Tightened Up: Inside the Black Keys' Rise to Arena-Sized Fame
One massive arena tour. Two appearances on "Saturday Night Live" -- in one year. Three Grammys. 207,000 albums sold, opening week. The Black Keys are finally firing on all cylinders with "El Camino."
Last January, the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend faced off in a battle royale of modern rock.
The challenge: earn Grammy Award winner Stephen Colbert’s vote for best alternative album. “The only way to determine which alternative band has the most edgy, noncommercial appeal is which one got their songs in more commercials,” Colbert said on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” After the Keyes presented three synchs of the same song -- 2004’s “Girl Is On My Mind,” featured in ads for Zales, Victoria’s Secret and Sony Ericsson – the competition on Colbert’s show ended in fisticuffs, crowbars and all. Thankfully, there weren’t any injuries, or bruised egos: “We don’t ever take ourselves too seriously,” Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach says.
“The whole idea of ‘selling out’ is this archaic indie-rock ideal,” Auerbach continues. “They want to give us money to use our music? It boggled my mind why that was a bad thing because to me, my heroes -- blues and hip-hop guys – take all the money they can get.”
Two years ago, after eight years in the business, the Ohio-bred bluesy rock duo started allowing its music to be synched in commercials, TV/film and video games, ranging from the CW’s “Gossip Girl” to Subaru. In 2010, the pair was the most-licensed band on Warner Music Group’s roster, according to David Bither, senior VP of Nonesuch, the Warner imprint that has been the Keys’ home since 2006. The group gets about one synch offer each day, both for new music and older material. Black Keys manager John Peets of Q Prime Nashville, who handles the requests in-office, describes the volume of licensing inquiries as “shocking.”
“They write such strong hooks -- that’s why they’ve been successful with licensing,” Peets says. “Most people think about synchs in terms of complete songs, but really, it’s more about which 30-second snippets will work.”
Synchs for the Keys’ seventh album, El Camino (released Dec. 6, 2011), include ESPN’s Band of the Month (December), ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” Lifetime’s “Army Wives” and PlayStation’s “MLB 12: The Show” video game. But synchs are far from the only strategy responsible for breaking the Black Keys in the mainstream.
“Radio, radio, radio,” Auerbach says.
It started with a whistled ditty. That was accompanied by start-stop riffs and a retro sheen, courtesy of producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. “Tighten Up” was the final song recorded for 2009’s Brothers, and the album’s only collaboration with Burton. It was the band’s conscious effort “to make something catchy that could get played in the radio,” says drummer Patrick Carney. As a single, “Tighten Up” was a slow burner, but it eventually spent 12 weeks atop Billboard’s Rock Songs chart, 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative tally and even cracked the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 87).
The Black Keys –- a band that once toured the United States for seven weeks in a Penske rental truck –- had finally arrived.
But the duo chose not to ride the wave of Brothers. Three weeks after winning three Grammys (best alternative album, best rock performance and best recording package) at last year’s ceremony, the band canceled an Australian tour as well as European dates in order to return to the studio. With Burton now acting as a co-songwriter as well as producer, the Keys spent 40 days at Auerbach’s new Easy Eye Studios in Nashville, recording the poppy, punchy El Camino.
Canceling tour dates “cost us a lot of money because we had to pay for all the venues,” Carney says. “We realized we could tour for two straight years, but at the end of two years we’d have to deal with making a ‘comeback record.’ We just wanted to make another record. We didn’t want to have to prove ourselves again.”
Now, “Lonely Boy,” the lead single from El Camino, spends its fifth week at No. 1 on the Alternative chart. (It’s thus far peaked at No. 64 on the Hot 100.)
From the top down, the ethos surrounding the "El Camino" campaign embraces "the spirit of doing it the wrong way"-a tag line initially verbalized by the band's longtime art director, Pat's brother Michael Carney. It refers to the Keys' "off" visual branding through the years.
