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Rock band the Fray masters ‘Anatomy’ of a hit

Isaac Slade is having a meta moment. Chatting with Billboard by phone as he relaxes in a Denver bookstore, the Fray's singer notices a magazine with a picture of his band on its cover.
/ Source: Billboard

Isaac Slade is having a meta moment. Chatting with Billboard by phone as he relaxes in a Denver bookstore, the Fray’s singer notices a magazine with a picture of his band on its cover.

In a city with few rock stars, you’d think someone in Slade’s hometown would notice the man himself, but no one does.

“There’s probably 50 people here walking past me and nobody sees that it’s my face over there,” Slade says with a chuckle. “When actors connect with the public, it’s always with their face, with that visual connection. Ninety percent of the connection we have with the public is our music, and I think because of that, we’ve been a pretty heard-not-seen band.”

Despite three years of touring, a video shown on “Grey’s Anatomy” and more than 3 million worldwide sales of the band’s 2005 Epic debut, “How to Save a Life,” according to the label, the members of the Fray have kept a relatively low profile. But that may change as the group prepares for the Feb. 3 release of its self-titled sophomore album.

Two and a half years after its key placement on the ABC show proved that such TV partnerships can break an act on a massive scale, the Fray is hoping a groundbreaking deal with ABC will take its career to the next level.

‘Lost’ and ‘Found’In a commercial break from the tense elevator confrontations of the Nov. 20 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a one-minute promo with scenes from the upcoming season of ABC’s “Lost” will premiere the Fray’s new single, “You Found Me,” as well as parts of the music video. Viewers will be directed to, where they can find a three-minute version of the clip as well as a link to iTunes; there they can buy the single, which will be released to radio the next day.

The partnership between ABC and the Fray — Slade, guitarists Joe King and David Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki — also includes an agreement for the band to appear on the American Music Awards, “Good Morning America” and the outdoor concert series on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” ABC will use “You Found Me” as the promo song for this season of “Lost,” and discussions are under way to use the band’s music on sister channel ESPN during the height of football season.

Slade says that the lyrics for “You Found Me” were written two and a half years ago. But “I’ve always had that camera rolling in my head when I write the songs,” Slade says. “When Joe (King) and I do a lot of the co-writing, it’s always talking in terms of character development and foreshadowing and conflicts and resolution. We talk in really theatrical terms, so I think that has helped us.” (Asked if he watches “Grey’s Anatomy,” Slade says, “I have seen it a few times. It’s a really good show.”)

There are dramatic moments aplenty on “The Fray.” “You Found Me” stemmed from crises among friends and family that prompted the singer to confront the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. Another song, “Enough for Now,” tackles the fallout from the death of Slade’s grandfather. Even “Happiness” concludes that “Happiness damn near destroys you/Breaks your faith to pieces on the floor.”

“The record definitely has some isolation and loneliness rolled into the fabric of the sound and lyrics,” Slade says. “We’d been gone from our family and friends for more time than we’d been home. You start to lose sight of priorities and lose sight of balance and you don’t really have the luxury of a routine. When that happens, naturally it comes out in the music.”

The sound of “The Fray” is “a little more extreme than the last record,” Slade says. “The quieter stuff is a little quieter than our last record and the rock stuff is a little rockier. It definitely spreads the spectrum a little bit.”

‘Life’-changing momentBy 2005, the Fray had gotten some radio airplay and toured with Weezer and Ben Folds, but the week after “How to Save a Life” was first featured on “Grey’s Anatomy,” its track sales shot up 283 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan; the album had a record sales week after the season three “Grey’s” premiere, when the “Life” video aired right before the show, following weeks of use in its promos. The album “Life” has sold 2.3 million copies in the United States, according to SoundScan, while the single of the same name has sold 2.5 million downloads.

ABC is in its third year of producing music videos to promote its shows. “We look at ABC as the biggest radio station in the world,” ABC Entertainment executive vice president of marketing Michael Benson says.

Unlike radio stations, ABC is looking into ways to make money on the music sales it generates. Though its deal with the Fray is mostly a trade of airtime for a song, not a revenue-sharing agreement, Benson says that “it opens the door to look at different relationships with record labels.”

Such a relationship already exists across town at CBS Records, a division of the TV network. Restarted in April 2007 to supply CBS shows with music from its artists, the label has secured 100 placements on CBS and CW shows, including five theme songs, according to executive vice president and general manager Larry Jenkins. One artist, Sharon Little, has supplied a theme song (to the CBS-produced “The Cleaner”) and will appear in a show (“CSI: NY”). “There’s definitely synergy at work,” Jenkins says.

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For now, ABC is looking at music’s word-of-mouth — or click-of-mouse — benefit. Once the Fray’s “Lost” video goes up on, Benson expects it to spread virally.

Though ABC will be a major supporter of the Fray’s new album, their relationship is not exclusive, nor has it been; after the first “Grey’s” placement, “How to Save a Life” was used on shows on NBC, HBO and the CW.

Slade acknowledges that the broad reach the band has achieved through TV licensing means that there are a lot of “casual listeners” of the Fray, particularly of its hits. “My goal is for those people to get to know us as a complete picture,” he says. “We’ve always been very much about the word-of-mouth. ... If we do ever lose fans on either side of the extreme, I would hope that our core would stay with us.”