Great Expectations

Assessing Austin's Class of '96

Success and failure will always be subjective terms, but when it comes to album sales by Austin's "Class of '96," it's tough not to figure the "Austin Curse" has struck again. After all, there was quite the air of hope last January surrounding the imminent release of a dozen new albums by local artists on major labels or major independents. Spoon, Fastball, Prescott Curlywolf, Ugly Americans, Storyville, and Alejandro Escovedo all were releasing label debuts, and expectations for their success was high. Sincola, readying the release of a second album for Caroline, also seemed like a good candidate for "Most Likely to Succeed" honors.

Eleven months down the road, however, this year's freshman class doesn't seem to have fared well in the "real world": Sincola, Prescott Curlywolf, and Escovedo have all parted ways with their labels, while Fastball awaits word on their future with Hollywood Records. Others, such as Spoon and the out-of-left-field Craig Ross, remain on good terms with their labels despite having sold painfully small amounts of albums (2,100 and 1,000 respectively), and only the Ugly Americans (6,000) and Storyville (27,000) seem able to lay claim to modest sales success in '96. So what happened?

Well, first, forget the "Austin Curse." Local managers and their artists say the "Austin Curse" has become less a concept than a cliché. To begin with, it must be good news for the overall health of the local scene when major-label A&R reps made investments in over a dozen Austin acts in 1995. Secondly, nearly all artists mentioned fulfilled their half of the bargain and delivered good or great albums. Why didn't they sell? Good question. Certainly, each act has their own story, and while they're sticking to it, perhaps the better query would be, `Why should they sell?' Nothing else did.

According to Soundscan, the company whose sales figures drive the Billboard charts, only .05% of the 26,000 records released nationally in 1995 sold over 250,000 units. In that light, say local managers, Austin artists aren't that different from any given cross-section of national hopefuls that are having labels throw their releases against the record store racks to see if they stick. Besides, in a year that saw albums by R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Green Day, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Stone Temple Pilots sell 60% less than their previous releases, is it really fair to expect locals like Spoon and Prescott Curlywolf to have gold or platinum albums (sales of 500,000 and one million respectively)? And when you compare the label and artist expectations to the sales outcomes, couldn't some of the perceived failures be nominal successes and some of the assumed successes be failures?

Not surprisingly, the answer depends on who's being asked. "It's all a crapshoot, nobody really knows," is Craig Ross' fortune-cookie assessment of any artist's given chance out in the marketplace. While Ross' sentiments were echoed more than once by local artists and managers contemplating the year's outcome, "ask me in four months" came up just as frequently. For some, those four months may be just enough time to see if a new push has panned out, because typically, the music industry sets its budgets for the upcoming year in November, and virtually stops all promotion of non-holiday albums between Thanksgiving and mid-January.

This wait-and-see attitude is especially applicable to Ross' Dead Spy Report on MCA and Doyle Bramhall II's eponymous debut on Geffen. Until now neither album has recorded more than a blip with Soundscan, yet both are slated to receive major promotional support in the new year -- with the latter album getting a virtually unheard of "re-release" in January. For Spoon, the Ugly Americans, Storyville, and even Eric Johnson, radio attention will likely control the fate of their end-of-the-year efforts, with a new single from each pushing for airplay between mid-November and early 1997.

And therein, it seems, lies the key to the individual stories from the "Class of '96" -- radio. Almost every one of the acts or managers interviewed for this story concede that success in the marketplace hinges on radio support. "Radio attention gets the label fired up," says Mark Bliesener, the Ugly Americans' manager. "To get the label machinery into gear, you have to have radio."

Tuned In or Out?

Nobody can testify to the power of radio better than the Butthole Surfers. After 15 years and 12 albums, the Surfers went into 1996 with an average but diehard touring fan base and a scrapbook of press clippings that went well beyond what their album sales might have indicated. Their first album for Capitol, 1993's Independent Worm Saloon, had sold in the low six-figure range and spawned one moderately successful alternative radio hit, "Who Was in My Room Last Night." Still, no one anticipated "Pepper."

