Collecting the Collective
The Alarm Launches Their Counter Attack

Last week, Trent Reznor released his new Nine Inch Nails album, Ghosts I-IV, exclusively through his website. This week, he reported the sales figures – $1.6 million in the first seven days.

That sound you just heard was 400 record company executives all crapping their pants.

I’ve heard some suggest that the rise of digital media means the CD’s days are numbered. While this may be true, I think Reznor’s numbers prove that the CD is alive and well. It’s the traditional record company distribution system that’s on its deathbed. While Reznor offered his new music in a variety of downloadable and tangible formats, the bulk of his sales came from good ol’ hard copies. Specifically, he burned through 2500 copies of the limited deluxe edition – two CDs, a DVD, a Blu-Ray disc and four vinyl records in a fancy box – in a day or so, and at $300 bucks a pop, that netted him $750,000 right there.

The best part is, Reznor doesn’t have to share that money with anyone. No record company is going to be skimming off the top, and he doesn’t have to pay anyone back for recording, marketing and distribution costs. He made $1.6 million in a week, and I’m guessing that most of it is profit – much more of it than he would get if he went through a record company.

Granted, the new NIN only sold in those astronomical numbers because Reznor is able to tap into a fanbase built up through years on a major record label. This is true of Radiohead as well – the new paradigm isn’t going to work for Johnny Six-String in his mom’s garage. But as test cases, both In Rainbows and Ghosts I-IV point the way to the future, like it or not.

So yeah, the bigwigs in the music industry are probably sweating those figures. But the ones who are really going to lose out should this become the template (and it will) are the small record store owners. Reznor just proved that music stores are irrelevant – artists can produce their own CDs and get them right into the hands of their audience, no matter how big that audience is.

Now, of course, we haven’t seen that Reznor will be able to do this – the download portion of his new experiment wasn’t all it could have been, and he hasn’t shipped a single disc out yet, so it remains to be seen how his distribution system will work. But if you’re searching for a good blueprint for running an Internet-based record company right, you need look no further than Marillion – they’ve been doing it for years.

Marillion’s kind of an old-fashioned band – they’re very much concerned with quaint things like melody and thematic resonance, and they determinedly make albums, not disparate singles slammed together on compact discs. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a band exploring the potential of the Internet more than they do. For more than a decade, they’ve run their own Racket Records exclusively through their website, and they’ve fostered a supportive community of fans willing to pre-pay for new albums months before they are even recorded.

The latest of these is scheduled to come out this summer. The album, the band’s 15th, is another double-disc epic like 2003’s Marbles, and will come in deluxe packaging, with a list of the names of those who pre-ordered printed inside. My name will be there – I gave the band my $60 about three months ago, before I knew anything about this new opus. When it is finished, it will be packed and shipped to me by the band and their staff – I’m talking about thousands upon thousands of pre-orders here – and it will end up in my mailbox without having to go through a record company and a retailer first.

Lots of bands do this, but not many do it on Marillion’s scale. More than 12,000 people have pre-ordered the new album, netting the band $725,000 to record and manufacture it. And all before any real details were released.

We have a couple now. The new album will be called Happiness is the Road, referencing a Buddha quote: “There is no road to happiness, happiness is the road.” The two separate volumes bear their own titles as well – volume one is Essence, and volume two The Hard Shoulder. The first volume will be a concept piece, the second a more diverse collection – presumably, containing everything that didn’t fit on the first. And we’ve heard one song, the epic “Real Tears for Sale,” which has a nice riff and some sweet folksy moments.

I’m still not sure I like the title, but I didn’t need to know any of those details to be excited about the new record. Marillion remains one of my favorite bands, even after letting me down last year with the middling Somewhere Else. However, they are another band benefiting from their major-label years – they spent 12 years on a label, building up an audience, and many of the people who continue to buy their stuff came aboard during those years.

But they’ve claimed thousands of fans since then, including me, and they may very well be the model that Internet-based acts of the future turn to. Here’s the secret – let the fans in on things, and keep your promises. The title of the new album was posted to all of us within minutes of the five band members deciding it, and that kind of immediacy is appreciated. More importantly, though, the band has always followed through on their pledges to their fans. This is the third album they’ve asked us to pre-order, and they’ve built up enough trust over the years that there is no doubt this album will be exactly what they promised, and arrive exactly when they say it will.

