Arcade Fire: The Billboard Cover Story
"It was such a blessing to really be able to achieve what we wanted to achieve and to be able to pay for it ourselves and do it ourselves," Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler says, as the rollout for the band's third album, "The Suburbs," begins in advance of its Aug. 2 release in the United Kingdom and a day later in Canada and the United States. "It gave us such a control over our own future that we are very fortunate to have. I don't judge anyone for wanting to take the money to be able to make the records you want to make. We had a very unusual situation."
The seven members of Arcade Fire retain a tight grip on their destiny: They own their own recording studio, master recordings and publishing rights; license those rights to different labels across the globe, territory by territory; refuse corporate sponsorships, private-party gigs and most commercial placements; and call the shots for every major decision required of the band as it keeps growing its success.
It's an approach that serves Arcade Fire extremely well, giving it the ability to manage its affairs in a way that embodies the DIY ethos born in the hardcore punk scene of the early '80s while writing anthemic, cathartic songs and performing them to arena audiences. Now, with "The Suburbs" about to land in cities and suburbs alike, the band's "new DIY" tactics can serve as a road map for artists of all sizes and styles navigating the 21st-century music business.
"In some ways they are forced to operate differently than other bands," says Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Merge Records, the North Carolina-based indie label that released Arcade Fire's first two albums in North America. "When your first album is 'Funeral' and it does so well and is so well-loved by people and there's such a level of fervor about the band from the outset, that creates a high level of expectation for everything they do from there on out. That's something that no other band on Merge has had to deal with."
"Funeral," which was released in 2004, has sold 501,000 in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan; 2006 follow-up "Neon Bible" sold 92,000 its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, with sales of 437,000 to date. McCaughan anticipates that "The Suburbs" will be the biggest-selling album in the label's 20-plus-year history.
"They march to the beat of their own drum, and people really respond to that," says C3 Presents promoter/talent buyer Huston Powell, who booked the band for the first Lollapalooza festival in Chicago in 2005 and will see it return as a headliner this summer. "I wish for the whole music industry there were 10 more Arcade Fires out there."
Two songs from "The Suburbs" were unveiled on NPR's "All Songs Considered" while brothers and bandmates Win and Will Butler sat for a live chat, fielding questions submitted by fans through Twitter. Another track, "Ready to Start," had its debut on alternative KNDD Seattle, while U.K. DJ Zane Lowe premiered "We Used to Wait."
The album will once again come out in North America through Merge, which has an album-by-album licensing deal with the band that gives the group a 50/50 profit share. The album will be released with eight different covers (which will be distributed randomly and not to specific retailers; none will have bonus tracks), with a deluxe version for sale only through the band's website.
"Win and Regine [Chassagne] and everyone in the band just do things on their own terms -- it's as much of a mind-set as it is a business consideration," McCaughan says. "Their personalities, attention to detail and focus on their art [says], 'We want this the way we want it to be. We're not going to go halfway and then just let someone else decide how it's going to be put out into the world.' That is a product of their personalities, and the way that they would be no matter how many records they were selling."
"They pay for everything themselves and deliver it to their licensees," says Scott Rodger, the band's manager. "That's what I deal with, and run their business on their behalf. No label will ever commission anything that they do. Their videos, their artwork, their photographs -- they pay for everything. They have complete control."
Before they got married, Win Butler and Chassagne formed Arcade Fire in 2003 in Montreal. "We had the opportunity to make 'Funeral' with Howard Bilerman in a proper studio, and we were actually able to achieve what we set out to do," Butler says. "We were very much a live band-it's in our DNA to be a live band-so when we had a certain amount of local success from being a live band we were able to very slowly fund that album."
By March 2005, however, the volume of requests -- for interviews, licensing, show offers and the general day-to-day business of being in a band -- had begun to take more time than rehearsing, touring and actually being in the band.
"They've learned over the years -- through a lot of trial and error -- what they can and can't do while still remaining the band they intend to be," says David "Boche" Viecelli, the band's booking agent since its first headlining tour in 2004. "They are bonded emotionally in ways that most bands aren't. They really operate like a family. There's a lot of trust and respect there. They're not careerist either -- they prioritize what they do and how they do it over where it gets them."
