Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': Anatomy of a Rollout
"They're a small band that's punching above their weight," says manager Scott Rodger, who, along with publicist Steve Martin and radio whiz Karen Glauber, set the path for a No. 1 debut.
The fact that Arcade Fire's fourth album, Reflektor, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart was no fluke. A captivating lead-up has been afoot for months, building buzz for the release via secret shows, cryptic emblem street art and a cross-platform launch of the title track and lead single.
Scott Rodger, the band's manager, is quick to note that this is not merely a marketing campaign. "It's about how do you present a project to people to take notice," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There's an ocean of information out there. … It's the world we're living in where we have to tune into it to find a better way to connect with people and make sure they're aware that something's coming. And if the music is good enough, then you'll win through."
It also helps to have the muscle of Universal Music Group backing you, which, for this release, Arcade Fire does. The band, though still signed to North Carolina-based indie Merge Records, partnered with Capitol Records for back-end services on Reflektor, including distribution, promotion and marketing. They took advantage of the affiliation further by performing from atop the label's famed Hollywood tower.
THR spoke with Rodger, as well as the band's publicist, Steve Martin of Nasty Little Man, and Hits Magazine president Karen Glauber, who oversees Arcade Fire's radio development, to gain better insight into the indie band's rise to No. 1. As THR reported on Nov. 6, the day Nielsen SoundScan released album sales numbers for the week -- Arcade Fire's tally: 140,000 -- it's been a long, steady climb to the top.
When first conceiving the rollout with the band and labels, what was the initial scope of the creative?
Scott Rodger: We don't spend any more or less than the average record company would on a mid- to lower-sized act. All we [asked] is: How do you engage not only your fans, but just try and get noticed? We're in an information overload, but just to be recognized you have to be more creative and do things in a way that people will talk about socially -- online but also in the physical world. How do you become one of those things that people talk about?
If you look at an Arcade Fire -- they're a small band that's punching above their weight. You've got a Pearl Jam release, a Katy Perry release, an Eminem release and a Lady Gaga release, and we're sandwiched right in the middle. We're nowhere near anywhere as big as those acts, so how do you play in that world? How do you get a smaller act some kind of global visibility? That was the thought process behind the campaign.
How do you know when it's too much?
Rodger: You can't overload. You create a timeline and a smooth rollout and try not to do too much on a per day basis. You've got to create some space to give your audience time to digest. But hopefully do it in a way that, if people miss something, they're going to find the next thing. There's no science to it. We're like everyone else in this new age of: How do you present projects? So we're trying things -- some work and resonate, and other things fly by and don't get noticed at all.
But it worked...
Rodger: To a point, it worked. We got to No. 1 in 40 countries. I think the record speaks for itself -- it's ambitious. I think it's very safe for most bands to keep playing to a formula and do very well, but these guys want to break new boundaries and experiment. They could alienate some fans, they could gain some new ones, but I think all they're trying to do is move forward. And I think they have achieved it with this new record.
Can you boil down the PR strategy on this release?
Steve Martin: It really all comes from the band and their imagination. … It means being really, really creative and doing something that's unconventional, doing things that fit in with that alter ego perspective. Nontraditional, yes, but also balancing that with stuff that actually reaches people who aren't already converted fans waiting for the record.
Ultimately, to me, you want to make a noise beyond your own personal echo chamber, where you already know who's listening. Then you do conventional things like Saturday Night Live, but you put your own stamp on it, like their after-show special. You play Jimmy Kimmel Live! the week of release, but you do it from the roof of the Capitol Building. Win [Butler] and them are definitely ground zero for all that kind of thinking. They always want to do things unconventionally.
What's the story with the post-Saturday Night Live special? How did the band nab 30 minutes on network television? Was there a precedent?
Martin: There wasn't really a template. It had been inspired by the viral grassroots TV spots that people were doing in secondary markets. Win was telling me he thought it was really cool. And you couldn't find them on YouTube, but you were sort of like watching the TV when the ad would hit and say like, "Hey, did that really happen?" That was the idea for it, too.
