Who's the hottest property in the record business?

That's not an easy question, but with conglomerates betting zillions of dollars on it, Calendar set out to conduct some independent research.

The first thing we did was to declare everyone--from Michael Jackson to Pearl Jam--a free agent. Then we called 25 movers and shakers in the music business and asked: What acts would you sign?

The issue wasn't favorite artists, but the ones that are likeliest to sell the most records through the remainder of the '90s.

So how did Michael Jackson, Madonna and the other big-money players fare?

Stockholders of Sony, Time Warner and PolyGram aren't going to be pleased to hear how industry insiders described some of their multimillion-dollar acquisitions:

* "In decline" (Madonna).

* "Out of touch" (Michael Jackson).

* "A manifestation of production" (Janet Jackson).

* "Looks a little lost to me" (Prince).

* "Too old" (Aerosmith)

* "Way too old" (the Rolling Stones).

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None of those acts finished in the Top 10 in the poll to determine the pop world's hottest properties--and three didn't finish in the Top 20.

About Madonna, one panelist said: "She is probably the marketing genius of all time, but I think she outgenius-ed herself this time around with the book, the movie and the album. There's really a backlash. . . . I feel sorry for her."

Regarding Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star of the '80s, another panelist declared: "Image-wise he has played himself out, and musically he really isn't keeping up with what is happening to kids today. I think he is gone, over, finished."

So who was the big winner?

Rock 'n' roll.

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