At that point, the band realized it needed some help and began assembling the team that has advised and assisted it ever since. To help steer what had grown from a local to a global phenomenon in less than a year, the band brought on Rodger, Björk's longtime manager and a member of Paul McCartney's inner circle of advisers.
"What immediately put them into a different league was the fact that they controlled their own rights from day one," Rodger says. "They very cost-effectively made their first album, and then made some strategic deals that would bring in some money for them to buy their own recording studio and be able to be self-sufficient and make their own recordings."
The band also brought on Viecelli, a Chicago-based booking agent whose company, Billions, had earned a reputation for shrewd bookings and personal artist relationships with bands like Pavement.
"It makes such a difference when you understand where this stuff comes from and why they do it, and for me-how incredibly sympathetic with how we do business here," Viecelli says. "There's a reason I'm not a fat cat William Morris agent."
After the success of "Funeral," the volume of offers to sign a major-label deal reached a deafening level. A&R people were dispatched to Montreal with unlimited expense accounts and free rein to offer the band whatever it would take to sign.
"We didn't have any money, so we were like, 'We're not going to sign with you, but if you want to buy us hotel rooms, go for it, we're not going to stop you.' But we were very upfront with their prospects," Butler says. "When anyone said, 'Leave Merge and we'll give you lots of money,' that was never tempting. It got pretty silly at the very end."
This summer, Arcade Fire picks up in the live arena exactly where it left off after taking a two-year hiatus. The world tour for "Neon Bible" began in early 2007 with multi-night runs at tiny churches in Montreal, London and New York and ended a year later having notched 122 shows (including 33 festivals) in 75 cities in 15 countries. Until the three, small June warm-up gigs in Toronto and Montreal, the band's only live appearances since the "Neon Bible" tour ended were four get-out-the-vote gigs for then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign in Ohio and North Carolina, and on inauguration night Arcade Fire shared the stage with Jay-Z at the Obama for America Staff Ball at the Armory in Washington, D.C.
The "Suburbs" tour will find the band playing less frequently and in larger venues. "They know that an Arcade Fire show is a cathartic experience for the band and for the audience," Viecelli says. "The band really is laying it out there emotionally onstage, investing a ton of energy and heart, and they realized that if they do that for too long or too much, they can't maintain that genuine performance level."
Shed shows in Boston, Philadelphia, Nashville, Atlanta and Columbia, Va., comprise most of the U.S. gigs on the books for 2010. In New York, an Aug. 4 show at Madison Square Garden sold out so quickly that a second show was added the next night. More North American shows are in the works for later this year, and in 2011 the band will do some more overseas touring, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan. But Viecelli expects there will be plenty of leftover demand for more Arcade Fire shows.
At Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park -- to be held Aug. 6-8 this year with an expanded capacity of 80,000 people per day -- Arcade Fire shares top-line billing with Lady Gaga, the Strokes, Phoenix and Green Day and will close the festival's final night by going head to head with the reunited Soundgarden.
Lollapalooza promoter Powell, who along with C3 Presents partner Charles Attal is responsible for filling more than 130 slots on the festival's grid each year, first saw Arcade Fire in 2004 at Austin's 1,000-capacity club Emo's Outdoors.
"We were completely blown away," says Powell, who immediately booked the band for the rejuvenated Lollapalooza in Chicago the following summer and gave it a subheadlining slot right before the Killers on the main stage. "They probably stole the show of the whole festival," he says. "We saw that performance and knew that they were a headliner. They're in that rarified group of bands that we talk to 365 days a year."
"This band has always been ready," Viecelli says. "From the start, we kept stepping things up, moving them to bigger and bigger rooms, bigger and bigger stages. Common sense told me that at some point they would hit a level that they couldn't completely rule, that they would hit the limit of their abilities -- their current experience and production obstruction. They never did. They just never did."
One result of the close-knit approach is the members' ability to maintain an air of mystique and secrecy about their personal lives. You're not going to find any of them discussing their daily routines on Twitter. Yet, even though they've maintained a wall of privacy, the connection fans feel with them is personal and intense.
"I don't know if I'm old-fashioned, but I feel like the fan relationship involves putting out records," Butler says. "We've always really tried to connect with our audience when we play live. We don't take it lightly to go onstage and play. It's the DNA of what this band does and we couldn't exist in the same way without that."