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‘Sucker’ Punch: The Behind-the-Scenes Players to Launch Jonas Brothers’ First No. 1

The trio's longtime manager, A&R and label chief explain how a thaw in sibling relations led to a strategy of silence, then shock and awe.

America is collectively a sucker for the Jonas Brothers again — or at least that’s the strong indication from first-week results for their comeback, a full decade after the trio last had a top 30 single. “Sucker” just became their first song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, and the first by any band to debut at the top of the chart in more than 20 years. According to Buzz Angle Music, the first seven days for “Sucker” racked up a combination of 30 million audio streams, 16 million video streams and 88,000 digital sales, on top of a fast radio start that found nearly every pop station adding the tune.

How’s it possible one of the biggest phenomena of the late 2000s never had a No. 1? Back in their original heyday, radio and older fans were both mutually suspicious of any act coming out of the Disney camp, no matter how massive the ticket sellouts or record sales (they had four straight platinum or double-platinum albums, if you count the “Camp Rock” soundtrack). Ten years later, pent-up fan energy is meeting no such gatekeeper resistance.

“As big as they were previously, they’ve never seen this kind of chart action, which is pretty wild at this point of their career,” Monte Lipman, the chairman/CEO of Republic Records, tells Variety. “They were an arena act, but in terms of the traditional record flying up and down the charts, they never had that. From the outside looking in, I was always intrigued by their success and thinking about what would happen if they had a record that stormed the charts on top of all of that, like they do now. So we’ve been having a blast.”

Crucial parts of the campaign: “Having Nick’s and Kevin’s wives and Joe’s fiancée be a part of the video was really powerful, and that visual provided a lot of fuel at launch that was beneficial to the whole campaign,” says Phil McIntyre, founder/CEO of Philymack, their management company. “And the platform of James (Corden, whose show featured the Jonas Brothers for an entire week) was phenomenal and made for great, fun content that travels.” The “Carpool Karaoke” was even revealing enough about the brothers’ personal story to make up for a lot of interviews they could have done and didn’t. But prior to the video and Corden, the perhaps even more critical component in the plan was… silence.

“It was definitely part of our strategy, to try to keep it under the radar, and it was helpful that it stayed there,” says McIntyre, “because we were totally expecting that it wouldn’t.”

“As hard as it is to keep a secret in 2019, especially when you’re three of the most followed guys online,” says Republic’s EVP of A&R, Wendy Goldstein, “they did a great job at keeping it quiet. And the Jonas Brothers as a band may have been dormant, but their individual development and success probably contributed to amplifying excitement. They’ve been out there for six years in the public eye, but not as Jonas Brothers,” she says. “It was the perfect tease.”

Adds Lipman, “Because when you think about the marketplace, nearly 150,000 new songs are made available every single week, and the greatest competition we’ve got right now is that sheer volume — the static, the noise. So in this case the best thing to do was almost the opposite, something without any messaging, and literally just drop it out of the sky — and ka-boom, it’s the loudest bang you can create.” But everyone was concerned the secrecy could be blown at any moment. “Any time the guys were ever seen in the same room together, the rumors started flying. So there was a lot of denial, absolutely.”

Plausible deniability, though, because the Jonases really did have another reason to be in one another’s company — a documentary — and the recording was an outgrowth of the unofficial on-camera therapy sessions undertaken for that.

“A year ago, we started making a documentary with just the intention of telling what an incredible story these brothers have of taking this journey together and growing up in the public eye together as a family, and the ups and downs of it,” says McIntyre. “And it was not to necessarily make new music or anything like that. So it unfolded in the most authentic way possible, and I think that’s part of why there was an element of surprise, because for the most part when they were seen together, most people thought it was for the documentary.”

When did a documentary shoot turn into a resumption of the Jonas Brothers as a commercial and artistic enterprise? “I would say it was toward the end of the summer last year,” McIntyre says. “Because we probably did four or five different trips with the brothers: They went to Australia where Joe was shooting ‘The Voice.’ They went to Jersey and to a couple other locations, and probably after the fourth or fifth location, they had sort of processed through so much of the things that tore ‘em apart earlier in their career, and just started to get honest with each other. And there’s a magic to when they’re together, and as much success as anyone’s had on their own solo journey, it doesn’t necessarily compare to what they’ve experienced as brothers. So it was toward the end of summer that they started to have the conversations around it, and it was at that point that I said, ‘I’ve got to get with Monte and talk through this.’ Because in my mind, there was only one place to do this, and that was with Republic. I just knew that they would they would be able to nail it.”

Finding a new label home for the Jonas Brothers, many years after their departure from Disney’s Hollywood Records, wasn’t a stretch. Republic had had Joe’s interim project, the group DNCE, and been jointly involved with Island Records on Nick’s solo career.

