Format Busters

Songwriting duo Nate Ruess and Sam Means had enough of major-label drama, so now they're calling the shots

Just after sunset on a Monday in May, early summer heat is mellowing into a soft, balmy night, and the Arizona State University campus in Tempe is animated with end-of-the-semester buzz. A benefit concert hosted by local indie label Western Tread is starting late, and outside the Galvin Playhouse, a chattering mass of teens and twentysomethings, all casual in their colorful tees and shorts, form a crooked queue that stretches across campus.

Before long, the doors are flung open and the snaking line steadily pushes its way inside as ticketholders shuffle into tiered rows of plush, theater-style seating. The whole place is full by the time the lights go down for acoustic performances by Reubens Accomplice, The Format, and Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins.

It's the same lineup that played Western Tread's benefit show at Celebrity Theatre three years ago, so tonight was pretty much a guaranteed success. And sure enough, this 500-capacity event sold out three weeks in advance, says promoter Charlie Levy. "We didn't even have to advertise the show and it was gonna sell out," he says.

For most of the evening, the audience sits in hushed awe during the unplugged sets, bursting into cheers and applause between songs. It's no unruly rock show by any stretch of the imagination — the prevalence of flip-flops alone is a good indication — but the crowd gets extra giddy when The Format starts playing.

The musicians and their instruments are strewn across a wide stage where a big, black fake tree spreads its papier-mâché branches across a rose-colored Old West backdrop.

Seated front and center like a rag doll in an oversize wooden rocking chair, Format front man Nate Ruess tugs at the sleeves of his brown striped sweater and leans forward to sing, pushing messy hair out of his eyes. You'd almost expect the vulnerable voice of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst to come from this endearingly disheveled waif, so the effortless power of his smooth, high-pitched vocal style is disarming.

This band has spent most of its three years of existence on a major label, but you'd never know it. When they signed with Elektra, the members of The Format got no promotional push, no video, no radio play beyond the Valley. But you'd never know that, either, considering how much the group's fan base has grown nationwide. Thanks to constant touring, the Internet, and word of mouth, the group managed to sell 80,000 copies of its debut LP, mostly out of the back of a van every night on tour. By indie label standards, that volume of record sales would mean success for an album getting a full media push. It's small numbers for a major-label release, though — the band's manager says the album should have sold half a million copies. And now The Format is taking a leap of faith — self-releasing its sophomore album, and counting on loyal fans like the ones here tonight to make it succeed.

All around the Galvin Playhouse, people are loudly singing along — the girls, especially — belting out each heartfelt pop song like it was written just for them.

If you're looking for the secret to The Format's grassroots appeal, this is it.

Teenage girls have launched more than one band to fame, and that fact isn't lost on The Format, which has reached out to followers with online journals, e-mail, a Web-based street team called the Living Room, and plenty of after-show meet-and-greets.

"Our fans are really super devoted. They're the reason we're there," says multi-instrumentalist Sam Means. "Making them happy — that's our job."


Who needs record labels anymore?

According to Nettwerk Music Group, a management company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, bands don't have to sign or renew their major-label contracts. Instead, artists can create their own imprints and release their own records.

Nettwerk — which also owns a record label as well as publishing and merchandising companies — envisions this as the music industry's wave of the future. Among the 42 acts on its client roster, which includes such A-list artists as Avril Lavigne and Dido, so far only five have decided to go it alone: Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, MC Lars, Josh Rouse, and State Radio.

Soon, The Format will join them.

After getting dropped by Atlantic last fall, the band attracted interest from other major labels, but soon realized that it could put out its second record, Dog Problems (due out Tuesday, July 11), without making compromises for a new contract. By starting its own imprint, appropriately called The Vanity Label, The Format now has 100 percent creative freedom, not to mention total ownership of its music. These guys have the right to be as quirky and creative as they want to be, to do whatever they please with their songs. By partnering with Nettwerk for marketing and a distribution arrangement through Sony/BMG, the band can still get its album in record stores across the country.

And then there's the money: a profit of six to eight dollars per album rather than the usual one to two bucks if the group were still signed to a major, according to The Format's manager, Tom Gates. Major labels take a huge cut of record profits because their expenses are so high; studios and producers usually charge full price when a label's footing the bill. In contrast, bands like The Format can negotiate better rates to make an album for about half of what it would cost a label.

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