"The Black Keys suggest that they're 'off,'" says Warner Bros. Records COO/co-president Livia Tortella. "They've latched onto that idea at a time when the real spirit of alternative has, in many ways, gone away from our music. The spirit of rock should be that: outside of the norm, not just mainstream and predictable."
Nonesuch senior VP of marketing Peter Clancy offers these descriptors of the band's current sound and feel: "simple, unglossy and deliberately reminiscent of the band's humble beginnings."
Instead of releasing the big-budget video they shot for "Lonely Boy," the Keys opted for footage of a security guard named Derrick Tuggle, who epitomizes the idea of dancing like no one's watching. Finding and recording Tuggle, originally hired as an extra, was essentially an accident, but the video fit in perfectly with the "inside joke" theme of the album's viral-heavy marketing.
The band kicked off the campaign in early October by trying to sell a used van-the 1994 Dodge Caravan junker that's pictured on the cover of "El Camino." Comedian Bob Odenkirk helmed a low-budget commercial as a car salesman who's lost control of his stead, while Carney recorded a message at 330-510-1206 revealing more details about the vehicle, which is more akin to the van the band first toured in than a Chevrolet El Camino. (A similar voice-mail gag was offered by Arcade Fire, whose name continues to come up in conversations about the Keys’ competitors in the rock marketplace.)
An El Camino mini-site was set up (wannabuyavan.com), where fans started leaving comments like, “I’ve got a ’96 Buick Roadmaster that’s pretty kick-ass. Wanna trade?” Others quoted Chevy Chase’s character in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The sharing had begun.
“With these bands, the little nuances are important,” Tortella says. “I almost want to screen it from a rooftop: This band embodies the spirit of what rock marketing should be! And the beauty of it is that we never stopped talking about the Black Keys. There was no gap in marketing between albums.”
One week before street date, the band’s official site streamed five tracks from El Camino, which at that point had leaked. That was the duo’s only go at streaming, with the Keys and management choosing not to put the album -- with the exception of “Lonely Boy” -- on services like Spotify and Rdio. Manager Peets says they’re still gauging the effects of not streaming El Camino as the campaign progresses. He doesn’t rule out changing their decision later on.
“You get paid [for streaming], but it’s so miniscule it’s laughable,” Auerbach says. “Anyone on the Internet who makes us look stupid for not being on Spotify usually has some sort of stake in the company. Publications like Pitchfork are teaming up with Spotify, and it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a cool thing to have if you’re in a new band and you want to be heard. But if you are a bigger band that’s already known and you rely on record sales for a living, then it’s really no place to be.”
El Camino’s opening-week numbers proved to the band that the combined efforts of Nonesuch and Warner were right in “doing it wrong.” The Black Keys nearly tripled the first-week sales of its previous album and debuted at No. 2. Carney and Auerbach were out with uber-chef Anthony Bourdain shooting an episode of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” when they heard the news of their big debut.
That same week, the band performed on “Saturday Night Live” for the second time in a year and streamed an El Camino release show in New York on MTV Hive. But the biggest moment of the moment’s release week had to be the Keys selling out a Madison Square Garden show in 15 minutes. They’ve since added a second Garden date, which the Agency Group’s Dave Kaplan, who books the band, is confident will also sell out, like many other dates on the group’s first headlining arena tour.
“At this point, the band could go to just about any market and do very well -- near sellouts at arena-size capacity,” Kaplan says. “It’s just about having the time to get them there.”
A long record cycle – or at least one longer than that for Brothers – is exactly what Kaplan and the label team are planning: at least three legs of the El Camino arena tour (with the possibility of additional dates in 2013) and servicing three to four singles, the second one likely being “Gold on the Ceiling.” Already confirmed are headlining slots at major U.S. and European festivals this summer, and next on the to-do list is creating stronger inroads internationally.
“The last American rock band to be exported in a big way was the White Stripes,” Tortella says. “It’s funny to hear people say, ‘Rock is dead,’ when I believe we’re on the verge of exporting one of our greatest American rock bands around the world. It makes me a little giddy, actually -- to prove them wrong. The greatest upside for the Black Keys is being able to tour around the world the way they do in America.”
