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Pearl Jam cuts out the middleman with "Backspacer"

By Jonathan Cohen

NEW YORK (Billboard) - "Super poppy." "Just plain fun." "Surprisingly optimistic." "Catchy as hell." These are not phrases often used to describe Pearl Jam, the 30 million-selling purveyor of angst-ridden guitar rock now approaching its 19th year of existence.

And yet these are the words being used on blogs to describe "The Fixer," the first song from the Seattle rock band's ninth album, "Backspacer."

The track is a surging, '80s-style rocker written by drummer Matt Cameron.

You can't blame Cameron, singer Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament or guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready for smiling wider than usual. President George W. Bush, who the band vilified in song and onstage for eight years, is out of office. The group remains a huge touring draw and A-list festival headliner, having grossed nearly $42 million from 51 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore from 2006 to 2008. Vedder won a Golden Globe for his soundtrack to the 2007 movie "Into the Wild." Life is quieter on the homefront, too: Four of the five band members have children.

But Pearl Jam is also celebrating because it finally made good on a longstanding desire to release its music on its own, without the aid of a major label. "Backspacer" will come out September 20 in the United States through a creative patchwork of deals with physical and digital retailers, the most prominent of which is a one-off, big-box exclusive with Target. Internationally, Universal Music is the label for the release.

The Target partnership threw fans for a loop when the news leaked in June. At first glance the move seems at odds with a band whose DIY, fan-first business ethic has set it against corporate behemoths like Ticketmaster and AT&T. But as details began to emerge, it became clear that Pearl Jam struck a deal that rewards the band and its fans as much as it does the stores that sell its music.

MORAL BAROMETER

Target agreed to let independent music retailers carry "Backspacer," a first for one of its exclusives. "Backspacer" will also be sold on Pearl Jam's Web site and at Apple's iTunes Music Store.

"We've put a tremendous amount of thought into this, and we've done it in a way that we think will be good for everybody," Vedder says. He understands why some fans may be confused about the deal, but he says, "I can't think of anything we've ever done without putting it through our own personal moral barometer. Target has passed for us. The fans just have to trust us."

As Gossard puts it, "If somebody would have said 15 years ago that they were going to give us a great chunk of money and let it be a one-off and not hold us to any strings, we would have said, 'Come on! This is the best deal ever!' We fought our way through eight records at Sony and J to get ourselves in a position where we could cut a deal to get paid $5 a record, rather than $1.50 or $2. It was the right compromise for this record, and I think it will give us even more flexibility in the future. The fact that we cut out a few other chains -- I think it's our prerogative to do that. We're bringing a lot of smaller stores with us."

The Target discs will link to a virtual "vault" of 11 concerts spanning Pearl Jam's career, from which fans can choose two. The band will also create an organic cotton T-shirt to be sold at Target, with proceeds earmarked for the hunger relief charity Feeding America. And in September, a Cameron Crowe-directed TV ad will air featuring footage shot during a private performance at Seattle's Showbox in late May.

For Vedder, an avowed vinyl junkie who still savors memories of buying Jackson 5 records as a preteen in Chicago, Target isn't exactly his preferred music purchasing environment. "Maybe it will change, but I'm not going to find Thee Headcoatees at a Target," he says, invoking the obscure British band with a hearty laugh. "But if they only have 300 records at Target, and you can be one of them, and that's how people are going to hear your music, you have to think about that."

That's not the only thing Vedder is thinking about, either. While acts like AC/DC and Aerosmith were winning new fans with branded versions of "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," respectively, Pearl Jam was sitting on the videogame sidelines. The band finally took the plunge this spring when it made all of the songs from "Ten" available for download on "Rock Band" the same day the reissue hit stores. The band's manager, Kelly Curtis, declined to discuss sales, but sources at MTV say the "Ten" songs have generated more than 850,000 downloads.

"Backspacer" will also be available on "Rock Band" the day it comes out, and Target has an exclusive on an edition of the album featuring access to download its songs for "Rock Band" on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. It's a precursor to a dedicated Pearl Jam game that could hit stores as early as 2010.

