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The Magazine

January 27, 2007

With Guile, Sincerity And Some Great New Pop Tunes, Major Label Star Fall Out Boy Proves Perception Is Nine-Tenths Of Indie Cred Law

There's a telling moment that occurs early in the video for Fall Out Boy's new single "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arm's Race."

In the studio with a famed hip-hop producer, vocalist Patrick Stump is stretching his soft voice—and his hands skyward—like he's the newest member of Boyz II Men. Every awkward, rhythmless shake of his arm is mocked by the urban crowd, and the producer shakes his head in disbelief as Stump strains his vocal chords. When the guitars kick in, a bottle is broken, and Fall Out Boy is "thrown out the hood," to quote one of the tabloids flashed on the screen.

The moment might just be whimsical fun—some punk kids commenting on the way bands might change their approach once they've attained some success. Except that Fall Out Boy has attained plenty of success and has started to change its approach.

On the band's forthcoming album, "Infinity on High," due Feb. 6 from Island, the first voice one hears is that of hip-hop impresario Jay-Z. And when it came time to shop for a producer, Fall Out Boy turned to R&B hitmaker Babyface, among others—the R&B veteran helmed two of the album's tracks.

Welcome to the world of Fall Out Boy, where the line between schtick and reality has been blurred to the tune of more than 3 million albums sold since the act's 2003 debut for indie Fueled by Ramen. As Fall Out Boy drifts further from its hardcore punk roots to write increasingly accessible pop tunes, the band never stops taking a swipe at its own pedestal, constantly laughing at the absurdity of its own actions. With no intent to hide its bid for mainstream acceptance, Fall Out Boy maintains a level of indie credibility, allowing fans to believe they're in on the joke.

The "This Ain't a Scene" video is revealed to be nothing but a bad dream. But not before bassist-turned-songwriter-turned-teen-heartthrob Pete Wentz is lured into stripping naked for a photographer with a camera phone, a playful nod to the fact that his nude pics hit the Internet last year.

"If I don't address these things and have fun with them, then I don't know the point of being in this band," Wentz says.

At a time when mainstream punk is all about style, Fall Out Boy has learned perception is king. The video for "This Ain't a Scene" illustrates the band's ability to market a sense of ironic detachment. It has allowed the group to dive head first into pop music with a constant mix of self-referentialism and self-depreciation (as evidence, see the following song titles: "I Slept With Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me," or new song, "Don't You Know Who I Think I Am?").

The approach has generated steady success. The band's 2003 effort, "Take This to Your Grave," has sold 553,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That album was recorded with a $40,000 investment from Island but worked by Fueled by Ramen. The follow-up, "From Under the Cork Tree," has sold 2.5 million and was promoted by the major from day one.

Responding to such a megaseller can be daunting. One Fall Out Boy contemporary, Reprise Records act My Chemical Romance, reacted to selling millions by getting weirder, its "The Black Parade" a theatrical concept album about death. "Infinity on High," however, plays out like a celebration of life, full of over-the-top and irresistibly cheesy hooks.

From the hip-hop beats of "This Ain't a Scene" to the hand-clap rhythm of "The Take Over, the Breaks Over" to the bombastic, gospel coda of "Hum Hallelujah," the album is designed to be shouted from skyscrapers. The Babyface songs were not on the press advance, but Stump says he drafted Babyface for the sugar-coated pop he crafted for the "Josie and the Pussycats" soundtrack.

"Your natural inclination as a band or an artist is to write yourself out of this situation," Wentz says of the band's success and opportunity. "I would compare it to someone like Brad Pitt. He's such a leading man and so good looking, but at times he takes on roles that specifically go against [expectations]. We did that at first, but then we decided to embrace it."

In fact, according to the band's songwriter, Stump, sometimes he had to stop himself from embracing it too much.

"I had to resist the temptation to use a lot of strings," says Stump, who adds that he fought the urge to overproduce the album.

"A lot of times, bands get really big and start to overthink things and do things to make themselves look good to other musicians," Stump says. "A friend of mine said, 'But aren't you dumbing it down?' This is going to sound like I'm joking, but you're not dumbing it down if you're not that smart to begin with."


If Stump is the band's philosopher, then Wentz is the resident strategist. Listen to him talk about his pals in New Found Glory. "From a pulled-back panoramic view, a band had a hit, and then they didn't," he says. "Next band. But when you go in closer, you can see where something was building, and where the record label should have crossed them over to top 40."

New Found Glory once enjoyed Next Big Thing status but has seen a steady decline in record sales since 2002's MCA breakthrough "Sticks and Stones." The band is supporting Fall Out Boy on a pre-album release tour of clubs.

"There are very specific reasons things happen," Wentz says. "That band has written a lot of hits, if you ask me, but when you kick the door in, people sometimes trample over you. New Found Glory kicked the door in for us."

Fueled by Ramen co-owner John Janick recognized that kind of insight in Wentz. The Tampa, Fla.-based label signed Fall Out Boy in 2002, and reached an agreement with Island in which the major had the rights to option the act. In 2004, Janick gave Wentz a label through Fueled by Ramen in Decaydance, an imprint that has found such emo/punk stars as Panic! at the Disco, which has sold 1.5 million albums so far, and the Academy Is, which has sold 211,000 albums.

"Pete's not in La-La Land wanting to be some famous dude," Janick says. "He wants to be involved with artists, and he understands where people went wrong and right. I want bands that are level-headed and understand how things work. Our bands are mini-entrepreneurs."

Or not-so-mini in the case of Fall Out Boy, which is steadily building an empire that now includes Decaydance and the Wentz-designed and managed Clandestine Industries clothing line. An integral part of Island's marketing campaign for "Infinity on High" centers on fashion.