Despite new-school viral tactics, the band's career is centered on a conventional, linear approach to hard-earned success: Cut your teeth on the road, build a loyal fan base with each record, and find a way to expose your music across multiple platforms. So "wrong way" or not, the team is kicking it old-school in many ways, and working off an established foundation that dates back to Akron, Ohio, in the mid-'90s.
Carney and Auerbach were "neighborhood kids" together, more formally introduced by their younger brothers as teenagers because of their mutual musicianship. They jammed together in high school and went away to college, then both dropped out and ended up right where they started: back on the block in Akron.
"The first time I heard the Black Keys, I was taken aback," says Jonathan Cohen, music booker for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," a former Billboard editor and Auerbach's childhood friend. "Little Dan! I had never heard him sing like that, and it was an unusual sound... but I could tell there was something cool going on there. For a long time it was just Dan and Pat in Pat's basement, making noise and having fun. In the earliest recordings, that came through loud and clear."
Despite never having played a show, Auerbach sent demos to 10 garage-rock labels. Only two responded, and the band ultimately went with the small but credible Southern California label Alive. "They released [albums by] Doctor Ross the Harmonica Boss as well as Stooges records," Auerbach says. "I figured they might understand what we were doing."
The Keys' fuzzed-out debut on Alive, 2002's "The Big Come Up," which has gone on to sell 139,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan), garnered them looks from major labels, including Sire Records.
"We were talking to [Sire co-founder/president] Seymour Stein every day for two months," Carney recalls. The band was promised a contract with Sire -- which was, at the time, transitioning away from its distribution with Elektra -- but the duo went with Fat Possum instead. That's where the Keys stayed for two crucial albums -- 2003's "Thickfreakness" (187,000 copies sold, according to SoundScan) and 2004's "Rubber Factory" (224,000) -- before moving to Nonesuch.
Fat Possum owner Matthew Johnson "taught us a lot about music -- about the kind of hustle it takes to kind of be a band that we weren't really aware of at the time," Carney says. "If we'd signed with Sire, this would've been a whole different band. It would've taken months and months [for the record to come out], it would've not been a priority, and the band would've just fizzled the fuck out. We were nervous that maybe we passed on a really big opportunity, but we were also so determined at the time that if we worked hard, people would probably, hopefully take notice of the band."
Video: Early Keys: "Your Touch" Live
Early on, the act's live show grabbed people, particularly Mark Leddy and Cindy Barber, owners of Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, where the Keys played their first live show to about 25 people. They made $10. But they kept gigging-their Akron following making the 45-mile drive up Route 77 -- and when the band later played Chicago, Barber urged David "Boche" Viecelli, founder of booking agency Billions Corp., to see the group live. Soon after Viecelli became the band's first manager and booking agent, and despite disagreements that led to the Keys' signing with Q Prime in early 2005, Carney cites Viecelli as a key person early on in the duo's career.
"Very few bands from Cleveland and even Ohio make it, and part of the problem is that there isn't an infrastructure of labels and booking agencies that are based here," Leddy says. "At that point in their career, the Black Keys getting a national booking agent was key for them to make these next couple of steps."
The next steps included opening slots on big national tours, the first one being Sleater-Kinney. "We snuck into an 'SNL' after-party during that tour and met Beck," Carney says. "We slipped him our demo." From Beck to Radiohead to Pearl Jam and festival gigs in between, the band's reputation as a full-on live assault raised its profile little by little-and speaks to a true old-fashioned approach.
As for their hustle during the last 10 years, Carney and Auerbach simply know no other way of life. That, perhaps, is why the concept of "selling out" remains a head-scratcher for Auerbach.
"There's this weird thing that happened with being a successful band, and it has to do with rich, private-college kids who rule the indie rock world -- kids who never really have to worry about anything because they always have some sort of backup plan that they can safely fall into," he says. "We come from middle-class families. We're both college dropouts. Driving around the country, paying for everything ourselves -- this is the backup plan. The only plan, really."