In Switch...

[New York Times Report]

In Switch, Whitney Houston Has to Sell an Album


Time was, an album by Whitney Houston sold like anything designed by Prada. She needed little, or even no, promotion to sell an album, people in the music industry say. She was a high-class act, a brand name.

But after years of obscurity, unpleasant headlines — including an arrest for possession of marijuana — and questions about her health, Ms. Houston has been knocked down a notch. Now she needs to be promoted like any department store line. And for her new album, "Just Whitney," scheduled for release on Dec. 10, to be successful, she needs to be seen by her listeners.

To that end, Arista Records is making Ms. Houston more visible, making sure that she gets seen and heard widely. She is scheduled to perform on Thursday in Barcelona at the European MTV Music Video Awards, said Antonio L. A. Reid, president and chief executive officer of the recording company.

She was interviewed on Thursday afternoon at her home in Atlanta by Diane Sawyer of "Good Morning America" for a segment that will be broadcast in December, said Adam Pokriss, a spokesman for ABC News. She will also be made available for other television interviews and some radio shows, Mr. Reid said.

He said Ms. Houston had just finished taping a music video for "One of Those Days," a single that was just released. It is performing well on adult contemporary charts, radio programmers say. The song is "vintage Whitney," Mr. Reid said.

John Ivey, the program director at KIIS-FM, a contemporary popular music radio station in Los Angeles, said the company was doing the right thing to sell Ms. Houston to the public.

"They need to get her out," Mr. Ivey said. "This is not the time for her to be hiding. She should be walking in radio stations giving interviews. She should be on Leno and Letterman. If she's O.K., she shouldn't worry about what they are going to say or ask. This is not a gimme for her anymore."

Ms. Houston, who has not released an album in four years, is competing with Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez for fourth-quarter record sales at a time when consumers are spending less money on CD's, partly because of Internet piracy. Arista Records is a unit of BMG, the music division of Bertelsmann.

"There is room for all of them," Mr. Reid said. "Yes, there are new trends in music since Whitney released her last record, but her voice is timeless."

He sidestepped questions about Ms. Houston's health and her arrest in 2000 for marijuana. The charges were dropped after a judge said the airport security guard who accused Ms. Houston of carrying an ounce and a half of marijuana in her purse had not had the authority to detain her.

A person close to Ms. Houston said the singer had appeared gaunt about a year ago because she had been depressed about the state of her marriage to the singer Bobby Brown, who has had several encounters with the police over the years. Mr. Brown was arrested on Thursday in Atlanta on charges of driving without a license, speeding and possession of marijuana, the police said.

But his troubles have had little bearing on Ms. Houston, a person close to her said. "She looks great," Mr. Reid said. "She's in good shape."

Some in the industry saw trouble in Mr. Reid's decision to change the album's release date three times. But Mr. Reid said Ms. Houston did not cause the delay. He blamed himself, saying he is "wishy-washy" and frequently changes release dates.

"The album is finished," he said. "It's 100 percent in the can."

A first single from the album, "Whatchulookinat," failed to catch on after it received little radio play and critics panned it. It was also released without a video, which can help generate interest in new songs. The release of a second single usually means that a company is making a particularly strong effort to promote a coming album.

Ms. Houston was once a shoo-in for play on pop and rhythm and blues stations. But now that she is a Norma Desmond of sorts, Arista is searching for a way to remarket her to her core audience: blacks ages 25 and up. If that audience likes the second single and it climbs the charts, it will have an easier time crossing over to pop charts, said Anthony Acamporia, director of charts for Radio and Records, a leading trade publication.

Ms. Houston rose to fame in the 1980's and became the undisputed diva of the rhythm and blues and pop charts. Most of her hits would serve as prom and graduation themes, including "Saving All My Love for You," "Greatest Love of All," "Didn't We Almost Have It All?," "Love Will Save the Day" and "I'm Your Baby Tonight."

But by the end of the early 1990's, musical tastes were changing. Rap was taking over, and African-Americans began to resent Ms. Houston for ignoring her racial roots. Soon she married Mr. Brown, whose hip reputation helped her regain support among young African-American adults. In 1998, she had a comeback album, "My Love Is Your Love," which sold well.

But her image soon changed for the worse. Her skeletal appearance last year at Michael Jackson's anniversary concert and her last-minute removal from the Academy Awards ceremony by the show's producer, her old friend Burt Bacharach, led to questions about a possible drug abuse problem. Her father sued her last month for failing to pay him money owed for helping her get the marijuana charges dismissed, among other things.

When asked if Ms. Houston's legal troubles and her husband's latest arrest would hurt Ms. Houston's comeback, Mr. Reid said: "It's not my job to worry about the tabloid stuff. My job is to help Whitney make great music."



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