I follow sportswriters and music writers on Twitter, but I also follow business and economics writers--and generally when one of the people from the latter class writes about one of the subjects from the first class I'm skeptical. Generally when people write about Nickelback I'm skeptical. Which is all by way of saying that Businessweek's profile of Chad Kroeger and company made me--well, I wasn't looking for this to happen, but it kind of made me respect Nickelback a little. I'm sorry. It starts with Chad Kroeger sloshing beer over a crowd of adoring, topless fans, which is a nightmarish gargoyle of a lede, and I'm sorry about that, too.
And I'm a little sorry that this profile is really all about how calculating Nickelback is, and how little, it's clear, their success is about inspiration or love of music or anything else. But it is, and knowing how much Chad Kroeger thinks about building an audience--and how much effort he puts into it--I think it would be all right if indie bands read this profile and felt a little more than bleached-blond revulsion. I think it would be all right if indie bands were a little more like Nickelback.
I don't think they should make music like Nickelback. There's something to be said for understanding what you do best and doing it, and they've definitely learned that lesson.
But Kroeger's philosophy is fascinating, in a way that his music isn't.
Kroeger attributes his rise to simple hard work. "I always thought it was strange when these artists like Kurt Cobain or whoever would get really famous and say, 'I don't understand why this is happening to me. I don't understand! Oh, the fame, the fame, the fame!' " he says. [...] "There is a mathematical formula to why you got famous. It isn't some magical thing that just started happening. And it's going to move exponentially throughout your career as you grow, or can decline exponentially if you start to fail as an artist."
The formula for fame includes inviting radio station personnel to hang out backstage to make sure he gets airplay before and after events. And there is always a preshow photo op with radio contest and fan club ticket winners.
Kroeger, as it turns out--the same Chad Kroeger whose haircut (recently changed) was dated sometime in 2002, who has never once done anything to impress anybody who wasn't impressed by the opening yowl of "How You Remind Me," is obsessed with his band's image. And he's great at it.
There's a cynical way to read this, and some truth in that reading. Spammers and phishers apparently intentionally dumb down their language and their banner ads--make them obviously fraudulent, so that people who won't provide their bank accounts to strangers on facebookwebsite.com.ru don't waste their time. A Nickelback that is not really dumb but oddly self-aware is pulling some variation on this same trick, catching the last remaining CD buyers and post-grunge-listeners in a big, beer-swilling net.
But I don't know--I kind of agree with him.
As a writer who would love to become a famous writer, I've always found the nonplussed astonishment of bands who sign to major labels sometimes assume when they've become famous incoherent at best and just as cynical as Nickelback at worst.
When bands turn their backs on a hit song -- never have I ever met a Radiohead diehard who didn't immediately tell me, "They hate Creep, you know" -- they're manicuring their image just as carefully as Chad Kroeger is with the topless drunks he leers at or the radio guys he gladhands. But instead of expanding their market with that baby-kissing, they're trying to signal some poisonous, self-defeating post-actual-grunge idea of authenticity.
All signaling is signaling, and right now -- as the market for rock gets smaller every week -- lots of bands who are better than Nickelback seem more determined to make fetish objects out of their inaccessibility than try to get their music to people who might without knowing it want to hear it. That way, toward self-perpetuating, spiraling obscurity, lies a bunch of media and genres that are kept alive by inner circles of devoted fans and the need for NPR to fill space between Fresh Air reruns.
If we're supposed to hate Nickelback, and they're the only ones doing all this--reaching out relentlessly to fans, aiming for the radio, looking for people who (somehow) haven't heard them yet and changing that--we can't exactly get pissed off when it's 2012 and nobody listens to anything except Nickelback.
Somewhere along the continuum between complete artistic self-actualizing and absolute Nickelback sell-outitude is a place in which you're both communicating the things you believe to be important and trying to communicate them to people who are not like you. It's different for every band, and plenty of indie rock types are doing a remarkable job of it already.
But overall, I think the bands that I love could stand to move imperceptibly in the direction of Chad Kroeger's frosted tips.