Format Busters

Nate Ruess and Sam Means of The Format
Mr. G

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.

The benefits sound almost too good to be true. What's the catch?

For all the potential gain, there's still financial risk for the band members, who have to pay for recording and also recoup marketing costs fronted by Nettwerk. They still have to sell records, albeit not nearly as many. There's no label to play the role of ATM, handing out cash for a nice studio, a big-name producer, or a glitzy promotional campaign. Bottom line, the band has to be much more proactive on all counts than it would if it had the support and resources of a major label. (Three major labels did not respond to New Times' requests for interviews, and two others declined to comment.)

"The upside of putting out your own record is you don't answer to anyone — you're self-employed," says Jim Adkins, who offers a unique perspective as both the co-owner of an independent record label and a member of a band on a major label. Together with his business partner Levy, Adkins launched Western Tread with the reissued Format EP as its first release. "But they're definitely going to have to pay to market themselves — they're going to have to get creative."

On the flip side, when it comes to getting signed, Adkins explains, "There's a certain element of playing the game that you have to be aware of when you decide to go with any kind of label.

"Labels have their idea of what they can turn a band into, and that may or may not be congruous with what you want to do with your career," Adkins says. "Win or lose, it's all up to you."

Obviously, it's a gamble, no matter what a band does. And after going the major-label route, the members of The Format couldn't be better suited to branching out on their own.

It's been a busy three years for Nate Ruess, 24, and Sam Means, 26, the songwriting duo behind The Format. (On the road, the band is rounded out by bassist Don Raymond, drummer Sean McCall, and guitarists Marko Buzard and Mike Schey. On the upcoming tour, Aaron Wendt is filling in for Raymond, who's about to get married.)

By the time Tom Gates started managing The Format just over a year ago, "every cliché in the music industry that you could think of, they had already been through," he says. "Their label had folded, their A&R person had been fired, the label wanted to make a pop record instead of a rock record. And it sure happened when they were really young. Usually when you meet a band like that, they're in their mid-30s and they're over it."

Ruess and Means had a white-hot streak of success, unusually early. Labels had come sniffing around their last band, This Past Year, not long before the group broke up, and Ruess and Means figured it was easier for just the two of them to write songs. When they recorded some tracks with producer Bob Hoag, the labels were back with even stronger interest — and The Format didn't even have a name yet.

2003 was a whirlwind. After rushing into a deal with Elektra, they recorded their first album, Interventions and Lullabies, for a fall release, and then started touring constantly. They were high on life, but only temporarily. Right around the time that their first single was supposed to go to radio in early 2004, Elektra folded.

Atlantic owned Elektra, so The Format was grandfathered into Atlantic's roster. But since the band wasn't signed directly by Atlantic, nobody at the label was familiar with them.

"We called Atlantic and were like, 'Hey, it's totally cool if you want to drop us,'" Ruess says. They had no luck in getting dropped, nor could they get anyone at the label to take interest in their first album and give it a marketing boost. "They told us, 'Oh yeah, we're past that record. As long as you make that record again, though . . .' We were jaded at that point."  

Adkins could've predicted that. He says that when a new band puts out an album on a major, "You get your eight weeks of promotion at radio, and if it doesn't explode, then, next record. It's better to get jaded young — then you have some perspective on it and you get over it."

The guys didn't get over it as soon as they would've liked to, though. They were in limbo. The album had sold around 40,000 copies by then — without any label support, without any radio play. Instead, The Format relied on word of mouth, the Internet, and supporting tours with bigger acts, including Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, Taking Back Sunday, Switchfoot, Something Corporate, Yellowcard, and Motion City Soundtrack.

Booking agent Matt Galle, of New York-based Ellis Industries, has been booking The Format since the very beginning. "They've played small clubs to arenas. On support tours, the goal has been to get them with bands where they complement their sound and it will put them in front of a lot of people."

Galle says that being on a major label can come in handy as far as utilizing the label's contacts to get on a tour, especially with other bands on the label, but The Format has already spent enough time on the road to develop those contacts. "They've networked with a lot of bands, and made friends with a lot of bands, and their draw speaks for itself," he says. (The group's next headlining tour starts this month, and they'll be playing 1,000-capacity rooms with four members of opening band Anathallo providing backup vocals and a horn section.)

After so much time on the road and yet another thwarted attempt to get label liberation, Ruess and Means were beyond exhausted when they finished yet another tour in November 2004. Two days after returning home, Means got married. He was happy to have a few months at home with his new wife, Anita, who works as an office manager. "I've never had a 9-to-5 job, which is what she's always had," Means says, "but she's getting used to my random, weird schedule."

