Pearl Jam Breaks the Rules
The rock band attempts to change the way the music business works
These should be glory days for Pearl Jam. With Ten and Vs. still on the charts and a new disc expected by August, the Seattle quintet ought to be savoring its place as the biggest rock band in America. But at press time, Pearl Jam was headed for Capitol Hill to take the stand in a risky scuffle with Ticketmaster.
In their testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee on June 30, the group was scheduled to detail a battle that began this spring: Pearl Jam wanted a tour that fans could afford — $18 tickets and a $1.80 service charge — but the nation’s leading ticket broker refused to cut its surcharge, arguing that a higher service fee was needed to pay for company expenses. In May, Pearl Jam filed a memo with the Justice Department charging that Ticketmaster had an unfair monopoly and had flexed its muscle to keep the band out of concert venues. No one expects the hearing to cut prices overnight — or to loosen Ticketmaster’s grip on the biz — but Pearl Jam’s crusade has sent shock waves through the industry. And the tussle over tickets is only one example of how the band is challenging the music business. In the last year, it has broken such music-world commandments as these:
Thou Shalt Wait Two Years Since Vs. hit stores only eight months ago, this next release will set the industry on its ear. ”Superstars are expected to put out a record every two years, so that every last drop of commercial value can be milked out of it,” says Ken Barnes, editor of Radio & Records.
Why buck the system? ”They probably feel a bit embarrassed by their success and feel like they should have more work underneath them,” says band manager Kelly Curtis. ”There’s no reason why they shouldn’t record.”
Thou Shalt Release a Video MTV can turn a scraggly rocker into a star in four minutes. But Pearl Jam still hasn’t shot a video for Vs. ”They really feel the music should speak for itself,” says Curtis.
What’s revolutionary is that Pearl Jam has proved a band can sell records without video support. ”People are not burned out by seeing Eddie Vedder’s face every minute on MTV,” reasons Atlantic Records exec Michael Krumper. Still, some cast a cold eye. Sniffs one insider, ”It was weird how they made so many (videos for Ten) and kissed major MTV ass until they didn’t need to anymore.”
Thou Shalt Release a Single When it comes to radio, most bands plan an onslaught of singles the way the Allies planned D-Day. Pearl Jam ”wouldn’t let us press singles,” says an Epic Records exec. Epic shipped Vs. to radio stations with a carefree request: Play whatever you want. ”They let the marketplace decide,” Barnes says. ”That’s rare.”
Put these things together, says the Epic exec, and Pearl Jam ”has used its power to make an effect on the industry’s conventions.” But the joust with Ticketmaster raises the stakes. ”You have to do business with Ticketmaster,” says one veteran. ”To bad-mouth them is not something anybody that’s got a brain can do.” Then why is Pearl Jam doing it? ”They’re young and noble, I guess.”
Curtis says it’s a matter of fair economics: ”We’re not trying to take on the world. We’re just trying to get the best deals for fans.” Ticketmaster sees it differently. ”This is a marketing ploy,” says spokesman Larry Solters. He believes the band ”is fine-tuning its antiestablishment image — and brilliantly, at that. Instead of doing videos and touring, they’re complaining to the Justice Department.”
So far, R.E.M. has joined Pearl Jam’s ranks. Other rockers are skittish. You may hear their venom in private — one band spokesman calls Ticketmaster ”the biggest slimebags on the face of the earth” — but nowhere else. (After all, as the only nationwide chain, Ticketmaster — which grossed $1.3 billion in ticket sales in ’93 — exerts incredible clout. Although Ticketmaster denies it, music-industry insiders accuse the company of using that influence to keep promoters from booking tours without them.) Pam Lewis, Garth Brooks’ comanager, first claimed that she and her client were rallying behind Pearl Jam; now she says that Brooks ”does not want to get in the middle of this.”
Risks aside, there are those who believe this is Pearl Jam’s defining moment. ”What all grunge bands have tried to communicate is that business-as-usual is over,” says writer Dave Marsh, who was also to appear before Congress. ”What Pearl Jam has now communicated is that they mean it.” His advice to the biz: ”Get on Pearl Jam’s side. They’re the future.”