Arcade Fire top the Billboard charts, but how much of a win is it really for them and Merge Records and where do each of them go from here?
After topping the Billboard album chart and selling out two shows at Madison Square Garden, an irresistible David-and-Goliath story emerged (they beat Eminem on the chart though he'd been there for weeks) not just about Arcade Fire but also the indie label that they’re on. But how much of a win is it really for Arcade Fire and Merge Records and where do each of them go from here?
When I first heard Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut Funeral, I thought that leader Win Butler’s voice was a pretty repulsive whine, the same type that made me vomit over the Shins in the early ‘00’s. But just as got over (and actually enjoyed) James Mercer’s pipes, Arcade Fire’s songs swept over me and I got the point -- the drama in Butler’s voice matched the melodrama of the tunes. But then I sunk on ‘em again after seeing them at Bowery Ballroom five months after the album came out. They got there a few hours late after taping for a late night TV show and they looked and sounded tired. Several times, Butler chided the audience for not showing enthusiasm and I was ready to yell ‘right back at ya!’ By the time they were finishing up, streams of people were already leaving and not with big warm smiles on their faces (in fairness, a friend who was in the balcony said that people up there were loving it).
When I reviewing 2007's Neon Bible (their second album) for Blurt magazine, I knew it was a big deal not just because I had to stay at the publicist’s office to listen to the album (about 5-6 times) but also ‘cause their sound was getting even grander. I gave ‘em another chance live and it really paid off. Their May 2007 show at Radio City Music Hall couldn’t have been more different than the Webster Hall show. Maybe it was because I was up close but they killed it live that time- they not only were on the ball and lively but they had a good stage act and not just with the props there. Butler asked the audience to come up front and dance and they obliged pretty quickly until security chided him for it and he had to say what a ‘bad boy’ he’d been for suggesting it.
Their latest one, The Suburbs is a lot less dramatic than their first two and seems to go on for too long at first but after a couple of plays, the tunefulness is definitely still there and you can gradually accept their new phase.
When they announced that they’d be playing MSG, it didn’t seem surprising considering the rapturous reception at Radio City but I was surprised that they were able to have a second show and sell that one out too. Having an indie band shoot up the ranks so quickly and with such force wasn’t just a big story, it was music history (compare R.E.M. who took six albums to get to the arenas). Appropriately enough, their label-mates Spoon (who themselves had headlined at Radio City recently and also turned heads with their album sales) opened up as kind of show of strength not just for the label but also the genre.
Arcade Fire delivered for their first MSG show too even if it didn’t reach the dizzying heights of Radio City, plus this was obviously a momentous occasion. While everybody was taken up by their most obvious sing-a-long at the end, “Wake Up,” the song that I heard as a show-stopper and climax at all three of their concerts was “Rebellion (Lies)” with the MSG crowd yelling and fist-pumping “lies!” in the chorus- I sure as hell joined in. I was so impressed that I watched the second show almost in its entirety on YouTube the next night, including the cute and corny pre-show bits with Terry Gilliam (who directed the show broadcast and thus helped mint it as a huge occasion). My girlfriend who was a huge skeptic after that first terrible show was won over after watching a few minutes online, saying that she needed to see them again.
While Robert Christgau was impressed with the age span there, I didn’t really see it but was impressed by another demographic. The ‘B&T’ crowd is what some of us hipster snobs called the out-of-towners or ‘bridge and tunnel’ people who come into town. The usual indie crowd of gaunt guys from Williamsburg with pork-pie hat, glasses and vest were around but definitely outnumbered by beefier dudes and their not-so-demure girlfriends. The fact that Arcade Fire was able to cross over to that audience made all the difference. I have no problem with a band I love getting bigger and finding more fans like that as long as the music doesn't suffer but what’s fascinating is that there doesn’t seem to be much backlash about it. Fans and writers love the fact that Arcade Fire broke through and the fact that they obviously had to reach a bigger audience to do that isn’t seen as a ‘sell-out’ but a triumph. Times have changed, eh?
But how that change came about is tied to the sorry state of the music biz nowadays. The market for CD sales has dropped so much that it’s getting easier and easier for acts to rack up high album chart positions nowadays. Also, when you have an indie base who are more likely to be loyal customers and boosters, that definitely helps Arcade Fire and other bands like them. A recent NY Times story chalked up Arcade Fire’s chart-topping feat to digital downloads, specifically Amazon offering their latest album for $3.99 but they neglect to mention that a number of major label releases are also made into loss-leader promos to bump up the sales. Also, the Times article pins the sales on digital downloads (64% of sales for the album) without noting that it’s been a trend for years for the balance of sales to shift away from CDs.
And even though the band isn't big on promo, they're savvy enough to do a lot with a little. They use the Stones' play-book and tour infrequently to build up demand. The spots that Arcade Fire and Merge did push got maximum mileage too -- not just the single ad banner for the album that's been on numerous music sites but also streaming the whole record at the NPR site before it was officially released.
After scoring with Spoon and Arcade Fire, the old story would be that majors would be beating down the doors at Merge to do some kind of distribution deal (i.e. Sub Pop) but nowadays, with all four of the majors as wounded and savaged entities, Merge would be wise NOT to take their calls and continue on their own.
But while Merge is on top now, how long will they stay there? Fact is, the album charts are going to be dominated by major label releases for the rest of the year and besides Spoon and the actress-pegged She & Him, Merge’s roster doesn’t have any other acts right now likely to match their sales (156,000 for the first week, which is impressive nowadays). And to anyone who touts the ‘Pitchfork effect,’ there’s no doubt the their cheerleading helped the band early on but how many of the other acts that they boost sell as many records later on? As much as I love the Clean, East River Pipe, Telekinesis, Camera Obscura and Crooked Fingers, it ain't gonna happen to them. None of which should take any glory away from Merge -- they’ve earned the success they have now for sure with years of hard work and dedication. I also hope that they embolden
(thank you Simpsons) other indie labels to be steadfast and lone wolves. But I also worry that some bands and labels are going to have unrealistic expectations now about what they’re capable of. Just as with the majors, only a tiny fraction of indie bands ‘make it’ enough not just to top the charts but just to make enough money to be musicians as a full time vocation.
And while Arcade Fire is on top now, how long with they stay there? Since Butler and wife Regine Chassagne rule the roost there and have a Butler sibling in the band, it’s kind of a nice comfortable family affair that isn’t likely to split apart soon though don’t be surprised if Butler gets some outre urges that warrant a solo project somewhere down the line. In terms of chart positions and finances, we know what the next step for an act on top is the pressure to stay there and an inevitable backlash so it’ll be interesting to see how Arcade Fire handles that. For their artistic side, it’ll also be interesting to see where they go from here after what seems like a retrenchment for them. They’ve already showed in the space of three albums that they’re capable of all kinds of intriguing twists and turns. Rest assured, it’ll be an interesting ride for them and us, even if the knives are out for ‘em.
Arcade Fire on YouTube (including the MSG show)