Whip-Smart in the Real World
A few months ago Liz Phair's Whip-Smart was the most anticipated nonsuperstar release of 1994. Rolling Stone and Spin fought bitterly over who would put her on the cover; Danny Goldberg, then president of Atlantic Records, said the record would "hit gold quickly." After its release in September, everything seemed to be in place for a smash: a slip-clad Phair smiled from a Rolling Stone cover that proclaimed "A Rock 'n' Roll Star Is Born"; reviews almost unanimously celebrated the album; MTV grabbed the first video, for the rocking "Supernova," and ran with it. Radio stations have been playing the song silly for months.
So why is Whip-Smart in danger of falling off the Billboard 200 after just ten weeks? The record has been in a chart freefall (128 to 145 to 175) that was arrested only this week, as it rebounded limply back to 170. Is the album a creature of hype, loved by the industry but unwanted by most record buyers? Or can the audaciously self-possessed Phair still pull off a hit?
Whip-Smart isn't a flop--Matador Records owner Gerald Cosloy notes that the record has a SoundScan count of more than 170,000, which is probably low considering the record's strength in non-SoundScanned alternative record stores. "It's doing about as well as we thought it would," he said. But the famously bad-mannered Cosloy and his uncompromising label are no longer loose cannons: Whip-Smart was one of the first experiments in a joint venture between Matador and major Atlantic. (Atlantic pays for the label's day-to-day operations and splits the profits; in return, certain Matador bands can take advantage of Atlantic's superior distribution lines. Phair falls somewhere in between: she has an idiosyncratic long-term worldwide deal with Atlantic and Matador jointly.)
It could be that Whip-Smart has run up against a hard fact of the record industry: there are basically only two things that sell a lot of records. One of them is touring, and Phair scotched a planned fall outing.
"If Liz doesn't want to tour, she doesn't tour," says Michael Krumper, who as Atlantic's head of project development oversees Whip-Smart's marketing. "It's bad for the artist [if the label forces] the issue. It's not the way [we] look at it with a singer-songwriter whose career might last for decades." Krumper says that in the absence of the natural publicity a tour generates, the label is being "pragmatic and creative" in marketing the album: in the new year it plans to launch an 800 number that fans can dial to hear samples of her songs. Also, Phair has done her part: a recent round of publicity included sessions with Good Morning America, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.
Even Cosloy concedes that a tour wouldn't hurt, but notes that Phair's not your average rock star. "Quite frankly, [not touring] holds the record back," he says, burping audibly to show his disdain for this line of questioning. "But that gives her the freedom to do the videos properly and write the songs she needs to. I'm not sure this whole big live-rock spectacular fits a lot of the things she's trying to do musically. It's really not about trying to break one song and have a 'Seether'-style bubblegum hit single."
Cosloy is referring to the song that broke Veruca Salt, whom he disdains. "The Breeders--only with fewer marriages!" he wrote in a recent burst of Internet sarcasm. "Is this really what people want?" But a large irony looms: the second thing that can really sell an album is a hit single.
Whip-Smart's secret weapon is its title song--and next single. "Whip-Smart" is about as bubblegum as it gets, a subver-sive but irresistible nursery rhyme tarted up with chirps, whistles, and burbles. Phair directed the video, her third; it and the single are being released in January. Its pop crossover potential was part of Atlantic's marketing plan from the start. The only hitch in that scenario is the departure of Danny Goldberg--who lured Phair to Atlantic as part of his plan to revivify the label--to head Warner Brothers Records. Cosloy says he has great relations with the new Atlantic management; Krumper says that "the same people are working the record now who were working it before."
What's Leigh Jones been up to? "Making more money than I have in years by being a waitress," says the much-admired former owner of Lower Links. Even a fun side project--managing the Texas Rubies--recently evaporated when the country-and-western duo called it quits. So Jones is doing other things: She's in the process of producing a major show by performance artist Robert Metrick--look for it in the spring. And to keep busy in the meantime she's presenting the second annual Sundowners tribute concert at Bub City Wednesday night. Jones, who hails from Wyoming, first stumbled upon the Sundowners at their old home, the downtown Bar R-R. The archaic country trio subsequently gigged at Lower Links after the Bar R-R was razed by a rapacious developer. (The site remains vacant.) Jones's underground performance space and the group's subsequent home--the Sundowners Ranch in Franklin Park--had an unlikely mutual admiration society going for a while. But last year a stroke hit guitarist Don Walls, bringing an end to both the group and the Ranch. A tribute show Jones organized last year--which featured the Mekons, the Rubies, and a bunch of Sundowners musical pals led by John Rice--was a smashing success. The second edition will feature Mekon Jon Langford in his side outfit, the Waco Brothers; the rockabilly outfit Moonshine Willy; John Rice and friends; and some neat Sundowners video footage. All for nothing! "It's really fun doing a show that's free," says Jones. How do you make any money? "You don't."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.