Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rock band the Donnas take control after stumble

Fri Jun 22, 2007 11:24PM EDT

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Female rock quartet the Donnas have returned to their indie roots after disappointing sales of their last album for Atlantic Records derailed their dreams of mainstream stardom.

The Bay Area group have formed their own label in a joint venture with Redeye Distribution, which will release their currently untitled next album in mid-September.

"Whatever formula we were in wasn't working for us, so now we're carving out a new formula," said singer Brett Anderson. "After 14 years and a few other deals, I guess this makes it the new-new-new-new formula!"

The split with Atlantic actually happened in early 2006, when it was clear that the Donnas were in a rut with the Warner Music Group-owned label. While their 2002 label debut, "Spend the Night," sold 424,000 copies, the 2004 follow-up "Gold Medal" moved only 87,000 copies.

"We thought we were going to have a massive hit, we expected it to be bigger" than "Spend the Night," said Kevin Weaver, Atlantic's senior VP of A&R.

From 2003 to 2004, Atlantic underwent a number of changes because of Time Warner's spinoff of Warner Music Group to a new group of investors. The band saw a new lineup of personnel by the time it was working on "Gold Medal."

"No matter who was working there, everyone was working their hardest for us. Still, though -- and I know everyone says this -- if you join a major, a few months later it'll be like a new company," said drummer Torry Castellano.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Anderson, Castellano and their bandmates -- bassist Maya Ford and guitarist Allison Robertson -- had been playing together since middle school and had become as notorious for their punk-rock attitude and raucous onstage presence as for their metal-tinged rock.

In 1997, straight out of high school, they signed to California-based Lookout Records, one-time home of Green Day. They released four records that, combined, sold more than 110,000 copies by the time they signed to Atlantic in mid-December 2001 -- shortly after they'd turned drinking age.

The Donnas were poised to break to the next level, and were in a stronger position than Green Day: the punk trio had sold only about 80,000 records for Lookout when they signed to Atlantic's corporate sibling, Reprise, in the early '90s.

"We wanted to be on the radio. We'd still love to," said Castellano. "We didn't expect MTV and radio to happen immediately, but we were ready for it."

Atlantic's deal "was the least Big Brothery," Anderson said. "They had one of the smallest advances, but that's because of how much control we knew we would be given. When we heard other labels' initial pitches, it was like, 'So, how about you drop your instruments and we'll come up with a choreographed dance for you to do?' Atlantic was like, 'Yes, of course you may headbang."'

"Take It Off," the sassy single from "Spend the Night," made some headway at radio, peaking at No. 17 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. (It was later added to PlayStation 2's "Guitar Hero" repertoire.)

The band posed for magazine covers, performed on "Saturday Night Live" and "TRL" and "did everything right, press-wise," says former Atlantic/Donnas publicist Nick Stern. "The Donnas were a press dream. They wouldn't say no to anything unless it was something raunchy, like a Playboy spread or taking off their clothes for Maxim."

Initially hesitant to license their music lest it hurt their credibility with the fans, the Donnas came to realize that such deals were good for boosting their exposure.

Weaver spearheaded efforts to insert the Donnas' music into commercials (the 2006 Nissan Xterra), film ("Mean Girls"), videogames ("MVP Baseball 2003") and TV (theme song for the 2006 Winter Olympics U.S. Women's Snowboarding Team).

But they did not sell out completely.

"We want anybody of any age to listen to us," Anderson said. "And if I was a 13-year-old boy in middle school, I wouldn't go around telling people I listen to a band that did a tampon commercial."

The next album turned out to be optimistically titled.

"'Gold Medal' was a little more artistic, something a little different, and it just wasn't accepted in the way that we wanted it to be, from a commercial perspective," said Joey Minkes, the band's manager.

The lead single "Fall Behind Me" topping out at No. 29 on the Modern Rock chart. Despite a well-received run touring with Maroon 5 in early 2005, album sales increased only slightly on the road.

The band started on the next album, though Atlantic cut back the advance; ultimately, the Donnas never recouped on their Atlantic deal. In negotiations, Atlantic was willing to fund an album with a crossover hit, extending the amount of time required for the Donnas to write one. After writing three or four tunes without finding common ground, the band declined and the label passed.

"We had to go with our gut," Ford said. "We still could be with the label, but it wasn't right for anyone. We could've worked and worked for a pop single, but then it probably wouldn't have gotten played on the radio anyway."

More than a year later, the band sealed its deal with Haw River, N.C.-based Redeye earlier this month.

Whereas the band earned only royalties (16%, according to Minkes) at Atlantic, the Donnas' new Redeye deal guarantees a 50/50 split from sales, as well as co-ownership of the masters and a record-to-record contract. Redeye's deal is for North America, leaving the Donnas to choose international distributors.

The new album's sound isn't a major departure from what the band has played before. Produced by Jay Ruston (Jars of Clay, Meat Loaf, the Polyphonic Spree), the set is chock-full of big singalong choruses, fat '80s guitar licks and an upbeat pace.

With not a ballad to be found, it mixes glam-rock with punk and pop, inspired by the band's rekindled love for Def Leppard and Billy Idol, according to Ford.

Writing-wise, "I wouldn't say we did much of anything different after leaving Atlantic, though it helped that we had more time than we've ever had before to write it. It was very liberating not to have a deadline," she said.

The group has already begun streaming "Don't Wait Up for Me" via MySpace; the song appropriately opens with the sound of a stadium-sized crowd cheering as the crew encourages the object of its affections to "loosen up/drain a cup" as the electric guitars chug to the rhythm of clapping hands.

The band plans to court college radio, continue reaching out to fans through its message boards, MySpace blog and other online social networks, and to tour everywhere.

"That was our original love anyway," Castellano said. "We may have been in a lot of magazines and we pride ourselves on putting out good records, but we win over the most hearts at our live set."

Now the band is back in indie land, new deal in hand and with new sets of expectations.

"We've always been a wild card, being girls and being rock'n'roll," Anderson said. "But now, if people don't buy our record, we'll at least know we did what we wanted."


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