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“If we can do it and we have the manpower to do it, then we should,” he says of his label’s marketing efforts. “You know, when you see a band start buzzing, you start seeing their name in different places, and you’re like, ‘Why do I keep seeing this band name?’ Some of these little things can amount to bigger things.”
For Plain White T’s, the method—combined, of course, with melodic, heart-on-sleeve punk anthems—essentially worked. A little song called “Hey There Delilah,” off the the band’s second Fearless album, worked its way into the midregions of the alt.-rock charts.
Starting five years ago and up until recently, Fearless’ distribution contract specified that if a certain band started selling a certain number of records, a major label would get first dibs on poaching—or “upstreaming”—the band. But even after Plain White T’s started moving units, labels such as Atlantic and Warner Bros. took a listen but weren’t interested, Becker says. Hollywood Records, though, was. Negotiations ensued, and Fearless, as it often does, let the band go to the larger label. “We know what’s going on the whole time because a lot of times, the bigger company will contact us and say, ‘Hey, we’re checking out your band; what do you think?’” Becker says. “To me, it’s exciting. It’s validation that ‘Hey, we had a good band.’”
But it’s also bittersweet. “When you’re in here working all day long, and you have 15 people doing it, it’s a hard thing to put your life’s work into it and have a band go somewhere else,” says Trey Herring, Fearless’ director of finance. “But everybody here is okay with that. We see it happen, and they just get the job done because it’s the best thing for the artist.”
It’s also often not a terrible deal for Fearless. For one thing, the major label will pay the smaller label to acquire an artist with a still-active contract. For another, having a successful alum on a major label means the Fearless-owned back catalog of that artist will sell better. And there’s the elevated profile that comes for an indie label that births a major-label success.
In the case of Plain White T’s, it also didn’t hurt that the band’s most radio-ready song—“Hey There Delilah”—was on a Fearless-released record. While it had some success as a Fearless single, Hollywood’s muscle pushed it to the top of the charts (not to mention onto American Idol—repeatedly). But during its climb to No. 1, the song, even while being promoted by Hollywood Records, sent all of its iTunes profit to Fearless. Becker jokes he named his boat “Delilah” because of that. (He didn’t really.)
Regardless of how well Plain White T’s moving on penciled out for Fearless, Becker says, on some level, he wishes he could have kept them. What’s more, the pattern of Fearless bands moving to majors seems to be accelerating. Plain White T’s released three albums with Fearless before being upstreamed; the Maine and Florida’s Mayday Parade each moved away after only one album.
“The hardest part is [selling] zero to 125,000 units,” says Herring. “The majors have a hard time doing that, and we can develop bands to that. So when the band have nothing, we look great. We’ve brought them to this level, but then the major can come and bedazzle them.”
Higgenson says he only has affection for Fearless. The band’s first gig in its current lineup was in Becker’s back yard, and after Plain White T’s got big, they paid Becker a favor by bringing the newly signed Mayday Parade on tour with them. “They believed in us when nobody else did,” Higgenson says of the label. “We’ll forever be grateful for that. And Bob’s got the right idea, taking talent and developing it. That’s what it’s all about.”
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A few years ago, Becker received a call from a member of the band Knockout, a low-rent Chicago version of Blink-182 that he had signed in 2003. Fearless had had its issues with Knockout: The band, it turned out, were flaky, and Becker suspected drugs played a role. And the band member was drunk when he called Becker. But, he told his label’s boss, he had a friend who was staying with him—who had nowhere else to stay—who would be perfect for Fearless.
The friend’s name was Pete Wentz. His band was Fall Out Boy. And Becker wasn’t interested.