Across the street from the evening’s venue at The Rave in Milwaukee, sits the historical looking Ambassador Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue. The inlaid marble floors and Art Deco design of the building’s lounge gives an upper class façade, where women sip martinis and the men order scotch. Off in the furthest corner from the street window, the general décor of the bar is thrown off by facial pierces, t-shirts and blue jeans as three members of the Orange County ska band, Reel Big Fish, sit quietly sipping vodka tonics, bloody Maries, and lattes. Being a little out of place is a scene trombone player Dan Regan says the band is familiar with.
“A lot of times the promoter of a club we play will know someone at the classiest joint in town,” Regan says. “They’ll get us in, then turn around and ask us to change our shoes. We’ll just stand there because we’re in a band. We literally just finished playing and think ‘Man, what are we doing here?’”
Today however, the band has a great reason to sit in an upscale bar and toast drinks. After ten years of being locked to a record label, Reel Big Fish is finally free to set its own path. It’s in control of its own finances, just released a new double live disc, and with a still growing fan base the band is now ready to start over and try to unlearn everything the record companies have taught them.
SELLOUT, WITH ME TONIGHT…
Thirty-three year old Matt Wong sits in the Ambassador’s lounge with his back against the wall, holding a half empty bloody Mary. At this moment he’s a living metaphor for the band’s last ten years in the music industry.
“Bands are a lot like baseball players in the sense that other teams are continually buying your contract,” the bassist said. “One day your on this record label, there’s a negotiation and the next day your with somebody else. You cross your fingers and hope to get treated well, but if you’re not a multi-million dollar act, you basically get lost in the shuffle.”
When Reel Big Fish first signed to Mojo Records (a division of Universal Records) in 1995, ska music had hit the mainstream. Bands like No Doubt and Dance Hall Crashers were receiving high levels of radio play, but Regan said his band remained a little skeptical.
“We thought ‘It’s ska music. It always goes away.’ So when we got signed we figured it was never going to work and tried reveres psychology. If we said it wasn’t going to work than maybe it would.”
The high energy formula that the band developed and the lighthearted lyrics of singer/song writer Aaron Barrett produced two results. The songs struck a cord with ska fans making Turn the Radio Off the group’s highest selling album. It also protected the band from criticism by poking fun at its self and the label that signed it.
“We wanted to be the first ones to mock what we were doing so we could always say ‘We told you so,” says Wong. “It’s like calling yourself out before anybody else can.”
The lyrics on the album also foreshadowed how Reel Big Fish would eventually feel towards the music industry.
“Turn the Radio Off sold over 700,000 records,” recalls Wong. “On our contract we got 12 percent of the record sales, but there were all the promotional costs, and industry X, Y plot graphs. From that 12 percent we had to recoup the record label for money supposedly used and we actually ended up owing.”
Trumpet player John Christianson notes that “Just from that first record, the label probably made around 5.6 million dollars, but the band didn’t see a scent.”
“That’s basically what’s been happening to us throughout our career,” Wong adds. “And there was nothing we could do about it because we were obligated by this damn piece of paper we signed.”
… WHEN DO WE GET PAID?
Wong swallows the bite of asparagus that sat in his bloody Mary soaking up vodka, before leaning forward and screaming “Give us free! Our Chains have been broken!” The Amsted quote causes Regan to throw his arms in the air and cheer, as Christianson breaks into smile. All of the business folk turn and look. “We’ve been on a label of some sort since ’95,” says Wong. “Now we have complete control over what we do.”
Earlier this year Reel Big Fish got a call from Jive Records, who carries artists like Brittany Spears and Justin Timberlake, and was told that they were being dropped from the label.
“They told us not to take it the wrong way and we were like ‘This is great, thanks,’” says Regan. The label didn’t really do much for us. If we wanted to make a video or something we had to call a friend and do it ourselves. So we’ve slowly been networking and piecing everything together waiting for this moment.”
Within three months of losing its label, Reel Big Fish released the independent double live disc, Our Live Album is Better Than Your Live Album, which works as a greatest hits collection, and matching DVD.
