Ladies, Start Your Engines

After almost a decade, Barenaked Ladies' slow and steady wooing of America
finally came to fruition this past summer. Stunt, the Canadian band's fourth full-length CD, debuted at No. 3 in July -- not bad when you consider its predecessor, Born on a Pirate Ship (1996), was a commercial disappointment. Stunt's success was buoyed by the ubiquitous single, "One Week," which turns an up-tempo, fairly routine relationship song into a freestyle rap that name-checks, among others, Sting, LeAnn Rimes, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

If anything, the fact that "One Week" went to No. 1 in this country proves the Ladies' appeal extends beyond the wise-ass collegiate cult that has embraced the group from the beginning. Its show-stealing displays during the H.O.R.D.E. Tour and a sublimely hilarious performance on the MTV Music Video Awards' preshow broadcast only cemented Ladies' status as one of the few legitimate breakthrough acts of the year.

Still, in light of the band's tepid track record south of the Canadian border, Stunt's meteoric sales must come as a shock to a band seemingly resigned to quirky-outsider status.

"We had no idea," says singer-guitarist Steven Page. "I thought maybe it would enter in the Top 30 or something. We had built up a pretty amazing fan base. And I thought all those fans would run out and buy the record, and it would enter at No. 30 and then disappear into oblivion. Now it's been in the Top 10 for 14 weeks; I think that means we've crossed over."

You could say that. Barenaked Ladies -- a band that also includes singer-guitarist Ed Robinson, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn -- has hung around the Top 10 longer than Marilyn Manson or the Beastie Boys. Stunt's sales stamina may be due, in part, to the fact that the Ladies have figured out what it takes to become a priority concern at a major label -- in this case, Reprise.

"We went out and worked pretty hard doing the hand-shaking kind of thing before the record came out," Page says. "I think a lot of times record companies don't have artists who will agree to doing a lot of the glad-handing. But you make a record, and you want people to hear it. We certainly had the sense that this was the record that the record company was going to push for us. We went out and made the best record that we thought we had made -- at least in a long time, if not ever -- and we'd have hated for them to drop the ball on it and say, 'Well, you guys didn't go out and do what we asked you to do.' So we said, 'Fine, OK, we'll go out and shake some hands at some retailers' head offices, if that's what it takes.'"

Barenaked Ladies' formula for success is a glaring exception to the ongoing problems with artist development in this country. Most new acts are expected to hit the mark right out of the gate or run the risk of being dropped. In the rare case when a band does have dead-on commercial aim, there are always the inflated expectations that accompany album number two. God forbid the release doesn't outsell the debut (more often than not, sophomore releases don't), as that gives a label yet another excuse to send a band packing.

Page puts the issue into perspective by offering a hypothetical scenario of what might have happened to relative slow-starters U2 if they'd first come around in 1998: "You think, jeez, October [U2's second album] didn't do so hot. So you dump them after October. Then they get re-signed and put out War on some Internet-only label, and that sells 15,000 copies, and that's the end of that."

A similar fate could have easily befallen Barenaked Ladies -- possibly even in their homeland. Though the band's first album, 1992's Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in Canada, its second, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only a third of that figure. But with each effort the band stuck to its guns, alternating potshots and poignancy, hooks and hilarity, shtick and technical skill. Rather than cutting the band loose, for whatever reason, Reprise opted to play its hunch.

"For our label -- or [Reprise parent company] Warner Bros., in general -- I think it is a part of their tradition," Page explains.

But he's also skeptical of how long even the slightest bit of gambling on long-term potential will be allowed to continue. "There are people who are not in the entertainment industry buying [record] companies," he says. "They are saying, 'Your bottom line this quarter was so bad that you are going to have to drop eight artists and fire a bunch of people,' which kind of excludes the people like the Van Dyke Parks of the world that made Warner Bros. so interesting a label to be on -- or Randy Newman or Ry Cooder or whoever else. They didn't necessarily sell tons of records, but they were part of the fabric of the label."

Page offers his take on how Barenaked Ladies fits into tradition: "I think, frankly, we never got dropped because we sold lots of copies of our first record in Canada. We always sold just enough to recoup everything, but it sure looks nice for a label to say, 'We've got five albums with this band before they broke.' And maybe it will set a precedent for other labels to go, 'Maybe it will take five records before they make it big.'"

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