Lipman says he didn’t offer any preferences for which stylistic direction the Jonas Brothers should take their new music, once he was brought in. “Monte Lipman? No,” he chuckles, as if the idea that he’d get personally involved in their A&R is a laugh. “I learned a long time ago just let them let them do their thing. The cool thing about working with the Philymack camp in particular and the Jonas Brothers as their partners is that when they come to the table, so much of it is been vetted, and ‘Hey, this is the way we’d like to present the music. This is the aesthetic.’”

But Goldstein did get highly involved as recording continued — and had a strong preference when it came time to pick a single out of the supposed two albums’ worth of material the trio has recorded. “There are some really powerful bangers ready to go,” she says. “But ‘Sucker’ just had a vibe. It felt like a great way to come out. I think everybody agreed on that.” After her persuasiveness, anyway. “There definitely was a debate as far as what the first look would be,” says McIntyre,  “and to Wendy’s credit, she was the one who said, ‘I feel strongly that “Sucker” is the right first sound and first song.’”

Joe Jonas, Nick Jonas, Kevin JonasJonas Brothers in concert, Los Angeles, USA - 07 Mar 2019
CREDIT: Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“Sucker” is much more akin to the dance-oriented material Nick and Joe have done in the interim years than the guitar-based, power-pop sound the brothers played in the 2000s. At recent “secret” shows in New York and L.A., the group sounded like they did in the first part of their career — that is, like a straight-up, heavy-on-the-hooks rock band — and they rearranged the one new song they played, “Sucker,” just enough that it fit in with the guitars-and-live-drums ethos of their old sound. But that may not be an indication of where the eventual album will be headed.

“Creatively, they’ve evolved, as any artists would after a decade,” says Goldstein, not quite willing to commit them to a genre. “I don’t think it’s tied to any era in particular. They were adamant about making an honest, real and somewhat raw comeback. They draw on their history together, but it’s an exciting new chapter.” McIntyre is a little more committal about how fans shouldn’t expect the new material to exactly revive the 2000s: “I would say that you will be able to see and hear the influences of what Joe did in his solo career and what Nick did in his solo career come together in a very natural way.”

It was a good time for the brothers to reunite, personal reasons aside, because although their solo endeavors had kept them somewhat in the limelight — Nick as a solo artist and Joe with DNCE had both made the top 10, and had ongoing success on the dance charts — neither had had such an ongoing run of hits that a resumption of the brother act would seem like a step backward. Nothing was guaranteed: The last time the Jonas Brothers tried coming back after a layoff, in 2012-13, on an indie label, the media and radio weren’t much interested, and their personal disagreements took such a toll that a planned album and tour were canceled as they officially broke up. But clearly a few years of their absence as a collective made the public heart grow fonder.

“They were part of a lot of people’s most influential years, of their childhoods or beyond,” says McIntyre, “and so I think that the timing of them bringing those positive, good times has resonated, and people appreciate them now for being the soundtrack to their lives.” Plus, there’s the small matter of the song being good, “so we do get the opportunity to get a whole new audience that isn’t there for nostalgic reasons. It’s very much a two-pronged strategy.”

As for an album, “We’re working through the timeline now,” McIntyre says. “I think everybody would like to get it out as quick as possible, so I would look to the first half of this year.” As for a live return, the brothers had 35 minutes of material very solidly rehearsed for their secret El Rey show last week, but the nature of a tour is still under discussion. Picking up where they left off at the height of their careers, in arenas, has been part of the conversation, but so have more modest venues. Nick leaves this week to shoot a “Jumanji” sequel, which may put a slight speed bump in those discussions.

Will the documentary, done in partnership with Amazon, come out simultaneously with the album? “As of right now they’re separate things,” McIntyre says, “but we’re looking at it. Because as you tell this story, you realize that so much of the story revealed itself through the process that then led to the music. So we’re playing with just how to kind of roll out the two bodies of work.”

McIntyre says some healing had gone on before work on the documentary started, but the filming process caught any sense of alienation further breaking down. “I think that they are like most families out there — that they had touched on the issues enough to be able to move forward, but they didn’t really get into it,” says the manager. “They didn’t go into the depth of where the hurt was each one of them really felt in those moments, and being able to articulate it and explain it to each other. That was a discovery along the way of making this. It wasn’t something that we knew was there, necessarily; it was once we got into it, we sort of all looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of layers to this that need to be discussed.’”

Lipman also says the documentary will further reveal that the reunion “is not a marketing ploy. It’s not anything that was calculated. It wasn’t a money grab.” But if they’re able to mint some out of the finally refreshed brotherly love, that will be a significant Jonas bonus.

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