By Jim Schutze
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Curtis has been there for all the highs (say, selling 10 million copies of the band's debut, Ten) and all the lows, the worst of which came when nine people were killed and 43 more were injured during the band's performance last June at the Roskilde Rock Festival in Denmark. (Though it's possible that at least one person might have died beforePearl Jam took the stage, according to two sisters who attended the show.) Curtis has had to deal with Vedder's clumsy attempts at dealing with his fame, and he's had to serve as liaison between band and label. Indeed, part of his job early on was informing Epic that Pearl Jam wouldn't do any more videos, which infuriated the label.
"A long time ago, I learned from Elliot Roberts, Neil Young's manager, that you never take on the fight like it's your fight," Curtis says. "Just blame it on the artist. That way, the label can't fight me. I'm like, 'I'm just the messenger.' In the end, the band created the machine. I just know how it works."
And it was Curtis who had to deal with the fallout from Pearl Jam's failed attempt to have the Justice Department charge Ticketmaster with being a monopoly in 1995. The episode is often blamed for the downturn in Pearl Jam's album sales: Cynics insisted it was a publicity stunt (it wasn't), and fans had a hard time buying tickets to shows, which were held, often, in shoddy venues. Where Tenwould go on to sell 10 million copies, Binaural, released last May, has yet to sell a million. Curtis insists the Ticketmaster ordeal was blown out of proportion and that the band decided to turn down the volume; the hype was deafening.
"We know if we make videos and do TV shows and stuff that we could sell more records, but they're really comfortable with their level of success right now," Curtis insists. "It's very manageable, and everyone's grown up a bit. As far as working in a [business] environment that's seemingly not where we are philosophically, we do the best we can...There was definitely a time when it was bigger, but then you add the 10-year career artist kind of thing on top of it, and that makes it special."
Incidentally, it was Curtis' idea to release the bootleg series; it was something he had wanted to do for years, in fact. He owned enough boots to realize how expensive they were and how awful so many of them sounded, but he was always met with the same cool response from both band and label. Finally, Pearl Jam consented; Epic, on the other hand, took some convincing for at least two reasons. One, Pearl Jam owes the label one more album, and Epic executives worried that Curtis was going to use the bootleg series as a way of finagling out of the band's contract. Epic also wasn't happy with Curtis' plan of selling the discs only through the band's Web site (www.pearljam.com), which would alienate retailers. The label wanted to do a big marketing push, which the band nixed, since the intention was to get the discs in hands of the fetishists and not the casual fan.
But Epic was convinced when Curtis insisted it wasn't his plan to restructure the band's contract and when he told the label it wouldn't have to pay an advance for the discs, as Pearl Jam was going to record the shows anyway and package the discs in inexpensive cardboard. Fact is, the discs are, more or less, pure profit--the closest thing to a cash machine this side of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. The label estimates it has sold close to three million discs in the series: On March 7, seven of the discs from the first leg of the band's 2000 U.S. tour debuted on the BillboardHot 200 chart, a first for any band, and just last week, two more titles entered the charts.
"When Kelly told me about the bootlegs a few months ago, I wasn't sure that it would go," McGuinness says. "One worry was how enthusiastic the label would be to do it, but it would seem they've been cooperative. Three million total is a very significant result for Sony [Epic's parent company] as much as for the band. It just goes to show that if you make a good enough case, these giant corporations will do exactly what you want. It's been my experience they respond well to being infiltrated, and if you go to your corporation with a plan and it's a good one, very often you'll get total cooperation and have good results."
But after the band turns in its final album for Epic, it will never again sign to a label; Sony might distribute Pearl Jam, but it will never again own the band's master tapes. As Curtis says, "The band's really looking forward to the day when they can all toast each other and say, 'We are free.'"
Curtis then mentions that even he has never worked for the band with the security blanket of a signed contract.
"Either they like me," he says, laughing, "or it would just be so much work to get a new manager that they'd actually have to meet."