Now that James Durbin is off "American Idol," he's going to face one of the biggest decisions of his life. While he has vowed to bring back heavy metal with his debut album, a producer who knows a thing or two about taking a rock artist from fourth place on "Idol" to superstardom counseled the singer to step back a bit and really think about what kind of career he wants before getting in the studio and cranking up the double kick drums and speed-metal guitars.
"I think it's a tricky moment for James where he might not want to hear what people have to say to him, but I'd be very clear and tell him there are two kinds of success: personal and commercial," said rock producer Howard Benson, who helped shape the smash debut from fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry and who has worked on albums by everyone from My Chemical Romance to Theory of a Deadman.
In a conference call with reporters Friday (May 13), Durbin said he wants to make an album like late rock icon Dio's 1983 screaming-metal debut Holy Diver or one that sounds like the records Ronnie James made with Black Sabbath.
"If you want to be commercially successful and you're going in this [old-school metal] direction, that's a huge gamble," Benson said. "It's OK to make that gamble because it's your career. But if it doesn't work, you have to be prepared for that."
Watching Durbin on "Idol," Benson said he thinks the singer is genuinely good at the showy metal stuff, but cautioned James to really think about what 17-year-old metal fans are really listening to these days and chances are it's not someone who was on "Idol," which means his target audience might not show up for his debut.
"They're into bands we've never heard of on small indie labels," he said of today's metalheads. "He has a shot at selling to the over-30 crowd who loves that music and might buy his album if the songs are un-f---ing-believable."
In which case, it comes down to that similar refrain you hear from producers all the time, not to mention "Idol" mentor Jimmy Iovine and the show's judges: It's all about the songs.
"Regardless of what he wants to do, you need great songs," Benson said, advising Durbin to not worry about how "metal" his album is, but about the songs first. Benson said if he were asked, he would sit down with Durbin and explain very clearly to him why metal fans might not buy his record, and why he might find more success tapping into the enormous audience he's acquired through being on the show.
Taking the example of Daughtry, who is still considered a successful rock artist even though his songs are not played on rock radio that much, Benson said Durbin can be a rock artist but still get play on pop radio. "The thing he has going for him is that he's popular now," Benson said, noting that someone from Universal, the label that has a deal with "Idol," called him recently and lamented that pop radio doesn't play rock artists. "I agreed, except in the case of 'American Idol,' " he said he told them. "That's a totally different thing. He is a pop artist, because he's on the most popular show on TV. That makes him a pop artist by default."
Benson said the first thing he'd do is convene a weeklong songwriting camp to get Durbin in the room with proven writers like Marti Frederiksen (Aerosmith, Daughtry, Buckcherry) or even former "Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi and pop maestro Dr. Luke (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Britney Spears) and have them tap into the singer's rich, emotional story.
"They might make him realized how to be more accessible," he said. "Durbin could make something really interesting. He could bring metal back to the mainstream if he was coached right on the production. But you can't go back to the past and try to remake things that have already been done."
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