When bands sign record contracts, they can't help but believe that life will be easier, better--limousines and Lear jets, or at least someone to pay the electric bill. After all, they're finally getting paid to do what they love: playing music, making records. What they never consider is what the label expects them to do to promote those records. Watching a band wade through the endless stream of in-store performances, release parties, and all of the other meet-and-greet sessions that come with a new album on a big new label, the first thing you notice is the group members' faces. By the end, they're going through the motions of going through the motions, staring out with blank expressions and glassy eyes. While the never-ending routine wears down most bands to the point of homicidal delusions or plain exhaustion, the effect has been quite the opposite on Bowling For Soup. Looking at them while they perform and seeing them hang around before and after their shows, you can't help but notice the strangest thing: They're all smiling.
Not accounting for good nature or good breeding, the members of Bowling For Soup do indeed have a lot to smile about these days. The band has just released Let's Do It for Johnny!! (the title coming from the Francis Ford Coppola teen classic The Outsiders), its third album and first on a major independent label, Jive Records. Wait--major independent? The seeming paradox of Bowling For Soup's new label is explained best by singer-guitarist Jaret Reddick. Jive Records, known during the 1980s as one of the nation's premier hip-hop and R&B labels, has grown even bigger recently, with some of the highest-selling acts in the country, such as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and 'N Sync. But though it regularly outsells its rivals, Jive is owned by a single man, Clive Calder, instead of a legion of stockbrokers. Because there is just one person making the decisions instead of a chief executive or a board of directors, the distinction is thus made between corporate and independent.
So the fact that Bowling For Soup's label is controlled by a single person and not a corporation may be the secret to their success. At the very least, it's the reason they won't be dropped immediately in case of disappointing album sales. Well, maybe. With most of the major labels in the music industry consolidating in the past couple of years, many in the industry are scared out of their wits, scrambling to find the next band that can sell like The Beatles rather than the next band that can write songs like them. But Reddick is seemingly unconcerned with the entire mess.
"Though Jive has some of the biggest, most-selling acts in the country, they are still not a major label," Reddick insists. "They're still an independent label. They're just bigger than most of the labels that are considered major labels."
It's that type of atmosphere, where a band can be nurtured despite less-than-platinum sales to achieve a lasting success, that Reddick hopes will mark Bowling For Soup's involvement with Jive. The label has shown considerable faith in the band already, signing the group to a six-album deal (with two guaranteed records and the other four on an option basis) and also funding a video for the single "The Bitch Song." And Reddick is not scared of the merger/bottom-line atmosphere, saying, "The cool thing is, because we're not on a major label--even though that's what people tend to think because Jive is so big--the whole merger mess really doesn't affect us. Even if this record tanks, you'll still see another one from us."
Bowling For Soup may just be entering the contentious world of mainstream music, but they've worked a very long time to achieve their rapid success. The band formed in 1994 in Wichita Falls and released their first recording, a self-titled cassette, the same year. They continued gigging around the region, playing every show possible in the hopes of getting their gospel to the people. In 1997, the group relocated to Denton and put out its first full-length album, Rock On Honorable Ones!!, released on their manager Jeff Roe's label, Ffroe Records. Its first single, "Scope," made its way onto local and regional music shows like KEGL-FM's The Local Show and into minor rotation at KDGE-FM. The second single, "Cody," also made an appearance on an edition of Chris Llewelyn's short-lived but much-loved Dos Sensenseos 'zine-compilation album.
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After the release of Rock On Honorable Ones!!, Bowling For Soup started receiving courtesy calls from several labels, ranging from hey-how's-it-goings to more serious overtures. To keep the labels' interest up, the band played a number of label showcases and also released its second album, Tell Me When to Whoa!. The album provided the band with the proverbial big break every performer prays for; the none-too-PC single, "The Bitch Song," moved almost directly into heavy rotation at KDGE-FM last summer. On the station's nightly "Cockfight" segment--on which two songs (the champion and a challenger) are played and fans call in to determine the winner--"The Bitch Song" was a bitch of a song to defeat as it stayed on nearly two weeks, beating alternarock heavyweights like Marilyn Manson, 311, and Sugar Ray to remain in the winner's circle. As a new local band the station could get behind, the group was invited to play the station's annual Christmas concert at Reunion Arena, another huge break as Bowling For Soup was able to perform in front of 18,000 people.
Building on its considerable local following, the group attended the annual Atlanta Music Conference last summer, a prestigious event for up-and-coming bands to play in front of scores of record-industry executives. They sent around press packets detailing the radio airplay success of "The Bitch Song" and "Belgium," another single that enjoyed a two-week run as champion of the "Cockfight." With something tangible to show to the record-industry people, the band garnered the interest of Howie Abrahms, an executive at Zomba Recording Company, the parent company of Jive Records. After the requisite negotiations, a partnership was forged in October. Bowling For Soup remixed and rerecorded some songs from Tell Me When to Whoa! and Rock on Honorable Ones!! (as well as a cover of Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69") for Let's Do It for Johnny!!.
By virtue of their partnership with Jive Records, Bowling For Soup has very high expectations for themselves with the new album. Rock On Honorable Ones!! sold more than 8,000 copies, and Tell Me When to Whoa! sold around 3,000--solid, if not spectacular, figures. Reddick says that a label executive made a rough guess (during a game of bowling, naturally) that Let's Do It for Johnny!! would have to sell around 250,000 copies to recoup costs and begin making a profit, a pretty high figure for the first time around the big block. Reddick is confident that Bowling For Soup is up to the task, but says that for his band, there are things that are more important than selling records. Of course.
"Although we want to sell a million albums and I'd love a platinum album on my wall, playing shows has always been the most important thing for the band," he says. "We played 320 shows last year and over 200 the year before. We love playing and touring and having fun, and we're not about the glory and girls. I think that died with hair metal."