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Posted at 2:40 PM ET, 01/19/2011

Archive: The Dismemberment Plan's dalliance with Interscope Records

By Click Track

dismemberment planThe Dismemberment Plan practices in February 1999, as the band's future was up in the air. (Rick Bowmer)

This weekend the Dismemberment Plan begins its triumphant reunion tour with three sold-out D.C. shows. (It unofficially kicked off last weekend in Arlington, Va.) More than a decade ago the post-punk heroes were in a state of limbo, though, as they wondered what would become of their soon-to-be-career-defining album "Emergency & I." The band's label, Interscope Records, was going through a major overhaul, leaving the band's future up in the air. Former Post staff writer (and current New York Times writer) David Segal tackled the band's situation in a front page story than ran on Feb. 20, 1999. Here it is in its entirety.

Cost Cutting Has Rock Music All Shook Up

Newcomers Take a Hit as Firms Reduce Risks
February 20, 1999

By David Segal

So you want to be a rock-and-roll star? Well, listen now to Travis Morrison, lead singer of the Dismemberment Plan, an artsy Washington punk quartet that signed a major-label record deal last year. The band pocketed some upfront cash plus about $50,000 to produce the first of two albums for Interscope Records. A tour, fame and groupies were supposed to come next.

Instead, the band is in agonizing limbo. Swept up in the largest shakeout in music industry history, Interscope executives are getting ready to drop a bunch of acts, and the Plan, as fans call the group, could be a casualty. Morrison, 26, would phone the label's Los Angeles headquarters for clues about his fate, but everyone he knew there was recently fired.

"We'll just sit tight and wait for them to make a decision," Morrison said. "They might release the record, or they might end the deal, or they could give us gold watches. Nobody knows."

As the stars of rock, country and hip-hop prepare for the annual Grammy Awards bash, newcomers like the Plan are learning a painful truth: The already long odds of multi-platinum glory are getting longer. The machinery of big-time popular music hype has never been so unfriendly to the not-yet-famous, industry executives and analysts say.

And music lovers are starting to notice that a frenzy of corporate consolidation is doing to the recording industry what it has done to publishing and Hollywood: Killing off the "midlist." Big companies get even bigger, debt mounts and costs get cut. Instead of taking a chance on talent that might one day flourish, executives focus on products relatively certain to make huge profits now.

Radio stations, meanwhile, have never been more risk-averse about new music. A growing number of stations are owned by a handful of broadcasting chains, many of which carry heavy debts and all of which place a strong emphasis on robust quarterly profits. As a result, playlists on more stations have become highly repetitive, dominated by sure-fire hits intended to dissuade listeners from touching that dial.

dismemberment plan

At the same time, MTV has all but abandoned the video business, preferring cartoons, docu-dramas and specials such as the "Rock 'n' Jock Bowling Ball." And magazines such as Rolling Stone and Spin, which once eagerly spotlighted the Next Big Things, are playing it safe. Spin's last editor said he was fired for publishing cover stories that lacked broad appeal, even though those covers included the hugely popular Beastie Boys and alternative rock heros Hole.

Complicating matters, the recording industry is coping with fallout from the Great Music Biz Massacre of 1999. In December, Seagram Co.'s Universal Music Group bought PolyGram for $10.4 billion and announced that the combined companies would shed enough acts, employees and assets to save $300 million a year. That's a lot of shedding. Through a handful of subsidiaries such as Interscope, the merged companies sell about 25 percent of all U.S. recordings.

About 200 bands, most of them regional favorites with modest followings, soon will be jettisoned. More drastic cuts could follow. All five of the major labels are under pressure by their corporate parents to churn out the sort of earnings that turn heads on Wall Street.

The Stings, U2s and Puff Daddys of the world, of course, will be largely unaffected by the turmoil -- Universal and its rivals will always promote their steadiest moneymakers. And the truly obscure will still find plenty of small, independent labels eager to release their CDs, a few thousand copies at a time.

It's the multitude of bands that fall somewhere between stardom and total obscurity that will be hardest hit. A lucky few might find another major label willing to sign them, or they could end up renegotiating their contracts, but the vast majority are expected to either break up or retreat to an independent label.

"The only way for labels to increase revenue growth these days is to cut costs and that means less money to invest in new artists," said Danny Goldberg, a former chairman of PolyGram's Mercury Group and the highest profile executive to lose his job after the Universal merger. "Some bands simply won't be able to make a living." Pop Goes Originality

For rock fans, the trends are producing a steady outpouring of bland, sound-alike records from bands that seem more eager to master a formula than push boundaries. Just as Hollywood years ago discovered the financial joys of blockbuster sequels, the music business is now scavenging for songs that sound like whatever topped the charts a few months ago. Comebacks to the deathless parental gripe about rock music -- it all sounds the same! -- are getting harder to muster.

"The energy these days is in hip-hop," said Michael Hirschorn, the recently fired editor of Spin. "When hip-hop albums as strong as Lauryn Hill's or Outcast's sell as well as they did, it's hard to argue about the quality. The question is whether rock is going to lose a whole generation of young listeners, who are naturally gravitating to hip-hop now."

There will, of course, still be breakthrough acts that beat the odds and leapfrog from small labels to big ones, or catch fire on an indie. And if downloading music on the Internet becomes more popular and more efficient, bands might eventually be able to end-run the majors and serve up their music directly to anyone with a computer and a decent modem.

