Joni Mitchell once observed, this is all about "stoking the star making machinery." With a single at the top of the charts as kind of a loss leader for sales, it’s also a teaser for a new album. And a self-fulfilling prophecy is created. Now that it’s a hit, phony or not, the record has to be played by radio stations — even if they previously rejected it or no one wanted to hear it.
Even though "Loverboy" is number 2, this ranking is at best spurious. For one thing, the single was available to radio stations for 6 weeks and got little airplay. The video also got little action when it was first released. The single, commercially unavailable for all that time, languished at the bottom of the charts. That’s because Billboard could only measure its radio airplay, and that was minimal. Once it was made available — and at such a low price —it was able to take off.
What’s kind of interesting is that in this case, it didn’t matter what label the record was on. The right calls were made and the wheels of the process turned. Trans World — which has been instrumental in keeping Mariah’s unbroken record of hit singles — is once again selling Carey’s single for 49 cents, while other singles are marked at $1.99. And it’s business as usual.
On the internet, a poster called "massive" wrote to the velvetrope.com this week: "I was at a record store today and I saw a copy of her single for 49 cents. The guy behind the counter said, 'You can have it for free it you want.'"
Tomorrow, tickets go on sale at Madison Square Garden for Michael Jackson’s Solo shows, with dozens of guest stars being advertised. Ticket prices go up to $2,500 with some portion going to charity, but so far no one has said which charity. The question is, will ticket buyers care when the phone lines and box office open? Tomorrow was also supposed to be the day "Rock My World," the first single from Michael’s album, Invincible, was supposed to be released to radio stations. No word on that yet as well.
So it seems that Warner Bros. Television has confirmed — at least to the Hollywood Reporter — that Rosie O’Donnell will be succeeded by Caroline Rhea in the fall of 2002 with a new talk show.
What grand news! I’ve known Caroline for a while now and she is really a gem. I hope she can withstand all the tabloid attention (although there are no scandals or hidden skeletons per se). She is a gifted comedienne, a pretty good stand up comic, and smart. The audience should find her an easy transition from the retiring Rosie. Congratulations!