Contract To Success...

A $100 Million Lifesaver?
Arista president and CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid has signed Whitney Houston to a history-making deal. Is he betting that the move will calm his own turbulent reign?
By Roland S. Martin

[Caption next to separate pictures of Whitney and L.A. Reid:
Mutually beneficial: The Reid-Houston deal may bolster both of their careers.]

Ever since the talented and award-winning producer Antonio "L.A." Reid assumed the top post at Arista Records in July of 2000, critics have wondered less about hits than whether the 45-year-old will be able to keep his job. Reid's appointment came on the heels of an ugly and bruising public battle between the label's founder, Clive Davis, and its owner, BMG Entertainment. A tepid music market--and a couple of homeruns by Davis' new label, J Records, including blazing newcomer Alicia Keys--conspired against Reid during the early months of his tenure. But in August, Reid fired back with a stunning move, signing Whitney Houston, Arista's gem, to a record-breaking $100 million, multi-record deal that includes two greatest-hits albums. Pure genius, or desperation?

To his credit, Reid is one of the keenest arbiters of talent in the music industry. During his reign as co-founder and co-president of LaFace Records, the label garnered 33 No. 1 singles and three Grammys for Arista acts such as Toni Braxton, TLC, and Babyface. Yet his task at Arista is more daunting than anything he encountered at LaFace. Reid's appointment at Arista prompted a revolving door of executives at the label's New York headquarters. Moreover, BMG execs are pressuring him to yield heftier profits, even while Arista is still reeling from the multimillion-dollar settlement paid to Davis upon his departure from the company and the loss of key talent that followed him.

Clearly, Reid has his hands full. Yet he scoffs at his detractors, saying he doesn't waste time reading reports of his impending demise and that the only pressure he faces is self-inflicted. "I've had over 100 hit records. My competition is me. Look at the charts," he told SAVOY in response to speculation about his downfall. "We make a lot of hits. We just released Blu Cantrell. We have Usher. We sold 8 million Dido records this year. We sold 5 million Outkast records this year. So the company's in great shape. People will say what they say, but I can't really get into it."

However, the constant criticism appears to be getting under Reid's skin. After Billboard published an Aug. 4 review of Cantrell's debut album that mentioned industry's pundits' uncertainty of Reid's "staying power," he fired off a letter to the editor chastising the magazine and defending himself. In the letter, Reid called the article "disturbing," because of a "clear and present intention to degrade my credibility and attempt to force me from Arista records." He added that such "yellow journalism, innuendo, and blatant false gossip" are unacceptable from the "bible" of the music industry. A spokeswoman for Arista defended Reid's action. "It is certainly not unusual for a label executive to send a letter to the editor in response to an unfair or obviously slanted review, feature or profile," says Arista's Laura Swanson.

As for the numerous executive-level changes, Reid says: "The thing that really is troublesome to me is that no one has focused on the fact that we've [given] a lot of young, talented people new opportunities that maybe didn't exist before." As this issue went to press, Reid emphasized that his primary goals were to increase Arista's market share and unearth new trends and talent that can strike gold--just as Whitney Houston once did. Certainly he's banking she'll do it again.

Roland Martin is news editor of SAVOY.



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