I'm not going to name names, but there was some backlash where I've spoken to other PR people, label people, business people, and they asked, "How the hell did they get offered it?" And they didn't get offered it. It was their idea and they had built a relationship with SNL having played there twice as a music guest and once as Mick Jagger's guest. Win pitched it to Lorne Michaels the same way an SNL writer or castmember would pitch a digital short or something. It was his idea. No one in the band got special treatment from SNL. It wasn't, like, "Yeah, we like them better than so and so, so we're gonna offer them this." That never happened.
How much of this rollout's success is due to goodwill the band has worked up over the years?
Martin: I think that opens the door. The SNL special is a great example. How the band has delivered for people in the past -- emotionally, professionally, musically -- that engenders good will. But if you don't deliver with a creative idea, then it's not going to matter. When they come up with an idea of having Ben Stiller, Michael Cera, Bono, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Hader and Zach Galifianakis as the cameos in a variety special -- I haven't seen anyone do anything like that since, I don't know, David Bowie's 1980 Floor Show in the '70s? The goodwill is one thing, but you have to be able to deliver on it with the creativity.
Big stunts get the most attention, but was there a more subtle tactic here that you think had a significant impact?
Martin: One key thing that we did was feel out a few writers by playing the music early and made a decision to go with one high-impact review a month ahead of release. We ended up deciding on Rolling Stone. The logic behind that was, "Let's take a risk and see." If there's only one review out there and it's a rave, and the Internet mob links back to and quotes that one review, is that worth more than 100 reviews where some are Cs and two stars, and others that are, like, "This is a bold new direction"? We knew it would be a polarizing, divisive record. It's not Funeral Part 2 or The Suburbs Disc 3, you know? And that really paid off in spades. When David [Fricke] was, like, "I love what you're playing," I was, like, "Okay, you should give him the record and take a risk on this one."
I had people completely outside this business saying to me, "Oh, those reviews have been great! … Oh my god, they're everywhere." And it was just one review that all these people were linking back to because that was their only resource.
What's most impressed you about radio's reception to "Reflektor" so far?
Karen Glauber: With the 9/9/9 rollout even when ["Reflektor"] was leaked in Australia and everywhere else, every single station adhered to the idea that this was going to be like doing the wave on a global level. Even when the blogs were posting it, they thought enough of the band and enough of the concept and of the people who were speaking with them on behalf of the band to allow this to unfold. And it wasn't about the greatest promotion job ever. It was about people respecting the band's vision.
To be in L.A. and to hear it on KROQ, Amp 98.7 and KCSN at 9 o'clock and KCRW followed -- they were the only band on the airwaves for that moment in time. It was so exciting. It was really cool and old school. It was really hard, but everybody participated.
What was key to pulling off the 9/9/9 happening?
Glauber: People had to have enough regard for the band, and enough regard for their vision, because ultimately, on radio there was nothing in it for them -- they weren't getting an exclusive interview, they weren't getting an exclusive play. And, yes, it would be on blogs first; it's hard for radio to compete when everything is so fast. So the fact that they bought into it and participated was really epic, and it reminds me of the old days when a song would come out and everybody would play it on the same day just because there would be nowhere else to hear it and you'd listen to the radio to hear that new song.
Everybody respects the band's vision, and we don't question it. We don't say, "This seems ridiculous. Why are we doing it this way?" The 9/9/9 thing [at 9 p.m. on Sept. 9, Arcade Fire released its single "Reflektor" across multiple platforms and played a secret show in Montreal as The Reflektors that was filmed to later air as its post-SNL half-hour special] was a major challenge. You just go along for the ride. You say, "OK, this is what you want." And I have such faith in their vision for themselves. It's uncannily right every time.
What sort of growth are you seeing in the band's reach early on in the album cycle?
Glauber: There are a number of stations that have never played the band -- they still don't get it. And with modern rock radio, it's a lot of quid pro quo, and bands really have to participate in terms of doing shows for stations and doing sessions, etc. Arcade Fire is never going to be a band that does a lot of that. They're dipping their toe in the water with two Christmas shows this year -- Live 105 and another that will be announced next week -- but this is a band that has succeeded without doing that. Their music speaks for itself. It's totally on their terms, and we always try to acknowledge the people who have supported [them]. It's a band where loyalty and passion is rewarded. If you've been a fan of Arcade Fire for a long time and you work in radio, we'll figure out how to take care of you at some point, even if we don't know what that is now.