Is This Kid About to Be a Star?

The guys who made Gnarls Barkley into the hottest musical act of 2006 think they can work the same marketing magic on an unknown 22-year-old from Chester. A slowly dying record industry sure hopes they’re right.

IT’S WEDNESDAY AT noon at the Jamaican Jerk Hut near 15th and South, and Kevin Michael is smiling. And what a smile! So wide and toothy and open it reminds you — even though Kevin is a guy and by his estimation “75 percent black” — of Julia Roberts, back when Pretty Woman was in theaters and the excitement of being young and living a dream was buzzing through her and radiating out onto her face.

Which is kind of like Kevin Michael right now. He’s 22, and everything is happening! Not so long ago, he was just a kid, a self-described nerd from Chester, PA, singing Jody Watley in front of the TV. This weekend he’ll fly to Hamburg, then to Paris, then on to London. In each city he’ll be introduced to the international heads of Warner Music as the Next Big Thing from New York-based Downtown Records, arguably the hottest label in the business, the one behind last summer’s megastars, the duo known as Gnarls Barkley. When Kevin returns from Europe, he’ll do a couple of dates for Courvoisier with Musiq Soulchild, fellow son of Philadelphia. Then Los Angeles! San Francisco! Portland! And soon he’ll have to go back to Los Angeles again, to record a video with Lupe Fiasco! Man, “busy” isn’t even the word to describe my life right now, sighs the message on Kevin’s cell phone, which still has a 610 number, even though he’s been living out of hotels for months. If he’s this busy now, what will it be like when his EP, YaDig?, debuts on iTunes? Or later this summer, when his as-yet-untitled album is released?

He’s not worried. Kevin has been training for pop-stardom his whole life, the way a figure skater trains for the Olympics, and he’s prepared to do the things he has to do. “I’m really focusing on branding myself right now,” he says, between bites of beef patty and sips of ginger beer. “There’s so much to do. You can act, model, start fashion lines, sell things on QVC. The possibilities are endless.”

Kevin wants to be the next Prince, he says, and he has no apparent anxiety about the possibility of it not working out. Fallback careers include ninja and chef. “Plan B,” he says, “is for losers.”

Even now, after Justin and Britney and Beyoncé, it’s strange to hear a musician talk with such business savvy — surely Prince never spoke of QVC? — and single-minded confidence. Especially one whose most visible credit thus far has been a commercial for the local website, wherein he sang the somewhat ridiculous lyrics “Phil! A! Del! Phi! A!/That’s where I come from/Phil! A! Del! Phi! A!/’Hoods and mansions, baybaay” in a soulful falsetto while Mummers bobbed in the background.

But then again, what Kevin Michael does isn’t just music. It’s an amalgamation of art and commerce lately called “content.” And the commercial wasn’t just a commercial meant to sell used cars to Philadelphians. It was part of a multi-layered marketing extravaganza, the opening salvo in a campaign to sear Chester’s Kevin Michael Seward onto the consciousness of the fourth-largest media marketplace — and eventually, the world’s! It’s the sort of campaign that, as the music industry moves into the digital age, we may see a lot more of, at least if what Downtown Records calls “the Kevin Michael Project” is as successful as they say it will be. And there are an awful lot of people watching to see if they’re right.

Like, for starters, the entire music industry.

PERHAPS YOU’VE SEEN THE HEADLINES: CD Sales Down 20 Percent! Albums in Decline! Dastardly Digital Downloads Responsible!

The music industry is in, to say it nicely, flux. Not only has the Internet killed CD sales by making it so easy to acquire music that you can literally do it in your sleep, but new technology has made it possible for musicians to record, edit, promote and sell their own music all over the world. This allows them to bypass the three major obstacles that have impeded new artists in recent years: the radio conglomerates, with their fascist categories — Alternative, Urban, Country, Pop, Adult Contemporary — and strict hits-only playlists; the chain stores, like Wal-Mart and Target, who won’t risk shelf space on anything that’s not guaranteed to sell; and the major labels, who lately have been able to afford to work only with the sorts of musicians who will please the other two. The labels have suffered the most. When, in 2005, the quirky, locally connected quartet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sold more than 45,000 copies of their self-produced first album through their website, it was a watershed moment. Why even bother with a label when, clearly, you can do it yourself?

