This past January, 311 took a bold step: After nearly two decades on a major label, the Los Angeles-by-way-of-Omaha, Neb., reggae-rock quintet founded its own label, 311 Records.
"We've realized we don't need a major label," vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum says. "As solid as our fan base is, whether or not we have a hit song we're still going to have people showing up at our shows. We've erased any feelings of desperation or fear."
311 Records' first project will be the band's 10th studio album, Universal Pulse, due July 19 through an exclusive partnership with ATO Records.
"We did talk to some majors, but they were pushing for things like 360 deals," Hexum says. "They were basically latching onto the success we already have. We realized [in the new deal] we could get everything done that we wanted to and have more freedom and control."
Universal Pulse finds the group-collectively Hexum, bassist P-Nut, guitarist Tim Mahoney, drummer Chad Sexton and vocalist SA Martinez-exploring a harder edge. Ballads are out, and the tight collection of eight guitar-filled songs, heavy on distortion, finds the band sounding upbeat and energized.
The album was produced by Bob Rock (Metallica, Aerosmith), who also helmed the band's most recent studio album, 2009's Uplifter, which peaked at Nos. 3 and 2 on the Billboard 200 and Rock Albums charts, respectively. Universal Pulse was recorded in the band's own Hive Studio in Los Angeles, and Hexum says the process "felt like a breakthrough sonically."
It's been nearly 20 years since 311 first stepped out in 1993 with its Capricorn debut, Music. Subsequent Capricorn efforts, including 1995's breakthrough self-titled album (which peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and sold close to 3 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and 1997's Transistor (which climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard 200), secured the band's success in the alt-rock world. Uplifter was the band's fourth and final release through Volcano Records, but despite its strong bow, the project was seen as a commercial disappointment with only 134,000 sold, according to SoundScan.
So far, Universal Pulse is off to a strong start. The album's lead single, "Sunset in July," is No. 13 on the Alternative chart and was the No. 1 most-added song after just three weeks. "Sunset in July" is also tailor-made for the live circuit, where 311 has consistently proved to be a top performer. This year will mark the band's ninth consecutive summer headlining amphitheaters across the country. Past touring highlights include 311 Day, an arena event held every other year that consistently sells out at 10,000-15,000 capacity; the 311 Caribbean Cruise, which found more than 3,000 fans setting sail with the band from Miami to Turks and Caicos Islands in March; and the band's 2007 summer tour, which grossed around $9 million, according to band manager Adam Raspler.
In August, 311 will roll out the Pow Wow Festival, a three-night camping event in Live Oak, Fla., that will feature sets by such acts as Deftones, Sublime With Rome, Reel Big Fish and SOJA, as well as four sets from 311, including a performance of Transistor in its entirety.
"Several years ago, it became clear to us that the 311 concert experience was becoming more and more about community and shared experience," Raspler says. "Not only were 311 fans loving the shows, but they were loving being with each other."
According to ATO GM Jon Salter, it's 311's commitment to its live show that makes the band a perfect fit for the collaborative partnership with the label. "So many of our bands are touring bands, we understand how to market our records over touring," Salter says.
Salter also notes that 311 is exploring "unchartered territory" in terms of lifestyle marketing, with ad placement in lifestyle-focused outlets like Surfer's Journal. The group has also expanded its own marketing efforts, making strides online with an extensive preorder campaign for Universal Pulse through its website, 311.com, and a series of YouTube videos, remixes and online ad campaigns, as well as direct contact through social media.
"When the band first started, we'd get fan mail and write back through paper," says Hexum (@NickHexum). "Now Twitter to me is like the easiest thing, [and] makes people feel like they have a direct relationship with you."