DALLAS—Nikki McKibbin thought her dreams for stardom were about to come true when she won a spot on the 2002 inaugural season of “American Idol.”
Each week, millions of viewers watched as the 23-year-old Texas singer made her way to third place, right behind winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini.
But for McKibbin and many other “American Idol” contestants, being successful on television and even signing a recording contract didn’t bring instant stardom in the real world.
After the show, McKibbin, who had established herself as a rocker during the TV competition, was given a recording contract with a major label, RCA Nashville. But she refused to record the country-pop songs pitched to her, and, for the next three years, she made a living waiting tables and participating in five other reality programs, including “Fear Factor” and “Popstars.”
Finally in 2005, with the help of a lawyer, she got out of her RCA contract and went the independent route. Her debut CD, “Unleashed,” was released in early July on California’s small Chenoa Records.
“As far as the show goes, and building an incredible fan base, of course it was a blessing,” the 28-year-old said last week by phone from her Fort Worth, Texas, home. “I wouldn’t be able to do that without the show. The curse was not letting me musically do what I wanted to do and not letting me be what I am as an artist. I wasn’t going to sell out and not do what I wanted to do.”
Ironically, “American Idol,” the gargantuan franchise that attracts about 30 million viewers per episode, isn’t always a foolproof star-launching machine. Even for the show’s winners, success has not come easily, especially where album sales are concerned.
Just consider the numbers behind the two biggest “Idol” sellers, Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Clarkson has sold about 9 million discs combined for her three albums, while Underwood’s one CD has moved 5.8 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
So where is the fan disconnect with those 37 million votes each week? And why doesn’t such a rabid pop-culture phenomenon, which leads to everything from water-cooler talk to widespread wagering on potential winners, translate to CD sales? This is, after all, a show designed to crank out popular music sensations.
“It’s one thing to stay at home and watch a really good TV show,” season five Idol finalist Bucky Covington says by phone from Nashville. “You can pick up the phone and even vote. That’s a great thing `cause I’ve never picked up a phone and voted. But it’s still different from going out, picking up an album and buying it. It’s just a good TV show, and a lot of people watch it for that fact.
“I’m a big fan of Carrie Underwood, but she put out three singles before I went out and actually bought her album.”
For many, “American Idol” is as addictive as a soap opera. Perhaps even more so, since the contestants aren’t actors—real people put themselves before sometimes-harsh judges and the fickle public in their attempts to reach for music careers. They are the ultimate underdogs proving their worth before the country.
“What I always found fun about the show was its watchability,” fan Marlin Dobbs says by phone from Miami. He’s been watching and voting religiously since the second “Idol” season.
“What’s going to happen next? I like that drive about the show. It makes you want to come back more for the entertainment factor,” Dobbs said. “What will they do? What will the judges say? It’s like watching a variety show, like Carol Burnett, which I grew up on.”
Yet in five years of ogling “Idol,” Dobbs has purchased one CD—second-season finalist Kimberley Locke’s debut, “One Love.”
“I like the show more for its watchability, not its listenability,” he said.
The music “Idol” finalists release after the show determines whether they break through in the real world, away from the glittery studio with the trademark neon-blue sign. Fans obviously respond to the remakes of well-known songs the contenders sing on television. But when it comes to making a debut album of originals, the cushion of instantly recognizable material is gone.
“They have to make a record that is very consistent with what they show on the show,” says Iain Pirie of 19 Entertainment, the production and artist management company that created “American Idol.” “But what you also need is radio hits. Carrie has been very successful – CMAs, two Grammys, you’ve got real hits.
“All American Idol does is give you the opportunity to launch your career with a huge amount of fame and a lot of fans. But even the most fervent TV-watching person in the world is in many ways engaging in a passive experience. You’re on your couch, you’re watching, when the show is over you love it and can’t wait until next week. But it’s a big, conscious decision to actually seek out a record.”
Covington agrees that singing familiar covers on TV often hinders the artists when they later release albums with original material.
“If we would all get up there on `American Idol,’ 30 or 40 million people watching and we sang our original music or something new somebody else wrote, I guarantee you the next week there will be about 5 million people watching,” he said.