That’s why the success of Gnarls Barkley last year was such a bright sign to the record industry. Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, and Thomas Callaway, a.k.a. Cee-Lo, already had credibility among Internet music fans when Josh Deutsch, a former senior VP of A&R for Virgin, signed them to his newly formed Downtown Records. Their song “Crazy,” an infectious hybrid of soul, strings and production values, had “leaked” onto the Web and was already becoming hugely popular in the U.K.

How to duplicate that success in the U.S.? The label created an intensive, long-term online marketing campaign designed to draw in Internet denizens the way an anglerfish draws in shrimps — by mimicking them. Months before Gnarls’s album, St. Elsewhere, was released, Downtown “leaked” tracks like “Crazy” to blogs where music fans congregate, set up websites where visitors could sign up for free tickets to “secret” shows — sponsored by companies like Nokia — and held a “MySpace friends only” gig at Coachella, the indie music festival in Los Angeles. It was a strategy that suited both the company’s limited resources as a start-up and the egos of their consumers: People who were introduced to Gnarls Barkley on MySpace or a blog, as opposed to through traditional mass marketing, felt “like they discovered something,” says Downtown marketing head Michael Pontecorvo.

The Internet buzz led Grey’s Anatomy and Entourage to play “Crazy” on episodes, bringing it to a wider audience, and by the time it was released to radio, the gatekeepers to the airwaves had no reason to be skittish: “Crazy” was ubiquitous. It became the first single to go platinum without a physical CD, and was popular enough that when St. Elsewhere was released in May of 2006, it followed suit — although, once possessed of the actual album, some of the band’s initial audience decided that it didn’t quite measure up to “Crazy.” No matter. The marketing campaign itself was, as the Boston Phoenix put it, the “true work of art.”

The fact that Downtown Records appeared to have beaten online mp3-leakers and bedroom bands at their own game, bulldozed a route to get new artists on the radio, and incurred major sales was seen by industry-watchers as a sign of hope that even in the digital age, a record label could be relevant, even necessary, to success. Josh Deutsch was hailed as a visionary.

For an encore, Downtown acquired the rights to the soundtracks for Borat and Entourage and signed a few more Internet buzz bands, like Art Brut and Cold War Kids. And then, with the industry watching to see if Downtown Records was a one-hit wonder or could live up to its hype, Josh Deutsch upped the ante. He took an unknown, Kevin Michael Seward, and started prepping him to become the next very big star.

KEVIN MICHAEL PICKS AT HIS AFRO in the mirror and frowns. In the humidity it tends to spring into ringlets around the bottom, threatening to channel Retro Lionel Richie rather than Modern Shaft, and it’s a warm day. Atlantic Records, which partners with Downtown Records on several projects, has set up a photo shoot for him in a wide white studio in Brooklyn, but Kevin forgot the vast supply of complimentary Converse the stylist bestowed on him back at his hotel, so now he’s just waiting patiently. He is good at waiting.

Kevin started singing when he was eight. His father, Henry Seward, a shady but benign local character on the music scene who goes by the name Ric Star (and who requested that the magazine use a five-pointed star symbol in place of his last name; alas, the copy editors insisted otherwise), used to sneak Kevin into bars behind a speaker and have him, thus hidden, do backup vocals for his band, Ric Star’s Mystique. “The texture of his voice was of a nature that it could be mistaken for a girl’s,” Star reminisces. “But it had this wonderful richness. Like Michael’s.” As in Michael Jackson.

