Pearl Jam: “Back” To The Future | July 31, 2009
by Jonathan Cohen

“Super poppy.”
“Just plain fun.”
“Surprisingly optimistic.”
“Catchy as hell.”

These are not adjectives often used to describe Pearl Jam, the 30 million-selling purveyor of angst-ridden guitar rock now approaching its 19th year of existence. And yet these are the words being used on blogs to describe “The Fixer,” the first song from the Seattle rock band’s ninth album, “Backspacer.” A surging, ’80s-style rocker written by drummer Matt Cameron, “The Fixer” debuts this week at No. 2 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart, an audience-based tally of all rock stations.

You can’t blame Cameron, singer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament or guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready for smiling wider than usual. President George W. Bush, who the band vilified in song and onstage for eight years, is gone. The group remains a huge touring draw and A-list festival headliner, having grossed nearly $42 million from 51 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore from 2006 to 2008. Vedder won a Golden Globe for his soundtrack to the 2007 movie “Into the Wild.” Life is quieter on the homefront, too: Four out of the five band members now have children.

But Pearl Jam is also celebrating because it finally made good on a longstanding desire to release its music on its own, without the aid of a major label. “Backspacer” will come out Sept. 20 in the United States through a creative patchwork of deals with physical and digital retailers, the most prominent of which is a one-off, big-box exclusive with Target. Internationally, Universal Music is the label for the release.

The Target partnership threw fans for a loop when the news leaked in June. At first glance the move seems at odds with a band whose DIY, fan-first business ethic has set it against corporate behemoths like Ticketmaster and AT&T. But as details began to emerge, it became clear that Pearl Jam managed to make a deal that rewards the band and its fans as much as it does the stores that sell its music.

Target agreed to let independent music retailers carry “Backspacer,” a first for one of its exclusives. (The album will be distributed to indie stores by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores’ Junketboy division.) “Backspacer” will also be sold on Pearl Jam’s Web site and at Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

“We’ve put a tremendous amount of thought into this, and we’ve done it in a way that we think will be good for everybody,” Vedder says. He understands why some fans may be confused about the deal, but he says, “I can’t think of anything we’ve ever done without putting it through our own personal moral barometer. Target has passed for us. The fans just have to trust us.”

As Gossard puts it, “If somebody would have said 15 years ago that they were going to give us a great chunk of money and let it be a one-off and not hold us to any strings, we would have said, ‘Come on! This is the best deal ever!’ We fought our way through eight records at Sony and J to get ourselves in a position where we could cut a deal to get paid $5 a record, rather than $1.50 or $2. It was the right compromise for this record, and I think it will give us even more flexibility in the future. The fact that we cut out a few other chains – I think it’s our prerogative to do that. We’re bringing a lot of smaller stores with us.”

Junketboy Distribution A&R executive Scott Register hopes the cooperative nature of the deal will inspire “every artist, label and manager out there that they need to think twice before cutting out indie stores. This is our chance to show that our community – stores, distributors, one-stops – are capable of any size job and of making a difference in the life of an album.”

When Pearl Jam ended its career-long association with Epic in 2003, the band wasn’t yet ready to proceed without label backing. So manager Kelly Curtis cut a one-off, joint-venture deal with J Records for the 2006 release of a self-titled Pearl Jam album, which spawned three rock radio hits and has sold 706,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That figure far exceeded the sales of the band’s 2002 Epic farewell, “Riot Act,” which sold 508,000.

Curtis says he was thrilled with J’s work on the album in the United States, but internationally, “it was a nightmare. Sony had just merged with BMG, and we couldn’t get anything done.” With that in mind, he was confident Pearl Jam could devise a way to distribute its next album by itself in the States, but he knew the band would still need help with the rest of the world.

The first step was conceptualizing a new infrastructure. “We went into it really open,” Curtis says, although ownership of masters was a prerequisite. “We always knew we needed lots of partners. It’s easy to go do a one-off with Target, Best Buy or Wal-Mart. The part that’s hard is how do you get the other ingredients: the indies, mobile, online, the fan club.”

To test the waters, Pearl Jam cut the first mobile deal of its existence with Verizon in 2008, which brought the band’s legendary live bootlegs to the company’s V Cast service. The partnership was put together by Michele Anthony, the former Sony Music Label Group U.S. president/COO who was by Pearl Jam’s side for its biggest successes in the ’90s.

