Is Cake topping the charts really such a bad thing?
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Scanning my headlines the other day, I noticed a cool oddity: Cake had set the record for the lowest-selling number one album in Billboard history. Two notable aspects of this:
1. Cake had a new album!
2. Cake’s Showrooms of Compassion topped the charts with just 44,000 units sold. Cage the Elephant finished second, and a bunch of stuff I’d have a hard time caring about followed. It’s a blur.
My initial response to the news was kind of a qualified chuckle. Cake at the top of the charts just felt fun and cool. Cake, occupying the throne in a world of country and R&B stars that fill the ears of disinterested Walmart shoppers on a daily basis. It's fantastic.
Of course, that's not the real news. The real news is that a band topping the album charts with so few units sold, relatively, is a horrible sign that the industry is in a slide from which it won't recover.
If the industry wasn't in full panic mode before, it's howling at the moon now. In 1993, Pearl Jam set a first-week sales record with 950,378 copies of its second album, Vs., sold (in the old five-day counting system). Garth Brooks' Double Live took the record in 1998 with 1,085,000 sold, and *NSYNC is the current record holder, thanks to 2.42 million teenage girls buying its No Strings Attached in 2000.
Cake operates outside of the main industry arteries. Showroom of Compassion was released on its own Upbeat Records imprint, formed after the band left Columbia, a subsidiary of Sony. The record, their first since late 2004, built up momentum the old fashioned way — through touring and buzz from the leadoff single, "Sick of You."
The album itself is a strong one. It's tight and it's fun, the kind of record that should please the band's longtime fans while bringing in newer ones who might be exposed to their music for the first time. It has been 14 years since "The Distance" was a hit, after all. There could be a number of fans who have never previously heard of Cake.
If you haven't heard from the band in a while, there's much more singing on the record in place of the speak-singing that frontman John McCrea has perfected. They've always been inventive, but it's still refreshing to see them stretch out a bit, with R&B touches alongside their typically funky approach.
That fun, old-school dancibility is on display on "Mustache Man (Wasted)," while the single "Sick of You" deserves all the airplay it can get. It's got great hooks, if that's your thing, but it's cool and catchy, the kind of song you won't mind having rattle around your brain for hours. In essence, it's a classic Cake single.
So, the band bided its time writing and recording, and produced a strong album. For all this, they were rewarded with a solid first week that, as it were, happened to be the best this week.
I'm not an anarchist, but I have my moments, so it really is difficult to look at this situation and not smile a little. Through years of price gouging and working not with the best interest of the consumer or the artist, but in the interests of the machine behind them, the industry built up unsustainable expectations, and have been feeling the effects for close to a decade now. Cake, a hard-working band that operates under a music-first ideal, are paying the bills and delivering solid tunes to their fans.
And this week, Cake topped the charts. It's hard for me to think that's a bad thing.
Jan. 21, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org