A tale of two band(width)s

Rock's hottest new career move: battling your record label over MP3s.

BILLY CORGAN, the Smashing Pumpkins' gargoyle-voiced leader, was once one of the biggest stars in the pop world. But his days as an alt-rock kingpin have ended thanks to the listening public's disinterest in the Pumpkins' last two albums, 1998's Adore and this year's Machina/The Machines of God. Corgan, a Chicago native, has long been considered one of rock's shrewdest businesspeople, and he's smart enough to have noticed alternative rock's displacement as the people's choice by teenpop and by the half-breed mutant that critic Kate Sullivan refers to as "'rap'-'metal.'"

So, having read the writing on the wall, Corgan has announced that the Pumpkins will retire their number following a farewell tour. And to commemorate the event, he has selected a cache of unreleased live and studio recordings, pressed 25 vinyl copies under the title Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, and sent them to friends with explicit instructions to make the music available on the Web as MP3 files.

"A followup to Machina, and the last album from the band," reads the press release reprinted on www.billy-corgan.net, a fan-run site. "As a final farewell, and a 'fuck you' to a record label that didn't give them the support they deserved." Corgan is well known for his immense ambition, and is clearly bitter that Virgin isn't rallying around the Pumpkins' finale, which five years ago would have been addressed with pomp and circumstance and now is greeted with a shrug.

By contrast, Dexter Holland, the Offspring's lead singer, is coming off the greatest success of his career. Few expected the Los Angeles pop-punk quartet to exceed the success of 1994's five-million-selling Smash—until their late-1998 single "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" found itself in microwave rotation on radio and MTV. Americana, the album containing the song, was lodged in Billboard's Top 10 Albums chart for the better part of a year and eventually sold 10.5 million copies worldwide.

Holland, like many musicians who've come out of Southern California's punk rock scene, professes a close connection with his audience, all 10.5 or so million of them. So he and the band—whose response to the threat of online music trading was to sell unlicensed Napster t-shirts via their Web site—cooked up a two-pronged scheme to promote their forthcoming Conspiracy of One. First, they would upload, a month before release, the complete contents of the new album onto their official Web site (www.offspring.com). Second, the band planned to offer a million-dollar prize to a randomly chosen fan who downloaded the album. "We feel it would be cool to redirect [the money] back to [our fans]," said Holland in a press statement reprinted on the band's site. "We are trying to launch our album with promotions that are fan supportive rather than fan exploitative."

Naturally, Sony, which owns Columbia Records, the Offspring's label, went ballistic—not over the million dollars, which comes directly from the band, but over the downloads, which would violate Columbia's contractual role as the Offspring's exclusive distributor. Both parties threatened lawsuits and Sony, according to Web music-news site SonicNet, claimed it would seek a temporary restraining order against the band. An agreement was reached last week: The album will not be made available on the Offspring's site, which will instead feature their forthcoming single, "Original Prankster," as a free download.

CORGAN AND HOLLAND are hardly the first musicians to go to war with their record companies over promotion or lack thereof. But their use of the MP3 controversy as a battleground smacks, in both cases, of a timely publicity ploy.

Machina II's Web release can certainly be interpreted as a petulant bird-flip at Virgin, one that has yet to prompt an official response, though a lawsuit against the band seems likely. (The label did not return calls for this story.) It's also possible that Virgin is laying back to let publicity on Machina II build before releasing it— or, equally, that Corgan was forced to distribute the album on the Net because Virgin wouldn't touch it.

The latter seems more likely, especially given how poorly Machina I is doing. I sampled a few of the new songs, and they're not bad, sounding pretty much as you'd expect them to, with the grand ballad "Let Me Give You the World" standing out most prominently. But much of it is obviously subpar, and after awhile I just lost the appetite to destroy my hard drive on leftover Pumpkin pie, the most curious slice of which is a fuzzed-up live version of James Brown's "Soul Power." (Consumer note: maybe it's Seattle Weekly's network, but when I tried accessing the songs via http://www.billy-corgan.net/downloads/mp3/machina2/index.html, all I got each time was 15 seconds of song, 15 seconds of heavy congestion, and then silence.)

Even if the Pumpkins are only a fraction as popular as they once were, they're still the first band with any name-brand recognition to have made an entire album available online for free. Basically, Corgan looks like he's positioning himself as a midlevel solo artist ࠬa Lloyd Cole or Aimee Mann— who sell albums and concert tickets direct to fans via their Web sites.

Nor does the Offspring's predicament seem entirely uncalculated. When band manager Jim Guerinot makes a neatly hyperbolic statement like "We were two seconds away from having a Reservoir Dogs ending to this matter," as he did in an e-mail published on music-news site SonicNet, you have every right to wonder at its accuracy. Dexter Holland, who was a mere handful of credits away from his microbiology PhD from USC when Smash took off, is neither stupid nor unsavvy—no one sells 17 million albums by accident. Having his band's plan get swatted down by a panicky multinational just serves to bolster his suburban-proletariat image—and fuel further antipathy toward major labels among the band's fans.

On the other hand, the appeal of Offspring singles like "Self Esteem" (which the singer doesn't have) and "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" (which the song's subject isn't) hinge on the kind of dumb luck that just might be encountered by a guy whose naive good intentions and embrace of new technology add up to an unworkable but heartwarming promo scheme.

 
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