“Our goal was to be able to give the fans access to the music the way they want to access it,” says Anthony, who was inspired to kick-start a mobile presence for Pearl Jam after she and Curtis saw how ubiquitous music consumption was on cell phones in China. The mobile bootleg campaign was so successful that Pearl Jam teamed with Verizon again to deliver content from the deluxe reissue of the band’s debut album, “Ten.” The partnership has been re-extended to include ringtones and ringbacks for songs from “Backspacer,” which will roll out at a rate of one per week until release date, as well as mobile bootlegs for the band’s fall tour.

Releasing the album simply through Pearl Jam’s Ten Club fan organization was out of the question, according to Curtis and Anthony, simply because of logistics. Target ultimately got the nod because, Anthony says, “in our discussions with the big-box retailers, they were really the only one that understood the band’s philosophy and the need to take care of the Ten Club and the indies and hit other distribution platforms.”

Curtis concurs. “I got a call from someone at Best Buy after the Target deal was announced, saying, ‘Why did we not get this?’ ” he says. “And it was because they would not even entertain the thought of taking care of these other platforms.”

Curtis also balked at the waste involved in having to create different versions of “Backspacer” for various partners, a common requirement of retail exclusives. Instead, the album is encoded with Sony DADC’s eBridge technology, which allows purchasers to unlock extra content when they put the disc in their computers.

The Target discs will link to a virtual “vault” of 11 concerts spanning Pearl Jam’s career, from which fans can choose two. The band will also create an organic cotton T-shirt to be sold at Target, with proceeds earmarked for the hunger relief charity Feeding America. And in September, a Cameron Crowe-directed TV ad will air featuring footage shot during a private performance at Seattle’s Showbox in late May.

For Vedder, an avowed vinyl junkie who still savors memories of buying Jackson 5 records as a preteen in Chicago, Target isn’t exactly his preferred music purchasing environment. “Maybe it will change, but I’m not going to find the Headcoatees at a Target,” he says, invoking the obscure British band with a hearty laugh. “But if they only have 300 records at Target, and you can be one of them, and that’s how people are going to hear your music, you have to think about that.”

That’s not the only thing Vedder is thinking about, either. While acts like AC/DC and Aerosmith were winning new fans with branded versions of “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero,” respectively, Pearl Jam was sitting on the videogame sidelines. The band finally took the plunge this spring when it made all of the songs from “Ten” available for download on “Rock Band” the same day the reissue hit stores. Curtis declined to discuss sales, but sources at MTV say the “Ten” songs have generated more than 850,000 downloads.

“Backspacer” will also be available on “Rock Band” the day it comes out, and Target has an exclusive on an edition of the album featuring access to download its songs for “Rock Band” on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. It’s a precursor to a dedicated Pearl Jam game that could hit stores in 2010. Although MTV wouldn’t confirm details, fan input is already being solicited on to determine which live versions of songs from the band’s catalog will be included.

For radio promotion, Curtis hired a team of indies to promote “The Fixer” at various formats, including former Epic promotion vet Laura Curtin, who worked “Ten” nearly 20 years ago. Alternative, active rock and triple A stations took the lead on playing the single during the week ending July 26, with Los Angeles’ KROQ leading the way with 58 plays, WAAF in Boston with 45 plays, and Seattle KISW and KNDD with 44 and 43 plays each, according to Nielsen BDS.

Industry observers are obviously curious to see how Pearl Jam’s plan plays out. If successful, it could inspire a host of established bands to try a similar approach, according to Tsunami Entertainment president Bruce Kirkland, who has helped negotiate numerous exclusives between artists and big boxes, including the Pearl Jam/Target pairing.

“Any artist that can tour without support and has a base is well-served by this system,” he says, pointing to Wal-Mart’s deals with the Eagles and Garth Brooks. “For them, the record is a marketing tool for other revenue-generating opportunities. It is a no-brainer. It’s a perfect deal in that sense. The financial upside is cutting out a lot of the middle pieces. I like the model because it basically puts more money into marketing, which is a big piece missing from labels these days, and there’s a better bottom line for the artist.”

Others are impressed that Pearl Jam has been able to create synergy among such a disparate roster of partners. “They’re playing ball with the big boys,” one former major-label executive says. “This isn’t like some other bands, who self-released music online and then followed it up at retail months later. They picked major partners, because this is still a major band.”

