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COVER STORY

Working Their Way Out of a Jam

The hugely successful Seattle band Pearl Jam isn't what it was even six months ago. Fans are grumbling, integrity is being questioned, album sales are flat. So why are these guys smiling?

December 22, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

BARCELONA, Spain — The five members of Pearl Jam will look a lot more comfortable in 24 hours when they perform before 8,000 cheering fans at the Palau Dels Esports arena than they do now as they gather after dinner in the lounge of their hotel for an interview.

On an off night in one of the most glamorous cities on any European tour itinerary, lead singer Eddie Vedder and his equally media-shy mates would rather be almost anywhere else. Yet Pearl Jam knows that it has some explaining to do.

The question throughout the rock world: Are Pearl Jam's days as a multi-platinum act over?

With album sales slumping and its credibility being questioned, Pearl Jam is the subject of widespread discussion.

Quipped one industry veteran: "Pearl Jam always said they didn't want to be stars. Well, it looks they may soon have their wish."

That possibility seemed unthinkable as recently as six months ago when the Seattle band was the toast of the record industry, having racked up $250 million in album sales in four years despite turning its back on videos, interviews, marathon tours and other promotional activities long considered essential to success in the pop world.

Pearl Jam seemed to feel invincible when it declared war in 1994 on Ticketmaster, vowing to use alternative ticketing systems rather than support a company that it maintained charged fans excessive service fees--a move Ticketmaster called a publicity stunt.

Then things appeared to start unraveling.

The first hint of trouble was the grumbling last year of frustrated fans who complained they couldn't see Pearl Jam live. Many blamed the group's "obsession" with Ticketmaster for the group's low concert profile.

To compound matters, the band's reputation was hurt when--unable to play in premier rock venues such as the Forum in Los Angeles because those facilities have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster--the band sometimes scheduled its few dates in out-of-the-way places that proved to be logistical nightmares. The band was called everything from arrogant to naive.

The shock, however, came in September when the group's fourth album, "No Code," sold only 367,000 copies in its first week. That was the seventh-highest opening week total of the year, but a whopping 61% drop from the group's 1993 high of 950,000 first-week sales for "Vs."

And the sales of "No Code" didn't pick up. Last week, the album--which retailers had counted on being one of the hot holiday sellers--sold 25,000 copies, making it just No. 77 on the national charts. Total U.S. sales to date: about 1.1 million.

Rolling Stone magazine went for the jugular in an October cover story that suggested that Vedder, who has spoken in interviews of a troubled childhood, was actually a popular student in high school, active in drama classes. The implication was his whole anti-rock-star persona was an act.

To some, all these events suggest that Pearl Jam is at a crisis point--at least commercially.

"I think they are still a very, very important band culturally, but they've got to rethink the way they promote themselves if they want to continue to be one of the big players," said one executive who has no business ties to the band or its label, Epic Records. "The way it is now, they are cutting themselves off from their fans. With some changes, however, they could be as big as ever. It's their choice."

In the Barcelona hotel lounge, the band--Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Jack Irons--left little doubt about their position.

They said they feel good about their brief U.S. and European tours and are looking forward to doing more dates in the U.S. next spring and summer. Though they still won't use Ticketmaster, they will work with regional ticket companies in some markets, thus allowing them to play more conventional rock venues.

But no, Pearl Jam doesn't plan on the kind of marathon tours--or other extensive promotional activities--that industry executives believe are required to guarantee multi-platinum sales.

"I guess what has happened to us with this record shows that promotion really does matter, just like everybody told us," Vedder says during the group interview. "If you don't operate in that framework, which we don't, it's obvious that you won't sell as many records. And that's fine. We expected this to happen much sooner than it has.

"To us, it's about choices and lifestyles. Do you want to spend your time on the road and doing promotion, or do you spend your time making [new] music and living your life? At the end of the day, what is most important? To us, I'd like to think it's our music and the quality of our lives."

*

For all the industry debate over Pearl Jam back in the States, the band members are surprisingly upbeat as they step onstage at the Palau Dels Esports.

To the delight of cheering fans, Vedder speaks only in Spanish between songs--simple greetings such as "Hola! Como estas?" and "Nosotros estamos muy bien."

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