Kid Rock: The Billboard Cover Story
Long a holdout from iTunes, the Cowboy is finally taking a bite of the Apple with his new album, "Rebel Soul."
"I've always said that there was going to be a day that we were on iTunes."
It's Halloween, and Kid Rock is singing a different, and unexpected, tune. Until recently, the multiplatinum self-proclaimed American Bad Ass remained one of the last high-profile iTunes holdouts, preferring to keep his music inside shiny jewel cases and off of Apple's giant retailer, and citing iTunes' near-uniform song pricing as the main reason. And then in late October, "Rebel Soul," his ninth studio album due Nov. 19 on Top Dog/Atlantic, was quietly made available as a preorder on iTunes. Its title track was posted for $1.29, marking the first non-soundtrack piece of music the artist had issued on the platform.
Something had changed for Kid Rock. But what? Despite forgoing digital sales, his career has been humming along in the iTunes era -- 2007's "Rock n Roll Jesus" has sold 3.4 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with major help from the inescapable single "All Summer Long." Perhaps even more impressively, 2010's "Born Free" moved 1.1 million without spawning a massive hit. And his criticisms of iTunes haven't buckled. "I still don't believe that all pieces of music are the same price. I just don't think that's American," he says.
Kid Rock (real name: Bob Ritchie) wants to make it clear that the digital baptism of his music isn't a cash grab, but rather the recognition of consumer habits. When "Born Free" was released in 2010, downloads represented 28% of all album sales for that year; that number is now at 39% through Oct. 28, according to SoundScan. Since 2008, iTunes has been the biggest music retailer in the United States, and Rock has been giving away a chunk of his sales by not listing his catalog there -- "All Summer Long" was such a massive radio hit that two different studio clone groups charted on Billboard's Digital Songs chart with covers of the track. One of these homages, credited to the Rock Heroes, sold a whopping 1.6 million downloads.
KID ROCK COVERS BILLBOARD
Clearly digital consumers wanted his music (or a reasonable facsimile). And so after years of hearing naysayers maintain that his career couldn't survive solely on physical sales, Rock felt that he'd proved otherwise. Now it was time to cede to technology and superserve his fans. "As a musician, you want the music in as many hands as you can get it into," Rock says. "More importantly, I want people to get the music for the fairest price, and in the most convenient way. And that's really turned into iTunes when you're talking about selling albums."
During the past decade-and-a-half, Rock, 41, has fashioned one of the most durable careers in mainstream rock, swiftly adjusting his sound while staunchly maintaining his personal brand. All of his studio albums since his 1998 breakthrough, "Devil Without a Cause," have sold more than 1 million U.S. copies, but that probably wouldn't have happened if the Detroit native had stayed safely inside the rap-metal construct of "Bawitdaba," the breakout single from "Devil." Instead, his songwriting has followed his interests in Southern rock, country, rap, blues and soul. And "Cocky" -- the 2001 follow-up to "Devil" -- rose to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 more than a year after its release, based on the crossover success of the single "Picture," which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 21 on Hot Country Songs.
"You see him at the hip-hop awards, you see him at the country awards. He's genre-less," says Julie Greenwald, chairman/COO of Rock's longtime label Atlantic Records.
For "Born Free," Rock decided to hand the reins over to Rick Rubin, giving the veteran producer veto power over the entire track list. The process was educational, but not as freewheeling as Rock would have liked. At least one of the tracks on "Rebel Soul," "Cucci Galore," was a contender for "Born Free" but didn't meet Rubin's standards, which focused more on classic songwriting than booty jams. For the follow-up, Rock has made an unabashedly festive return to form, recording in his own Detroit studio. "I look at this record as a greatest hits of all new songs," he says.
The singer and his team have set up a strong network of brand partnerships as the key awareness strategy for "Rebel Soul." Along with his long-running Jim Beam sponsorship, Rock has partnered with ESPN for its weekly telecasts of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, while his relationship with the NFL will lead to another nationally televised performance later this month.
These opportunities allow Rock and new manager Lee Trink greater latitude to challenge music industry conventions at a macro level. The singer has demanded more transparency from his label on marketing details, while Trink -- whose relationship with Rock goes back to "Devil Without a Cause," when he was a product manager at Atlantic -- says that he has had conversations with Live Nation about revamping ticket and concession pricing at Rock's upcoming shows. "It may sound like a herculean task, but the concept is, 'How can we be a beacon to show how other deals should be done?'" Trink says.
The reckless punk who sneered at authority in the "Bawitdaba" video 13 years ago now wants to shake up the industry's infrastructure. His iTunes decision may have come after "hard-fought negotiations" with Atlantic, according to Trink, but the resulting dividends could be huge. And Rock's digital presence may continue to grow -- Trink says that discussion about offering "Rebel Soul" to streaming services on release date have gone "from no to maybe." "Who knows?" Rock says. "Fuck, maybe I'll check this Twitter thing out next."