Given a concentrated -- and reportedly expensive -- radio campaign by the label, "Pepper" became an instant hit on alternative radio, spawning reams of national press and pushing Electric Larryland into the ranks of a certified gold album. That sources at Capitol quietly concede the follow-up single, "TV Star," as being more or less of a wash -- with a third single and more touring next year being the album's last hope -- does not matter; Electric Larryland was an unqualified success.

But was "Pepper" merely a novelty hit -- just another Weird Al Yankovic send-up waiting to happen? Radio research seems to indicate yes. While the song had initial youth appeal that made it a request sensation, surveys also found the song a high burnout track for adults, who weren't nearly as amused hearing it over and over. Meanwhile, longtime fans used the Internet to say they believed the Surfers had sold out with "Pepper" and could now survive touring without their faces in the audience. Although radio play pushed Larryland into the gold, sluggish ticket sales on a costly nationwide run of theatres proved one hit might not be enough to convince new fans to spend $20 on the show.

Even after mid-tour downsizing cut back on tour staff and room size, reports from the road indicated venues were thinning for the band after fans satisfied themselves with a set from the co-headlining Toadies. Last month's news that frontman Gibby Haynes had punctured his eardrum, thus canceling a reported swing of radio package shows (for stations that had played "Pepper" but were perhaps slow to add "TV Star") seemed to confirm this, as on-line pundits such as Microsoft Music Central questioned the eardrum alibi, saying it sounded more like some "twisted excuse for that ever-suspicious `road-weariness' thing." After repeated attempts, neither the band, management, nor the label would comment for this story.

But if there's a lesson to be learned from the Surfers' saga, it's that singles can not only make or break an album, they can sometimes do both. So far, Storyville can be seen as being caught somewhere in the middle of this conundrum. Traditionally, the AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations Storyville targeted for their Atlantic/Code Blue debut, Piece of Your Soul, have been more predictable with their attention than their alternative counterparts. Therefore, says Storyville manager Mark Proct, the key for new artists is to introduce the band with an initial single, then follow-up with the presumed hit.

"It's part of a long-term, conservative plan," says Proct of "Good Day for the Blues," Storyville's debut single, which hit AOR and Triple A (album adult alternative) radio back in June and is still current at nearly 60 stations. "It's just now falling off, which is an amazing amount of time. A typical single lasts eight to 10 weeks, but we've built in different places and different times. Honestly, it's almost a ridiculous amount of time for a single to be out there."

Despite modest sales for the album, Proct says that he and the label are enthused about its selling 1,400 to 1,500 albums a week without a second single. As such, the key becomes concentrating their attention on that mythical second single, "Solid Ground," due in January. "The first time, our radio was real spread out," says Proct. "WNEW in New York added it just last month, so New York sales have gone way up. Boulder and Denver came in early, so sales are a little flat. But now that all the markets have had time to listen to the first single, and in many cases see the band live, our goal now becomes to coordinate the second single so it builds and capitalizes on the momentum. We'll know that only a couple weeks into it."

Set 'Em Up

But what if there's no set-up at all?

If Fastball hadn't mailed copies home, their Make Your Mamma Proud debut may not have even reached their mothers -- let alone made them proud. Perhaps because other Hollywood acts such as Super 8, Van Gogh's Daughter, and the Suicide Machines failed to attract significant radio attention after fuller promotional pushes, Fastball's debut plainly got lost in the Disney-operated machinery. And while the label still maintains they're interested in breaking the album to alternative radio next year, 1996 saw the band touring without so much as one radio single to support. "We're stuck in the spin cycle," says the group's guitarist, Miles Zuniga. "They apparently still want to promote the record, but I'm doubtful they'll spend a lot of money doing it."

Part of the problem, say the radio programmers, may have been the failure of other pop/punk outfits like Green Day to follow up their 1995 radio successes. And by the time Fastball hit the shelves in May, Everclear had clearly filled that small radio void. Oddly enough, says Zuniga, the answer to the band's radio blackout may come through a track Fastball contributed to Hollywood's upcoming Loungepalooza album -- a collection of big names like P.J. Harvey covering classic lounge/swing material.

"I don't think they would have had us do the track if they didn't want to hang onto us," opines Zuniga, who downplays rumors that the track could be the album's single, but adds that the band's share of the mechanical publishing royalties might tide them over between records. "I think it showed them we have a lot of potential musically, and we're not just this one-trick pony that plays fast rock & roll."

