NEW YORK (Billboard) - What does 16-year-old Justin Bieber have in common with musical icons Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana and Britney Spears?
They all, at one time or another, have inspired record company A&R executives en masse to aggressively sign up artists who sound, and sometimes even look, decidedly like them. Dylan’s brilliance sparked the signings of folkies from Donovan to Steve Forbert; Springsteen led to Joe Grushecky and John Cafferty; Nirvana minted Radish, Candlebox and countless others; Britney Spears begat Willa Ford.
Seizing on the opportunities created by a phenomenon like Bieber is nothing new, and it’s certainly not unique to the music business. But in the case of Bieber and the search for the next teen heartthrob, the pace at which it’s happening appears as frenzied as the girls who bum-rush Bieber for autographs after shows.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the preternaturally talented Greyson Chance, who in less than a month has secured two A-list managers and motivated a major TV personality to launch a record label. On April 28, Chance posted a YouTube video of himself covering Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” for his sixth-grade classmates in Oklahoma. Ellen DeGeneres booked the 12-year-old — who sports a swooping, Bieber-esque haircut—for a May 13 appearance on her ABC daytime show, then brought him back May 26 to announce that she’d launched her own record label, eleveneleven, and signed Chance as her first artist.
Though Chance was rumored to have signed with Interscope the week of his first “Ellen” visit, a representative for DeGeneres says, “A partnership with a major label is still in the works.”
Chance is co-managed by Guy Oseary (Madonna) and Troy Carter (Lady Gaga). A source familiar with the deal says that no material has been recorded yet, but Chance’s team is searching for music in the vein of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”
Comparisons between Bieber and Chance are inevitable, given their age and online origins. But a more fitting comparison can be made with Cody Simpson, a 13-year-old from Australia signed to Atlantic. Simpson also started playing guitar and singing at a young age and was discovered last summer by an enterprising YouTube viewer: producer Shawn Campbell (Missy Elliott, Ciara).
“My parents thought it was some weirdo trying to get to me,” Simpson says, “but he seemed legit and I’ve been wanting to make music since I was 7, so I told my parents to let me try this.”
“I’ve never worked with anyone this young before, but Cody is so focused,” says Campbell, who helped Simpson get signed to Atlantic through executive vice president of A&R Mike Caren.
Caren says there’s room for more than one teen male artist in the marketplace. “Justin Bieber opened the door for teen music on rhythm and pop radio,” he says. “The really talented ones can break through.”
Simpson’s debut single, “iYiYiYi,” featuring labelmate Flo Rida, will be released Tuesday (June 1), and a full album is in progress. Caren says that it will be “more uptempo, energetic pop” than Bieber’s R&B-driven material. “It’s reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync sound.”
Simpson is managed by Blue Williams, who also manages 15-year-old Khalil, signed to Island Def Jam Music Group’s Teen Island label. The label was created for Bieber, says Kawan “KP” Prather, senior vice president of A&R at Def Jam, adding that as a result of Bieber’s success, “people are less scared” to sign teen artists outside of the Disney/Nickelodeon formula.
Khalil’s debut single, “Girlfriend,” was written by Sean Garrett and sent to urban and rhythm radio formats May 24, and Williams says the focus is on developing him into a long-term artist. “Justin Bieber tapped into something that we had gotten away from as an industry,” he says. “Little girls like to have artists that make them scream, whose posters they can put up on their walls. We’ve been so busy chasing a hit single or a hot record, we stopped making stars.”
Also on Teen Island is Aaron Fresh, a 17-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago signed to a joint venture through Nick Cannon’s Ncredible Entertainment. Fresh’s debut single, the reggae-tinged “Spending All My Time,” is bubbling under the Mainstream Top 40 chart.
“The youth movement is definitely in effect right now,” says Cannon, who was introduced to Fresh through a producer. “It comes around about every 10 years, and last time it was Usher, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. I see Aaron as a future superstar right up there with them.”
Meanwhile, even Simon Cowell appears to be on the hunt for the next Bieber. During an interview on ABC’s “The Oprah Winfrey Show” before his departure from “American Idol,” the music/TV mogul revealed that “The X Factor” will come to the United States next fall with a lower age limit — 14.