Band Aid?

Two Austin acts debate whether it helps or hurts to be on a major label.

IT’S KNOWN IN AUSTIN AS The Curse: band-of-the-moment receives major label’s invitation to the big time; radio, MTV, and consumers forget to RSVP. The latest hopes-victims? Sixteen Deluxe, which released its debut for Warner Bros. Records, Emits Showers of Sparks, in January, and Fastball, which unveils All the Pain Money Can Buy,  its second effort for Disney-owned Hollywood Records, in early March.

Confronted with The Curse, both bands have opted for evasive action. “That’s not what we’re out for,” Fastball’s Tony Scalzo says. “We didn’t go in expecting to be the next big anything.” With the music industry currently in a state of flux, being the next big anything is a mixed blessing anyway. Having a giant radio hit seems to guarantee you’ll never have another, and having a record deal doesn’t always mean you get to quit your day job: On the same day that Sixteen Deluxe got a bunch of cash from Warners to put toward a van, its members were scrounging for food money.

Fastball and Sixteen Deluxe both have simple, old-fashioned, and they hope, long-term plans: tour like crazy behind records they’re proud of. Even in the best of times, 90 percent of all records fail, so the best you can do is “fail on your own terms,” Fastball’s Miles Zuniga reasons. “You shouldn’t listen to people when they tell you they think they know what’s right for your band. They don’t know.”

Zuniga does, or at least he does now: His last band, Big Car, belly flopped after kowtowing to the demands of its label. Fastball is his redemption. The band got signed because a local journalist recommended them to Hollywood. Their first record for the label, the punk-poppish Make Your Mama Proud, won good notices and earned new fans in every city they played. Now, with All the Pain, Fastball’s sound is more soulful and mature.

By contrast, Sixteen Deluxe experienced a multilabel bidding war. The band’s dreamy, feedback-laced rock and roll, first displayed on 1995’s Backfeedmagnetbabe (Trance Syndicate), had “the next Nirvana” written all over it. But two years after the buzz, it’s clear there’s never going to be a next Nirvana, and the band has settled in with a label they like and trust. Guitarist Chris Smith says Warners “is thinking about the next five years, not what they’re going to squeeze out of us in the next six months.” And record sales are just part of the picture. “The number I’m thinking about is how many people are coming to shows,” Smith says.

Of course, finding an audience takes work, work, and more work. Sixteen Deluxe did seven tours in its first three years but expects to do seven more in the next twelve months. Smith good-naturedly suggests that one explanation for The Curse is that so many bands would rather be at the pub than in the van. Scalzo agrees: “I have no patience for the baffled look I get: ‘How did you get so many breaks?’ I’m not saying that there aren’t bands who worked hard and still failed, but you can’t just hang around a club hoping some A&R guy comes in.”

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