Similarly, Geffen may have been impressed by the potential of Doyle Bramhall II. Although the label and the A.O.R. market they planned to target may have been ready for a guitar-based debut from the former Arc Angel, Bramhall's solo debut was more about subtle soul and funk. "It's a hard album to capture and take straight to one format," concludes Proct. So, after an initial pre-release push to Triple-A radio failed, Geffen, Proct, and Bramhall agreed to regroup and push the album's promotion back to next year. "Because we didn't catch fire immediately, it made more sense to reassemble everything in January than it did to fight all the holiday blockbuster releases," says Proct, who recently severed his ties with Bramhall. "It'll basically be a re-release of the record, which gives everyone a little time to figure out what to do with it."

A gameplan for Eric Johnson and his new Venus Isle may also take some time to figure out. Unlike Bramhall, Johnson's album is more or less a straightforward guitar affair. After a five-year downtime, the difference, says Johnson's label and management, is not in the artist, but in the radio climate.

With sales nearing 85,000 in just three months, Capitol's vice president of marketing, Denise Skinner, says the new album's sales are already slightly ahead of where the nearly platinum Ah Via Musicom was during the same timeframe. Unlike the previous album, however, which spawned three bonafide AOR hits, some radio experts say it's uncertain whether Venus Isle can have the same radio impact. The roadblock, admits Johnson's manager Joe Priesnitz, is that not only has the AOR market splintered with Triple A, it's also fragmented into the "Mainstream," "Modern," "Active," and "Rock" charts. "None of that was there the first time out," says Priesnitz. "So we went in knowing this was going to be a slower build."

The first part of that build, says Priesnitz, was re-establishing Johnson's profile with the G3 tour, which paired the local axe god with fellow guitar superstars Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. According to the plan, Johnson would stop by new radio outlets along the touring route, promoting the album and its initial single "Pavilion" in a low-pressure environment. "It was a way to refresh everybody's memory and get Eric a large audience on the first tour," explains Priesnitz.

That G3 audience, admits Skinner, was primarily the A.O.R. rock audience that only needed a reminder that Johnson's album exists, however. The new challenge, she says, will be opening up Triple A avenues with "SRV," the album's second single. "We've got quite a few tracks we can expose to Triple A," says Skinner, who's also hoping for a video and a run of late-night television appearances in the new year. "That's why it's so important to remember we're not even halfway through the marketing of this record. And with Triple A, we can not only reach the people who may have graduated to it from AOR, we can also expose Eric to a wider variety of listeners than just what rock radio attracts."

Perhaps because of its wider audience, Triple A also seems to be attracting and concentrating on a wider variety of artists. During their long local incubation, the Ugly Americans seemed poised for attention from A.O.R. or even alternative radio. In fact, locally, both KLBJ and 101X played tracks from Stereophonic Spanish Fly before its release. But earlier this summer, Capricorn's radio promotion team opted instead to concentrate primarily on Triple A for the album's first single and surprisingly scored a Top Ten, Triple-A hit with the upbeat "Vulcan Death Grip."

Meanwhile, the band toured constantly, adding radio-sponsored festivals to their summer itinerary and visiting radio stations with a three-piece acoustic squad ready for on-air appearances. As a result, Capricorn's already pushing the follow-up single, "You Turn Me On," across the board -- to Top 40, AOR, alternative, and AAA. And in another sign of support, the typically video-shy Capricorn also fronted $50,000 for a video with which to go courting MTV and VH1. "Getting the video budget can be chalked directly up to the Triple-A radio success of "Vulcan," says Bliesener. "Last time out, it was wait and see."

The More Things Change...

The Ugly Americans getting a video budget not only indicates Capricorn's commitment to breaking Stereophonic Spanish Fly, it also underlines the unpredictably cyclical nature of the music business. Just last year, things looked grim when Giant Records dropped the band after recording a big-budget debut (produced by Hootie & the Blowfish guru Don Gehman) and distributing pre-release promotional copies to press, radio, and retail. The last-minute label shake-up, which brought in controversial Sony veteran Missy Worth to re-establish the label's identity, began with Worth asking the Ugly Americans to leave the label.