And in these days of digital downloading, the masses need a compelling reason to spend their hard-earned money on a full disc. Enter radio, which remains the primary source for promoting new music to the public. Most of the big “Idol” sellers, particularly Clarkson, Underwood and fifth-season finalist Chris Daughtry, have benefited from incessant spins on pop, country and rock dials.
For that, you need bankable songs.
“Sometimes you win and the songs aren’t there,” says Patrick Davis, program director for Dallas’ “Kiss FM” KHKS-FM. “It’s all about the individual songs. Having `American Idol’ is a big help, but if the song’s not there, radio is not going to embrace it. The ones that have something unique—a unique sound, a unique perspective—are the ones that break through. Look at Ruben Studdard. A lot of people forget that he won. His name doesn’t come to mind as quickly as Daughtry, who lost.”
Fifth-season finalist Kellie Pickler understands the fleeting nature of pop culture.
“It’s easy to forget about those people that were on the show before,” she says by phone while vacationing in Canada. “TV is great, but just as easily as you were discovered you can be forgotten. If you just sit and do nothing for six months and then go and make a record, by the time it comes out people will forget who you are.”
McKibbin can attest to that. She was marooned at RCA Nashville for three years, refusing to make the country album the label brass wanted her to sing. With the help of an attorney, she negotiated her way out.
A spokesman for RCA Nashville said the executive most familiar with McKibbin’s contract was unavailable for comment.
“The contract value was $375,000,” McKibbin said. “I was offered $125,000 to get out of the contract. I could have fought for the full $375,000 ... but I decided to just take the $125,000 and run.”
Now she’s starting over, working as a waitress at Hot Rods and Hoggs in Arlington, Texas, and taking the grass-roots road to promoting “Unleashed” with her band, Rivethead. The disc is solid, a hooky and crunchy collection of rock tunes with just enough bite to keep the headbangers happy.
“This is the record I wanted to make when I got off `American Idol’ back in 2002,” she says. “My band has made this album more amazing than I could have even dreamed.”
McKibbin has a few words of warning—and encouragement.
“Anybody that’s auditioning for the show sees the fame,” she says. “I’m going to be famous, I’m going to be on television, this is my dream and this is the easiest way I’m going to do it. It’s not easy. I never worked so hard in my life as I did while I was on that show.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But it’s not just the 30 minutes or the hour that you see on television. It’s much more than that. It is a lot of fun and you do meet a lot of great people, but we’re talking 16- and 20-hour days. ... It is a grueling week of work.”
THE `IDOL’ CHAMPS
Think all the “American Idol” finalists have had successful albums? Think again. Here are sales figures for the albums launched by the top two vote-getters from each “Idol” season. All figures are according to Nielsen SoundScan:
Kelly Clarkson, first-season winner: “Thankful” (2003), 2.7 million; “Breakaway” (2004), 5.8 million; “My December” (2007), 536,000
Justin Guarini, first-season runner-up: “Justin Guarini” (2003), 143,000; “Stranger Things Have Happened” (2005), no sales figures
Ruben Studdard, second-season winner: “Soulful” (2003), 1.8 million; “I Need an Angel” (2004), 737,000; “The Return” (2006), 232,000
Clay Aiken, second-season runner-up: “Measure of a Man” (2003), 2.8 million; “Merry Christmas With Love” (2004), 1.3 million; “A Thousand Different Ways” (2006), 516,000
Fantasia Barrino, third-season winner: “Free Yourself” (2004), 1.7 million; “Fantasia” (2006), 447,000
Diana DeGarmo, third-season runner-up: “Blue Skies” (2004), 166,000
Carrie Underwood, fourth-season winner: “Some Hearts” (2005), 5.8 million
Bo Bice, fourth-season runner-up: “The Real Thing” (2005), 669,000
Taylor Hicks, fifth-season winner: “Taylor Hicks” (2006), 692,000
Katharine McPhee, fifth-season runner-up: “Katharine McPhee” (2007), 348,000
THE COUNTRY CONNECTION
Season four winner Carrie Underwood established a spot in the country music scene, but she’s not the only former “Idol” contestant to do so.
Bucky Covington, fifth season: “Bucky Covington” (2007), 231,000
Kellie Pickler, fifth season: “Small Town Girl” (2006), 593,000
Josh Gracin, second season: “Josh Gracin” (2004), 691,000