Pearl Jam Finally Defeats The Music Industry (You're Still Screwed)
Pearl Jam's new album, Backspacer, which hit store shelves Sunday, is a landmark record. Not musically. Despite what critics are saying, it sounds like every other Pearl Jam album since No Code, neither possessing any real New Wave vibe, nor sounding obviously "like the band is having fun again," as so many of America's laziest rock critics have resorted to saying.
No, Backspacer is important because it represents the ultimate victory of the world's first Anti-Industry Rock Stars over The Hand That Fed Them. Following in the footsteps of other 90s acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam let their record label contract expire, hired Brendan O'Brien themselves and released this one on their own. The surprising part isn't that Pearl Jam did it this way, it's that they didn't get there first.
Sometimes called "the most successful rock band of the 90s," Pearl Jam embodied the anti-corporate bent of the early grunge groups better than anyone. It's sort of amazing that band with a debut album that sold 13 million copies was so obstinately anti-record industry, but they were.
I'll leave the real discussion of whether Pearl Jam paid their dues for another day, but this is band that formed with the help of the U.S. Postal Service, which carried demos back and forth between San Diego and Seattle, where a failed metal band with an ODed singer and a gas station attendant/surfer/singer were living, respectively. They took a gimmick name to play a gig and were signed pretty much immediately after that show. They were recording in London six months later. Thanks to the genius of a blue collar punk named Kurt Cobain -- a veteran of the DIY scene who loathed Pearl Jam, once criticizing the band for "pioneering a corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion" -- the Seattle scene got hot and they were able to ride Nirvana's coattails to stardom.
How this experience engendered severe distrust and contempt for the Business of Music remains a mystery, but the band quickly developed an unapologeticlly self-righteous attitude toward the biz (See: "Five Against The World"), even tossing one band member out because his car was too fancy (See: "Five Against One").
Two years after forming the band was suing the company that distributed tickets to pretty much every major concert venue in the United States. The Ticketmaster feud, one of the most notable anti-corporate acts by a band during an era we now know was the peak of the music-selling epoch, got the band ton of cred with fans, even though they did drop their cause a few years later, signing on with the giant. Though they went to court claiming their intention to keep tickets at an affordable $20, tickets to the band's October show in San Diego, the nearest date to Phoenix, run $61, plus Ticketmaster fees. Yes, Ticketmaster still cashes in on every Pearl Jam ticket they print.
By that measure, it looks like Pearl Jam actually lost their confrontation with the music biz. Happily, though, we now know that bands themselves don't make any money selling records. They make money playing live shows, selling T-shirts and through licensing deals.
Since Pearl Jam is now independent, there is no record label profiting from sale of Backspacer -- which some people may be dumb enough to think the band is admirably offering exclusively to Target instead of Wal-Mart, as though one big box retailed is righteous and the other evil. That's fine. Even if you downloaded Backspacer for free (cough) Pearl Jam will get your money when you go see them. And so will Ticketmaster, the most valuable partner Pearl Jam has.
Pearl Jam hasn't just vanquished their foe, the music biz, they've become the music biz. They make the records, distribute them and play shows to profit, happily sharing some of that cash with their good friends at Ticketmaster.
Until, that is, Ticketmaster's contracts are up. After all, how hard is it to sell tickets online anymore? Do we really need Ticketmaster? Obviously not. Like Pearl Jam's former label, Sony, before them, Ticketmaster will probably get a knife in the back.
Good for Pearl Jam.
Same for me and you.