Meanwhile, Ruess went into a several-month-long downswing during the band's off time.

"He likes to be doing things — he doesn't like sitting at home," Means says. "The fact that we had so much time off was kind of rough for him."

Ruess admits as much. "I had gotten into this bad Janis Joplin kind of phase, like, 'Oh, I'm drinking half a bottle of whiskey every day,'" he says. The end of an on-again, off-again relationship and its painful aftermath in 2005 didn't help.

He didn't start to bounce back until last October, when he had cleaned himself up and started focusing on joining Means in the studio to record Dog Problems, the long-awaited album that everyone kept asking about. "It had almost become a Chinese Democracy among our fan community!" Ruess says with a laugh, referring to the mythical, never-finished Guns n' Roses album.

Ruess and Means were thrilled about their songs for the new album, and decided they wanted to work with producer Steve McDonald, founder of the legendary California garage rock/power pop band Redd Kross. "Sam and I decided we wanted to do something old-timey. We're listening to a lot of XTC. It was supposed to be like Harry Nilsson, pop elements of ELO, a lot of Beach Boys type of harmonies," Ruess says.

Atlantic, however, didn't approve of their direction, based on '70s-pop-tinged demos they had turned in. The morning after finalizing a production agreement with McDonald, they got the call that they were dropped.

For real, this time.

It was a total letdown, Means says. "We had a term somebody told us, which was to be 'cautiously optimistic.' So that's kind of what we became," he says. "Then it got to the point where we actually thought [the record] was going to happen, and we let our guard down more than we ever had."

"It wasn't like, 'Oh, man, we're not gonna be famous now,'" says Ruess. "It was just like, 'This has been happening to us for three years — are we cursed? On a business level? And maybe it's time to call it quits,' which was kind of ridiculous because, on a music level, I have a hard time doing music with other people. Sam's the only person who has pretty much the exact same taste."

The whole scenario got Means uncharacteristically upset. "Actually, I kind of got scared at first — I wasn't scared of being dropped, but I was scared of being a burnout musician," he says. "Usually it's the other way around — usually Nate's the one freaking out and I'm the one trying to calm him down. But he was like, 'It's fine, you don't have to worry about it.'"  

They couldn't bring themselves to break up the band. They decided to commit to doing the record they always wanted to make. And the only way they could have that kind of creative freedom was to put it out themselves.

By then, Means was already pretty well-versed in the new opportunity presented by Nettwerk.

"Our manager Tom had sort of been pressing me for it. I didn't really get it until after we were dropped, but he sent me a book, The Future of Music, and for Christmas he sent me a book called The Tipping Point. He was sending subtle little things, so when it actually happened, he was like, 'Well, this is your option.' And at that point, you know, I had read the books."

(The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Revolution, by Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, describes the imbalanced relationship between labels and artists, and predicts that digital technology will soon make record stores — and record deals, as we've come to know them — a thing of the past. Meanwhile, New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference explores how ideas can spread throughout the population like viruses, sometimes blowing up from small-scale trends into national phenomena.)

Means says he bought into Nettwerk's self-release concept 100 percent. As a former co-owner of the concert promotion company AMJ (along with friends Mike Jarvis and Will Anderson), Means had already honed some business skills. And earlier in 2005, he and Ruess successfully launched, a Phoenix-based site selling Format CDs and a selection of releases from other favorite local and national bands, plus Format tee shirts featuring Means' own designs.

In other words, Means was already quite accustomed to being hands-on with the business end of things.

Other major labels expressed interest in signing them, but Ruess and Means didn't immediately fess up about their plan to self-release the record. They waited until they played a show in New York to break the news in person.

Ruess wasn't surprised when label reps questioned their ultimate decision. "There's that attitude like, 'Well, you could be making a mistake . . .' No, we already made this mistake, so we're willing to try this one now," he says. "We'll see if it comes back to bite us, but [Nettwerk] has a lot going into this. It's such a new thing, and we're the ones who're sort of testing the waters."

At the edge of Peoria, in a nondescript industrial park plopped amid cornfields, cookie-cutter housing developments, and ramshackle buildings sprayed with gang graffiti, the members of The Format are having their first band practice in a month — and they're a little rusty.

Lead singer Ruess acts as ringmaster at the middle of the room, standing barefoot or occasionally sitting Indian-style on a broken office swivel chair. The band has just finished playing a song, but Ruess still talks into the microphone. His loose red polo shirt matches the room's bright red walls, which are hung with framed thrift store art, including an old painting of a clown.

