So you want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star

Robin Wilson thought the Gas Giants would be a great new beginning. He had no idea what he was getting into.

The group is playing the club to support the release of its single "Quitter." Though greeted with frustrating indifference initially, the ubiquitous airplay of the song has finally begun to bring out the crowds.

Wilson, Rhodes, Henzerling and Scott started the Gas Giants in the spring of 1997. Originally dubbed the Pharoahs, the group changed its name to Pharoahs 2000 after wrangling over rights, and eventually settled on the Gas Giants. The group spent two months building its own studio in Tempe, before its first rehearsal in March.

Demos for the debut album were completed and presented to A&M Records by the end of the summer. A&M's senior VP of A&R, David Anderle, was impressed by what he heard. He took the tape to label president Al Cafaro, without telling him who or what the band was about. Cafaro was immediately taken with the driving rock intro of the song Anderle played. When he heard Wilson's voice, he knew the band had commercial potential. The group was signed immediately.

For Wilson, A&M's enthusiasm seemed like a harbinger of good things to come. But in less than a year, Anderle would be gone, Cafaro would be fired and the label would cease to exist.

Few people, even most musicians, realize just how corporate the music industry has become. The record business was pioneered by Barnumesque showmen, shadowy characters and innovative madmen. Most entered into the business because they had a genuine love for music. These days the industry is 100 percent Wall Street. Bean counters and boardroom businessmen have replaced the gamblers and impresarios.

In December 1998, when Canadian liquor giant Seagram's purchased PolyGram and its holdings -- which included A&M, Geffen and Mercury Records -- the $10.4 billion sale (the biggest merger in music history) not only created the world's largest record company, but also reduced the number of major record entities in the world from six to five.

That means a handful of multinational conglomerates controls almost all of the $13.8 billion-a-year record business. Even more distressing is that 10 companies control more than 62 percent of commercial radio, and that a single group, SFX Entertainment, dominates the concert touring industry.

What those numbers translate into is a corporate homogeneity throughout music. And a cutthroat, bottom-line mentality that considers musicians not by their artistic merit, but by the value to the company's quarterly earnings statement.

Robin Wilson admits he was painfully unaware of those realities until last year. Instead, he recalls almost ruefully how supportive A&M was of his new band at the outset. "From the beginning, the label was very excited. They gave us a really good deal, which showed how confident they were that the band was going to be successful."

After inking a deal in September 1997, Wilson told the label that the Gas Giants would have their debut album ready for release by the next summer. The band brought Blossoms producer John Hampton to its Mayberry studios and set to work to record From Beyond the Backburner. When the group emerged with 12 tracks (a 13th song called "The Letter" was written at the company's request), it was confident it had a hit.

In May 1998, the finished product was turned in to A&M. Anderle and the other label execs were enthused initially, but the Seagram's merger was looming, and it seemed company officials almost immediately began second-guessing how to market the band.

"It became kind of hard for them to know what to do; they were too busy worrying about being fired," adds Henzerling.

First, the band was told that the album's release would be pushed back from the fall of '98 until early 1999. Later, it was rescheduled for February, then March, then back to February. In all, A&M gave the Gas Giants five separate release dates; none happened.

In December, just before the band was to fly to Los Angeles to take photos for the album cover, the label canceled the session. The Seagram's merger had just become official the week before. Amid the chaos, it was left to an assistant in A&M's art department to break the news that the shoot had been scrapped.

"I didn't have any idea how serious it was," says Wilson. "I was under the mistaken impression that regardless of what was happening, we were a band that any record company would be really glad to have. I mean, our record was done. Because of the Gin Blossoms, Phillip and I had a name to a certain extent, and we were fairly marketable. But under the circumstances, it was really naive of me to think that."

In early January, Wilson predicted in an article in the Tempe Tribune that the Gas Giants record would go platinum by the end of the year.

"I was confident it was going to happen for us. But within a few weeks of saying that, it became clear to me how screwed up things were," says Wilson. "I realized that we were going to be lucky enough to walk away from the thing with a career at all."

Reality came crashing down on Wilson and the Gas Giants on what's become known in the industry as Black Thursday -- January 21, 1999. That day Seagram's Universal Music Group fired 170 of A&M's 200 staffers. The label, which had been home to acts as diverse as the Carpenters and the Police, was effectively destroyed; a black band draped over the company sign on Sunset Boulevard.

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