Cast your mind back to 1997. Yes, all those years ago and picture those three floppy haired, blond brothers from Oklahoma, who rose to fame with what was probably the most infectious song ever, “Mmmbop”. That’s the Hanson we’re talking about.
Aged 11, 14 and 16 at the time, the brothers – Isaac the oldest on guitar and vocals, then Taylor on keyboard and vocals and lastly Zac who plays drums and sings – reached the number one chart position in 27 countries and received many accolades and nominations. Zac is still the youngest person to receive a Grammy nomination. Despite this huge initial success and their hard core fan base, they were dismissed by many as a novelty; a one-hit-wonder. This, combined with changes in the music industry, meant that similar worldwide, commercial attention has eluded the band in recent years.
The three young men who spoke at the Oxford Union look a little different to that blond image we all remember. The passing of 14 years tends to have that effect. Now in their 20s and 30s, all three are married with children of their own. Speaking to a packed room at the Union on Monday night, the brothers outlined the reasons why and how they had started their own record label and became an independent band again, after releasing two albums on major record labels in 1997 and 2000. They also performed “Thinking about something”, a single from their latest album “Shout it Out”.
“We were literally the last breath of one era” says Taylor. Two big changes happened in the music industry soon after their debut album’s success in the late ‘90s. The first of these, the change from analogue to digital media, with the rise of the Internet as a way of accessing, sharing and playing music, caught the established music business by surprise. The reluctance of the major labels to embrace new technology and to engage with systems like Napster, for example, meant that consumers were bypassing the normal channels used to purchase music. The labels were no longer in charge of it.
The second change was that many of the largest record labels were being sold by their original owners and bought by larger corporations. Hanson’s own experience during this time – going from a highly successful and lucrative band with their label asking them to record solo albums just weeks after the release of “Mmmbop”, to ending up on a rap label, who had little interest or understanding of how a pop-rock band could flourish, left the band feeling powerless to and unable to continue in the same way.
After looking at the other record labels in the industry they concluded that the only choice they could make was to be an independent band. “After all we had nothing to lose but a lot of money!”
Taylor describes the three things that have been essential for them to build their band, their ‘brand’ in the way they’d like to. Firstly, passion – it has to be all about the music. Often artists are so busy “chasing the next big thing that you forget what started it for you in the first place”. Secondly, quality – Zac mentions that the band has a whole range of merchandise including coffee and record players and soon beer, but that they “don’t do dolls or lunch boxes or toothbrushes that play our songs. Sometimes you have to spend more to make it worth it”. They feel that this will result in their third essential which is trust – “we want loyalty rather than profits”.
The band gives sensible advice from their experience of starting the label that could apply to any new business or person starting a new career.
Achievable goals. Hanson’s goal for their first year representing themselves, on their own label 3CG, was to have a number one song in the independent charts in the States. They were able to achieve that with “Penny and Me”. That song sold 37,000 units in 2003 and reached number 25 in the US Billboard charts. The band, Cake, who are also independent, have just had a number one with selling less than 35,000, so the music industry is still changing.
“Come on guys, let’s zip up our pants and have a decent conversation about life”
They also say “no-one else is responsible for you. You can’t rely on others to make it happen”. Isaac advises “you have to keep knocking on doors, keep knocking on the same door, one day the person behind the door might change”.
Though not particularly known in the UK for their lectures, the band have visited nearly 50 universities and colleges in the States talking about becoming an independent band and showing a documentary they made in 2003, Strong Enough to Break, detailing their split from the record label and starting their own label.
Sitting down to chat after the (rest of the) screaming fans have gone, I ask their opinion of Oxford, Zac’s initial response, “This is Oxford? I thought we were at Hogwarts!” sparked a conversation about the architecture of the Union and the films that have been recorded in or inspired by the city. “Is this Rivendale? I love these windows, I want windows like this”.
Taylor focused more on actually giving the talk. “It’s great to come and sit and talk to people and try and actually convey a point that you feel passionate about and have people be thoughtful”. Zac added. “Here people are actually supposed to act smart, and I think so much of our lives are spent acting like morons, it’s nice to spend a little time where people attempt to use their brains and ask good questions or act smart or sit up straight and listen instead of (puts on a dopey voice) ‘where’s my X box and beer I totally want to get pissed right now, that chick is so hot, let’s fuck that.’ Come on guys, let’s use our brains, let’s zip up our pants and have a civilised conversation about life.”
The band came to Oxford part way through a five night UK tour which ended on Tuesday at London’s Indigo O2. This followed on from a five night, sell-out residency at King’s College London earlier in the year where they played each of their albums in full, one per night. Their success as a live band is owed not only to their skill as musicians and the lively nature of their shows but also to the dedication of their fan base. The brothers recount an event that happened in 1997 at the start of their fame where they had been due to do a signing at a music shop. They had expected a small crowd, maybe 50 people, but had arrived at the shopping centre to find that 8000 people had turned up to see them. They escaped with ripped t- shirts. Zac wasn’t so lucky during a fan encounter in 2003. “ I have a scar on my arm from where a girl grabbed on to me; I’m not going to sleep with you if you injure me”.
Maybe it’s because the band were so young when they shot to fame that they still have so many of the same fans. Girls who were in their early teens in the ‘90’s literally grew up with the band and are now in their late twenties and bringing friends and partners along to the shows. It is not unusual to find fans who’ve been to over twenty shows. But it’s not just girls that are Hanson fans. James Bishop and his friend Chris Douch, two hirsute gentlemen from Oxfordshire have been posting a video every day since February requesting that Hanson play at Bishop’s wedding.
“It’s an interesting development” says Taylor as Zac rolls his eyes at being asked about them yet again. “Here’s the thing,” adds Zac “it’s really cool and to be honest I think they’re really funny . The best thing about them is that they’re actually entertaining. We’ve watched some of their blogs and they’re funny and obviously they’ve shown a great amount of persistence.” Taylor joins in: “In any other case it would just be creepy”. We all ponder what else could be done with that amount of persistence: nuclear fusion?
So, Hanson are not exactly what you might expect them to be. Yes, one of them (Zac) still has long hair and yes, they still have screaming fans, but they are also running a successful business, doing what they love and having fun. Isn’t that what anyone wants?