"We want to model after what Jay-Z does with Roc-A-Fella and his Rocawear fashion," says band manager Bob McLynn of Crush Management.

Clandestine has sold largely on the Internet, but design house DKNY will roll out Clandestine product in the fall, Island VP of creative marketing Jeff Straughn says, which will be key to marketing the album through the 2007 holidays.

And for the large segment of Fall Out Boy's fan base unlikely to be shopping at high-end fashion retailers, Island Def Jam president Steve Bartels says that, beginning in early February, mall retailer Aeropostale will market "Infinity on High" in its 730 stores.

There will also be a tie-in with Verizon, which will use the dance-punk single "This Ain't a Scene" in its commercials beginning Feb. 17. On a smaller level, Island has dubbed Feb. 9 "Fall Out Friday," and will work with 300 high schools to stage listening parties.

Bartels says: "It's a matter of making sure everyone is superserved to know the record is coming."


Discussing the ethics of corporate sponsorships is as much of a punk cliché as a wallet chain, but it is still very much on the minds of many in the scene. Earlier this year, Wentz conducted two interviews with about the band's practices. Not one to shy away, Wentz discussed the band's major label ties and reasons behind the rerelease of 2005's "From Under the Cork Tree" with added songs, a business tactic that fans despise. Wentz said the decision was based on "the label's best interest."

The response on the site was overwhelmingly positive. One converted poster wrote, "It felt like they were so mainstream, and I prided myself on loving bands so under the radar. Once I started reading Pete's online journals and interviews I fell in love."

There's a lesson here for the music business. Labels universally grasp the importance to market in the digital space, but too often forget that what sells on blogs and social networking sites isn't the same as what works in glossy magazines or music videos. Fans are looking for honest connections and real access, and if Fall Out Boy has succeeded in one aspect of its career more than any other, it's the group's mastery of the digital space and communicating to its denizens. The '90s alterna-star wrote tortured songs about the agony of success. Today's up-and-comers wear their hearts on their sleeves and a smirk on their faces. It's no accident that the band has more "friends" (1 million-plus) on MySpace than any other act we've been able to find, or that Wentz discovered Panic! at the Disco through a blog post.

By exposing itself to fans and reaching out in an honest way, Fall Out Boy articulates its own struggles in ways that simply increase the band's relatability. The group's members come across as sincere, because they are upfront about the fact that they are marketing sincerity.

Wentz and Fueled by Ramen later leaked new song "Carpal Tunnel of Love" to (see story, this page), and the artist is known to appear on the occasional message board. Fueled by Ramen still maintains the act's MySpace page and spearheads much of its online marketing.

In an age when the Warped tour lists 67 corporate underwriters, Fall Out Boy has a firm understanding of where its fans shop. Clandestine markets $84.95 hoodie sweatshirts, and Fall Out Boy has partnered with Honda, which snared the band to headline the seventh edition of the Honda Civic arena tour. If anything, Fall Out Boy may be the first pop-punk band to successfully grasp that a large segment of the scene is less about rebellion than it is individualistic branding.

If the product is cool, go for it. "I was not interested at first," Wentz says of the Honda Civic tour. "Then we were told we'd be designing a hybrid. Maybe there's some guilt there, with how much gas we burn on tour."

The tour consists of close to 50 dates, beginning April 18 in Charlotte, N.C. McLynn says the tour has a good rep with kids, citing Dashboard Confessional, Blink-182 and the Black Eyed Peas as previous headliners. McLynn believes that fans have no problem with the concept "because they've seen it out before with bands they respect."

During the course of two years, the band, booked by Andrew Simon at Creative Artists Agency, moved from clubs to headlining arenas, grossing more than $10 million from 45 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore in 2006. Despite the big numbers, Fall Out Boy has plenty of practical concerns, as Wentz says the band does not accept tour support from Island.

"I think if people understood how this business works, they'd be more inclined to buy records," he says. "If you're in a band, you essentially pay to make a record, and you're taking a bet against yourself. With tour support, you take it all, or you don't take any. We wanted to be a band that would actually recoup our records, and we've recouped every record we've ever made, and we recoup fast."

Tour support is not as prevalent as it was a decade ago, and McLynn says that the band has always been self-sufficient on the road. "All of our bands start out in vans and slug it out," he says. "It's always better to not take support. You're spending your own money."

And, McLynn says, $100,000 in tour support—a fairly typical figure for a new major label act—is "probably an extra 80,000 records you need to sell to recoup."

And Stump says the band is dumb.


Now when the band tours, it juggles come-lately fans of MTV hits "Dance, Dance" and "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" with old-timers who hang on every word the band says. "It's bizarre," Wentz says. "The best you can try to do as an artist is to bridge those two worlds . . . It's a fine line to try and navigate."

Fall Out Boy went straight to the masses to premiere "This Ain't a Scene," debuting the song at the American Music Awards in November. It's one pop-star gambit not mocked in the song's video.

The clip ends with Fall Out Boy performing in a VFW hall in Iowa, and the quartet is, once again, four unassuming punk kids from Middle America. The sound is bigger, the video is more expensive, but the members of Fall Out Boy have changed little in their rise from headlining DIY shows to Honda Civic-sponsored stadiums tours. Or so that's the idea.

"I just think it's strange to see the boys next door go through this," Wentz says. "We're just every kid, and that's what's interesting about our band. If anything, we sound like other bands, and we've done the same thing. It's just an observation of what's happening, I guess, and I'm trying to unpack it a little." ••••

Additional reporting by Ray Waddell.

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