Haley Reinhart dropped by Interscope: What all reality competitions can learn from this tragedy*

haley-reinhart

Image Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Sad news, American Idol junkies!

Standout Idol alum Haley Reinhart, who finished in third place during season 10 of the veteran reality competition series, has quietly parted ways with Interscope, the label that signed her following her eilimination. The Hollywood Reporter broke the news over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The singer, 22, who growled out memorable renditions of “I Who Have Nothing” and “House of the Rising Sun” (the latter performance is not available on YouTube, but a live version is embedded below) during her Idol run, released a debut album, Listen Up!, in May, but the record never became a mainstream force on the charts. After moving 20,000 copies in week one, sales topped out around 60,000 total.

Reinhart certainly isn’t the first Idol contestant to lose a major label deal — Season 8 winner Kris Allen was dropped by RCA earlier this year — but news of her split with Interscope feels particularly sad given her formidable (and sadly mis-marketed) talent.

I would argue that the jazzy Chicago native is the best singer to come out of the Idol machine since Jennifer Hudson (and when I say “singer,” I don’t mean a bellow-by-the-numbers diva like Jessica Sanchez — I’m talking about a powerhouse vocalist who still understands restraint and lyrical interpretation). And Listen Up! was one of the strongest post-Idol albums ever produced — a sexy, Motown-tinged retro-pop delight.

So if Haley Reinhart was really all that great, why didn’t she sell as well as her fellow Season 10 contestants Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina? Well, there’s no knowing that for sure — she didn’t exactly fit the wide-eyed, cheery reality competition mold that those teens did — but I’d suspect that a big part of the problem was that her first single, “Free,” utterly abandoned the artistic identity she established while on American Idol.

Reinhart’s nickname on the show was “the Growler” — she built her following delivering soulful versions of songs like “Moanin’” and “Benny and the Jets,” which showcased her jazz roots. After the show, she was invited by jazz legend Irving Mayfield to sing at Carnegie Hall (not to mention smoky New Orleans clubs). When I spoke with Haley in March, she told me that Esperanza Spalding had been one of her favorite artists long before she’d even won a Grammy. The following videos reveal the Haley Reinhart that America got to know:

Yet when Interscope released Reinhart’s debut single, “Free,” I was a bit taken aback. The song, while pretty, was a standard adult contemporary ballad. Sure, the AC format has been kind to the Idols of yesteryear (Daughtry and Kelly Clarkson in particular), but Haley Reinhart didn’t quite fit there. Where were the horns? Where was the sass? Months after “Free” failed to take off, a lyric video surfaced for a second potential single, “Undone” (the song never got a full push), another pretty but edgeless effort.

What made this strategy frustrating for a fan like me (in case you hadn’t guessed yet) was that Listen Up! was loaded with torchy tracks that could have filled an Adele-ish niche on alternative (and perhaps even pop) radio. Breakup stomper “Wasted Tears” would have sounded at home alongside neo-soul acts like Duffy and Fitz and the Tantrums, and the fiery independence anthem “Hit the Ground Runnin’” (below) was practically begging for a nationwide push.

Yet those songs will likely never get widespread recognition because most listeners weren’t interested in the blandified Haley Reinhart with whom they were presented post-Idol. That’s not the fandom they signed up for. A similar problem is currently plaguing X-Factor winner Melanie Amaro and The Voice champ Jermaine Paul. Amaro painted herself as an R&B balladeer and Paul as a schmaltzy pop-rocker during their respective reality stints, but their debut singles have both (unsuccessfully) attempted to re-imagine them as club-thumping dance-mavens.

Interscope, which took the Idol reins from RCA starting in season 10, has taken a different approach with Phillip Phillips, who was crowned Idol‘s latest victor this past May. Rather than try to shoehorn the gravelly-voiced Georgia strummer onto AC-radio with a schmaltzy coronation song, the label made the bold decision to pursue a sound that fit Phillips’ established style and one that was fresh and current.

So Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine gave him the Mumford-esque anthem “Home,” and the strategy has paid off in spades. “Home” has since become the most successful Idol coronation song ever, and six months after its release, it’s currently sitting at No. 1 on the iTunes chart — it’s third time to reach that peak. (It formerly hit No. 1 following Phillips’ Idol win and again following exposure during the women’s gymnastics portion of the Summer Olympics.)

On a much smaller scale, Pentatonix, the winner’s of NBC’s now-defunct a cappella comeptition The Sing-Off have maintained a futuristic sound like the one they presented on TV, and as a result, they’ve found legitimate success in their niche market.

So consider this a memo, all you label execs who will one day manage contestants from American Idol, The X-Factor, The Voice, Duets, or Whatever New Singing Show Comes Out Next: Don’t abandon the sound these singers developed on national television and expect fans to just go along with it. Instead, hone in on that aspect of each artist that made their time on TV magical and develop that.

And please, please be bold! These kids aren’t chart successes yet, so there’s no need to play it safe with their releases. You may as well let them swing for the fences — they just might hit a home run.

But if you force them to bunt — like Reinhart — they’ll likely have to trudge back to the dugout.

*And yes, this is a totally legitimate use of the word “tragedy.”

For more Idol musing:

More on EW.com:
Haley Reinhart’s Listen Up!: EW Review
Haley Reinhart spills details on her upcoming album
Haley Reinhart scats ‘God Bless the Child’ in New Orleans jazz club

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