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Labels big and small are suddenly hankering for cool and sophisticated acts like John Mayer, the White Stripes, Norah Jones and Wilco, not merely to display them as trophies, but to test them in the marketplace as viable commercial entities.
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By Bud Scoppa

Hey hey, my my. Just when you figure it’s all going straight in the dumper, something good happens.

A ray of sunlight has appeared amid the gloom of shrinking revenues and consumer apathy. The warm glow is emanating from an explosion of left-of-center and otherwise non-formulaic artists and records, along with the parallel emergence of an audience eager to embrace their adventurous efforts. This still-growing audience is primarily adult, but it’s not behaving like adult audiences have in the past; on the contrary, these upper demos are active. What’s more, they crave albums, not just singles—or MP3 files. The surging John Mayer (Aware/Columbia) and Norah Jones (Blue Note) may be the crown prince and princess of this smart-pop/arty-rock renaissance, but there’s plenty more potential royalty waiting in the wings.

Of course, there’s always been worthy stuff on the fringes; the big difference is that, all of a sudden, passionate music lovers are actually locating it, and in such numbers that the mainstream is starting to shift. Tellingly, the current issue of the staunchly old-school New Yorker contains a coltishly enthusiastic critique of the White Stripes (V2), The Strokes (RCA) and The Hives (Sire/Reprise/Burning Heart/Epitaph), three prominent members of the art-meets-commerce vanguard. The Strokes were one of last year’s out-of-nowhere success stories, while the White Stripes are averaging 15k a week and The Hives’ buzz keeps getting louder.

During the last few weeks, inspirational stories of Wilco’s rejection and redemption have been splashed all over the national press, to the extent that Jeff Tweedy & Co. have become the poster boys for audacious art’s triumph over corporate blindness. The hoped-for payoff, of course, is that the band’s radical new Nonesuch album turns out to be its biggest seller, meaning an eventual total north of 200k. Based on first-week numbers, that improbable scenario looks like it might actually pan out. In its first week, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot blew past retail experts’ modest projections, coming in #1 at Newbury Comics, #3 at Tower and #5 at Borders in its unexpected #13 chart entry.

Labels big and small are suddenly hankering for cool and sophisticated acts like these, not merely to display them as trophies, but to test them in the marketplace as viable commercial entities. Last year, major-label A&R was all about signing the next Linkin Park; now, the mandate is to find the next Strokes and John Mayer, as well.

Although the smart-pop/arty-rock movement has hit the radar only during the last few months, it has actually been under way for a couple of years. Look at Britain’s Coldplay, the very sort of song-oriented neoclassic outfit that was largely ignored for a quarter century by the mass audience—but in this case, more than a million fans have bought the band’s classy debut album since its 2000 release. If this movement does take off, Coldplay deserves to be recognized, along with the endlessly audacious Radiohead, as one of its trailblazers.

Interestingly, the band came to Capitol Records in the States circuitously, through a deal with Canadian indie Nettwerk, despite the fact that it was initially signed by Capitol’s British cousin Parlophone (an intriguing backstory, a la Wilco’s, that got zero play in the press). No matter. Coldplay has joined Radiohead as a jewel in the crown of what is arguably the most impressive arty-rock roster in the business—this despite the fact that said roster is the product of several A&R regimes. In recent months, Capitol has introduced Starsailor and Ed Harcourt, and it’s in the process of setting up adventurous and enticing new albums from Doves (whose first album was on Astralwerks, but that’s another backstory), Dirty Vegas, OK GO and The Vines. And let’s not forget that the Dandy Warhols, who were several years ahead of the present art-rock curve, have long been a Capitol band, one whose time may well have finally come. Finally, what on earth do Radiohead and Coldplay have up their sleeves? With all this envelope-pushing music, is Capitol destined to become the HBO of major labels? Who knew?

And it’s not just young acts who are finding themselves the beneficiaries of the newly voracious adult audience. Bonnie Raitt (Capitol, again) and Neil Young (Reprise) are going strong several weeks into their latest releases, while Elvis Costello picked the perfect moment to make an album that vividly recaptures the energy and eloquence of his early classics. When I Was Cruel (Island) debuted at #19 and sold more than 42k in one of the strongest starts of Costello’s 25-year career.

All of a sudden, people are turning each other on to new bands and artists, much as they did in 1966, ’77 and ’91, making word of mouth the most potent—if least predictable or controllable—marketing tool of the moment. The press is also a factor in the selling of albums, suggesting that adult record buyers know how to read.

How all this will play out is any weasel’s guess (and every weasel’s fantasy). Even if it succeeds dramatically, the smart-pop/arty-rock movement and the activation of upper-demo fans may not in themselves be enough to resuscitate the struggling music industry—but at the very least, the return of quality music on the charts will make the worst of times sound something like the best of times.

Portions of this story appeared in the April 26 Weakend Planner. The lead was ripped off from Ben Greenman's excellent aforementioned piece in The New Yorker. 

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