When Arcade Fire, perhaps the biggest critics’ darling since Radiohead in its heyday, saw its latest release, “The Suburbs,” shoot to No. 1 on Billboard’s comprehensive album chart, many were content to credit that success to Amazon.com, which featured downloads of the album for the better part of a week at just $3.99.
And while it’s undeniable that the price point had an effect — the album moved 167,000 units for the week ended Aug. 8, some 75,000 more than the band’s second album, 2007’s “Neon Bible” — it’s also due to the labors of Merge Records, which has handled the band since it formed in 2003, and publicists at Nasty Little Man, which helped put the band front and center with cross-media tie-ins.
“The Suburbs” benefitted from a collision of fortunate events: prominent advance press, including high-profile pieces in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Spin; a live concert from Madison Square Garden streamed on Vevo/YouTube directed by Terry Gilliam; and rhapsodic reviews (an 86 out 100 on Metacritic).
Mac McCaughan co-founded Merge — which also reps Spoon, Richard Buckner and Zooey Deschanel’s band She & Him — 21 years ago with Laura Ballance, who is also his partner in the band Superchunk (yes, there are label heads who are actually musicians). McCaughan notes that a “perfect storm (of factors) was something that everybody here worked really hard on to create.”
Arcade Fire also has helped itself, using film and television to fan the flames of curiosity between releases, with songs to the trailers for Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” last year, and David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008. The band let the NFL use “Wake Up,” from its debut album “Funeral,” in a Super Bowl spot (and donated the earnings to relief efforts in Haiti).
“The Suburbs” is only the third independently distributed No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 this year. Coincidentally, one of the previous, Vampire Weekend’s “Contra,” also benefitted from Amazon’s $3.99 price point (though only for a single day).
Independent musicstores, such as Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, sold 18,000 copies of “The Suburbs” in its first week of release. That may not be an Eminem-like number, but Brad Scheldon, the indie buyer for Amoeba, says it’s been at least three years since the store experienced sales like those on the first day of release for “Suburbs”: Amoeba moved 133 CDs and 60 LPs, harking back to the days of Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief.” “It was pretty remarkable,” Scheldon says.
Amazon’s one-week $3.99 discount was undoubtedly a key factor in the album’s No. 1 debut. Digital downloads from sites including Amazon and iTunes (where the price is $9.99) constituted 62% of first-week sales for “The Suburbs.”
But lest anybody accuse Arcade Fire of selling out to the man, the label had nothing to do with Amazon’s decision to feature the album as a “Daily Deal” or to extend the deal from a single day to four. An Amazon spokesman says the company’s decision, not unlike an Oprah Book Club selection, is “based on artists we feel will resonate with our customers.”
Part of Arcade Fire’s mystique, according to McCaughan, is that it “likes to do things that are really different; they just don’t say yes to everything.”
One of the things the band said yes to was performing on “The Daily Show,” which has featured only a half-dozen music acts since the White Stripes appeared in 2005. A live clip of the new album’s “Ready to Start” generated more than 68,000 hits on the show’s website in the five days after it aired, Aug. 12.
McCaughan is also mindful of overexposure, a la Lady Gaga. “You’re trying to create a presence out there,” he says. “But at the same time, the band doesn’t want to become something so ubiquitous that people just kind of turn off to it.”