Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pearl Jam - Rock and Roll's Latest "Free Agent" Band Fights On

On June 1st, confirmed that rock and roll stalwarts Pearl Jam will be partnering with Target Corporation for the release of their upcoming album, “Backspacer.” Pearl Jam’s alliance with Target is different than artists such as AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen, who gave uber-discounter Wal-Mart exclusive rights to album distribution. Pearl Jam will not just be selling their album through Target, but also through a variety of other outlets, both physical and via the internet. Manager Kelly Curtis stated “Target was cool enough to realize little independent record stores are not their competition,” implying Pearl Jam will still promote new material at your local record store, providing one still exists. As part of the Target deal, Pearl Jam agreed to make a commercial for the Bull’s-eye franchise, a decision that will have many music fans crying “sell-out” from a band that refused to make music videos for seven years. Given the current instability of the music industry, Pearl Jam should not be accused of “selling out” but be applauded for “selling in.”

For the better part of the 1990’s, Pearl Jam waged a one-band war against Ticketmaster, the ticket-selling giant whose monopoly on concerts continues to this day. The band paid a heavy price for their protests, as they found booking arenas difficult if not downright impossible without the consent of Ticketmaster. Many arenas had (and still have) exclusive agreements with Ticketmaster, leaving Pearl Jam essentially blackballed from many areas. In 1998, Pearl Jam conceded the battle and began selling concerts via the evil, fee-happy empire. During the same period, the band released its first music video since “Jeremy”, the iconic single from the band’s debut album “Ten.” “Do the Evolution” was an animated video directed by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and received substantial MTV play. These changes could be interpreted as the band caving in to pressure from their record label, Sony, but for all accounts the band did not get along with them.

The best answer for Pearl Jam’s business decisions is not found in music, but in baseball. In 1969, outfielder Curt Flood became the first player to challenge Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, which contractually bound a player to the team they currently played with. A stellar player with multiple All-Star Game appearances, Flood put his professional career on the line by refusing to play the 1970 baseball season. Flood took his case all the way the U.S. Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled against him. The mental and physical strain on Curt Flood during this period was tremendous and he retired after a brief stint with the Washington Senators in 1971.

Flood’s failure to successfully overturn the reserve clause inspired two other All-Stars, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, to make another attempt at challenging the status quo. Both pitchers played the 1975 season without a contract, arguing that they do now “owe” their service to their current team beyond fulfillment of their contractual obligation. This time, lower courts ruled in favor of the ballplayers. Major League Baseball gave in after several attempts at appealing the decision. The demise of the reserve clause led to the free agent market, in which players can sign with any team they choose. McNally chose to retire, while Messersmith signed with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves for a ton of money. Like Curt Flood before him, the strain on Messersmith led to several sub-par seasons before he finally retired in 1979.

The free agent market flourished after the 1975 decision, allowing baseball teams such as the New York Yankees to stock their roster with great players and essentially “buy” world championships in 1977 and 1978. Major League ballplayers would control much of how the game was financially played until 1994, when a player’s strike ended the baseball season, canceling the World Series. In 2002, an attempt at another strike was met by fan hostility, with beers, baseballs and profanities being thrown on the field during the final games on August 30th before an agreement was reached. Fan tolerance for rich teams and players had reached a breaking point, resulting in an agreement that has made baseball universally competitive for the first time in its history.

Throughout most of the 1990’s Pearl Jam was the music industry’s Curt Flood. Their anti-corporate stance was applauded and supported by their millions of fans but their decision to refuse to make music videos and play ball with the evil empire of Ticketmaster prevented the band from gaining or even sustaining their fan base. It is understandable the band’s record label, Sony, would not spend considerable PR time and money on an artist not willing to play the industry game. In the 2000’s, a record buyer would rarely see a big promotional effort to support the band, despite loyal fan allegiance and a history which places Pearl Jam among the best rock and roll acts in history. Although their concerts are still well-attended and indeed phenomenal, Sony seemed more interested in getting behind artists who perform the typical dog and pony show. The music industry has changed rapidly during this decade, resulting in inferior but photogenic artists being pushed in an unwilling public’s ear.

The propensity of downloading (legal or illegal) has resulted in several established artists to become the music equivalent of “free agents.” Radiohead’s decision to release their last album, “In Rainbows,” on a “pay what you want” basis online, surprisingly resulted in platinum physical sales. Subsequently, Trent Reznor’s latest Nine Inch Nails release, “Ghosts I-IV,” was offered for free download but record buyers were given unprecedented alternate options, including autographed copies if the purchaser was willing to pay for it. Although Pearl Jam had yet to enter this brave new world, their efforts a decade before set the stage for Radiohead’s and Nine Inch Nails’ success. Pearl Jam was the first major artist to allow and encourage bootlegging of their live concerts. The band went so far as to record every show during their 2000 tour and release the double-CD’s at a discount price. Bootleg concerts were a prime mover in the underground music industry until the advent of the internet. Three-hour Bruce Springsteen concerts would sell for sixty bucks at record shows, despite that they were made for five bucks in somebody’s basement. But access is everything, and music fans were more than willing to pay for a great show with good sound that made you feel like you were there. Pearl Jam’s release of it’s entire live tour delivered the first blow to bootleggers without a single legal action. Soon after, CD burning and internet downloading leveled these once astronomical prices. Pearl Jam’s live albums gave die-hard fans what they wanted, albeit with a little overkill.

The 21st Century has not been kind to Pearl Jam, whose fan base has dwindled further and unlike Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, have yet to gain interest from young music fans. Their partnership with Target should be seen as the band “selling in” rather than “selling out.” There is little argument Pearl Jam would have been one of the biggest acts in rock and roll history if they did not challenge the system. Unlike the late Curt Flood, Pearl Jam still has power over their destiny. If the band’s new record and commercial for Target reignites interest in the group from the public, they could experience a resurgence seldom seen in the music industry. If there is one thing to know about Pearl Jam, is they are dedicated and persistent. Don’t count them out yet.

If Pearl Jam’s gamble is even somewhat successful, they may pave the way for younger artists to break from their labels while they are still Billboard and iTunes darlings. There is yet to be a Reggie Jackson or Alex Rodriguez in the music industry, who became free agents at the peak of their careers. Imagine if Eminem, Black Eyed Peas or even the Jonas Brothers spurned record labels and took charge of their marketing and promotion. Many music critics such as Bob Leftsetz have predicted the demise of traditional music industry practices for some time. It remains to be seen when and exactly how the final blow will be delivered. When it happens, the artists who benefit from the fallout should thank artists like Pearl Jam, whose anti-corporate stance, incredible live shows and refusal to conform are more than enough qualifications to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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