Five months later, after the band had seriously contemplated breaking up, Giant somewhat begrudgingly freed the band to take the album to Capricorn. Initially, Capricorn appeared only interested in getting the already recorded album cheaply, promising only a nominal investment in promotion and tour support. Yet by the time Stereophonic Spanish Fly hit stores, Mercury had bought Capricorn and had suddenly made breaking 311, Cake, and the Ugly Americans a priority. Why? Because in the music industry you're only as good as your latest deal, and new Mercury president Danny Goldberg made it no secret that he'd felt compelled to prove that his investment in Capricorn could work.

"Both sides of the deal are pitching in to prove a lot to each other," says Bliesener of the Mercury/Capricorn marriage. "311 was the first release under Mercury and we were the second, so our timing couldn't have been better. Clearly, having access to the whole Mercury team is important, and far more than we ever expected."

Prescott Curlywolf, on the other hand, a band signed to Mercury proper, didn't fare quite as well from the Mercury/Capricorn union. As attention shifted towards the Capricorn acts and Mercury found radio success with the Refreshments, the focus on Prescott's 6ix Ways to Sunday rapidly diminished. And while college radio initially responded well to three or four tracks from the album, Mercury told the band they'd have to wait until August for the release of a single to commercial radio. By September, though, Mercury had already begun with less-than-confident promises for a January 1997 push.

"After we'd made our record, we found out the hard way Mercury's new philosophy in artist development was to take bands from smaller labels, spend money, and take credit," says Prescott's Ron Byrd. "We were a label priority until 311 and Cake started getting the attention. And with all the changes, our people at the label started dropping like flies, including the head of Alternative Promotion."

By November, it had become clear that the label's idea of alternative promotion for Prescott Curlywolf was to not promote them at all. Later that month, Mercury delivered the final blow -- firing Prescott's A&R representative Ruth Richards. "It wasn't a gasoline enema, but it hasn't been totally pleasant either," says Byrd now, while the band tries to find a way out of the Mercury deal and concentrate instead on a new batch of demos. "It was a great experience in that we got cash to make an album we liked and did a little touring. But while our record got released, in a lot of way it never really was."

While Sincola entered 1996 with one Caroline release under their belts -- '95's What the Nothinghead Said -- a changing label identity, trouble at radio, and a new A&R team may have combined to put them in a similar state of confusion as Prescott Curlywolf. "We thought it was just a matter of building on to what we accomplished with the first record," says Sincola drummer Terri Lord. "But they had very high anticipation for us turning into the next Garbage or Hole. After they heard the record, they still very much saw that happening."

Prior to the release of Crash Landing in Teen Heaven, the news that Sincola's A&R representative and product manager, Brian Long, had been promoted to director of A&R looked like a positive sign that the new album was to become a priority -- as did a set of marketing plans Caroline executives flew into Austin to unveil to the band. But soon after the recording, say Caroline insiders, it became apparent Long was no longer in a position of day-to-day power. Not surprisingly, then, it was just before the album's release that Long left the label altogether to take an A&R post at Geffen. "I don't think they meant to change the gameplan on us," says Lord, "but it's the oldest stereotype: a change-up at the label hurting the band."

Worst of all, Long's departure coincided with label president Keith Wood's decision to push Caroline towards something more of a major-label approach, resulting in some housecleaning, a new talent search, and higher radio goals. The latter, say radio experts, may not have been possible during the life of Sincola's album, primarily because Caroline had only two people working radio and spent marginal budgets on the independent radio promoter necessary to seduce large alternative stations.

"Ultimately, they were disappointed by their own expectations and the lack of radio success," says Lord. Yet before Caroline released the band from their contact in October, Sincola had already made minor waves at college radio: first with "One Hit Wonder," and next with the rushed follow-up, "Rundown." And while the band didn't get to tour as much as they had originally planned, Lord says she believes that college radio interest combined with a new demo and tours with the Butthole Surfers and Joan Jett may be enough to attract a new round of major-label interest. "We're actually in a good position," she says, "because with an album still left on Caroline we just wouldn't have been as attractive to a major."

False Believers?

