NEW YORK (Billboard) - In the midst of a photo shoot for a Bloomingdale’s ad in Manhattan’s West Village, singer-songwriter Rob Thomas overhears a conversation about Twitter. “Dude,” he says, reaching for a new scarf to throw over a faux-vintage T-shirt, “I’ve gotten to the point where I sit around and wait for things to happen so I can Twitter them.”
Thomas Twittered about the interview (“Did an interview with Billboard during the shoot. She was nice and surprised at my normality. So I peed on her.”) He Twittered about his outfit (“I’m totally rocking the light scarf. Nothing says ‘rock’ like the light scarf. Totally.”) And he has Twittered about watching movies, being sick and making breakfast. In fact, if you subtract the time that Thomas spends answering fans’ questions about his upcoming album and tour plans, he could be just another guy, Twittering his lunch break away.
But of course, Thomas isn’t your average nine-to-fiver. In addition to singing, he wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the Matchbox Twenty albums and his solo albums and also co-wrote the Carlos Santana smash “Smooth,” the track for which he’s best known outside North America.
“I always saw being a rock star as my day job,” he says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great job. But my job is to write songs and perform, just like your job is to do interviews and write articles. I don’t think of myself as a personality.”
He isn’t exactly a stranger, either. According to a survey commissioned by Warner Music Group, one-third of the total U.S. population age 13 and older is familiar with Thomas, and within this group 68 percent are fans of his music. Many of them have also bought his music: His band Matchbox Twenty’s three albums and greatest-hits collection have sold 15.2 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan; and his first solo album, 2005’s “Something to Be,” sold 1.6 million copies.
Even with that impressive track record, Thomas doesn’t assume the public automatically will buy his next album, “cradlesong,” due June 30 on Atlantic. Keenly aware that his fan base ranges dramatically in terms of age and technological interest, Thomas and his label are making every effort to reach people regardless of their chosen pop culture medium. So his marketing plan marries Twitter and TV and SayNow and the Sunday paper.
The start of the campaign was Web-centric. Thirty-second clips of the first single, “Her Diamonds,” were linked to March 31 on Twitter and Fanbase, the same day the ringtone was made available on his Web site. On April 22, the song premiered on Billboard.com, shipped to radio and launched as a ringtone — fairly standard practice for a recording artist in 2009.
On May 10, however, the single will go on sale at Best Buy stores around the country. The physical disc also will be advertised in the circular and provide fans with the ability to pre-order the new album.
Thomas is going against the prevailing trend with his physical single. Many stores don’t stock them, and sales have slid precipitously for several years. According to Nielsen SoundScan, 900,000 physical singles were sold in 2008, down from 1.5 million in 2007 and almost 3 million in 2006.
Thomas notes that the marketing plan is less comprehensive than what was originally presented to him. “I’m fortunate enough to be at a stage where I can say, ‘No, I need some time here and there’ and ‘I don’t really want to do all of that,’” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword, though, because I know that if the record doesn’t sell as much as it could have, I have no one but myself to blame.”
If his previous sales are any indication, Thomas shouldn’t have to beat up on himself too much. Still, he says, he’s constantly reminded that it’s a whole different world now than when Matchbox Twenty started out in the ‘90s.
“We’ve always tried to be ahead of the curve,” says his manager, Michael Lippman, who also manages Matchbox Twenty. Lippman says adopting new marketing methods is necessary because fans have reached a saturation point, besieged by so many bands and different media outlets that they’re simply overloaded.
“There is no more brand loyalty,” Lippman says. “Nobody waits for albums; they just go out and find other bands. They are distracted and multitasking and can’t be bothered to keep up. There was a time when a band could announce they were putting out an album, do a few interviews and play a few shows and people would just come and buy it. Now you have to keep convincing them.”
At the same time, Lippman acknowledges that, for someone so well-known, Thomas spends plenty of his time out of the public eye instead of convincing people to pay attention to him. Thomas and his wife, Marisol, founded the Sidewalk Angels foundation, which helps homeless people and animals — but he doesn’t emblazon his face on his good deeds.
“Rob’s not a celebrity,” Lippman says, “nor does he want to be. People know him as a songwriter and a singer, not as the guy who got in a fight or dated a model and wound up in the tabloids. The record company has pushed, on occasion, for him to be more visible, but he always pushes back.”
“It’s a cliche, but I try to keep the focus on the music,” Thomas says. “I am not open enough to be a celebrity. I’m not going to move to L.A. and go out every night. I live in Westchester (County in New York) and my neighbors are richer and more successful than me, and I can just hang out. I’m not spilling my soul on Twitter.” Thomas is canny about what he writes — by letting readers know about his taste in things like scarves and sandwiches, he’s created an illusion of intimacy without letting them in on his personal life.
As to his longevity, Thomas says, “The secret is, I really don’t have a secret. If anything, we were lucky because we never had a moment. We were never huge and on the cover of Rolling Stone, and we never had a flop where everyone said we were awful. We wrote some great songs, and great songs stick around. People didn’t get into an image, they got into Matchbox Twenty or me.”
Never being associated with a specific fad or moment, Thomas says, is what has allowed him to maintain his career. “There are some acts that are so tied to a hit or two, or to a certain scene,” he says, rattling off the names of a few pop stars before asking that they not be mentioned. “Some of these people are so ‘now,’ but they’re going to sound dated very quickly. Some of these people will always be associated with a scene, and they can’t grow beyond it.”
Lippman adds that Matchbox Twenty and Thomas have never licensed their music to a commercial, nor have they accepted corporate sponsorship for a tour. Thomas’ songs have appeared in a number of films and TV shows, and his first foray into the commercial world will be a partnership with Lyric Culture clothing’s upcoming line at Bloomingdale’s, with Thomas as the first contemporary artist to appear in the line’s ads. But that’s as far as his brand-building ambitions go.
“I have no mogul ambitions at all,” Thomas says. “I have a lot of money already. I could never sell another record and live comfortably for a while. I have a lot of creative and songwriting goals, and I never want to live album to album. But I’m 37 years old, I know what I want, and I don’t want a second career. If I were younger or single, sure, I’d try my hand at things. But I’d rather spend time working on causes I believe in and hanging out with my family.”
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)
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