And you’ll read about it here when that happens.

* * * * *

We can’t talk about bands who use the Internet to maintain their followings and not bring up the Alarm.

Like Marillion, the Alarm had their greatest success in the 1980s, though (like Marillion) they were always more popular in the U.K. than here. It was a tour with U2 in the States that pushed them into the limelight here, and unfortunately, comparisons with that band and its sound dogged the Alarm from that point forward. The original Alarm broke up in 1991, and frontman Mike Peters launched a successful solo career.

He also launched, and through that site began an archive of the Alarm’s too-brief life. I bought the Alarm 2000 Collection, a box set containing everything the band ever recorded, along with numerous rarities and live documents and other surprises, plus a special dedication CD recorded specially by Peters for each box. It’s still the model for career-spanning sets, as far as I’m concerned.

Apparently, there was enough support for Wales’ favorite sons that Peters called up a few longtime friends and reformed the Alarm. It’s a different band, with only Peters remaining from the original lineup, which is why he appends the date to the name – anything he puts out in 2008 will bear the moniker The Alarm MMVIII. But hell, just listen to the new stuff – this is the Alarm through and through.

With this new band, Peters released In the Poppy Fields, a massive three-hour welcome home that initially came on five CDs. To get the whole 54-song extravaganza, you had to subscribe through the website. Then, once every couple of months, a new Poppy Fields CD would show up in your mailbox. Fans were then asked to vote on their favorite tunes, and the results of that poll wound up forming the track list of the 12-song commercial release of the album.

That, my friends, is how you do it. You use the website to give the fans more than they can get in the shops, and you give them the opportunity to help direct what non-fans get to hear. Peters has always had an uncanny knack of making his fans feel on the same level as him, equal partners in the Alarm, and that’s the kind of thing that will ensure success in this post-record company world.

But here’s the fun part: In the Poppy Fields was just the warm-up act. Anyone who heard the follow-up, Under Attack, knows it was one of the best Alarm albums ever – Peters sounds half his age, and the new band smokes. The straight-up rock assault on Under Attack was louder and more punk-influenced than anything Peters had ever done, And now, at 49 years old, he’s rocking harder than ever.

Under Attack was terrific, but it was just one 13-song album. For the follow-up, Peters went back to the In the Poppy Fields strategy – he asked fans to subscribe to what he called the Counter Attack Collective, and promised them seven EPs and a full-length album, which together would make up Counter Attack, the new Alarm record. I subscribed in July, and once a month from then on, a new Alarm disc found its way to my house.

The Collective is complete now – seven EPs and one LP, all pressed on black plastic CDs with ridges, to look like 45 RPM records. Each one comes in its own mini-LP sleeve, and the whole thing fits into a nifty slipcase. It’s all meant to look handmade, like the old punk singles the music brings to mind, and in total it’s 55 tracks, running two and a half hours. If Under Attack is the new Alarm’s London Calling, Counter Attack is its Sandinista.

And make no mistake, if there’s a bigger influence on these songs than U2, it’s the Clash. Peters and his band punk up their attack, but they also add a healthy mix of reggae and dub, and they incorporate the Clash’s experimental streak. They start the whole shebang off with Three Sevens Clash, a powerhouse of an EP that picks up where their hit “45 RPM” left off – slashing punk riffs, explosive drums, anthemic vocals. But by the end, they’ve penned a straight-up Alarm anthem (“Love Hope Strength”) and given us a dubby coda (“Broadcast on Street Airwaves”).

The EPs all stand alone, like individual sides of an album – the songs segue, there are interludes, and each has a consistent musical theme. The punk edge slowly gives way over the first two hours to a more even mix of the band’s chief influences, but they deliver a number of fantastic punk-rock singles here, including “Fightback,” “The Alarm Calling” (a song that breaks a cardinal rule by naming the band in the lyrics, but still rocks anyway), “Higher Call,” “Rat Trap” and “Kill to Get What You Want (Die for What You Believe In).” These are all songs that bands with half the Alarm’s experience would kill to be able to write.

