Article: The Original Independents

By | August 19, 2009

The decision to do a completely serious, in depth interview with Hanson may already have one of your eyebrows raised, dear reader. But it’s been a long time coming, and you’ll just have to have some faith in us. We never intended on defending it, and now that it’s done, we can promise you that it’s everything we had hoped it would be.

Read on for some truly, genuinely inspiring insight into the record industry from someone other than Trent Reznor for a change. Hanson was one of the first hugely successful bands to go independent, and they’ve got a lot to say about labels, radio, selling CDs, and what music is really about.


Antiquiet: I remember the day I became a fan of you guys. It wasn’t the first time I heard Mmmbop. It was in 2007, when you guys did the Howard Stern show. How did that appearance come about? It doesn’t seem like your usual audience…

Zac Hanson: One thing that we always feel pretty confident about, and I don’t want to sound cocky… but when people get a chance to actually listen to our music, we’ll at least do alright. Nobody’s gonna come back and be like, ‘oh, you guys are total hacks.’ So they asked us to come on the show, and we said we’d only come on the show if we got to play.

Howard… I don’t know how, but I guess he’d been a fan, or had been supportive, and said good things about our record. And so he was like ’sure! Of course you can play.’

So once we knew we were going to play, it was kinda like, well who cares how many sex jokes or whatever, or ‘when did you lose your virginity’ [questions], or ‘why do you have so many kids, are you some freakin’ Mormon?’ …You know, that kind of stuff wasn’t going to matter, just because we knew we were going to play.

Antiquiet: Did the appearance bring a noticeable amount of new fans?

Zac Hanson: It’s hard to quantify exactly… I don’t remember if you know, the next week, we sold this many thousand records. But I definitely know that performance… I mean you said you became a fan from it… I’ve heard that a surprising amount of times. It’s something that I know… We knew going into it, he had [passionate] people listening to his show, and that if you could just get a minute to get them to listen to it, that they might be the type of people that would be willing to… I don’t know, I mean, people that listen to Howard Stern don’t really take shit from anybody… And that’s the way I feel like Hanson fans are.

Antiquiet: (Laughing) I get that. I get shit. Whenever I tell people about Hanson, it’s like, “Hanson? Liiiiike Mmmbop Hanson?” And I have to stand my ground and say “No man, no. You’ve gotta check out their new shit. I’m serious.”

Zac Hanson: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah.

Antiquiet: So after that, I picked up The Walk, and since then, I’ve had a chance to check out the Strong Enough To Break documentary.

And that… I mean. Damn. It was bruuutal. It was a horror movie! And the record label was Freddy Krueger.

Zac Hanson: The awesome thing about that movie is that you could switch us out for so many other bands, and it would be the exact same story. The only difference being that most [other] bands didn’t leave the label. Have you seen Wilco’s documentary?

Antiquiet: No, I haven’t.

Zac Hanson: They did a documentary about making one of their records, in which they… They end up signing again to the same label.

Antiquiet: Aaaaaah… God, I’ve read stories like that. 30 Seconds To Mars did that; They were fighting with the label, fighting with the label, fighting with the label, then finally they get to the end of it, and they re-signed.

Zac Hanson: Yeah.

Antiquiet: It’s like… What the fuck?

Zac Hanson: Yeah… Well [Wilco] re-signed with a different label… That was the same label. [Wilco left Warner Bros. Records for Nonesuch, a subsidiary of Warner.]

We have tons of friends who go through that same crap. In fact, all three of the bands we’re touring with have been going through similar things. Hellogoodbye just left their label, and I think both Sherwood and Steel Train just left their labels. So you know, it’s something that…

We felt like that film was important, and we put it out on the internet for free, I mean you [can] go to our YouTube page… We did that just because we felt like the film was important for the young people who are in college, who are going to be the next music executives or the next entrepreneurs in the music world, so they can know that these are the reasons that the music business is screwed up, because this is the norm.

