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Music News

Korn keeps cool amid high-profile pressures

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Billboard) - It’s about 45 minutes before Korn is scheduled to take the stage at Los Angeles rock station KROQ’s annual Weenie Roast y Fiesta, and the band’s roadie needs an iPod bad.

Korn guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer (L) and singer Jonathan Davis sign autographs November, 18, 2004. It's about 45 minutes before Korn is scheduled to take the stage at Los Angeles rock station KROQ's annual Weenie Roast y Fiesta, and the band's roadie needs an iPod bad. REUTERS/Ethan Miller

It’s not that he has the sudden urge to listen to music. After all, Incubus is onstage, playing for some 16,000 enthusiastic fans at the sold-out Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

Rather, it’s drummer Joey Jordison’s first show with the band, and he and founder/singer Jonathan Davis have yet to log much rehearsal time. The band’s hired help wants the two to hear some of the songs they will be playing together.

Amid the hubbub of an outdoor backstage area -- KROQ staffers conducting artist interviews a few feet away, Incubus onstage just 30 or 40 yards behind him, managers and makeup artists hustling about and, yes, stressed roadies seeking iPods -- Davis relaxes in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, sipping an energy drink. In fact, neither Davis nor the other principles in Korn -- guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer and bassist Regunald “Fieldy” Arvizu -- appear at all troubled that someone in the band might be in need of a “tune-up” less than an hour before showtime.

MUSIC-BIZ VETS

One might expect this from Korn. The band has been around the block a few times. The nu-metal founder is now nearly 15 years old, and has sold, collectively, more than 16.5 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. This will be the act’s third time playing the Weenie Roast. Even in a year when the industry insiders loitering backstage are heard grumbling that radio doesn’t sell albums like it used to, the Weenie Roast is not something to be taken lightly. A few days after the May 19 concert, Linkin Park, another band that emerged from the nu-metal scene unscathed, notched the No. 1 album in the U.S. and the best first-week sales of 2007.

Korn is also riding a bit of a renaissance. After three straight studio albums of declining record sales, the band reversed the trend with “See You on the Other Side,” released the day before Christmas in 2005. The album has sold 1.2 million units and spawned Korn’s first top 10 hit (“Twisted Transistor”) since 2002 single “Here to Stay.” On July 20, the band will kick off another edition of the multimillion-dollar-grossing Family Values Tour, and will release its as yet-untitled studio album on July 31.

Korn’s success is validating -- some in the group might say attributed to -- a new approach to doing business for bands. Korn signed with EMI/Virgin in 2005, and its forthcoming set is the second and final album of the two-album deal that landed the metal stalwart $25 million upfront from the major. In what amounted to a revenue-sharing deal, EMI acquired a 30 percent stake in Korn’s overall business through 2010. Additionally, concert promoter Live Nation invested a reported $3 million for 6 percent of Korn’s box office, licensing, publishing, merchandising and CD sales.

“They weren’t just giving us money for nothing,” Davis says. “We all know that CDs are declining. If we do good and blow this band up more, then they’re going to see money on the package and touring and everything else that’s going on. This deal gave them incentive to do their job. I think it really did since we’re here, we’re back, and we’re as big as ever.”

ALL’S CALM

In the minutes leading up to Korn’s performance at the Weenie Roast, Davis chats on his cell phone and swaps stories about his kids, and Shaffer is less interested in any last-minute tuning than he is in playing with his daughter. An iPod docking station is never found, but no matter -- any looseness between the playing of Jordison, who’s best-known for his work with Slipknot, and Davis can get worked out later.

Behind all this good fortune and Zen lies a slightly more complicated, contractually clad outlook. On one hand, the band’s unusual deal means that Live Nation has every reason to support album sales and EMI to root for blockbuster tours -- big business partners fiscally encouraged to look out for themselves by looking out for the holistic success of the band.

“You stop living and dying by the album cycle,” Capitol Music Group COO Jeff Kempler says. “There is such a diversity of revenue streams, you don’t get caught in a narrow way of thinking, which is: the big event with the album release, then whatever else you can squeeze out of the lemon, and then move on.”

As proof of the increased collaboration among the parties, Kempler points to the band’s having put out two additional releases on top of “See You on the Other Side” -- “Korn: Unplugged,” taken from a performance on MTV, and “Chopped, Screwed, Live & Unglued,” a remix/live album -- in a span of a year.

“We didn’t have to get into a whole big rugby scrum with the band over, ‘Does this count as an album?’ ‘How do we apply royalties since it is old songs?’ ‘What do we do about the publishing?’,” he says. “I don’t think you would be able to get those additional pieces of product (so quickly) in a normal deal.”

BREAKING THE MOLD

Davis says he’s seen the difference. But at the same time, having accepted all that upfront money, the band is under a lot of pressure to deliver. “A lot of people criticized us,” Davis says. “They said a record company has no f***ing business getting in the touring business or doing any of this. But ... It’s good. People are scared just because the old way of doing business is broke.”

After Korn inked its lucrative deal with EMI, nearly all the press for “See You on the Other Side” couldn’t help but mention the multimillion-dollar figure in connection with the steady decline in Korn’s album sales.

The last album turned that trend around, but the band’s upcoming release will be the first album Korn recorded on the dole of investors rather than an advance. “See You on the Other Side” was recorded before it signed with EMI, and largely with hitmaking production team the Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair), adding more pop hooks and synthesized rhythms to its efficient, guitar-solo-less metal.

This time around, amid some changes -- founding drummer David Silveria left to become a restaurateur, and the Matrix left the project early in the recording process -- the band has crafted perhaps its most musically serious work since 2002’s “Untouchables.” On the album’s 12 tracks, Korn balances every chorus with murky keyboard atmospheres and toying arrangements, with songs that deeply explore a mood before exploding into a frenzy.

It will be Korn’s most closely watched release of its career, foretelling whether Korn will receive yet another lucrative deal with EMI.

“It definitely adds stress,” Shaffer says. “It’s not just a band involved. The record company is counting on you to do what you can, and we want to show them that we care. And that stress can trickle all the way down to the family. Keeping that balance between the band and the record company is as important as keeping the balance between the family and the band. Once you start losing those balances, no one will want to do business with you, and we want another record deal from Virgin.”

Still, if Korn negotiates a similar deal next time around, there will be what Shaffer calls “modifications.”

He’s asked to clarify.

“I don’t know about touring for three years straight,” he says. “That’s kind of crazy ... They really kind of hide the number of shows. I guess if I asked they would probably tell me, but it’s not like I want to look at it.”

As the band takes the Weenie Roast stage, it is “show No. 1,” according to Shaffer.

Davis, now front and center onstage, has traded in his street clothes for a kilt and a sleeveless black shirt. The band’s set is heavy on the early hits, with such cuts as “God Good,” “Falling Away From Me” and “A.D.I.D.A.S.” inspiring the sold-out crowd of more than 16,000 to mimic Davis’ every hunched-down stomp.

Davis attributes the band’s continued success to the fact that it was one of the first acts to popularize the so-called rap/rock movement of the mid-‘90s, even though Korn moved away from the sound with 1999’s “Issues.”

“It ended up being the cool hip thing that we started, but we moved on,” Davis says. “Once you’re the first band, that fan base survives.”

Reuters/Billboard

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