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Major priorities
The Explosion sing the Virgin Records fight song

On a rainy Saturday in late September, the Explosion are spending 12 hours filming the most important two minutes and 47 seconds of their career. But the video for "Here I Am," the first single from the band’s major-label debut, Black Tape, may be even more significant than that: whether it succeeds may determine whether there’s a future for Virgin Records. On a set erected inside the Lansdowne Street club Axis, the band members lounge in front of a white backdrop, bathed in a cocoon of light. Around 11 a.m., the director, John LaCroix, a veteran of the Boston hardcore band 10 Yard Fight, gives them a quick pep talk and rolls film. As the band pretend to play their instruments, frontman Million Dollar Matt Hock karaokes the chorus: "Here I am, here I am, here I am/I’m back at the crossroads again/Let me stand, let me stand, let me stand/On top of the mountain again."

Although "Here I Am" represents a new sound for the Explosion (their old songs were fast, loud, and snotty; this one is mid-tempo, polished, and catchy), the track’s message is not far from that of their 2000 debut, Flash Flash Flash (Jade Tree). The song announces itself with the sense that something important has been misplaced — on Flash, that something was nothing less than punk’s heart and soul — while manifesting a determination to retrieve it at all costs.

Like much of Black Tape, "Here I Am" is also infused with the anxiety of a band who’re being groomed for stardom. For the moment, the Explosion are on top of the world, but they’re well aware how quickly they might come crashing down. There’s a long history of vital Boston punk bands — DMZ in the ‘70s, Gang Green in the ‘80s, Cave In just two years ago — who’ve signed to major labels only to release watered-down discs that failed to reach a wider audience. Guitarist Sam Cave is aware of the precedent. "Yeah, it’s scary. We are taking a risk, but we’re pretty young and we’re gonna survive. I definitely think there’s much scarier things in life."

David Wolter, Virgin’s senior director of A&R, doesn’t think they have that much to worry about: "I think ‘Here I Am’ is a monstrous hit." Wolter earned the Explosion’s confidence because, while at Hollywood Records in the 1990s, he signed the hardcore group Into Another and the proto-emo band Seaweed. And while at Giant Records, he signed Miltown, a Boston post-hardcore band whose line-up included Flash Flash Flash producer Brian McTernan. "It’s an anthem," he adds of "Here I Am." "If we do our job, I think it’s a song that’s going to be on the radio, it’s going to be in commercials."

But it isn’t just the Explosion who’re at a crossroads. Virgin Records has seen its market share shrink over the past several years. Recent high-profile releases by Lenny Kravitz, Courtney Love, and Janet Jackson have stiffed, and that plus two larger snafus — the expensive and unremunerative free-agent signings of Mariah Carey and Robbie Williams — has threatened the company’s financial stability. When the Explosion signed to Virgin, the label’s parent company, EMI, had recently dropped 400 bands from its roster. Now Virgin has decided to bank everything on its ability to break a single band. This past summer, the label axed its radio-promotions department and brought in Bill Carroll. While at Vagrant Records, Carroll had helped break Dashboard Confessional on radio; he then moved to Elektra, where he broke Jet. When he arrived at Virgin, he perused the roster and decided the Explosion would be his next focus.

"Bill’s main thing is that he does one band: he did Dashboard, then he did Jet, and now he’s going to do the Explosion," says Explosion manager Rama Mayo. "And then the radio department, which is the main focus of any major label, suddenly was saying, ‘Hey, it’s all about the Explosion. This is what we’re going to do.’ It literally changed everything for us overnight."

Indeed, the Explosion have become the label’s priority: Virgin has pushed other albums off its release schedule; assembled an internal "Team Explosion" strike force comprising department heads and assistants at all branches of the company to oversee an unprecedented marketing campaign; and curtailed its efforts to promote its other rock albums to radio stations in order to clear the way for "Here I Am." "There’s enough competition at radio stations already," says Wolter. "We’re up against Green Day, Good Charlotte, the Offspring. You go to a radio station and they’ve got a stack of 30 CDs that they’re choosing from. We’ve removed one of the stacks."

No one will say publicly that Virgin needs the Explosion to have a hit in order for the label to survive, but privately several sources close to the label have acknowledged that, in the words of one, "Virgin is counting on this record." David Munns, the chairman and CEO of EMI Recorded Music North America, has been with EMI off and on since 1971; he had a hand in signing the Sex Pistols, and in 2002, he returned as part of a new management team charged with turning the company around. Earlier this year, he closed his pep talk at the annual Virgin Records retreat in New York by quoting the lyrics to "Here I Am." "He turned it into the Virgin fight song: ‘Here I am, I’m back at the crossroads again,’" says Mayo. "Like, ‘Virgin: We need to have a successful year, we need to break a band.’ "

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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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