George Michael Duets Album...

[From Billboard]

March 27, 2004,
Strong Interest Precedes New Michael Album


George Michael is beginning to find out whether "Patience" is a virtue.

The title of the English singer/songwriter's new album—released March 15 internationally on Aegean/Sony Music—could be Michael's wish for his longtime fans, who have bided their time for nearly eight years since his last studio set of new songs, the 1996 release "Older."

Early signs suggest the waiting will be worthwhile for both parties.

"There has been a really strong vibe around this album for months now," says Mark Noonan, head of music at HMV U.K. and Ireland.

Indeed, the single "Amazing" debuted March 7 on the U.K. singles chart at No. 4, with opening sales of 41,000 units.

That is 10,000 more than the total British sales of Michael's last single, "Shoot the Dog," which was indifferently received in 2002 as the second of two releases in a singles deal with Polydor.

"Amazing" opened at No. 1 in Italy, No. 2 in Denmark and Spain and No. 4 in Ireland. That helped it enter the cumulative Eurochart Hot 100 Singles list at No. 4. It also bowed on the Australian chart at No. 8.

"Patience"—to be released in June on Epic in the United States—also represents a dramatic rapprochement for Michael and Sony Music.

Michael started his career in the early '80s as a CBS and later Sony artist in hit duo Wham! and stayed with the company for the launch of his solo career with the hugely successful album "Faith" in 1987.

But in 1992, Michael famously and unsuccessfully sued Sony over creative ownership. He left the company in 1995 and signed with DreamWorks for North America and Virgin elsewhere.

Then, last November, in a dramatic twist, Michael re-signed for the world with Sony's U.K. division (Billboard, Nov. 18, 2003).

"George was interested in two things," Sony U.K. chairman/CEO Rob Stringer says. What mattered was that "he felt comfortable here and that the deal was good. Both those things got sorted out."

Stringer points out that he and several members of his team have close associations to Michael and his manager Andy Stephens and worked on the 1998 Sony compilation "Ladies and Gentlemen—The Best of George Michael." That release sold 9 million copies worldwide, according to Stringer.

"There weren't fences [to mend] with me, it wasn't like George hadn't worked on a successful project with us," he says. "The fences to be built were in America. [Sony U.S. president] Don Ienner was very positive about the whole project, met with George and discussed all the issues that needed to be discussed.

"We definitely had to do that before we could do the signing. It's driven from [the United Kingdom], but Don and George got on very well this time and had an honest conversation."

As for terms of the deal, Stephens says only, "It's not the deal he signed as an 18-year-old. This is a very different time for the industry with many different people involved at Sony, and the relationship so far feels incredibly comfortable."

Stephens says tracks from the new set were played for all five majors before Michael returned to Sony.

Based on reaction to the material, he and Michael "made our mind up pretty much there and then who we wanted to be with," Stephens says.

"On top of that, Sony offered us an excellent deal that works for all of us."

Michael is undertaking press and radio interviews in European markets. He performed three songs from the new album March 13 on the influential "Parkinson" BBC1 TV show.

The 40-year-old singer has been quoted in more than one U.K. interview as saying this album would be his last major-label endeavor.

But Stringer says Sony is already planning its next release by Michael. That project will be a duets record featuring four new collaborations to be cut "over the next year," according to Stringer, plus archive hits with Elton John, Queen, Whitney Houston and others.


Expectations for "Patience" are running high at U.K. retail. HMV's Noonan describes the album as "a real return to form."

Noonan compares the album with earlier Michael albums such as "Older" and the 1990 Sony release "Listen Without Prejudice."

"As such, it should appeal to George's existing fan base and a whole new audience," says Noonan, who predicts strong sales all the way through to the Christmas season.

Stringer acknowledges that marketing the new album presents a unique challenge, considering the time that has passed since Michael's last major release.

"We didn't take anything for granted, particularly with the reaction to [the 2002 singles] not being as positive as he would have liked. 'Amazing' was a really good radio choice, because it's a clean-cut radio hit."

Ceci Kurzman, VP of worldwide marketing at Epic in New York, says the new single drew the interest of U.S. programmers "as soon as it was launched in Europe."

The U.S. label already is working the track at top 40 and adult top 40 stations, and Kurzman says Michael will conduct "an extensive run of TV appearances and performances" around the album's release in June.

The artist's U.S. album sales total in the Nielsen SoundScan era (beginning in 1991), including those with Wham!, stands at 4.9 million. But total Recording Industry Assn. of America certifications for all albums by Michael and Wham! show U.S. shipments of 21 million, led by "Faith," which is certified 10-times platinum.

Sony has claimed global sales of more than 75 million units during Michael's career with the company.

Michael's most recent album, a collection of covers titled "Songs From the Last Century," was released in 1999 by Virgin and scanned 147,000 units in the United States.



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