Industry observers are eager to see how Pearl Jam's plan plays out. If successful, it could inspire a host of established bands to try a similar approach, according to Tsunami Entertainment president Bruce Kirkland, who has helped negotiate numerous exclusives between artists and big boxes, including the Pearl Jam/Target pairing.

"Any artist that can tour without support and has a base is well served by this system," he says, pointing to Wal-Mart's deals with the Eagles and Garth Brooks. "For them, the record is a marketing tool for other revenue-generating opportunities. It is a no-brainer. It's a perfect deal in that sense. The financial upside is cutting out a lot of the middle pieces. I like the model because it basically puts more money into marketing, which is a big piece missing from labels these days, and there's a better bottom line for the artist."

Others are impressed that Pearl Jam has been able to create synergy among such a disparate roster of partners. "They're playing ball with the big boys," one former major-label executive says. "This isn't like some other bands, who self-released music online and then followed it up at retail months later. They picked major partners, because this is still a major band."

LEAN AND MEAN

As Pearl Jam reinvented its business, it turned to a familiar face when it came time to record: Brendan O'Brien. The band recorded "Backspacer" in Los Angeles and Atlanta with the producer, who also worked on "Vs." and "Vitalogy" but hadn't produced a Pearl Jam album since 1998's "Yield."

Pearl Jam's members quickly realized what they'd been missing, as O'Brien provided crucial input on arrangements; played piano, keyboard and percussion; and put together orchestrations for delicate Vedder songs like the acoustic guitar-powered "Just Breathe" and the gut-punch finale "The End."

"He does those melodic things from his musician brain first, and then he's able to layer them within the music with his producer brain," drummer Cameron says. "He uses both sets of skills in a way that most producers aren't even able to do." O'Brien's efficiency rubbed off on the band, according to Gossard. "We made this faster than we've made any record," he says. "We were 30 days in the studio total, including mix. I think we had 90 percent of the record cut in the first nine days."

At 11 songs and less than 37 minutes, "Backspacer" is the leanest and meanest Pearl Jam album yet. "At one of our gigs, without flashpots and electricity, there's only so much room for those more difficult listening songs," Vedder says with a laugh. "That was one reason why we kept the arrangements lean. The songs come off more like sparkling water than pea soup, and I think that's good for our group right now."

"The Fixer" became the foundation for the album after Vedder came up with an edit of an arrangement the band bashed through without him. "My personal interpretation is that it's about how (Vedder) makes our songs work," Gossard says of the track. "When someone inspires him, he's an incredible collaborator."

Other musical highlights on "Backspacer" include the opening one-two combo of "Gonna See My Friend," a furious Stooges-style garage blast, and the propulsive, Police-y "Got Some," which Pearl Jam premiered June 1 on the first episode of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien."

On the softer side, "Just Breathe" is a ballad based on an instrumental from Vedder's "Into the Wild" soundtrack, while "The End" is an aching love song that closes the album with startling lyrics: "My dear/I'm here/But not much longer."

"You know, I'll admit that even I felt some impact myself listening to it back the first time, and not even really knowing where it came from," Vedder says of the song, which he debuted this summer during a solo tour. "A lot of the songs on this record were ones I just tried to get out of the way of, without self-editing."

Vedder named the album in homage to a typewriter key. The frontman, who still uses typewriters for lyric writing and personal correspondence, says he got upset when he saw vintage typewriter keys being used as jewelry. "For me it was like shark fin soup: 'You're killing typewriters for a bracelet!'" he says.

The band, which headlined the past weekend's Outside Lands festival in San Francisco, has shows lined up in Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia through September and October, with the Philly gigs set to be the final ones at the Spectrum.

Also on tap is a headlining slot October 4 at the Austin City Limits festival, plus a run of shows in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii in November and December.

As satisfied as they are with their new album and their new deals, Vedder and his bandmates insist they're as driven as ever to keep challenging themselves, both as a band and a business.

"You'd like to be able to go to work and have everything be smooth, but there's some weird artistic gene in some of us," he says, expanding on the theme of "The Fixer." "It can feel like a curse, because it makes you push yourself to make things better and not allow them to be easy. That's how you get the good stuff."

(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)

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