Antiquiet: The opening scene was Stephan Jenkins [of Third Eye Blind], telling you guys that Hanson would ultimately survive the kinda… ‘curse’ of child stardom by evolving and staying true and through real talent and not by… sweating the next big hit or forcing out another Mmmbop. And then that scene is immediately followed by you guys agonizing over… how to give Jeff Fenster [Hanson’s A&R guy at Island / Def Jam, now senior VP of A&R at Arista] his big hit single. Did that not hit you when you looked back at it? Was it like you couldn’t see the forest for the trees, or…

Zac Hanson: Well… The thing with us… It’s a funny thing to say… But I feel like we’re good guys. We’re the type of guys that will give people the benefit of the doubt is what I mean by that. So I think with Fenster, I think what we were trying to do… We never made music that was like, bastardizing ourselves to make the hit, and the people that we didn’t want to work with, we tried not to work with. And we never worked with Max Martin, or-

Antiquiet: (Sarcastically) Oh, you guys would be huge if you had!

Zac Hanson: (Laughs) Yeah, I know! We should have made lunchboxes and Barbie dolls…

But I think what we tried to do was give him songs we were still proud of, that were still…

Antiquiet: You tried to meet him halfway…

Zac Hanson: Without… We didn’t try to be something we weren’t, we just tried to continue to give him songs that we thought were good songs.

The biggest thing is… You’ve gotta get out there and keep working and making good music. You’ll have a hit song every once in awhile. But you can’t just sit around waiting for a hit song to hit you. That’s not what you do. You’ve gotta keep playing for your fans. Just because a song doesn’t become a “hit song,” doesn’t mean you’re not writing hit songs. Those things happen like lighting striking. You happen to be in the right place in the right band with the right song at the right time. You’ve just got to go out there and push the ball forward.

The thing that I look back on and wish we would have done is… I just wish we would have [known to leave] sooner. We should have just said ‘this isn’t the place to be.’ But it’s really important for musicians to have people to back them up…

When we first got signed and everything, we had young managers who had quit their jobs to manage the band, and just go all out and do whatever they could to help us be successful, and that was great, to have that kind of passion. But what we found after we had a little success was like… where’s the guy with the knowledge? That says ‘hey. You don’t need to do that.’ Or ‘hey. This is your career.’ I’m not trying to knock those guys, they were great guys, who worked hard. But just like us, they didn’t know any better, and so when we would go to say ‘well maybe we don’t need to do this…’ They’d be like ‘the label says you should do this, so you should do this…’ And that kinda kept us holding on longer.

When you watch that documentary, and our managers say at one point, ‘well, you can produce the record yourself… But Jeff will shelve it.’ He should have been saying ‘you know what? You want to produce this record? We’ll get off this label, and we’ll find somebody else. You guys got fans, you can tour…’ They should have been able to say ‘we’ll find a way,’ rather than just sort of… reading the news. And then repeating it.

Antiquiet: It just killed me to see you guys like… I mean there’s so many scenes of you guys recording. And every song you’re working on sounds great, sounds like a hit, or a single at least. And you’ll pour your soul into four or five songs over however many weeks or months, and then the label bags them all with a phone call. Then you go back and do five more, and they bag those. And again and again. And I felt like there were thirty truly great songs that were ultimately deemed worthless by… a fucking lawyer.

Zac Hanson: Ultimately… As you watch the documentary, what’s being said is ‘if you sound like Hanson… Which is what you’re known for, what people like from you, and what you do, and what you are as a band, then we won’t like it. Even if we think it’s good. Because you can’t sound like Hanson, because we think you need to sound like someone else.’ That’s basically what they were saying.

Antiquiet: Were they aware of the fact that they had signed Hanson?

Zac Hanson: Exactly. It’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the music industry. You’ve got this band Hanson, but you want them to not sound like Hanson. What? So you bought this can of white paint, but you need it to be black.

We got a call from Jeff Fenster, and he asked to see the movie. So we sent it to him. And then a couple days later, his boss called, and said like ‘what is this thing? Jeff is like… freaking out. What did you… What did you do?’