Still, some of my favorite songs on the Collective are the more atmospheric ones. I’m not sure the new Alarm has written a better song than “Love is My Enemy,” a minor-key creeper that will knock you flat. The third EP, Situation Under Control, finds the acoustic guitars taking center stage, and while I dig the old-Alarm sequel “Change III,” I love “Plastic Carrier Bags,” an observational folk song of the highest order.

The final of the studio EPs is called 1983/84 Revisited, and it lives up to its name. Here is the classic Alarm sound – flailing acoustic guitars, big choruses, songs about how wonderful the past was and how we can recapture it. In some ways, it’s a bit too nostalgic – “Reveille” is clearly “Declaration” in different clothes, and “War Song” does a near-perfect imitation of “Spirit of ’76.” But by the time “For the Faithful” is over, if you’ve ever been an Alarm fan, you’ll be moved.

The pacing of the Collective, heard in sequence, is kind of odd here – you get five tracks of wistful, old-time Alarm, followed by a 15-minute medley of old punk numbers recorded live. Technically, the live EP is the bonus disc, but it’s listed seventh on the back of the box, so that’s how I listen to it, and it feels like a bump in the road. It certainly picks the pace back up, and hearing Peters and his band slam through “I’m So Bored with the USA” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” is pretty sweet, but this doesn’t quite belong here.

It’s especially jarring because Counter Attack, the recently released full-length conclusion to the Collective, follows on from the softer sounds of the last couple of EPs. You’d expect an album called Counter Attack to rock right from the get-go, but this record is a slow burner, one that finds the perfect balance between all of the sounds the band has unveiled throughout this trip. “Riot Squad” kicks things off with a U2-ish bass line and guitar figure that morphs into a shouted chorus, and “Loaded” rocks pretty hard. As does “Right Now,” a brilliant half-reggae stomper, and the great “Gun to My Head.”

But the best songs here are the softer ones. Peters has never written anything quite like “Badge of Honour Part Two” (hearkening back to a 1983/84 Revisited track), a dark acoustic interlude. The album ends with a pair of deeper ballads, “Crash and Burn” and “After the Rock and Roll Has Gone,” which close out the Collective on a surprisingly down note. “All these songs and no resolve, all these words with no meaning,” Peters sings in “Crash,” and it’s hard to accept that he’s talking about the past two and a half hours you’ve just heard.

But before you get there, Peters delivers two of the best songs of the entire Collective. “Make It Your Own Way” combines atmospheric night-driving verses with a classic Alarm anthem chorus, and “Come Alive” sounds like a cover of U2’s “One” before it lifts off with a great falsetto chorus. Like the best Alarm songs, these will have you singing along by the second chorus, and they prove that even at tracks 52 and 53 of this massive endeavor, Peters was still turning out terrific tunes with no sign of fatigue.

And “After the Rock and Roll Has Gone” is certainly no exception – it’s actually a sweet finale, picking up on the despair of “Crash and Burn” and sprinkling in some hope. It’s the sound of Mike Peters taking stock, looking ahead to when he can no longer play. “I wish I could take you with me when I go,” he sings, “but this final step I must take alone.” It’s a far cry from the ebullient joy of “Three Sevens Clash,” and it just shows how much of a journey the Counter Attack Collective really is.

After all that, you probably don’t need me to tell you that I think the Collective is excellent, another triumph for a band I’ve loved since I was 13. The fact that very few people will ever hear this thing in its entirety bothers me, and I’ll do my part, of course – go to the website and check it out. But the fact that Mike Peters continues to write and record this much material at this high a standard of quality for his relatively small audience shows his dedication to his art, and to his fans. You can’t fake that, and there’s no substitute for it.

The Alarm will always be one of my favorite bands. They don’t have to keep kicking this much ass to win me over, but I’m glad they do.

Next week, catching up with some CDs that slipped through the cracks, and another Doctor Who review.

See you in line Tuesday morning.