Last July, guitarist Blake Mills was invited to come to Detroit to record some parts for "Rebel Soul." First, however, he'd have to go jet skiing with Rock off the shoreline of downtown Detroit.
Mills, a Los Angeles-based guitar virtuoso who was brought in by Rubin on "Born Free," spent a single day working with Rock on the new album. Rock praises his thick, dirty tone on "3 CATT Boogie" as sounding like modern Muddy Waters (and he's right). But before they got to the studio, Mills first had to spend some time cruising at 80 miles an hour on the Detroit River with the singer. "After we were sore, we got in the car, drove to his ranch where his studio is, played tunes all day and had a really late night," Mills recalls. "He's an incredibly disarming host, because his idea of a good time is a really, really good time."
The making of "Rebel Soul" was a more natural process for Rock than that of "Born Free," which he says was recorded with Rubin in a two-week span. The match-up should have been a natural -- after all, Rubin's pairing of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith on "Walk This Way" in 1986 formed a virtual blueprint for Rock's early career. The singer gave Rubin complete control over the production and mixing of the project in order to "try something different." Sessions lasted only four hours each day, though usually Rock works as hard (and as long) as he parties. And that wasn't the only way that Rock's and Rubin's visions differ.
"Rick's just all about the record -- he doesn't care about anything else," the singer says. But for Rock -- whose arena shows in 2011 grossed $10.8 million in 28 performances reported to Billboard Boxscore -- touring is every bit as important as recording, maybe even more. "I would try to show him live shows, see where it's going live, but he didn't care about anything like that. And I understand his process, but that's not mine. I see everything. I see the lights, the opening song. I see how songs fit in and how they can be changed around live."
For "Rebel Soul," Rock went the polar opposite route: He brought in his touring band, the Twisted Brown Trucker Band, for the sessions in his Detroit studio, and after gathering T.I., Zac Brown and Martina McBride for "Born Free" he nixed any guest contributors (aside from Mills). Rock says that "Rebel Soul" was partially informed by the hours spent sitting around an empty house reflecting on fatherhood, now that his 19-year-old son, Robert Ritchie Jr., is attending Belmont University in Nashville. But along with that free time came added leisure time, and empty-nest syndrome afforded Rock more chances to hang out with friends in Alabama and kick back on Florida beaches. As a result, "Rebel Soul" is a party record that keeps Rock's scruffy charm at the forefront, with songs like "Detroit, Michigan" and "Happy New Year" radiating good times.
Rock's albums have historically tended to turn slow starts into long shelf lives: "Rock n Roll Jesus" climbed back into the top 10 of the Billboard 200 a full year after its release, thanks to the success of "All Summer Long." Atlantic VP of A&R and marketing Anthony Delia says that he expects "Rebel Soul" to enjoy a similarly slow burn. Lead single "Let's Ride" has performed modestly since its Oct. 1 release, debuting this week at No. 12 on Hot Rock Songs as Atlantic continues to push the track to rock radio. But "Bawitdaba," "Picture" and "All Summer Long" weren't the lead singles on their respective albums, and Delia hopes to see another track -- maybe "Happy New Year," a midtempo party groover that turns holiday cheer into a love song -- follow that crossover success.
"We're not forcing things," Delia says. "We know we have a handful of songs that are key tracks and can plot the timing a little naturally. 'Happy New Year' is time-sensitive, so I would love to do something this year. There will be a follow-up rock song, and hopefully by the spring we'll have something working at more mainstream formats."
Of course, "Rebel Soul" marks the first time that Atlantic can monitor digital track sales and adjust its radio focus accordingly. Delia says that iTunes has long been a discussion point with Rock: "We've heard we might be doing [iTunes] for five years," he says with a laugh. Finally, in late October, a sales rep from Atlantic came into Delia's office and told him that a deal had been reached. The decision has led to Rock's first major preorder campaign, with his 3.3 million Facebook fans being told on Oct. 30 to reserve their copy of "Rebel Soul" on iTunes. Meanwhile, Atlantic will stream the album exclusively on iTunes on Nov. 13, and "Let's Ride" has already sold 34,000 downloads since its release on the platform, according to SoundScan.
Rock's back catalog could eventually make its way onto iTunes, although Greenwald says, "I don't think we're there yet." For now, the Atlantic team is content with placement for Rock on iTunes' home page and across its viral network. "For me to pull up iTunes all weekend and the first thing I see is Kid Rock staring back at me," Delia says, "that's kind of doing my job."