Hawthorne Heights should be ecstatic. My harsh review notwithstanding, their new record, If Only You Were Lonely, is poised to sell upwards of 200,000 copies its debut week. For a major-label artist, that’s great, but for an indie-label band with minimal radio support, it’s an amazing accomplishment. But if next week’s issue of Billboard arrives without Hawthorne Heights in the #1 spot, it will be a bitter disappointment.
That’s because the hype machine has worked in overdrive for months with one goal in mind: debuting Lonely at the top of Billboard’s chart. The last time an independent rock band did that was more than 15 years ago, according to MTV News. It’d be a coup for Hawthorne’s major-label-flouting home, Victory Records, especially if the group edges out major-label R&B artist Ne-Yo, who has much more radio support. In the past week, Victory has waged a not-so-subtle war against Ne-Yo, which reached its apex yesterday (more on that in a bit). But it’s readily apparent that Victory cares more about Hawthorne debuting at #1 than the four members of the band.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Victory's mastery of both viral and traditional marketing to its devoted teenage fanbase. Take Hawthorne’s MySpace page page as an example. With a shocking 344,216 friends (who have left 86,897 comments), Hawthorne Heights is allegedly the biggest band on MySpace. When you load their page, there’s a quick video of singer-guitarist J.T. Woodruff asking visitors to click on a link to request the video for the first single, “Saying Sorry,” on MTV’s TRL. (It was #9 this week.) The MySpace page is overloaded with graphics, including numerous photos of the Hawthorne Heights dressed in white suits and looking like boy band, but not in an ironic way. (That explains the lyrics to “Decembers.”)
That’s just the beginning. There’s a giant link to ThisIsWhoWeAre.org, a MySpace-like community created exclusively for Hawthorne Heights fans. When they register, they get access to studio footage of the band recording If Only You Were Lonely. If they refer five people to join ThisIsWhoWeAre.org, it unlocks another video. If they refer 20 people, they get to see another video. Of course, they can see all of the footage on Hawthorne’s new DVD, This Is Who We Are, but it’s still a smart idea.
On ThisIsWhoWeAre.org’s “Support” page, fans can download five animated AIM icons, two LiveJournal icons, six banner ads (one customized for MySpace), instructions and graphics to make their MySpace page resemble Hawthorne Heights’, and code and graphics for Woodruff’s TRL message. The band’s actual website has a “Fan Support” page with the phone numbers and websites of radio stations around the country so fans can request “Saying Sorry.”
Just before the album came out on Feb. 28, Victory kicked everything into a higher gear, beginning with a “manifesto” allegedly from Hawthorne on Feb. 27. The 448-word letter essentially painted the release of If Only You Were Lonely as a battle between good and evil—or, specifically, rock and non-rock.
You buying our album tomorrow has much greater meaning than simply supporting Hawthorne Heights. ROCK music needs your support. Our society and culture has put rock music on the backburner. If our album can debut at #1 all of us will have taken ROCK music back to the top of the charts where it belongs.
Apparently the popularity of hip-hop and R&B has relegated rock to said backburner. The letter's thinly veiled (though probably unintentional) racism is especially apparent when it cites Ne-Yo as an example of R&B’s hegemony—perpetuated by the complicit media, of course.
Many people are saying that Ne-Yo is going to outsell us because Ne-Yo has had a tremendous amount of over the top, mainstream media coverage. His album will be in stores tomorrow. Radio has played his single 160,000 times. Our single has been played 3,800 times. We know that does not seem possible but it is the truth. Ne-Yo is on a major label. Hawthorne Heights is on an independent label. ROCK music needs to win tomorrow. Independent needs to beat Major tomorrow. If all of you take action we can create history. The mainstream media may not choose to fully embrace this ROCK band from Dayton, Ohio but all of you have. No one can take that away from us. It cannot be bought because it comes from the heart.
It can’t be bought—so why does it say, just a few sentences later, "We need to see you in stores tomorrow”? It can’t be bought…but go to the store and buy our record. Following that is this outrageous statement: “This is as much about you as it is about us.” No, it’s not. This isn’t even about Hawthorne Heights: It’s about an indie label showing up a major, but packaging it as teenage rebellion.
MTV News picked up the story, interviewing Woodruff and drummer Eron Bucciarelli, who denied that Hawthorne had anything to do with the letter. The uproar about the “manifesto” hadn’t settled when an even more inflammatory—and thoroughly embarrassing—missive leaked from Victory. This one was an e-mail from Victory staffer Abby Valentine to Hawthorne’s street team (a.k.a. fans who volunteer to promote a band):
As for Ne-yo, the name of the game is to decrease the chances of a sale here. If you were to pick up handful of Ne-yo CDs, as if you were about to buy them, but then changed your mind and didn't bother to put them back in the same place, that would work.
Nice, huh? It goes on:
Even though this record will be heavily stocked and you might not be able to move all the stock, just relocating a handful creates issues: Even though the store will appear to be out of stock, the computer will see it as in stock and not re-order the title once it sells down and then Ne-Yo will lose a few sales later in the week
At the end of the message, is this bit of, um, inspiration?
Victory at all costs, Victory in spite of all terror, Victory however long and hard the road may be; for without Victory, there is no survival.
A copy of it has apparently gone to executives of the major chains so they can guard against any shenanigans. No one in the music industry is surprised by this kind of thing, but it was a juicy bit of gossip to see someone actually advocating it in print. Or was she? Not long after word spread, Valentine sent out this message:
I hope you guys all realize that this email was a joke! Some of you got it but for those of you that did not I guess my sense of humor may only seem funny to me. If any of you are confused by any of this call me and don’t take things so literally! If I asked you to stand up and do 100 jumping jacks while holding your breath I highly doubt that you would listen! But seriously, call anyway as I do not want anything taken out of context. Shame on my sense of humor!
Riiiiiiiiiiight. A link to Valentine’s MySpace page started circulating as well, but it has since been deactivated.
In the middle of all of this are four guys from Ohio who like to write songs about heartbreak. I’m not a fan, but I kind of feel bad for them. All of these things are being done in their name, and I can’t imagine they’re comfortable with that. Maybe they are, but it doesn’t matter. They have no control and no escape. (Their contract doesn’t even have a buyout clause.)
These tactics and hype nullify Victory's indie-vs.-major battle. If an indie’s copying a major’s business aggression, the line between the two disappears. You can’t wave the indie flag, then tell your street teamers to hide CDs. Or proselytize about rock’s superiority to other music.
It may all be for the naught. Supposedly, Ne-Yo’s first-day sales were significantly higher than Hawthorne’s. Even if Hawthorne manage to debut at #1, it’ll be tainted. If they debut at #2 or even #3—but still sell tens of thousands of CDs—it’ll be seen as a failure.
The indie scene isn’t supposed to be so focused on the bottom line. It’s supposed to rebel against that mindset. Whether it comes from major-label suits or peers with indie cred, it’s just as onerous.