It's hard for bands when Generation iPod just wants to press shuffle

by Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

11 May 2007


MINNEAPOLIS - Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman, 22, was doing what many people of his generation do: multi-tasking. As he cruised through suburban Chicago, bellowing at the driver in front of him, he was also fielding a phone interview about why it’s so hard these days for a major U.S. rock band to maintain momentum after one smash album.

“They write and record one or two good songs, and the rest is filler,” suggested Trohman, sounding like an old-school dude who believes in the power of the album.

Well, Joe, hate to say this, but they don’t make rock bands - or fans - like they used to.

For today’s young fans, it’s not about albums, it’s about singles. Who has time to listen to an entire album? The iPod Generation is distracted by too many forces - video games, cell phones, “American Idol,” iPods, MySpace, YouTube and everything else dot.com. There’s little band loyalty; it’s about loving a song, then moving on to the next.

Take Fall Out Boy. Last year the Chicago rock quartet was America’s biggest band. In April 2006, the group packed 15,751 fans into St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center with two blockbuster singles (“Dance, Dance” and “Sugar, We’re Going Down”) and a huge album (“From Under the Cork Tree,” now at 2.6 million-plus in sales).

But when the band comes to town on Wednesday, there might be plenty of empty seats, despite a modest ticket price for a strong five-act bill.

What’s the problem? Is it that kids are strapped for cash because it’s prom season? Is it that the main opening act (Paul Wall) isn’t as appealing as last year’s (All American Rejects)? Or has Fall Out Boy fallen out of favor? Is it suffering from overexposure with constant touring, two albums in two years (the new one, “Infinity on High,” has sold 796,000 in the past 12 weeks) and ceaseless chatter about FOB pinup Pete Wentz?

By contrast, the Killers are coming to town a day earlier for a sold-out (if smaller) show.

“Without massive (radio) airplay, the Killers are selling more concert tickets than ever,” says promoter Andy Cirzan of Chicago-based Jam Productions. “We’ve sold over 10,000 in Chicago.” And the band has sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden as well as the 5,500-seat Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul on Tuesday.

The Las Vegas band blew up in 2004 thanks to the smashes “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me,” which pushed sales of the album “Hot Fuss” to 3.2 million. Last fall, the quartet returned with a new image and altered sound for “Sam’s Town,” which has sold 1.1 million copies but didn’t produce a big single.

Cirzan said the Killers are soldifying their fan base by being a powerful live attraction. “If you do that, he says, you find a way around the rat race” of marketing music via radio, MTV and the Internet.

While MTV was instrumental in establishing the Killers and Fall Out Boy, the cable music channel - which plays preciously few music videos nowadays - doesn’t have the clout it used to.

“Video is not important anymore in creating the mythical rock figure,” says Spin magazine editor Doug Brod. “You don’t have a very structured outlet on TV or the Internet where you can watch people made into rock stars. Music has become bitsier, which takes away from the attempt to build rock stars with faces and style.”

It’s easier to break a new band on a TV series such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER.” Just ask the Fray, a faceless Denver band that has become an arena headliner thanks to TV-propelled hit songs.

But the mass influence of TV is being eclipsed by the more personal, if fragmented, world of the Internet. Many young fans are tuning out the radio and turning to Web sites such as MySpace, Pitchfork or even Amazon, which recommends music based on previous purchases.

“Before, I was relying on radio or tips from friends,” said avid music fan Andrew Koller, 16, of Minneapolis. “Now I use a montage of different sources. I might read about a band in the newspaper and then I research it on the Internet. I usually start with Pitchfork or Wikipedia and then go to the links from there.”

With all these new rules and relationships in the music industry, the shelf life for a big rock band isn’t what it used to be. In the past decade, the only new U.S. bands to maintain huge success for two or more albums are Creed and Matchbox Twenty. The former disbanded in 2004, and the latter is on hiatus while frontman Rob Thomas enjoys a big-time solo career.

Linkin Park might be on that list, too. “They can sell trillions of records but they’re a little faceless,” says Spin’s Brod, noting the rap-rock group with two frontmen is releasing its third CD next week. “I don’t see them getting huge mainstream respectability. And maybe they don’t want it.”

Several bands that emerged in the early 1990s, including Pearl Jam, Green Day and Tool, have joined `80s holdovers U2, R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as iconic bands. With the exception of Tool, which blossomed into an arena headliner on its reputation as a live act, all boast larger-than-life frontmen.

Most of today’s big new bands don’t have iconic singers, although Adam Levine of Maroon 5, which will release its second album May 22, has the potential to step into that superstar category because he gets plenty of Us magazine exposure for dating Hollywood starlets. Being married to Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow certainly helped elevate Coldplay singer Chris Martin.

In fact, that British band and Canada’s Nickelback are the exceptions to the rule in the past decade. Both groups have had three consecutive multi-million-selling albums, a string of radio hits and two best-selling arena tours.

Maybe they’ve triumphed because they’re old-school. Because their initial success predated the iPod, their music became ingrained in the lives of their fans. If they had released their first album in the mid-‘00s, would music consumers have given them as much of a chance?

The iPod Generation is impatient with music. Don’t like what you’re hearing? Just press shuffle. Or click to download.

“If you’re a band, you pretty much have one chance to prove yourself,” says Lauren Harris, 21, a clerk at Cheapo Discs in St. Paul. “If you fail, that’s it, because there are 100 bands in line behind you. People want to have the newest thing, regardless of how good it is.”

Topics: albums | ipod | itunes | singles
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