Pearl Jam, Playing A Business Deal By Ear Backspacer is Pearl Jam's first studio album since the musicians became free agents, finally fulfilling a seven-album contract with Sony. That process took 15 years. The band is now on its own, striking distribution deals with major corporations, a turnaround for the once very anti-corporate band.

Pearl Jam, Playing A Business Deal By Ear

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One of the biggest acts in rock and roll releases its ninth studio album this weekend, and the musicians are doing it all by themselves. Pearl Jam has long held a famously anti-corporate stance. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this story on the band's new twist on do-it-yourself capitalism.

(Soundbite of song, "Gonna See my Friend")

NEDA ULABY: "Backspacer" is Pearl Jam's first major album since the band became free agents, finally fulfilling a seven-record contract with Sony. In this, the opening song, they sound psyched.

(Soundbite of song, "Gonna See my Friend")

Mr. EDDIE VEDDER (Lead Singer, Pearl Jam): (Singing) Do you wanna hear something sad? We are but victims of desire.

ULABY: Escaping the contract with Sony took the band 15 years.

Mr. STONE GOSSARD (Guitarist, Pearl Jam): They were shockingly bad in terms of - the nature of those kind of deals are so bad because, you know, they have you for seven records but can drop you at any time.

ULABY: Stone Gossard helped found Pearl Jam way back in 1990 when Seattle's vaunted grunge scene first became a marketable commodity. Since then, the band has sold over 60 million albums. Gossard says the musicians' share was pitiful.

Mr. GOSSARD: We've made our money touring. I mean, that's how we've made our money.

ULABY: They have made rather a lot of it. Now, after seeing the bulk of their record sales go back to the label, Pearl Jam is experimenting with self-distribution. Here's what they came up with. You can buy "Backspacer" on the Pearl Jam Web site, at iTunes, on Xbox's "Rock Band" game, as a Verizon ringtone, or at Target.

Mr. GOSSARD: The center of it was this deal with Target. Out of the last three records, I don't think we sold a million records. So they went ahead and bought a million records right off the bat. So that was pretty enticing deal.

ULABY: Some fans were startled by this partnership. They remember how the band used to rail against corporate interests, tearing down ad banners at concerts and fighting a losing battle with Ticketmaster over service charges. So Pearl Jam made a point of getting Target to agree that some 800 independent record stores could also sell “Backspacer.” Jim DeRogatis is a rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. JIM DeROGATIS (Rock Critic, Chicago Sun-Times): I think it's neat both for Pearl Jam and Target that they've made a deal like this that isn't going to exclude the corner record store where so many of us first fell in love with music like Pearl Jam's.

(Soundbite of song, "Jeremy")

Mr. VEDDER: (Singing) Oh, to the fact that mommy didn't care. King Jeremy the wicked. Oh, ruled his world. Jeremy spoke in class today.

ULABY: Pearl Jam, says DeRogatis is in his unique place and that it's able to patch together a deal like this.

Mr. DeROGATIS: Major labels are no longer of much use to bands of a certain level: Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead. They can be their own corporation, selling directly to the retailers that they choose to deal with.

Mr. GOSSARD: The record companies are just sort of getting cut out is basically what's happening at this point, which is great.

ULABY: Stone Gossard admits that most bands could never, in a million years, hope for this kind of deal. For them, MySpace is the best way for their music to get heard.

(Soundbite of song, “The Fixer”)

ULABY: “Backspacer” is off to a strong start. Its first single was iTunes' top new song when it was released last month.

(Soundbite of song, “The Fixer”)

Mr. VEDDER: (Singing) When something's dark, let me shed a little light on it. When something's cold, let me put a little fire on it. If something's old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it. When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it back again.

ULABY: It's called “The Fixer.”

Mr. DeROGATIS: It's a poppier, more upbeat song.

ULABY: Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. DeROGATIS: It's about fixing things. He's going to fix things, or somebody's going to fix things, and I don't think they're going to fix the record industry for sure, but it is neat to see them not doing business as usual. A lot of other bands of their stature are still caving.

ULABY: The experiment may not work, but Pearl Jam says they hope they'll learn enough to get a better sense of how to release their next album.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, “The Fixer”)

Mr. VEDDER: (Singing) I'll say your prayers, I'll take your side. I'll find us a way to make light. I'll dig your grave, we'll dance and sing. What's saved could be one last lifetime. Hey, hey, hey.

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