“It’s a really interesting time right now,” Anthony says. “It’s a time of opportunity where a lot of the distribution and marketing platforms are open directly to the artists. That has never really happened before. Even five or six years ago, it didn’t matter how big of an artist you were. You could not make a direct deal with Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy. Now, you can create the partnerships that are right for you.”

As Pearl Jam reinvented its business, it turned to a familiar face when it came time to record: Brendan O’Brien. The band recorded “Backspacer” in Los Angeles and Atlanta with the producer, who also worked on “Vs.” and “Vitalogy” but hadn’t produced a Pearl Jam album since 1998’s “Yield.”

Pearl Jam’s members quickly realized what they’d been missing, as O’Brien provided crucial input on arrangements; played piano, keyboard and percussion; and put together orchestrations for delicate Vedder songs like the acoustic guitar-powered “Just Breathe” and the gut-punch finale “The End.”

“He does those melodic things from his musician brain first, and then he’s able to layer them within the music with his producer brain,” Cameron says. “He uses both sets of skills in a way that most producers aren’t even able to do.” O’Brien’s efficiency rubbed off on the band, according to Gossard. “We made this faster than we’ve made any record,” he says. “We were 30 days in the studio total, including mix. I think we had 90% of the record cut in the first nine days.”

At 11 songs and less than 37 minutes, “Backspacer” is the leanest and meanest Pearl Jam album yet. “At one of our gigs, without flashpots and electricity, there’s only so much room for those more difficult listening songs,” Vedder says with a laugh. “That was one reason why we kept the arrangements lean. The songs come off more like sparkling water than pea soup, and I think that’s good for our group right now.”

“The Fixer” became the foundation for the album after Vedder came up with an edit of an arrangement the band bashed through without him. “My personal interpretation is that it’s about how [Vedder] makes our songs work,” Gossard says. “When someone inspires him, he’s an incredible collaborator.”

Other musical highlights on “Backspacer” include the opening one-two combo of “Gonna See My Friend,” a furious Stooges-style garage blast, and the propulsive, Police-y “Got Some,” which Pearl Jam premiered June 1 on the first episode of “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”

On the softer side, “Just Breathe” is a gorgeous ballad based on an instrumental from Vedder’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack, while “The End” is an aching love song that closes the album on a startling lyric: “My dear/I’m here/But not much longer.”

“You know, I’ll admit that even I felt some impact myself listening to it back the first time, and not even really knowing where it came from,” Vedder says of the song, which he debuted this summer during a solo tour. “A lot of the songs on this record were ones I just tried to get out of the way of, without self-editing.”

Vedder titled the album as an homage to an oddly named typewriter key that fell out of fashion 50 years ago. The frontman, who still uses typewriters for lyric writing and personal correspondence, says he got upset when he saw vintage typewriter keys being used as jewelry. “For me it was like shark fin soup: ‘You’re killing typewriters for a bracelet!’ ” he says.

Always known for elaborate album packaging, Pearl Jam turned to political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, whom Vedder met at a 2000 Ralph Nader rally, to create the album’s visuals. Nine pieces of Tomorrow’s artwork are scattered across various Internet sites, and fans can drag-and-drop them onto a grid on Pearl Jam’s site to receive a free download of a demo of album track “Speed of Sound.”

Pearl Jam will play its first live show in more than a year Aug. 8 at the Virgin Festival in Calgary, Alberta. After a quick four-show run in Europe, the band will then visit Toronto (Aug. 21) and Chicago (Aug. 23-24) before headlining the Outside Lands festival Aug. 28 in San Francisco. Multiple shows in Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia follow in September and October, with the Philly gigs set to be the final ones at the Spectrum.

Also on tap is a headlining slot Oct. 4 at the Austin City Limits festival, plus a run of shows in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii in November and December. Curtis says the plan for 2010 touring is still coming together and that the band is deciding whether to play outdoor amphitheaters or arenas, which it prefers.

And while they’re satisfied now, Vedder and his bandmates insist they’re as driven as ever to keep challenging themselves, both as a band and a business. “You’d like to be able to go to work and have everything be smooth, but there’s some weird artistic gene in some of us,” he says, expanding on the theme of “The Fixer.” “It can feel like a curse, because it makes you push yourself to make things better and not allow them to be easy. That’s how you get the good stuff.”