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February 20, 1993
Atlantic's Golden Girl
By Melinda Newman
New York - Bolstered by virtually non-stop touring, endless schmoozing, strong videos and shrewd planning, Tori Amos' critically acclaimed Little Earthquakes album has gone gold. The achievement was reached despite top 40 radio's virtual shutout of Amos and only moderate play on alternative stations.
The story starts long before the album's [U.S.] release in February 1992. When originally signed to Atlantic in the late '80s, Amos was pushed as a hard-edged, scantily clad rocker fronting an outfit dubbed Y Kant Tori Read? The misguided effort failed, but propelled Amos toward a solo career that more accurately reflected her intense contemplations on love, sex, religion, and relationships.
"When I first heard the record, I didn't get it at first because it was so eclectic," says Doug Morris, the Atlantic Group's co-chairman/co-CEO. "But then I fell in love with it and realized it wasn't a record that could be handled by going directly to radio."
Instead, Morris approached Max Hole, head of EastWest Records in the U.K., and suggested the two labels become partners on the project and try to break Amos in England first and create a buzz before bringing her back stateside.
"I started playing a few London clubs like the Mean Fiddler, the Troubadour, and the Borderline constantly," Amos recalls. "I played one nighters where people couldn't care less; I'd open up for three other bands and then their audiences would come and hang out for my [solo] shows. I was able to do in England quickly what it would have taken me 10 years to do in [the U.S.] if I were to go from town to town and get a grassroots following." Both Morris and Amos also cite the impact of the British press; because of the country-wide newspapers, reviews of her London shows would be read throughout England. As a result, "she was all the rage" when the record was released in England, Morris says.
Armed with ammunition from Amos' U.K. success, Atlantic representatives in the U.S. began setting up the domestic release. "They had a book printed up of all her press from Europe so they weren't just handing clippings out to people," says Amos' manager, Arthur Spivak. "The sales force went to different regions and went to major chains in advance and said, here's a girl we believe in, here's the video and the press. Very early on retailers were very supportive. Usually, record companies are reactive, but Atlantic has been very proactive."
Returning to America to tour behind the U.S. release, Amos' animated, sensual renderings of the songs with the singer grinding her pelvis into the piano bench also caused a stir. "The energy's got to go somewhere; it gets caught in your hips," says Amos. "You feel the spirit of the piano running through you. As women, we've been taught to deny our sexuality, and I think that's one of our biggest crimes. This is bringing together the physical, emotional and spiritual. I feel like I act as a channel for these forces." Ultimately, Amos played more than 200 dates worldwide over a 14-month period. At virtually every date she met with local radio and retailers, as well as signed autographs and chatted with fans after the show.
The first single, already a hit in England, was "Silent All These Years," an emotional ballad about a woman finding her own voice. Though the single was serviced to top 40 radio, mainstream stations pretty much ignored the song. However, alternative radio did not; it ultimately peaked at No. 27 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart in May 1992. The same month, the album reached No. 54, its highest point on The Billboard 200.
While pop radio was reluctant to embrace Amos, video outlets welcomed her. The clip for "Silent All These Years," directed by Cindy Palmano and produced for little more than $30,000, received strong airplay on MTV and VH-1, and appeared on dozens of influential regional and local video programs.
To further the buzz, Atlantic used a half-hour of airtime on MTV, bought at a Nordoff-Robbins charity auction, to produce a special on Amos with interview footage and three clips for songs that were already released in England. "That was a good one," says Morris.
As Atlantic was working the second single, "Crucify," to radio, the label released a five-song CD sampler that included live tunes and covers, among them Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." According to Morris, the collection has sold about 150,000 copies in the U.S.
In the meantime, "Crucify" reached No. 22 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, but failed to make the Hot 100. A third single, "Precious Things," did not chart at Modern Rock. The fourth single, "Winter," is being worked now and may be released to Top 40.
Despite the label's continued efforts, Morris says he is not surprised that pop radio has not embraced Amos. "I think that whenever you have a cutting-edge artist, it takes a long time for people to understand what it is," he says. "It's easier to get play on things that people are used to hearing. Whether she does or doesn't get radio play isn't that important to me."
Amos, who was just named best new female artist in Rolling Stone's Readers Poll, is preparing songs for her next album. In the meantime, she is grateful for the support that alternative radio has given her. "It would be nice if top 40 had embraced my songs; it would have given people more of a choice to see if they wanted to be exposed to it. I just ask top 40 what is their responsibility and are they doing it?"
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