What happens if everything seems to fall into place -- label commitment, radio, press, and touring -- and you still don't sell records? If you're Alejandro Escovedo you begin shopping for a new deal. Last month, the longtime Austin singer-songwriter and the Massachusetts-based Rykodisc confirmed that they had parted ways -- sort of. While Escovedo chose not to accept less money in a renegotiated deal with the label that released his With These Hands album earlier this year, both parties announced that his glam-rock side project, Buick MacKane, would remain on the label.

In fact, Escovedo says he's dedicating the majority of 1997 to touring in support of the band's debut, The Pawnshop Years (due in stores February 25). As for his solo career, Escovedo says he's genuinely surprised that a slew of positive press, Triple A radio play, network television appearances, and a recent high-profile tour with Son Volt wasn't enough to satisfy a label known industry-wide for its long-term commitment to artist development.

"We had great expectations together," says Escovedo. "I thought I'd gone with a label that would support me over a long haul. Part of the attraction was that it was a five-album deal. I felt they understood what it would take to build and nurture a career."

Jeff Rougvie, Rykodisc's president of A&R, says Rykodisc, too, was out to build Escovedo a career, until they saw they were losing too much money. "Everyone really believed in Alejandro, so when we signed him we took a step beyond what our usual signings amount to," he says. "We knew it was going to be a larger investment than what we usually do, but we believed in him and that's what it took to do the deal."

From there, say both sides, it begins to get confusing. Without question, Triple A radio embraced "Put You Down," better than any previous single Escovedo had released through local indie Watermelon. And with resulting appearances on NPR's Fresh Air and World Cafe, a two-page spread in Rolling Stone, and a musical guest slot on Conan O'Brien's show, Escovedo says he began to see the fruits of his labor. "With the Rolling Stone story and the positive press and radio reactions to my live show, I felt we'd made serious in-roads at raising my profile to another level," says Escovedo. " And I toured my ass off -- 40,000 miles in a van with seven people. We'd play 21 days in a row sometimes and do every single promotion, in-store, and radio gig we could find. Some days we'd be doing double- and triple-headers. I simply did everything I possibly could."

And while Rougvie concedes that Escovedo did indeed do everything possible to help his own cause, he says the sales just didn't justify the big advance. "What was remarkable, for instance, about the Rolling Stone thing was just the lack of impact it had," says Rougvie. "Nobody dropped the ball, and I don't think either side didn't do what they needed to, but we had figured out how much we expected to sell when we set a marketing budget. We exceeded that budget and just didn't come up with the sales we were looking for."

As such, Rykodisc offered a new and somewhat lower deal when it came time to renew Escovedo's option and that's when they lost their true believer. "We didn't want to lose him," says Rougvie, "but we were so far from where we need to be that we had to do something. He felt it was a step back." Actually, Escovedo says he saw signs of Rykodisc's dwindling efforts before they actually approached him with the renegotiated offer. "After just six months, they started asking for new songs. I thought in that stage of the game it was pretty ridiculous. I wasn't thinking about writing. I wanted to be on the road to work on supporting this record."

By the time Rykodisc declined to support a European tour previously arranged by management for October, Escovedo says he saw the handwriting on the wall. "What they offered me wasn't that bad," admits Escovedo, "but I'd rather take my chances elsewhere. It just doesn't make sense to be on a label that doesn't support your goals. And had I known they had a major-label style sales goal, I probably wouldn't have gone with them in the first place. For someone like me, immediate radio play and sales isn't going to happen. And ultimately I feel bad because we were becoming more confident as the audiences grew more responsive and the press grew more responsive. I just think Rykodisc grew less responsive about building my career."

No Pain, Career Gain

Ultimately, the success of the Class of '96 may have come down to the bands that knew in advance whether "Most Likely to Succeed" status or the lower-key "Most Personable" honor would best fit their needs and desires. So while Spoon bypassed a slew of bidding major labels back in early 1995 -- fueled by the Telephono sessions that would become their Matador debut -- the band's Britt Daniel still maintains they made the right decision choosing a major independent. "We specifically didn't sign with a major to avoid the Nada Surf thing -- hoping one wave of 14-year-olds buys the record," says Daniel. "We knew we'd be cool with working hard and I think we've proven now that it wasn't about a credibility move."

