By Adam Lovinus
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By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The Maine were just kids when Fearless Records asked them to come to California. It was 2007, and some members of the Tempe, Arizona, pop-rock quintet were still in high school. But MySpace buzz and hooky songs with plaintive vocals led the Huntington Beach-based label to express an interest in signing them to a record deal. And so the Maine borrowed one of their parents’ Suburbans, loaded it up and drove across the desert to play a concert Fearless had booked at the Alley in Fullerton.
The show was not, strictly speaking, a success.
“I remember there were five band members and five middle-school girls with their cell phones, one for each member, right in the front,” says Fearless general manager Todd McCarty. “That was it.”
The performance matched the turnout. “They were pretty miserable live, and they knew they were miserable live,” Fearless founder/president Bob Becker recalls. “The singer had his back to the crowd the whole time. I don’t think everyone [from Fearless] walked out of that club going, ‘Oh, my God, we have to do this.’”
And yet, they did do it. Within days, Becker offered the Maine a chance to be on the label, which had previously been home to such acts as the Aquabats, Plain White T’s, Sugarcult and At the Drive-In. “I saw something in them, some potential,” he says of the Maine. “And we sign bands on potential. The live thing, I never worry about that; a band can become good live through practice.”
By most standards, his bet paid off. The Maine’s debut full-length album was one of the top 40 albums in the country—among the top 15 rock albums—as measured by the Billboard charts. Their follow-up debuted at No. 16 in the Billboard 200 this past June. And the Maine’s live show has improved; they sold out a recent headlining date at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Now they’re co-headlining the first Fearless Friends Tour, which comes to Anaheim’s House of Blues on Nov. 11.
There’s one problem, though: The Maine are no longer signed to Fearless. The success of their first album attracted the attention of Warner Bros. Records, a subsidiary of one of the “Big Four” major labels. When the band play the Fearless Friends tour, they’ll be just friends to Fearless.
The story arc of the Maine is all-too familiar to the label. For more than 15 years, Fearless has labored as one of the curators of the Hot Topic zeitgeist, spotting and sponsoring devotion-catching acts in emo, pop punk, melodic hardcore and even, in the case of the Aquabats, ska. Becker and company have dug up promising bands, helped them cultivate a rabid fan base, and then said goodbye once major labels took notice and scooped the bands up for globe-conquering success. It happened with Plain White T’s, who landed a No. 1 worldwide hit after moving from Fearless to Disney’s Hollywood Records and wound up sitting next to Ringo Starr at the Grammys. It happened with At the Drive-In, who put out their commercial and critical breakthrough Relationship of Command on Capitol Records’ Grand Royal. It happened with Sugarcult, and it happened with Mayday Parade.
It might not happen again. Fearless is close to striking a deal with a major label, which, Becker says, will allow them to hold on to the talent they find. Such a deal would bring challenges—both logistical and of appearance. But as long as he keeps working the same way, Becker says, the label will continue to be successful. After all, it’s not like the audience ever goes away. “There are always kids,” Becker says. “Kids are always popping up, popping in and popping out somewhere.”
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Fearless was a punk-rock label when it started in 1994, but now that tag hardly fits. For one thing, punk-rock label bosses aren’t supposed to have sun-filled offices directly overlooking the blue waters and bobbing boats of Huntington Harbor. But under a wall of framed gold records, Becker, 47, sits each day in a room with view of the docks.
Each Tuesday brings the label’s “marketing meeting,” during which a dozen or so staffers gather around a long conference table in the room next to Becker’s office. Most employees are dressed as casually and hip as you’d expect—well-kept band T-shirts or flannel button-downs and crisp, dark jeans. Becker, though, manages to be even more casual—shlumpy, perhaps—in distinctly un-hip cargo shorts.
A showing of the rough cut of a music video for Arizona emo-metal band Blessthefall kicked off a recent meeting. It played less like a music video, though, and more like a video-production project from a student group of class clowns. The music rushed by in the back, secondary to dialogue and sound from a plot based—almost scene-for-scene—on that of The Hangover. After its more-than-seven-minute runtime, the lights came up and the feedback came in a patter from those around the table. The consensus: less live-action, more music, and shorten it. “It’s pretty cheesy,” said one attendee, “but I think the kids will like it.”