A partnership was born. Star had never really had a traditional job, but he made up for what he didn’t provide in financial support by turning the development of his son’s talent into a full-time occupation, making endless rounds of phone calls, squiring him around to places like Larry Gold’s Studio in Northern Liberties, introducing Kevin as his client and carving a reputation for himself as “one of those eccentric personalities that I’ve seen in the music industry forever,” says Montez Roberts, who manages the Studio and has spent hours fielding Star’s calls. “He definitely epitomizes that hunger and that hustler mentality you find in a poor man’s city. Like, ‘Yo, I’m trying to get up outta here.’”

[sidebar]In Chester, Star had some run-ins with the law (“Not like killing anyone or armed robbery or anything like that,” he explains), and neither he nor Kevin’s mother, Tione Venditto, wanted their son to experience the same thing. Venditto, who stayed single and worked in accounting, struggled to send Kevin to Cardinal O’Hara, a Catholic school. He got good grades, but like his father, he saw stars.

“I wanted Kevin to not be good, not be better than good, but be, like, the absolute excellen-tay,” says Star. “I would always say, ‘You gotta be extraordinary, kid, you gotta think outside of the box. You gotta be the greatest entertainer, man. One of the best in the world.’”

 He built a studio in one of his bedrooms, where Kevin practiced. “It was like Joe ­Jackson” — Michael’s notoriously demanding father — “without the beating,” Kevin says. “Everything except the violence. Every-thing.”

Not that he wasn’t into it. After school and on weekends, he and his friends would scrutinize music videos. “I am really really at the point of being obsessed with Beyoncé,” Kevin says. “I have, like, every performance of her and Destiny’s Child taped. We studied them.” He even has an onstage persona like Beyoncé’s. “He’s like the ladies’ man, Mr. Cool, Mr. Swagger,” Kevin explains. “Totally comfortable. In control. Which is not like real life. At all.”

At night, Star would take Kevin to concerts, where he finagled introductions to artists his son admired, like Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu. Star is a formidable talker, although he believes a higher power was responsible for these interactions. “I believe in Jesus and God and the Father, and I believe God put those people in front of us,” he says. “I would say, we’re gonna go, and God would always just put those people in front of us.”

One day at Sam Ash at the Cherry Hill Mall, God put a guy in front of Star who knew another guy named Ken Joseph, manager of a young R&B group called City High. Star called him and called him. Until finally Joseph asked: You got something hot, for real?

And Ric Star said, Yeah, I got this kid named Neo.

“Neo” was what Kevin was calling himself when Joseph first took him to meet Josh Deutsch at Virgin Records. Deutsch had called Ken Joseph — about something else, a member of City High — and Ken told him about Kevin: “I said, ‘I have the next Prince,’” Joseph says. Kevin sang a gospel song at the Virgin office, and Deutsch was, he says, “blown away.” But the other executives were not as convinced. Kevin and Joseph came away with a minor development deal, but the songs Kevin recorded again failed to thrill the execs. Joseph shopped them to other labels: Columbia said No. Def Jam, No. LaFace’s L.A. Reid said No. No. No. Kevin went back to Chester and waited. By the time Deutsch was ready to start Downtown Records, Kevin was almost two years older, and the name “Ne-Yo” had been taken by a Def Jam crooner from Arkansas.

This would turn out to be a blessing, Kevin points out, since a soul singer from Philly named Neo might bring up unfortunate memories of the jazzy-R&B “neo-soul” sound that characterized Philly music in the late ’90s and was a commercial flop. “I try to stay out of the neo-soul scene because I feel like there’s a stigma, like you have to be all earthy all the time,” says Kevin. “And let’s face it, it doesn’t sell records.”

RECORDS! THAT EVEN now most people still refer to “records” is an indication of how quickly everything has evolved — our speech hasn’t even caught up yet. Over the course of 40 years, companies have gone from selling discs of vinyl to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs to what is now starting to feel more like vapor: percentages gained from digital downloads, licensing, cross-­promotional opportunities, ringtones. Layer upon layer of things that can be sold.