Antiquiet: (Laughing) It doesn’t seem like you went out of your way to paint a certain picture…

Zac Hanson: Oh we didn’t go out of our way. We really didn’t. I don’t know if you remember the scene where [Fenster] is going ‘uhh… ooh… uh… uh… uhh… uh…’

Antiquiet: Yeah, he’s just stuttering for like 20 seconds…

Zac Hanson: We made it shorter. We really made it shorter. We cut about 30 seconds out of it. We were sitting there going ‘if we put this in, in real time… Noone’s going to believe we didn’t edit just this together on purpose. We’ve gotta make it look reasonable…’ We wanted to represent what he really did, but we cut about 30 seconds out. Anyway, so the president of [Arista] called, so we sent a copy to him, and then he called back a week later:

“Hey, watched the film. Great film.
I don’t see what the problem is.
This is the way we make records.”

Antiquiet: Wow.

…Now I mean, there is a business side, it is an investment, there are beans to count and returns to secure…

Zac Hanson: There is a business side. There has to be… You know, you have to make records that you feel passionate about and that you’ll able to be successful with. But at the same time, you don’t… That’s not the way you make records, because you’re sitting there wasting money with no creative direction for your band, but you’re holding them up.

Antiquiet: Yeah, that killed me. It was like “I don’t like this. I don’t like this. I don’t like this…” And then you say, “Well, what do you want?” And the guy at the label says, “I don’t know.”

Zac Hanson: Yeah, exactly. “I don’t know what I want.”

The music industry is changing every day, and…

Antiquiet: Do you ever get the impression that it’s changing for the better? Worse?

Zac Hanson: I think it’s changing for the better, but it hasn’t found itself yet, still. I think iTunes is awesome, just because it’s a digital outlet where you know, you can get your music out to people without having to pay for manufacturing, and I think it will get better and better as Amazon [and others] become more of a powerhouse in the digital world, just because it’s never good to have just one guy.

Antiquiet: So now that you’re on your own, on the other side of the fence, how is the fight for radio play going? Are major label dollars always going to dominate?

Zac Hanson: You know what… We haven’t really done a lot of pushing for radio. We did pretty well with [first independent release] Underneath, and we felt pretty happy about what we did with that, but with The Walk, we just decided, you know, let’s just not even go to radio. At all. Let’s just tour. And speak directly to our fans, and do things on the internet, and do the things we’re passionate about, and let that be our focus.

I think radio is still… important? But it’s still becoming less and less important every day. And less effective. And with the consolidation in radio, there’s so little opportunity for people to take risks, that your possible return for your effort is really marginalized. If they can’t take any risk on you, but you’re going to take all these risks, showing up to play free concerts, telling all your fans to call in, spending all your own money as independents… You’re putting a lot more into it for very little benefit.

So we’re seeing more and more that radio is going to matter less and less and less. We’re just waiting- I mean ‘we’ as an industry- I think it’s just waiting on one piece of technology or software… Whatever new thing empowers artists to reach fans in a different kinda way.

There’s so much crap out there. So I guess what I’m saying is that when somebody creates a new crap filter, it’s going to change, I think. And I think more and more, I think bands are going to rely on each other more and more…

Antiquiet: That sounds about right. I think fans have come to trust artists a lot more than labels…

Zac Hanson: I think that’s true. And I think what you’re going to start seeing more and more is people selling less records for more money. Meaning, not even necessarily records, I just mean special [deluxe] packages for your fans, where you are recouping your costs after selling 10,000 copies, and then you’re totally recouped and making money, you know, and you’re successful, and you’re touring. Selling 10,000 copies, but you’re selling the cool…

Antiquiet: Something you can’t download…

Zac Hanson: Yeah, because you’ve gotta rely on some of that stuff because those are still things that people can’t get. Somebody’s going to download the song for free, or get it from their buddy or their brother or their sister or their mom or whatever. But if they’re a big fan…

Antiquiet: Then there’s a value for the limited edition.