But for now, even hard-core bashers of corporate rock concede that there is nothing like the muscle of a major label to launch or jump-start a career. Only the majors -- Warner Bros., EMI Records Ltd., Sony Corp., BMG Entertainment Group, and Universal -- have the clout to lobby program managers at radio stations to play certain songs. These labels also spend lavishly to get product stocked and even prominently displayed at stores such as Tower Records, an invaluable edge in the cluttered aisles of the nation's music retailers. Rap Tops Sales Charts

Record sales are rebounding from a slump two years ago, up 9 percent in 1998, according to SoundScan, which tracks album retailers. Rap led the way, selling more than 80 million units and scoring double-digit growth courtesy of releases by Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z. Albums by Garth Brooks and Celine Dion also contributed to a year that had music retailers jubilant.

But earnings growth at the major labels isn't what it used to be. The primary reason: labels made a bundle in the early and mid-1990s when consumers switched to higher-margin $16 compact discs from lower-margin $9 vinyl albums. That migration is over, however, and so are the days when single digit sales growth translated into double-digit earnings.

"The CD-driven boom has ended," said Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of BMG Entertainment. "People have finished replacing their catalogues and we're back in a traditional entertainment business, which is somewhat slower growth and in which hits are required to thrive."

Some industry observers said the belt-tightening is long overdue. Labels spent fortunes on bands that were huge in the 1980s but were unable to connect in the 1990s. In 1992, a division of BMG gambled $32 million on ZZ Top, a Texas blues-rock trio that now commands a fraction of its former audience. The band's last two albums failed to crack the Top 10. Other industry analysts said the major lables became bloated after nearly a decade of spending too much to sign ho-hum acts in the hopes that one might cough up a hit.

Universal officials declined to comment about the cuts, but several record executives, who requested anonymity, said leaner rosters make sense. "We just weren't making money the way we used to, and it wasn't fair to all these artists that we weren't really supporting," an executive said. The Plan Signs On The Dismemberment Plan, as it happens, was one of scores of acts that benefited from the major labels' ethos of sign 'em first, ask questions later. Morrison formed the group with three friends in 1993, taking the name from a type of insurance coverage that Bill Murray offered in the movie "Groundhog Day." The name now makes Morrison wince a little.

"Most people don't have to live with the mistakes they made when they were 20," he said. "I do."

The Plan played local venues such as Washington's Black Cat and hit the road, driving a rented van through more than 30 states, including both Dakotas. Then, in 1997 the band played a hall in tiny Catasaqua, Penn. After the show, Nigel Harrison, the former bass player from the new-wave band Blondie, began chatting with Morrison. Harrison was serving as a talent scout for Interscope and liked what he heard.

By the next year, Morrison and his bandmates were standing in their bass player's kitchen, signing a contract the size of a college phone book. The band went into the studio and recorded "Emergency & I," the first of what are supposed to be two albums for Interscope. The label was supposed to promote the record and hand over some money for a tour in March.

Those plans are now on indefinite hold. Interscope officials declined to discuss whether they will keep or drop the Plan, saying that final decisions have yet to be made. Morrison realizes there's little he can do if Interscope bails out.

"Theoretically, they're obligated to us for something, but we obviously couldn't afford the legal fees of suing a corporate behemoth," he said. Radio Inactivity

Winning an audience through radio isn't really a viable option for the Plan. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission lifted restrictions on the number of stations that one company could own. Now, the business is dominated by chains strongly oriented toward the bottom line, often badly in need of quick money to cover the costs of recent acquisitions.

"Suddenly, these stations are $87 million properties and not only do they need to turn a profit, but they need to support the other 300 stations that were just added to the company," said Sean Ross, an editor at the industry magazine Airplay Monitor. "Modern rock stations, for instance, aren't playing 90 new records like they were in the 1980s."

Radio program directors have become obsessed with test-marketing their playlists. Many hire polling companies to play snippets of songs over the phone to gauge reactions from listeners; tunes that don't register a quick and enthusiastic response are typically passed over. Even Madonna had trouble getting air time for songs from her latest, "Ray of Light," after stations discovered that listeners weren't bowled over by the songs, Ross said.

The potential upside to a radio landscape in which companies own hundreds of stations is that if a program director at one station loves a song, he can tip off his corporate cousins and the band could win instant cross-country exposure. Alternative rock heros Everclear benefited from the chain-reaction effect after their music was noticed by stations in Seattle and Detroit.

But even for bands that catch the ear of program directors, there's another problem: fragmentation of the dial. "Today, there's four types of rock stations, four types of urban stations . . . so it's harder for bands to get a mass audience," said Allen Kovac, chief executive of the Left Bank Organization, a music promotion company in Los Angeles. "It was easier for Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, when there was only one type of rock station around."

Morrison and the Dismemberment Plan have few illusions about what they're up against. If Interscope won't put out "Emergency & I," the band members hope the label will give back the master tapes for the album and let them shop it to an independent.

As Morrison put it with just the right hint of rock-and-roll defiance: "We're not going to wait for Interscope to tell us it's okay to be in a band."

By Click Track  | January 19, 2011; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Archive  | Tags:  Dismemberment Plan  
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