Dream Theater’s top 20 entrance onto The Billboard 200 is a vindication in triplicate for the New York band. The No. 19 debut for “Systematic Chaos” heralds the group’s best start for an album, its best sales week (36,000) since 1994’s “Awake” and its first breath of air inside the top 20.
“Chaos” also represents an unexpectedly sweet beginning with Roadrunner Records, which signed the act last December. Unhappy with being shifted among Warner Music Group’s labels and receiving minimal promotion for records following “Awake,” the prog rockers hoped they would get dropped when their eight-album option was up for renewal. But EastWest, then Elektra, then Atlantic, kept picking it up, so Dream Theater self-promoted albums with yearlong tours pegged to the release dates and constant contact with fans through its Web site.
Imagine, then, the band’s chagrin when it finally got a fresh start by signing with Roadrunner only to face the announcement, just days later, that Warner had purchased Roadrunner for nearly $74 million.
“That’s the biggest irony of this whole thing,” drummer Mike Portnoy says with a laugh. “We waited 15 years to get away from Warner, and we actually had several offers from other Warner-affiliated labels that we passed on because we wanted to go with Roadrunner, and then literally a week after we signed was when they announced it.
“Distribution is such a minor piece of the puzzle in terms of marketing and promotion, and the hands-on creative engine and all of that is intact at Roadrunner,” Portnoy continues. “With Atlantic and Elektra we were just kind of this bastard child who was handed from person to person, from staff to staff, label to label, each time we made a record.”
They may not be a bastard child, but they’re certainly a unique one often misunderstood by record companies. “The thing, to us, that’s the most important is that we went somewhere where people really understood the history of the band and what we’ve built,” guitarist John Petrucci says of Roadrunner. “It was actually surprising to some of the labels we were talking to how many records we’ve sold, how many concerts we’ve done [and] how many people we’ve played to. It’s kind of like a best-kept-secret.”
According to Nielsen SoundScan, Dream Theater has sold 2.1 million albums in the United States. Band manager Frank Solomon estimates the band has sold between seven and eight million records worldwide.
“Systematic Chaos” is Dream Theater’s ninth studio album. Number eight, the last one released on Atlantic, was 2005’s “Octavarium,” which debuted and peaked at No. 36. The band’s 1992 major-label debut, “Images and Words” (Atco), was the only one of its albums to garner significant radio and MTV airplay. Lead single “Pull Me Under” hit No. 10 on Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks.
Why hasn’t the band scored a second traditional hit? It could be simply due to the fact that its songs keep getting longer. “Systematic Chaos” opens and closes with a two-part track, “In the Presence of Enemies,” that runs for practically half an hour. The group also writes complex, technically proficient compositions that can’t be absorbed in one listen, and that’s hard to market in an instant-gratification, increasingly download-centric world.
But these same factors helped Dream Theater create a following among music students and prog fans alike. Vinne Hartong, the band’s product manager at Roadrunner, explains that having experienced success with accomplished musicians like DragonForse and Trivium, the label believes in a market for those audiences. Roadrunner was also attracted to Dream Theater’s status as a heritage act that’s still youthful and relevant. Hartong thinks the label can not only build on the group’s existing fan base, but also recruit new listeners.
“It’s cool to take this band that has been shown no label love in like 10 years and … finally give them what they deserve,” Hartong says. “We have a point to prove. I’d love to prove to Atlantic, ‘If you guys had just done an ounce of work, this is what you could have had.'” Atlantic Records did not provide any comment by deadline.
Roadrunner’s marketing plan for “Systematic Chaos” includes interviews in metal and music instruction magazines, print ads, a free download of first single “Constant Motion” and studio footage of the band posted online. A special edition of the album that features a 90-minute making-of documentary and a 5.1 Surround Sound mix is also being released. In addition, a recent TicketMaster promotion allowed those who purchased tickets for select 2007 North American dates to download a free video of the band recording album track “The Dark Eternal Night” when they also pre-ordered “Systematic Chaos.”
For Dream Theater, this is the first time in years, if ever, that many of these tactics have been employed. One of the biggest steps forward has been doing a video for “Constant Motion,” which is now in post-production. It’s the first clip the band has lensed in a decade.
“There was no reason for us to do music videos because MTV wasn’t gonna play us, so it was a waste of time and money,” Portnoy says. “But now, in the age of the Internet, it makes sense. A great way to market a band [is] through Web sites and YouTube and things like that.”
The road, however, remains the linchpin of Dream Theater’s promotion strategy. The Agency Group’s Steve Martin, the band’s longtime booking agent, says the group plays venues with an average of 3,000 seats. He has seen it progress from filling the 1,000-capacity Irving Plaza in New York the day of a show to selling out the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall through an Internet-only pre-sale four months in advance.
Dream Theater is currently in Europe on its Chaos in Motion tour, but will return to the States in July and head back overseas in early fall. Martin seconds Roadrunner’s thinking that the band can reach new markets and audiences. “In 2008 we’re going back to South America,” he says. “Last year we played San Juan [for the first time], and we did 5,000 people.” Solomon confirms the band will play inaugural shows in Australia in early 2008.
Hartong says Roadrunner will also give terrestrial and satellite radio a shot. Since the label wants to establish the band “as hip and relevant to the modern metal world” with what Hartong calls “the hardest track on the record,” the nearly seven-minute “Constant Motion” was delivered to metal radio May 28.
The band appreciates giving radio the old college try, but Petrucci isn’t holding his breath. “We realize our strength is in our perseverance and in our live shows, and if something were to click with radio, it would be fantastic,” he says. “We’ve seen the difference, we’ve seen how that really goes, [how it can] sell so many more records. But we’re doing great even without that.”