“We’re hoping that now with this live album and DVD that people won’t have to buy our past records, which are all on record labels,” says Regan. “We’re still not getting any royalties from our back catalog of songs.”
By producing its own CDs, the band can now claim 70 percent of disc sales, and is no longer under pressure from record execs to hit specific goals.
“The year Turn the Radio Off came out was great because the industry was really pushing ska,” Regan said. “After a year and a half the industry started looking for something new to push and suddenly selling 300,000 records was considered a failure. Man, that’s still a lot of records.”
Regan believes that with the technological bounds over the past 11 years, bands nowadays don’t need to sign a label to get records out.
“With Pro-tools on a laptop, people can make records in there bedroom that sound just as good as the records we made a long time ago,” he says. “Plus with the internet popping up as a dominating force in the music industry, places like Myspace, and the ability to burn 100s of CDs from home, the record industry has really seen a shift from the sort of system that we were shackled to for so many years.”
… EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ THE FISH…
Christianson chokes on Wong’s bloody Mary as he passes it back. “It tastes like cold vegetable soup,” he calls out going back to his alcohol free latte. The band recognizes the irony that the majority of its fans aren’t old enough to drink and yet a good number of its songs involve drinking. But it’s the age of the fans, the band says, that keep them going.
“We always tried to capture the energy of the live shows on our studio records,” says Regan, “But it never really worked. There’s just something about those kids screaming at you that you can’t do in the studio. Maybe we could hire a bunch of 15-year-olds to scream at us and yell ‘Play “Beer!”’ all day.”
Despite poor record sales and a lack of radio play, Reel Big Fish has kept a strong youth following world wide and can consistently sell 700 to 1,000 seat anywhere in the United States.
“You can feel really old really quick in this industry,” says Regan. “Sometimes it’s hard to jump around when you’re 29, wearing a suit and it’s 110 degrees on stage. But even if I’m in the worst mood, after watching the kids dance, I know I better move or they’ll string me up. Our fans can get crazy.”
Regan believes the band also influences the crowd, but that it’s important to set clear boundaries, because of the young age of the fans.
“We sing about our own problems because that’s what we’re experts on,” he says. “Being in a band and drinking, it’s the one thing that we all have in common.”
But when it comes to politics, Regan says that’s where the band draws the line.
“When you’re dealing with 15-year-olds, you have to present a very clear message when talking politics,” he says. “They can’t come up to me, ask me one thing and then go up to Aaron or Matt and get another answer, because these kids are in a place where they’re looking for something to latch on to, and we don’t want to be the ones to mess them up.”
Recently, the band started working with Music for America (MFA), an advocacy group dedicated to raising awareness. During Reel Big Fish's up and coming tour, MFA will be setting up a booth to educate fans on voter registration and to discuss student healthcare and personal finance.
“We have this whole generation of people that are in debt right now because they never learned about any personal finance in school,” says Regan. “We figured by getting involved with MFA we could talk to kids about how the most punk rock, nonconformist thing they can do is not get a credit card and not become a slave to these banks. It’s something the whole band has struggled with and it’s something all of us stand behind.”
…NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD END LIKE THIS…
Wong insists on buying the next round. The luster of the Ambassador’s lounge has worn off and the happy hour crowd starts to filter in. He drops a fat tip on Mike the bartender and divvies out the drinks before turning around to grab his next bloody Mary. His glass is now filled to the top and it spills as he sets it down.
“You have a whole salad bar in there,” Christianson says.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll be fine for a while,” Wong retorts.
Like the rest of the band, Wong is very satisfied with his current place. It took some rough detours to get there, but he and the rest band have somehow remained positive.
“If you would have asked me several years ago if we’d hit our peak, I would have said yes,” Wong says. “We were on the radio, we were in a movie (BASEketball) and at the time I believed that was all we needed. Looking now, the crowds are still the same, we draw just as many people, if not more, and we are finally in control of what we do. So ask me now, do I think we’ve reached the peak? Looking at our history and our track record, I’d have to say no. It still might be awhile before we are there.”