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POP BEAT

It's Not Much to Hoot About

After Hootie & the Blowfish's debut album sold 9 million copies, much was expected from their second release, 'Fairweather Johnson.' Boy, have they been surprised.

July 20, 1996|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hootie & the Blowfish's debut album spent more than six months on the nation's Top 10 chart last year en route to selling more than 9 million copies, according to SoundScan.

By contrast, the South Carolina pop-rock group's new album has fallen to No. 19 after just 12 weeks in the stores--with total sales of around 1.6 million copies.

Is there a problem here?

No one expected the new album, "Fairweather Johnson," to match the sales of its predecessor, "Cracked Rear View." Even sales of albums by such established stars as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen have fluctuated greatly over the years.

Jackson went from 20 million-plus U.S. sales of "Thriller" in the early '80s to the estimated 6 million sales of "Bad" in the late '80s. Springsteen dropped from the 13 million sales of "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984 to around 3 million of his next studio album, 1987's "Tunnel of Love."

But what about all that talk in the record industry and the media that Hootie & the Blowfish had tapped into some American consciousness--the "silent majority," in political terms, who weren't being served by grunge-rock, hip-hop or other current music trends?

Atlantic Records and the band's management say one explanation for the relatively tepid sales of the new album may be the "regular folks" nature of the Hootie fans.

Unlike the "active" young rock and rap fans who pride themselves in having a particular artist's new album as soon as it hits the stores, Hootie's fans are seen as older, more casual buyers who don't pay attention to release dates or feel any urgency to have the new album immediately.

Despite an avalanche of newspaper, magazine, MTV, VH1 and radio coverage of the new Hootie album, Rusty Harmon, the group's manager, said he wouldn't be surprised if some Hootie fans don't even know there is a new album.

"Some bands have fans that are rabid and their albums may sell in the first week but then might not do another million," he said. "Sure, I'd love to have 14 million people buy this album the first week or two it was out, . . . but our fans aren't like that."

(The 14 million figure for "Cracked Rear View" is based on units shipped to stores, a figure confirmed by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. SoundScan measures units actually sold in stores.)

Ron Shapiro, Atlantic Records general manager, concurs with Harmon: "Many [fans] might just have discovered when the band was on with Jay Leno last week that Hootie had a new album."

Still, there has been little sense of momentum with the new record, some observers say.

"We're not playing the first single ['Old Man and Me'] anymore," says Angela Perelli, music director for L.A. pop station KYSR-FM (98.7), also known as Star Radio. "We are playing [the new single] 'Tucker's Town,' but it's too early to tell how the listeners feel about it. Neither of these songs have the emotional connection of the songs from the last album. The soul is still there in the music, but not as much in the lyrics."

"There's definitely a problem," says Mike Morrison, program director of Los Angeles adult-alternative radio station KSCA-FM (101.9). "Of course, with well over a million sold, it's the kind of problem most record companies would love to have."

Many industry observers warn against judging an album's sales potential too quickly. Unlike the film world, where first- or second-week box-office receipts can spell victory or disaster for a movie, albums can overcome slow initial sales with a sudden hit single or a successful tour. Still, some albums never rebound from slow starts.

Executives at Atlantic are counting on future promotional activities--including touring and TV appearances--to help stimulate sales of "Fairweather Johnson."

On the TV front, Hootie has August dates set on "Late Show With David Letterman," "Good Morning America," "CBS This Morning," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Showtime at the Apollo."

More important, the band kicked off a national concert tour last week that will concentrate on facilities in the 15,000- to 20,000-seat range.

Ticket sales are generally solid around the country, including Southern California, where the group plays Sept. 15 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and Sept. 17 at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion.

Other singles, too, are lined up for release.

"A lot of people who bought the first record . . . didn't buy it until radio was playing the fourth single," says Bob Bell, new release buyer for the Torrance-based Wherehouse chain. "We expect the same to be true of this album. More and more people will discover it after a second, third or fourth single. I certainly expect the record to be selling well through Christmas."

Meanwhile, the debut album's shipment figure of 14 million gives it a strong chance to break the current record for a major-label debut album--15 million for Boston's 1976 album.

"We have struck a chord in American culture," Harmon says optimistically. "We're headed in the right direction."

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