It certainly wasn't a move towards sales either. While Daniel says he and Matador share an interest in a longer-term sales plan, that may not be the way it started. Daniel opted for a one-album deal, which, at least on paper, could always leave the band the opportunity to take their next album to the majors. "It was never our intention to do one record and jump to the majors," says Daniel, who had seriously entertained offers from Geffen prior to signing with Matador. "We just wanted to make sure we sold enough records that everyone would be happy and like the relationship." But what if the labels once interested in the Telephono demos now look at sales and back off? "I suppose some of the labels interested initially could be discouraged by the sales, but that's not the kind of labels we'd be interested in working with anyway."

And although college and alternative radio's support of Spoon's first single, "Not Turning Off," was merely average, Matador faithfully followed it up in November with a second single, "Plastic Mylar." Daniel had originally planned to add a set of B-sides to that second single until Matador suggested releasing an EP. Consequently, the five-song, John Croslin-produced Soft Effects is now due for a January release. "It's just an EP for an EP's sake. We wanted to get more stuff out because we had more stuff ready," says Daniel. "They're looking at it as a way to keep promoting Telephono. They don't make a lot of money off EPs, but in the overall gameplan, it's great because we planned on working Telephono for a year and have decided to move forward together on this. They did their part, and we've done ours."

Ultimately, says Daniel, Spoon has found a home without the high pressure of sales hanging over their heads. "They're totally passionate," he says, "and that's why they have their reputation, because they only work with artists they're totally into. And anytime a label's totally supportive, letting you record and tour, it's got to feel like a success."

Craig Ross also says he feels like a success, although he admits he understands why those who look only at his sales might think otherwise. Since its June release, Dead Spy Report has moved just under 1,000 copies; lack of a radio single and the fact that MCA fired most of its field representatives while Ross toured explains a lot. And yet, while MCA has earned the industry title of the "Musician's Cemetery of America" over the years, Ross maintains the label is surprisingly dedicated to allowing Ross to keep making records -- in spite of sales.

"They love the record and just want me to keep making them," says Ross. "I don't think they were expecting it to sell, and I know I wasn't either. Before its release, we sat down and discussed how little I was interested in a big hype factor and a huge promotional push. Honestly, I don't think I'm ready for that. But I was ready to put a record out and start pushing towards developing a solid recording career."

In fact, of all the Class of '96, Ross appears to have won "Most Likely to Succeed" honors in that his deal is the closest one to a true development deal -- a rare prospect in what A&R reps are acknowledging as the industry's most blatant throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks period. Quietly, MCA brass have hinted that Ross' deal makes sense regardless of the sales because it may attract other artists to the label.

As for Ross, he says he helped his cause by asking for only an average deal financially and saving MCA a high recording budget by recording Dead Spy Report in his own studio. "Low overhead can also mean low pressure," says Ross. "The emphasis was instead on creative control and the ability to make records that I'd wanted to make. I'd much rather that if the time comes and I get a promotional push that people can see I have a catalog -- that I didn't just appear out of nowhere, take what I could get, and leave."

Currently, MCA's plans call for a January release to radio of either "Kill the Morning" or "Shame," with a concurrent tour. New singles and tours also await Spoon, Storyville, the Ugly Americans, Eric Johnson, and the Butthole Surfers. Add a batch of new records in 1997 from veteran guitarists Chris Duarte, Ian Moore (Capricorn), and Jimmie Vaughan (Epic), plus a slate of spring debuts from Meg Hentges (Robbins), David Garza (Atlantic), Choreboy (Triple X), Abra Moore (Arista Texas), and Sister 7 (Arista Texas), and Ross' assessment that releasing albums on major labels or major indies is a "crapshoot" applies to a whole other class of hopefuls.

Ultimately, agree this year's class, there may be no real lesson to be learned from their collective exploits other than that major-label deals always hinge on the expectations -- with success stories mostly lying in the rare cases where the label's and artist's expectations meet. "In the grand scheme, I just want to be able to make records and to tour," says Ross, repeating the adopted mantra of so many from the Class of '96. "And I'm not sure it should be so much about the label's expectations as much as it should be about what the artists themselves expect and what they're ultimately willing to walk away happy with."

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