‘American Idol’: Can David Cook Sustain A Rock Career After The Show?

Radio programmers, managers and other industry experts weigh in on the singer many are calling the next Chris Daughtry.

For weeks now, David Cook, the 25-year-old husky-voiced rock dude from Blue Springs, Missouri , has ensured his survival on the seventh season of “American Idol” by taking some fairly memorable pop and R&B hits, and putting his own sometimes-unique rock-and-roll stamp on them. It’s been his proven formula for success, and one he’s sticking to as the competition nears its May 21 finale .

Over the course of the last 10 weeks, Cook has turned pop standards like Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” into bona fide rock cuts. He gave the same treatment to Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” — all songs the general public knows, but not in the way Cook interpreted them.

With the exception of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which was a blatant (and admitted) cop on Chris Cornell’s cover of the song, Cook has been able to take these classics and make them his own. And the “Idol” audience has repeatedly rewarded him with enough votes to push him through to the next week.

“I think that’s definitely helping him, for sure,” said Michael Slezak, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly known for his “Idol” coverage. “But I also think he’s a really good singer and performer. I could definitely see him taking advantage of this Nickelback period. This is a time where that type of music is doing well, and fits quite easily into that world of radio play. David Cook seems to have held onto his credibility — about the type of singer he wants to be — throughout the competition. He hasn’t lost any of that. If Mariah Carey week didn’t do him in, what will? The thing is, you don’t expect to see [rock covers of pop songs] during ‘Idol.’ We’ve grown accustomed to people belting big songs. Cook doing something you don’t expect to see on the ‘Idol’ stage — I think that’s given him a real edge.”

While Cook — the crooner with the Peppermint Patty hairdo and the 5 o’clock scruff — continues to dazzle “American Idol” audiences, could he have a career after the show? Is Cook really the next Chris Daughtry, and does he have the same sort of selling power?

“There is a huge demand for bands like Nickelback, and he’s doing songs that people are familiar with — taking other artists’ songs and putting his own spin on it, so that they can be accepted by a format that normally would never care,” explained Jonathan Azu, the vice president of Strategic Music Partnerships for CBS Radio. “At the same time, when he becomes an artist, most musicians don’t want to do covers, so he has to start integrating some of his own material into what he’s trying to do.

“There are certain kinds of artists … who go through the traditional route of doing 100 shows every few months,” he continued. “There are artists born of the digital age; Secondhand Serenade is a prime example. Then, there are the artists born out of media, and ‘American Idol’ is the greatest example. If artists like Cook are able to leverage their success on a major media platform and not stray away from it and become something different, he has a strong chance to become like a Daughtry. If he’s willing to build a strong bridge between his character persona and the way he was cast on the show, and a strong bridge between how he’s perceived in the media space from being on ‘Idol’ to what he wants to be post-’Idol,’ he has an incredible foundation to build on.”

Paul Geary, an artist manager who works with Smashing Pumpkins and Godsmack, said he sees several similarities between Cook and Daughtry, whom he met before the fifth-season contestant’s elimination.

“As I had conversations with Daughtry along the way, when he was still a contestant, we were trying to work out an arrangement for him to be the new singer for the band Fuel,” Geary said. “He came down and worked with them a bit, and it was great. At the time, I remember being asked the same question: Does he stick with ‘American Idol,’ and if he wins, will he be taken seriously at the rock [radio] formats? That’s where the challenge is. All of these people are talented — the challenge is, you are now entering the world of commercialism, and how do you connect the dots with the consumer? ‘Idol’ is a pop mainstream forum, and probably couldn’t be any further away from the active rock audience, which is an aggressive, male-based audience.

“With Daughtry, I said before he broke, that he would have a real challenging time breaking through the hard-rock format, which is what he was interested in doing,” Geary continued. “For Cook, to be taken credibly in the rock world, ‘Idol’ is a tough place to [come from], and he should probably join a rock group. On the flipside, top 40 radio would be a natural home for him. Those formats can embrace a pop idol. It’s alien to the active-rock world. I represent Godsmack, one of the kings of active-rock radio, and they would never dream about playing next to Daughtry. But you can’t argue with success — the guy sold millions of records through that format.”

Geary thinks Cook’s best bet for success would be to follow the path Daughtry took and accept that he’s a pop star, not a rocker.

“He has a likable personality,” Geary said. “Depending on what, artistically, is on his mind — if he’s going to front a band and go the rock route — he has major challenges ahead of him. Then again, if you look across the board, in the last few years, so few records have broken at all. Last year, 77,000 records were released, and only 14 of those sold over a million copies. Of that 14, four or five were rock bands, and of those, only one band sold a million records without top 40 radio support, and that was Tool. The rest were bands like Daughtry, Nickelback, Hinder, Chili Peppers. … They are all selling albums through top 40 radio. I believe he could have a very similar career to the one Daughtry’s had since ‘Idol.’ ”

But that doesn’t mean Geary wouldn’t represent Cook in the future.

“I’d want to sit with him and talk about his goals, because if it’s simply ‘I want to sell lots of records and have hit records, and I don’t care how I do it,’ then sure,” he said. “If he’s coming through the door saying, ‘Listen, I want to play next to the Foo Fighters,’ for instance, well, that’s going to be a much bigger challenge. It’s more of an artistic challenge than a commercial one, given he’s in two of the top forums: TV and top 40 radio. Those are the only two places where you can reach people. And the real way to reach millions now is passive. There are two kinds of fans: the music enthusiast, who buys albums, knows who’s in the band and goes to shows and buys the T-shirt, and then there’s the passive listener — the ‘Oh, I like that song’ types, the housewives. At some point, you peak out on the music enthusiasts anyway, so you need that passive audience.”

Erik Bradley, the music director at Chicago’s B96 radio station for the last 15 years, said he thinks Cook’s already a rock star, and that he’ll have a massive career after the show’s end.

“He just looks like a star,” Bradley said. “He’s in that Daughtry vein — I think he’s a newer version of Daughtry. And you know, they always talk about how you need to make songs your own on ‘Idol’ and reinvent them, which he does every week. To me, that’s one of the most interesting story lines of the season — watching what he does next with these songs. Clearly, he’s doing something right, and I think a large segment of Daughtry’s fanbase are the ones voting for Cook, and they’ll be the ones buying his record.”

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