Black Out

 

It seemed too good to be true: Jack Black, whose initial big break came when he played a snotty record-store clerk named Barry in High Fidelity, would be hopping behind the counter to reprise his role at Recycled Sounds, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Championship Vinyl, the film’s indie-snob music shoppe. (“It’s almost embarrassing how that movie pegs all of our bad habits,” Recycled Sounds owner Anne Winter admits.) Even better, Black’s big-time folk-metal duo Tenacious D, whose recently released self-titled disc has inspired a rabid cult following, would be playing acoustic favorites such as “Fuck Her Gently” at what promised to be the venue’s biggest in-store performance to date. It was proof that a local bastion of the D.I.Y. spirit could lure a major-label act to play for free without getting its façade slimed by corporate tentacles in the process.

It was, in fact, too good to be true. Word of the gig leaked back to Sony, Tenacious D’s label, eventually making its way up to parent-company Epic’s vice president of worldwide marketing Randy Erwin, who, Winter was told, was ultimately responsible for pulling the plug on the performance. (According to a receptionist in his office, Erwin was out of the office on Friday and not available for comment.) On Friday, November 30, just hours before the D was expected to play, Winter issued a statement to the store’s e-mail list. “Once again, I have some real proof that corporate rock sucks,” she wrote. After a whirlwind of activity catalyzed by the group’s surprise acceptance of the store’s invitation, the idea died, its run having lasted less than a workweek.

In a precocious, letter-to-Santa-type shot at the moon, Recycled Sounds had sent Tenacious D’s management a list of ten reasons why the group should consider the Midtown institution for the band’s first-ever in-store performance. Using flattery (“We sold through our first order of Tenacious D vinyl!”), appeals to the duo’s sizable appetites (“the world’s best BBQ just down the street”), simple truth (“We have a Hendrix autograph on our wall”), obscure knowledge (“the world’s biggest Redd Kross fan works here” — that group’s Steve MacDonald played on the D’s disc) and tongue-in-cheek hyperbole (“We refer to all of our customers as Motherfucker or Mr. or Mrs. Motherfucker”), Recycled Sounds persuaded the group to drop by, play a few songs and sign albums and Shallow Hal posters. (Black stars in that Farrelly brothers film, and his bandmate, Kyle Gass, appears in a bit part.) The store made the announcement to its e-mail list on Monday, November 26, and quickly put together newspaper ads and promotional art for its windows.

Word of the 3 p.m. Friday show, which likely would have drawn more than the hundred-plus fans attracted in the past by the likes of The Get Up Kids, Man or Astro Man?, X-Ecutioners and Mixmaster Mike, spread quickly, due to the D’s hyperattentive fan base and its easy access to Weezer‘s even more devoted following. (Tenacious D was to play Friday night at Municipal Auditorium with Weezer and Jimmy Eat World.) But it wasn’t only exuberant fans who received the message. When the news reached Epic, the label’s higher-ups bristled at having been excluded from the decision-making process. Rumors soon spread that a staff member at another record store had leaked information about the show to Sony’s local field-marketing representatives. But Kathleen McCallum, who manages Recycled Sounds’ closest competitor (the Westport branch of Streetside Records), says she had no concerns about the in-store event. “They did the legwork on it, they got the go-ahead from the management, God bless them,” she says.

In fact, it’s Winter who says that, if she had it to do over again, she’d get in touch with Sony’s street team. “Apparently, I should have talked to them,” she admits. “But we did it on a lark. We didn’t think they’d come here. We just got the name of the management and sent them an e-mail, and they responded. I guess we didn’t follow the proper channels, but the proper channels don’t follow us, either. They’ve never made contact with our store, and rightfully so. We’re the indie store that does all the footwork, all the street-level promotion before the labels have heard of these bands. If a group does well at our level, then the labels might take note.”

Recycled Sounds is not registered with Soundscan, a firm that tracks music retail sales, so it’s invisible to any labels for whom achieving gold and platinum sales is the goal. The store can’t offer Sony any tangible benefits, such as a spike in the charts, which in-store appearances at Soundscan-connected vendors might provide. A Tenacious D show at Recycled Sounds would bring an arena-touring major-label group composed of TV and movie stars close to the people, but for Sony, street credibility isn’t really a top priority. There’s the issue of protecting its investment — people who come out to see the band for free might be less likely to shell out money for tickets and merchandise later the same night. And there’s the question of corporate protocol — in order to operate a sprawling organization efficiently, there are rules that must be followed, and people in designated bottleneck positions who must be contacted in order to make promotions run smoothly.

But to fans, it’s just another case of The Man keeping them down. Although the cancellation was announced Friday morning, Recycled Sounds was filled to capacity by the scheduled showtime — customers had to wait outside until other patrons left. A fair number of these fans were high-school students who had rushed to the store in their uniforms right after school, oblivious to the change in plans. “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” one such schoolgirl said with a scowl after being informed that the D would be a no-show. Eventually, Gass, the group’s less-famous half, appeared to sign autographs and pose for pictures, which somewhat satiated the throng. But there was no music, save for a few strums on an acoustic guitar Gass autographed. And without leading man Black in attendance, there was a significant reduction in star power. “Kage [Gass’s stage name] is cool, but …,” muttered many unsatisfied D fans on their way out the door, the downward-slanting tone of their speech hinting at unspoken disappointment.

And though she’s quick to express her appreciation to Gass for helping to defuse a potentially unpleasant situation, Winter remains frustrated by the experience. “Tenacious D and their management have been really cool about everything, but they’re just under the thumb of Sony,” Winter says. “I hope Jack is able to pee without having to ask Sony. But he signed the contract.” Which means his group and its fans occasionally get fucked, not so gently.

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