Zac Hanson: For many reasons, unfortunately, music is being continually made less valuable. I saw the… It’s funny that I’m [mentioning] them again but they were the ones I saw- the Wilco catalog for like $7 on iTunes, and I was just like… ‘Oh my gosh. These are great records, they’re worth more than that!’ But if that’s what people are going to say they’re worth…

Antiquiet: Well, even when we all bought CDs, there were albums you lined up for on release day, and then albums you picked out of the used bins… For me, that was the stepping stone between parking lot tape trading and MP3 downloading.

Zac Hanson: You’ve gotta continue to evolve… As you push to figure out how it’s going to work.

Antiquiet: How as the business of running your own label evolved over the years, since 2004?

Zac Hanson: It’s good… It’s work… We like doing it because we are able to make all of the decisions and we don’t let anyone get in the way…

Antiquiet: Has it gotten easier now that more people are doing it, and there’s more precedent for independent coups?

Zac Hanson: Yeah, I think if you look at how many more bands are independent… Even five years ago, it was like… ‘really?’ And now it’s like ‘oh dude, yeah, my friend’s doing that…’ And everyone’s doing it. I don’t know why now, why not not five years ago? It seemed pretty obvious to us five years ago that this is where we needed to be, you know…

But I think it’s getting easier. There’s more and more services, there’s more and more people who want to work for independent labels. I think more and more of the young people who want to go into the business are wanting to start somewhere, but somewhere smaller, and to be part of companies as they grow, and have more of a stake in it- not yet wanting to make money or be successful, but just knowing that if they want to be in the music business, they’re going to need to go somewhere where they’ll have a real opportunity.

There are more and more companies who are good former label people (or bad former label people), who are creating groups that you can hire out, and they’ll help you work your record, and they’ll be a publicity department, or a radio department, or a licensing firm for your catalog… It just gives you more opportunities to find good people to work your records.

We like it that way, just because a la carte, we get to get what we want. And we don’t need to get more than we need, and we don’t need to skimp on getting good people. You can hire out the people that show the passion, and show the knowledge of what you need, and hire the good… AAA guy or whatever, instead of just getting onto a label that might not have everything you want necessarily.

Antiquiet: You guys got to meet Les Paul, who just passed. What are you going to remember about him?

Zac Hanson: It was incredible that he was as spunky as he was. We met him about… I think it was just about to be his 90th birthday party. Isaac and Taylor went up and played with him which was awesome. I regret not stealing the drumset, but that’s… it sucks being left handed!

But he’s an icon. People don’t necessarily know him I think a lot for his music, they just know him for inventing the solid body electric guitar… It’s incredible that he lived as long as he did, but it’s more incredible that he played as long as he did. It’s something that… You look at him, and he’s playing well into his 90s, he’s playing shows every week. There aren’t that many people who have ever done that.

It’s something that should inspire all musicians; That’s what we need to do it for, we need to be like that. Paul McCartney is probably a billionaire, and he’s like 67, and he played a three hour show [Monday] night. By the time he came out for the third set of encore songs, he was going way beyond what he needed to play to make everybody happy. It makes you go… ‘I need to be that guy. I need to live up to that.’ When people see that, that’s what affects people in the audience; when they know you’re going above and beyond…

Antiquiet: When they know you don’t need to do it… But you’re doing it for them.

Zac Hanson: Well yeah. You don’t need to be here. You don’t need to come back out for one more song. You don’t need to dance that hard, or play that energetically or… You know. So it’s just inspiring.

Hanson is just about done with their eighth album, still untitled. It’s due out in the Spring of 2010. In September they’ll be releasing an EP called Stand Up, Stand Up featuring four acoustic versions of new songs, as well as one electric album version.

In the meantime, the band is touring the country with Steel Train and Sherwood.

Zac told us that physical copies of the Strong Enough To Break documentary arrived at their shipping facility in Oklahoma this week, and so that will see an official DVD release any day now. Again, we recommend it for any and all music / industry geeks. If you liked Dig!, It Might Get Loud, Private Parts and/or This Is Spinal Tap for that matter, you’ll find something to appreciate.

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