Take the ad, which went on the air locally last December. Not only were you watching a commercial for the Inquirer’s new online car-sales site, and for Kevin Michael, but you were also watching a commercial for Kevin’s song “Philadelphia.” And the song wasn’t written because Kevin needed to express how he felt about “Phil! A!, Del! Phi! A!” or even specifically for the ad. It was just written as an ad, an “anthem” for Philadelphia that Downtown hoped would get used at sports games, during elections, wherever else royalties may be collected. Kevin admits he thinks the song, which he wrote in collaboration with a Downtown staff writer, is not his most authentic work. “It’s so cheesy,” he said, rolling his eyes back at the Jerk Hut. But, “The idea was, if you made an anthem for Philadelphia, it would work, because we have a lot of pride. If everything goes well, the ad will create a fan base in Philly for me. And once you have that Philly base, it’s with you forever. Like, Philly will always support Will Smith.”

Downtown may not dare to dream that Kevin Michael will become as big a powerhouse as Will Smith, but they are pulling out all the stops to ensure he is at least as ubiquitous and profitable as Gnarls Barkley — if not more so. With Kevin, Downtown has magnified the Gnarls marketing plan, starting with the music itself. Wary of the fact that they’re working with an unknown artist, and also wary of getting stuck with “The album isn’t as good as the single” again, they’ve created not so much an album as a collection of singles, with the newcomer buttressed by guest appearances from well-known talent like Wyclef Jean, Q-Tip and Lupe Fiasco, and produced by such hit-makers as Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish duo responsible for Britney Spears’s “Toxic.”

Like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the songs are designed to have “crossover” appeal, an industry euphemism meaning they contain elements expected to make them palatable to both black and white radio audiences, which have been divided and referred to as “pop” (meaning white) and “urban” (meaning black) by U.S. radio stations for years.

For good measure, they plan to “break” Kevin in Europe. “Europe is much more open to an artist like Kevin,” says Atlantic marketing exec Dane Venable — meaning Europeans have fewer hang-ups about race and genre — in hopes that success overseas will pave the way for Kevin to slide by the radio gatekeepers in the U.S. and onto both Top 40 and Urban charts, as Gnarls did.

Josh Deutsch sees the online audience as especially key to eradicating the color line that has become part of the culture of American music. “We have been really rigidly restricting ourselves because of radio,” he says. “But there’s an audience between those lines. It’s a different era.” Deutsch sees Kevin, whose music blends genres and who is of mixed race, as kind of a personification of this idea, “a pure crossover artist, in the best sense of the word,” he says. “The whole thing about Kevin is that he’s the melting pot.”

To further the idea of Kevin as sort of the Barack Obama of pop music, his albums will be loaded with songs that preach cultural unity. “We All Want the Same Things,” featuring Lupe Fiasco, talks about bridging the gap between different types of music, and “It Don’t Make Any Difference to Me,” a Disney-esque narrative about the American biracial experience, features Wyclef Jean intoning “One love, one love” over its ­reggae-inspired beat.

The presence of the well-respected Jean makes Kevin feel marginally better about the fact that Atlantic has apparently decreed the radio-friendly song — which he wrote, he says, in a “mood” and hoped would “go away” — as the international single. “I just don’t want to come off as a token mixed kid,” he says. “Some artists, they say about being mixed, ‘Oh, it was so hard, I didn’t know what I was.’ I never felt that. I never felt confused. I liked walking into a place and people look at you and wonder what you are.” The lyrics of “We All Want the Same Things” indicate the opposite. He sighs. “It’s just so … poppy. Excuse me for saying this,” he says, because he is extremely polite. “But it’s just so” — he hooks his fingers into ironic air quotes — “white.”

