The White Stripes have a credo when it comes to promotion of their upcoming album, “Get Behind Me Satan”: Less is more.
Unlike other platinum-selling rock acts with new albums on the way, the White Stripes have neither a pre-street mini-tour nor late-night TV appearances scheduled to boost the hotly anticipated release. Likewise, there will be no special performances for AOL or any other online services; even press interviews are being kept to a bare minimum.
Instead, the band is on a little-promoted 12-date swing through Central and South America playing to first-time audiences.
Just days before “Satan” drops June 6 internationally via Third Man/XL and June 7 in the United States via Third Man/V2, the duo of Jack and Meg White will be in Manaus, Brazil, trying to win over a crowd of 700 at the Teatro Amazonas — an ornate, 123-year-old opera house in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.
“My attitude is, ‘Let’s just go play shows and release the record, and that’s it,”’ Jack White told Billboard by phone from Santiago, Chile.
Looking for new fans in exotic placesFor White, who picked up a Grammy Award in February for his production work on Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” and has spent the better part of two years under the persistent glare of the media, the tour has provided a degree of anonymity and an opportunity to perform without expectations. The duo has been playing for curious crowds in places like Panama City, Panama, and Bogota, Colombia.
“I wanted to go to places where no one had ever seen us before, so we (could) get that feeling back of those live shows where we used to have to prove ourselves,” White said.
It’s anything but a textbook setup for a potential blockbuster album from one of the most popular rock bands to emerge in the last five years. But the White Stripes — coming off the biggest album of their career, the Grammy Award-winning “Elephant” — have achieved success by navigating the music industry waters on their own terms.
Even after “Satan” is released, the White Stripes will tour out of the limelight in Russia, Greece and Eastern Europe through June and early July.
Outside of a handful of festival dates — including a headlining slot at the Glastonbury Festival June 24-26 in the United Kingdom, and appearances June 6 at Atlanta’s Music Midtown Festival and July 29-30 at San Diego’s Street Scene festival — the band will not tour major North American or European markets until the late summer/early fall. And when it does, it will not play venues that sacrifice intimacy for size. In most cities, this will mean 3,000- to 5,000-seat theaters.
Dictating such touring and promotion terms is the prerogative of a band that controls its masters and distributes its music through a series of licensing pacts with label partners around the world.
“They truly are an alternative band — not just in the caliber of their songwriting and the power of their live shows, but down to how they record and produce their music and how they own and run their business,” said Ian Montone, the band’s manager/lawyer and head of Monotone Management.
This unorthodox approach has paid off for the White Stripes. To be sure, an analog-loving boy/girl two-piece with no bass player that’s steeped in blues, country and Led Zeppelin would hardly have been projected for success with modern rock audiences when the band rose to fame just a few years ago. Yet 2003’s “Elephant” — reportedly made for less than $10,000 — has sold more than 1.6 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and more than 4 million units worldwide. It also spawned one of the biggest rock singles of 2003, “Seven Nation Army.”
New CD has strong buzz
The bet is that the band can do it again with a similarly budgeted set that is already generating strong critical buzz.
“Satan” is a largely acoustic, piano-driven work recorded at Jack White’s home studio in Detroit. It features only three electric guitar-based songs. But those who have heard the album say it has the depth and breadth to attract new audiences.
The challenge for the White Stripes’ label partners is replicating or surpassing the commercial success of “Elephant” with limited exposure opportunities early on.
“When you have artists who have such a clear-cut vision for what they are about, it makes our job on one hand more easy, and on the flip side more difficult because everyone is so accustomed to always having access to the artist,” said Andy Gershon, president of V2 Records. “But by maintaining a certain amount of mystique with the band, it actually works for us.”
Attempting to fill the void of typical pre-street promo activities is a national advertising push, which will include cable TV spots on music and lifestyle networks. That effort kicks off the week of May 29.
The White Stripes will not lack for competition. Their album enters a crowded field of heavily hyped releases by such rock acts as Interscope’s Nine Inch Nails and Audioslave, Geffen’s Weezer and Columbia’s System of a Down. “Satan” also shares a busy release window with Capitol’s Coldplay.
Any room for alternative rock on the radio?Complicating matters are the struggles of the alternative radio format in key East Coast cities like Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; New York; and Miami.
The band has been in the market for more than a month with “Blue Orchid,” the first single from the album. The track was serviced to iTunes and radio just two weeks after its completion.
So far, radio traction for “Blue Orchid,” a prickly rocker reminiscent of Jack White’s work two years ago with Electric Six, has been solid, but not on the level of the anthem-like “Seven Nation Army.” “Blue Orchid” debuted at a career-best No. 43 on The Billboard Hot 100, thanks to a wave of early iTunes sales. The song has since fallen off that chart and the Pop 100 (where it peaked at No. 36); it is No. 9 on the Modern Rock chart after five weeks.
“This is the first platinum-level band that could have a significant difficulty due to the decrease in alternative rock stations,” said Jay Frank, head of label relations for leading online radio programmer Yahoo Music. “The climate right now is about very mainstream, hard-edged rock music.”
Frank says that Yahoo’s research suggests that online the song is being well-received by the White Stripes’ core fans. However, awareness of the single among more mainstream listeners is being affected by the late release of the “Blue Orchid” video, which was to hit mtv.com May 26, other online outlets May 27 and MTV May 31.
For his part, White isn’t concerned. He says he has taken a lot of the pressure off of himself to succeed, and he is happier than he has ever been as a performer as a result.
“Success is doing what you love to do and nobody telling you how to do it. We’ve luckily always had that with this band,” White said. “Meg says this is her favorite White Stripes record. That made it a success to me immediately ... I can’t wait until it gets to the point where the record comes out and people are familiar with the songs and we can go even further with them.”