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Trend of the Year: Mainstreamo

Last year, Gerard Way was struggling. His band, My ChemicalRomance, had just recorded their debut record — the operatic andemotionally dense I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me YourLove (for tiny New York City indie Eyeball Records), but theywere still slogging it out in a wobbly van, getting lost (numeroustimes) and getting robbed (once). Then last February, My ChemicalRomance went out on their first national tour, opening for theUsed, and a funny thing happened.

“First,one major-label A&R guy came to our show,” Way says. “And then two,and then three and four. All of a sudden, it was like a weird fuckingfungus all over the band!” A few months later, My Chemical Romancesigned a lucrative, multi-album deal with Warner Bros. “They’ve beenvery careful not to say the word emo around us,” he says with a laugh.

Nomatter what you call it, emo (“screamo,” “extremo”) finally broke intothe mainstream (“mainstreamo”) in 2003. The passionate, close-knitcommunity of bands that had quietly simmered during the teen-pop andrap-metal years finally reached full boil. And major labels, as well asa wide range of record buyers, took notice. After years of tirelesstouring and teenage-audience sing-alongs, Dashboard Confessionaldebuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart this summer with their third album, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar.Dashboard singer/songwriter Chris Carrabba appeared all over late-nighttalk shows and MTV, as well as on a few magazine covers (including Spin).Close at his heels were Thursday and Thrice, who also debuted high onthe charts with their first major-label discs. Like-minded bands Savesthe Day, Brand New, the Movielife, the Starting Line, and Vendetta Redsoon followed. Were Generation Y kids starting to ditch their Britneyposters and goofy grins for LiveJournals and serious scowls?

Meanwhile, major labels — weak from piracy battles and anindustry-wide sales slump — have been desperately hooking onto anyband with pop potential and a preexisting grassroots audience. So, inaddition to those already mentioned, another crew of diverse, emo-ish,bands were snapped up and signed — all to Island Records — during2003, including Chicago’s Fall Out Boy, Nashville’s Scatter the Ashes,and San Diego’s Noise Ratchet. Many groups that seemingly remainedindependent were also part of the mainstream emo push, releasingrecords on quasi-indies Doghouse and Fueled By Ramen (which receivesome funding from major labels) in order to garner credibility beforebeing called up to the big leagues (see: the All-American Rejects).

For underground stalwarts like Dan Sandshaw, director ofA&R and marketing at Equal Vision Records, the big money floodingthe scene is problematic. “Things have gone insane,” he says. “We’recontacting bands that have only played one or two shows, and they’vealready gotten calls from Island and DreamWorks. Everyone is lookingfor the next Thursday. It’s making our job harder; financially, we’repushed to the limit. Everyone thinks they should be rock stars now— that certainly wasn’t always the case.” Equal Vision’s buzz band –Coheed and Cambria — sold 22,635 copies of their second album in thefirst week of its release, and for now, they seem to be the one trueindie holdout among their peers.

Brand New, a smart Long Island quartet, broke enough hearts with this year’s Deja Entenduto earn some MTV airplay and a sweet contract with DreamWorks. Still,the band’s singer/songwriter, Jesse Lacey, is dubious about the hype.”I think it’s all gonna fall through in a year and a half, maybesooner,” he says. “This is becoming like ’80s hair metal all overagain. All you can really do is try hard to be one of the bands thatdoes manage to stick.”

Not surprisingly, veteran A&R man Luke Wood (who signedBrand New, as well as Jimmy Eat World and Saves the Day) has a sunnierview. “The era I like to equate this with is ’88 to ’90: We’ve gotSoundgarden and the Meat Puppets, but Nirvana is about to make Bleach.Something is gonna pop soon and hopefully change the entire musicallandscape. Because I don’t think, as many of my peers do, that there’sa ceiling of 300,000 to 500,000 kids that can appreciate these bands.We’re beyond the kids who are lucky enough to find Hot Topic on thefourth floor of the mall or stumble onto Honestly, Idon’t believe emo has ‘broken’ yet, because to me that would mean beingup there with OutKast and Beyonce — being in every 14-year-old’siPod.”

And the figures — at least in terms of traditionalmeasuring sticks, such as radio airplay — tend to back Wood up. “Emobands have a committed fan base, but it’s not a core fan base yet,”says Lisa Worden, program director for influential Washington, D.C.,radio station WHFS. “We play Dashboard and Thursday, but we haven’treached the point where Puddle of Mudd fans are calling up requestingBrand New.”

My Chemical Romance will record their major-label debut thiswinter, and Gerard Way has faith that they’ll be able to navigate thebig time. “We’re all very emotional, sincere people, and we’re in thewater with sharks,” he says. “But the sincerity the music is founded onis what protects us. If your band is founded on that instead of doingcoke off hookers’ tits, then you’re fine. It’s a matter of writing thesongs that matter to you and having the kids sing along with you.That’s it.”