WITH THE SONGS complete and the pre-buzz started, it’s time for the slow and methodical dissemination of Kevin. The acoustic versions of some of his songs — from performances he’s done with local guitarist-beatboxer Akil Dasan — create “an additional tier of content,” Deutsch says, that will be offered exclusively on iTunes, the staff of which Kevin performed for last year in Silicon Valley. While there, he also performed for representatives from YouTube, MySpace, and Doppelganger, an “online nightclub,” in hopes of getting coveted front-page placement on those sites. “I’m going to be The Man of the Internet,” Kevin says. “It’s the wave of the future.”

In addition to the corporate Internet networking, the company is courting independent music blogs, the medium that worked so well for Gnarls, to insinuate Kevin into the fiber of the Internet. These “tastemaker” blogs, as Pontecorvo calls them, are particularly fertile ground for marketers to sow with acts that fall outside of the mainstream, since their readers pride themselves on being sophisticated and varied in their taste. Those readers are also obsessive about keeping up with the new, and the bloggers who cater to them rush to be early on the delivery. As it turns out, even when people know they’ve been manipulated, they don’t mind all that much.

 Downtown has also filmed a series of “viral” videos that it plans to broadcast on YouTube this summer, and an employee at Downtown has created an avatar for Kevin on Second Life, a mind-boggling and popular online “world” where a virtual Kevin Michael will perform and sell virtual CDs to other virtual people for actual money. Currently, you can see the actual Kevin, or photographs of him, anyway, wearing Triumvir hoodies on the website for Karmaloop, a Boston-based apparel and tech store that averages 1.5 million unique visitors a month. Downtown is hoping for more modeling tie-ins: Kevin has visited the ad agencies Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Colorado and Wieden + Kennedy in Portland,  and a label rep paid a visit on his behalf to the San Francisco offices of Gap. He performed for Cingular and Sprint, who will likely one day offer Kevin Michael ringtones. And to round out the shock-and-awe campaign, a song he did with rapper Saigon may soon be heard on an upcoming episode of Entourage.

It’s heady stuff for a kid from Chester. Well, sort of from Chester. “They tell me Kevin has to claim Chester, because they tell me it gives him street cred,” says his mother, sitting in the cafeteria at Wells Fargo, where she works, down the street from their neat rowhouse. “He lived in a house here. He never hung around the neighborhood.”

“I’m just going to make you a little darker, okay?” says a woman from Atlantic’s marketing department, back at the studio in Brooklyn. She swipes some foundation on Kevin as he waits to be photographed. It could just be the bright light, but sometimes, this new era of music looks a lot like the old one.

"YOU ALL AREN’T feeling me right now,” Kevin says into the mike. He’s right. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Monday, and the 300 tastemakers Courvoisier, Atlantic Records and 100.3 The Beat have assembled at the World Cafe Live appear indifferent to the kid in the red satin Sergeant Pepper jacket singing the song.

He tries a song he wrote called “Too Blessed,” the chorus of which goes I’m too blessed/to be stressed/I’m too fresh/to be pressed. The conversation in the room, lubricated by two hours of free Courvoisier, threatens to overwhelm Akil’s guitar.

The other day in Brooklyn, when discussing his upcoming releases, Kevin expressed doubt about the Kevin Michael Project for the first time since I’d met him. “My worst fear is that people are going to think I’m corny,” he said. “I don’t want them to think it’s cheesy. I don’t want them to be, he’s trying to be this or he’s trying to be ’hood. You only get one chance with the streets. Their first impression is the only impression.” Now, it appears his fear is coming true.

Still, Mr. Cool, Mr. Swagger, perseveres. “You have to rock with me, Philly,” he says, launching into “We All Want the Same Things”:

All my gangsta friends and all my skater friends
We all want the same things
 The DJs in the club, Jesus freaks and thugs
We all want the same things

And very slowly, several eyes in the fourth-largest market start moving toward the stage. One man in his 20s sees me taking notes and cocks his head toward the masses that are not yet paying attention.

“These people don’t know good music,” he says. “It’s Philly, it’s a tough crowd. But I know good content when I see it.”