Up above, cream-colored fabric draped from the ceiling like a big top flutters in the air-conditioned draft. Marko Buzard puts down his guitar to take a few swigs from a Bud, talking across the room to shaggy-haired guitarist Mike Schey, while drummer Sean McCall laughs along. Back in the corner, behind a double-stacked keyboard, Sam Means sits quietly with a look of serene amusement as the guys seem to be hazing new bass player Aaron Wendt.

"That one was like 73 percent," says Schey, teasing Wendt for messing up. They strike up a playful debate over how good their last rendition of "The Compromise" was. (To observers outside the band, the song sounded pretty solid.)

"I can fake it," says Wendt, mock-defensively.

Everybody laughs. They proceed to play the song three more times, perfecting every part, before moving on to another song. They'll be practicing like this every day until they leave for tour.

Later, Means makes light of band practice. "It was kinda rough," he says, laughing. "But we made a conscious effort to have a month to practice this time. We just want to make sure this tour is successful — it's our biggest headlining tour yet, so it's kinda special."

These days, hindsight has given the band members confidence. Their first single off Dog Problems, "The Compromise" — chosen by Format fans in an online vote — is a catchy, upbeat rocker that addresses the label fiasco head-on: I can feel your feet touching mine.  

If you can't dance, there's someone else in line . . .

Ruess echoes Jim Adkins in his acknowledgment of major labels as complicated beasts. "If you're on a major, they want you to play the game. And they think that everybody's willing to play the game. And I was willing to play the game at 19 or 20, before we had signed a contract, but instantaneously right after that, just even going to make the first record, it was like, 'Oh, fuck, I made a mistake.'"

That said, both Ruess and Means admit that they still have the option to go to another major, and that they'd certainly take a hard look at a great offer if it came their way.

Gates explains, "As everything shifts to an online world, record deals aren't fair. When an artist sells a record on iTunes, they still pay for packaging and shipping on it, as per their deal." The Internet has been the catalyst for a new record deal model. "What we've been trying to do is set it up so that if our artists want to come off their record labels, that they have a way to do that successfully and make a hell of a lot more money doing it."

According to Gates, if Dog Problems sells like the last album did, The Format could make a profit of $500,000 just on record sales.

Means says The Format's goals are realistic: sell 30,000 copies, pay everything off, and set aside funds to help pay for the next record. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

Gates concedes that self-releasing albums isn't for everyone. "If you're a straight-up pop artist, I don't know if this is the model for you. This is more, in my opinion, a model for a band with a passionate following."

Surprisingly, Gates also notes one argument in favor of signing a major-label contract. "When you're A-plus level priority for a major, there's nothing like it," he says, adding that a band can never know if or when it'll get the star treatment. "It's all promises."

Ruess and Means spent their buyout money from Atlantic on about three months in the studio, wrapping things up in March. They set a July 11 release date, crossed their fingers, and prepared to wait.

But one night in mid-May, they found out the album had leaked — someone had posted the songs on the Internet two full months before Dog Problems was scheduled to arrive in stores. (This happened just a few days after about 100 watermarked advance CDs had been mailed to publications and radio stations across the country.) To preempt illegal file-sharing, the band acted quickly and put it for sale online — priced at a bargain $7.99 — within two hours of the leak. Gates remarks that this never would have been possible if The Format had had to wade through record-label bureaucracy.

Dog Problems was an immediate success; the digital prerelease sold about 600 downloads in the first hour. Sales were over 2,000 in the first month.

Ruess was nervous at first. "All of a sudden, it was like, 'Oh, today's the day we're going to release our CD.' I hadn't even heard it. So I downloaded it and listened to it and had my moment of, 'Everything's gonna be great.'"

Jim Adkins predicts that The Format will do well as a result of so much touring and securing a base of real fans. "It would be hard for them to go wrong in either case now because of that. You can try really hard, but you can't manufacture that — you can only earn that," he says.

Promoter Charlie Levy offers up a bunch of jaw-dropping stats as proof of the band's organic fan base. "On PureVolume, it had 717,559 plays of their music, and 445,756 people went to their profile page. That's crazy. It just shows that the Internet works. And on MySpace — 1,819,638 plays. Today, already 6,665 people have listened to their music." As of press time, those numbers had gone up even more.

"I assume that people want to be fans of music nowadays. At least that's what I'm hoping — that change is gonna come, and it comes back to not whether you have a video on MTV or a song on the radio," Ruess says.

"And if the record is successful," he adds, "it'll sort of be an 'I told you so.'"

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