"Itís like a huge convention here in Cleveland," says Howie Day as he surveys the hundreds of fans clustered around the stage at the Beachland Ballroom, one of the cityís premier venues for non-mainstream music. "I never even played here before," he adds. "Thatís crazy shit."
And the craziness goes deeper than Day suggests. On this misty Monday night in late April, he had been scheduled to play the far smaller tavern space in the Beachland, a dancehall originally built by Eastern European immigrants who sought to bring some homestyle entertainment to this East Side Cleveland neighborhood. The clubís ballroom, meanwhile, had been booked by an experimental electronic rap crew, Antipop Consortium. On the surface, the booking made sense. Howie Day is a solo singer/songwriter originally from Bangor, Maine, and now working out of Boston. He belongs to no named scene, and before making his way to Cleveland, he had released only one self-financed album, Australia, a disc that heís sold almost exclusively at shows and through his Web site. Antipop Consortium appeal to fans of both underground New York hip-hop and the transatlantic DJ style known as intelligent dance music, two of the hottest scenes in todayís cosmopolitan bohemia. They must be the bigger draw, right?
"So far, Antipop Consortium has sold nine tickets," sighs Beachland co-owner Cindy Barber on the day of the concert. "Howie Day sold out the tavern days ago ó a couple hundred tickets, and weíve had to turn at least a hundred more away, though weíve taken peopleís phone numbers in case we can switch the shows. I feel bad about it too. I mean, in two totally unrelated incidents, a couple parents have been calling us begging for Howie Day tickets to give to their college-age kids as birthday presents. Itís nuts."
In the end, Day agrees to play the larger room, the birthday kids get their tickets, and the walk-up business that characterizes most underground shows fills Antipopís room to a respectable hundred-plus. Whatís more, the shows donít even feel that different. Antipopís hip, post-collegiate crowd mostly just nods along quietly to the groupís pitter-patter raps and burbling electronic effects. Likewise, Day works up his melancholy, mid-tempo ballads into long, trance-like grooves with the help of a pedal board through which he samples and loops his voice and acoustic guitar. The college crowd stays enthusiastic throughout his technically impressive display, but the emotions hardly rise to the pitch of rapture that makes an average Slipknot or Sum 41 concert the kind of birthday present a 21-year-old might treasure.
Beneath the surface, however, even this underwhelming performance suggests how different Dayís success has been. By playing 200-300 shows a year for three straight years, the 21-year-old has shown how a talented, able-bodied musician can claw his way into success in the coming post-pop-star era. Of course, to paraphrase Jesus, there will be pop stars always ó and thrilling ones, too ó but 2000 years after that carpenterís son became the biggest word-of-mouth sensation ever to hit the Western Hemisphere, the chances of any pop groupís now confidently declaring itself Bigger Than Jesus seem infinitesimally small. In fact, aspiring musicians who make the most of this technologically overdeveloped moment often have more in common with the wandering troubadours and minstrels who ushered out the first millennium than with the mass-culture icons who closed out the second. Itís certainly possible that some word-of-mouth sensations might appear with a burning talent equal to the Beatlesí and turn into deities as they ascend into the mass-media heavens. But they wonít be able to depend on the help of radio or record companies to give them that initial boost.
"Now, itís like, Collective Soul and Tori Amos are getting dropped, and itís like, what the hellís going on?" Day is speaking on his cell phone as he rolls down 95 from Boston into Providence and on to one more gig. As he knows to his marrow, continually hitting these gigs is the only way to fight the new bottom-line profiteering thatís so rampant in the industry.
"We want it to be real," he explains. "We have that effect of one person tells another and attendance just keeps doubling. . . . So basically, over a year, it just kind of snowballed. And by six months ago, it was so hyped, but it was real hype, not like fake ĎI-canít-sell-a-ticket-anywhere-but-every-label-wants-to-sign-meí hype, you know? Itís gotta be scary to be in one of those bands, because then youíre totally depending on the label. If it didnít work out with whatever label, I can say, ĎFine. You took me from selling 30,000 records to selling 300,000, and even though thatís no big deal for you and you dropped me, I can still tour and I still have a fan base.í "
As you might expect, then, Day has played Cleveland before (though not as a headliner), opening once for the like-minded John Meyer. And he has hit a good number of Ohio colleges, including Miami University, where he opened for the popular Columbus jam band O.A.R. "We were completely blown away when we saw him," says Miami undergrad Natalie Crews. "I donít even know how to classify what he does. Itís a little bit emo, a little bit pop, a little bit classic rock at times. Heís got a wide variety of influences."
If that description neatly triangulates Dayís sound, it also triangulates the mainstream tastes of his generation. His talent lies not in his ability to encompass this breadth of influences but rather in his ability to find the center. Itís a talent he possessed even back in high school, when he first launched his demanding tour schedule. "I went to one of those college conferences where you might play for two or three hundred representatives from different colleges in a showcase, and it just went over really well. I was doing a lot of covers. At that point I would have been going into being a freshman in college, so I knew exactly what they were listening to ó Barenaked Ladies covers and stuff. And I just booked, like, over a hundred shows at that one showcase. So I basically had a show every day in September, October, and November that next fall after I graduated. That was kind of the point I decided not to go to college and pursue that, because I had plenty of work to do."
When he finally started writing his own songs, they homed to these middle-of-the-road tastes as naturally as his covers did. "I like a lot of British music. I listen to the Verve and Travis and Coldplay, whateverís kind of happening there." Add David Gray to that mix for smooth moodiness and Dave Matthews for tortured grooviness and you can almost hear Australiaís lovelorn songs without putting on the record. Dayís sound may be calculated, but itís not forced or unrewarding. The discís best moments suggest such highly praised solo artists as Pete Yorn and Joseph Arthur. The latter even inspired his use of looped effects in his live show.
But this sense of calculation also suggests why his live shows have taken off into that dazzling display of loops: his music is all about form over content. Day acknowledges as much when he admits that most of his song lyrics donít mean much, even to him. "This probably isnít a good artistic-credibility kind of thing to say, but a lot of it comes down to what kind of words sound good. . . . Itís funny, Clive Davis asked me about "She Says." Heís like, ĎTell me, whoís the third person in ĎShe Saysí?" And Iím like, ĎAh, I donít know.í I felt like such an ass."
Davis was interviewing Day during an extended "wine-and-dine period" when labels of all sorts began courting the singer/songwriter. Recently he signed with Epic, which is preparing to re-release Australia in early June and planning to make a big push for a new album in 2003. Itís hard to say whether Day will have the goods to make something of his new spotlight ó that is, whether heíll be able to make it as an old-style pop star. Even so, the challenge hardly seems to keep him up at night. "With all the Internet and MP3s that everybodyís scared of, I think music has just taken a turn. People donít have to buy albums anymore. They can just burn their friendsí, you know? So I think artists are going to be forced to have really cool live shows and tour more. Record sales were down, what, 10 percent last year, and theyíre already down 10 percent this year so far. Itís like, shit, tough for them. But you know what? What do I care?"