At a time when the concept of artist development has all but disappeared from the music business, along comes Maroon 5 to dramatically demonstrate just how much talent plus time plus effort can accomplish. Over the course of the last four years, the L.A.-based quintet has gone from touring in a van to headlining arenas while selling millions of copies of their debut album, Songs About Jane, on a remarkable extended run.
The breakthrough album yielded a pair of chart-topping singles. One of them, “This Love,” earned Maroon 5 a Best New Artist moon man at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards; the other, “She Will Be Loved,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal and helped to earn the group the coveted Best New Artist Grammy in 2005. Between them, the two smashes held serve for 10 weeks in 2004, as well as dominating the Modern AC, Hot AC and Adult Top 40 charts. You still can’t turn on the radio these days without hearing Maroon 5, and that’s obviously part of the reason Songs About Jane has sold more than 6 Million units in the U.S. while racking up another 3 million units in the rest of the world – but there’s more to this success story than radio spins.
The point is, those 9 million albums didn’t get rung up overnight – far from it. Indeed, Songs About Jane could be described as the anti-blockbuster. The album was released in June of 2002, and it didn’t enter Billboard’s Top 200 chart until nearly a year later. Now, this is where the artist development angle comes in. The term is frequently invoked but rarely enacted in today’s record industry; that’s because bona fide artist development requires patience, nerve and dogged belief, as well as skillful marketing. Indie Octone Records, which signed Maroon 5 in 2001, has exhibited all of the above, and then some, and more recently, so has Octone’s major label partner, J Records. But effective artist development requires one more rather key ingredient: artists capable of development.
The band’s job required putting themselves in front of people and playing their tuchuses off, and that they did, night after night, week after week, month after month, winning new fans one by one, face to face. They hit the road in early 2002, not behind the album, as they say, but nearly a half year before its release, and they haven’t stopped yet. “We spent a full year traveling the States in a 15-passenger van before graduating to our first tour bus a little ways into 2003,” singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Adam Levine recalls. “To us, getting that bus was huge.” The crowds grew incrementally as Maroon 5 traversed the country. They did their first headlining tour in the fall of 2003 before hooking up with John Mayer for a summer shed tour, which turned out to be one of 2004’s highest-grossing packages. Then they returned to Japan and the U.K. for a fall headlining swing. During this extended campaign, they’ve also performed on virtually every TV show that features musical guests, including Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Ellen, The Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Last Call With Carson Daly and The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn and many others.
Relentless touring only bears fruit when the music makes a lasting impression, and Maroon 5 had the benefit of one of the strongest collections of songs to appear in this half decade. Those songs didn’t come overnight, either – nor did the band’s seductive soul-rock sound.
Levine, guitarist Jesse Carmichael and bassist Mickey Madden formed the band Kara’s Flowers when they were still going to high school in West L.A. In 1996, after they’d outgrown grunge and moved on to power pop, the quartet landed a record deal with Reprise, which released their album during senior year for three of the members. Although the record, The Fourth World (recently reissued by Reprise), helped Kara’s Flowers expand its rabid local following, it failed to attract national attention, and, somewhat disillusioned, the bandmembers opted for college. Madden enrolled at UCLA, while Levine and Carmichael headed to Long Island, N.Y., where they spent a semester at the music school Five Towns College.
“We were living at a predominately African-American school, and Jesse and I fell in love with R&B, soul and hip-hop,” Levine recalls. “The halls would be blasting gospel music, and people would be listening to stuff that we’d never actually listened to, like Biggie Smalls, Missy Elliot and Jay-Z. The Aaliyah record had come out around then, and we were just blown away. When I think of songwriting, I think of the Beatles, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and the stuff that I grew up on, but then I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ Stevie Wonder came into my life at that point, and I just found a knack for doing it. As it turned out, Mickey and Ryan were getting into Black music at the same time. When Jesse and I got back to L.A. that winter, we’d written a few songs that wound up sending the band in a new direction.”
Levine started singing differently, Carmichael switched to keyboards and guitarist Jesse Valentine was added, bringing the lineup to five pieces. The renamed Maroon 5 had its creative breakthrough in 2000, when they wrote and recorded a set of demos that clearly defined their new R&B-based rock direction. With its muscular new sound and a brace of captivating songs, Maroon 5 quickly attracted attention from labels. Octone, whose staff was blown away by the band’s unique blend of styles, signed the group in a joint venture deal with J Records, and in late 2001, Maroon 5 entered the studio with producer Matt Wallace (the Replacements, Faith No More, John Hiatt).
“I was all about making a hard-core, straight-up, funk/R&B record,” Levine admits. “I have to give the people at Octone credit because they were really trying to push us to do more of a rock-R&B blend. Matt also thought we had so much chemistry as a rock & roll band that it would be a shame to lose that element. So we went back and recorded live drums over loops and wound up making more of a rock record, which I think made it stand out way better.”
Most of the material that wound up on the album was directly inspired by Levine’s tumultuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend; “We were breaking up as the band entered the studio,” he explains. “After compiling a song list, we decided to name the album Songs About Jane because it felt like the most honest statement we could make with the title.” Is there a more potent combination than a breakup song with a killer hook and a phat groove? If you can’t relate, you need to check your pulse. It’s no wonder Maroon 5’s music has connected so deeply with music lovers.
As they crisscrossed the country in their van during the first months of the campaign, the urgent rocker “Harder to Breathe,” which had been chosen as the first single, provided the band with added momentum, eventually charting at Modern Rock and going top five at Top 40. “She Will Be Loved” and “This Love” then rocketed them into the stratosphere. “Sunday Morning” is the fourth and latest single – and the scary thing is, there’s more where that came from.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia (although it’s hardly trivial to the principals): the album reached its highest position in August 2004, when it hit number six, a full 26 months into its life. No album in the SoundScan era has taken as long from its date of release to break into the Top 10. That record isn’t likely to be broken any time soon. Here’s another bit:
Songs About Jane is currently gold, platinum or multi-platinum in 18 countries around the globe, and Maroon 5 has toured most of them. The band began 2005 with a sold out U.S. tour which culminated in the band playing Live 8 and opening for the Rolling Stones on several of their North American dates.
The band took time out from its busy schedule to record tracks for the Spiderman II soundtrack and a Sly Stone tribute album. Levine was a guest vocalist on Kanye West’s hugely successful Late Registration album.
After four years of nonstop road work the band has returned to their native Los Angeles to work on songs for their forthcoming album, expected later this year.