You might think that the members of Antigone Rising would be getting free cups of coffee for life after selling nearly 75,000 copies of their debut record at Starbucks around the United States, but they're still forced to pay for their lattes like everyone else. Nobody's complaining though as the deal with the coffee giant helped put the band on the map.
Starbucks Hear Music's new Debut Series chose Antigone Rising, over hundreds of bands, for its first release. The band, comprised of members from New York and New Jersey, recorded a live, acoustic album exclusively for Starbucks. And you can only get it from any one of the 4,600+ Starbucks in the country or from the online store at Starbucks.com.
For years, Antigone Rising has been building a steady fanbase along the east coast with their hard rocking concerts, which bear more resemblance to Heart in the 70s than the Indigo Girls. One listen to the band's national debut, From The Ground Up, shows that the band can bring things down a bit just as easily as they can fire off a Led Zeppelin tune with class.
"This record was done more stripped down because it was done exclusively for Starbucks," explained Cassidy, the lead singer of Antigone Rising. "They really didn't think the electric record that we had made for Lava was going to be right for their stores because they want to be able to play it. Since it's a coffeehouse they wanted something that was a little more mellow so it wouldn't be knocking people over the head while they're sitting there trying to read their paper or drink their lattes.
"We actually saw it as an opportunity to show a different side to us. I would say that when you come to see us live it's probably more of an Allman Brothers/ Bad Company meets the Eagles with a little bit of Zeppelin thrown in there and maybe even a little AC/DC sometimes. It gets pretty heavy, but we go to that Eagles place too. It's very rare in this day and age for a band to be able to span a couple of different genres. We're kind of lucky that we're able to show our hand in that way."
Some of those bands were played on the lone radio station to make its way through the trees (which are now largely being cut down she says) where she grew up in Sparta, New Jersey. The Sussex County town is more known for its country music roots - something rather strange in New Jersey. Through the trees her radio was able to pick up a station that largely played Southern Rock. Between that and the country music which her mother listened to, Cassidy's influences took shape. Ironically, she is now in the position of seeing her band's music get played on CMT (Country Music Television) and played on several country stations.
"The industry's a funny place," says Cassidy. "If you start getting played solely on country radio then Top 40 or Hot AC won't touch the song. There's such a divided line. And there are artists that are crossing over, but we are sort of down the middle. It's great that CMT and VH-1 are both playing the video. We're really hoping that we'll be able to be played on both country and pop radio because we think that we'd appeal to both. There's kind of a market of people right down the middle that aren't necessarily being targeted by either. We sort of feel like we fit in that untouched mass."
It will certainly be interesting to see how the fanbase changes with the incredible media blitz taking place right now. Antigone Rising has had features on CNN, the Today Show, Air American, VH-1, The Today Show, the WB-11 Morning News, A & E's Biography Channel, and recently show a television commercial for Seven Jeans, which will begin airing nationally in September. This is in addition to the myriad of newspaper and magazine articles about the band. Much of the publicity has stemmed from the success of the Starbuck's release, but the roller coaster ride really started for the band when the President of Lava Records visited them backstage one day.
"Believe me, long gone were the days that we believed a label president was going to walk into our backstage and offer us anything," said Cassidy. "We'd been on the road doing it and putting out our own records, building a fanbase and touring with the OARs and Robert Randolphs of the world. Then we started running into all of these bands that were sort of doing it on their own and slowly but surely all of these bands started getting signed. We began finding ourselves into a situation where we had sort of hit a plateau. We had a good fanbase, but realized financially we couldn't keep it going on our own anymore."
"We really felt like something had to give, but we weren't necessarily willing to compromise a lot, " she continued.
Cassidy said that the band never went the way many bands do with recording a bunch of songs and shooting them out to every label in the business. One thing that they had was a couple of songs recorded by Michael Barbiero, who had produced bands like Blues Traveler and Government Mule. Barbiero played them for Jason Flom (currently the CEO of Atlantic Records) who founded Lava Records in 1995. Flom came to an Antigone Rising show thinking he was only going to stick around for 2-3 songs and then head back home and wound up staying through the encores and excited about meeting the band.
One show later, Flom returned. Cassidy recalls him saying, "If you don't bring this to anyone else, I promise to not only make you a fair record deal, but I promise to break your band."
"I could cry about it because he's really kept his promise," said Cassidy. "And it hasn't been easy. We are a female rock band and we're not 18 years old. We're not old ladies, but we're not little pop stars. And he has figured out a way to break our band in an industry that really wasn't set up for bands like ours. He's taken a lot of risks and he's put his name on the line and we love him for it."
The music business is much tougher on female-based bands than on male-based bands. It's harder to get radio airplay, more difficult to get opening slots on the better tours, and there's the stereotype that women can't rock. Antigone Rising has done an excellent job of convincing anyone that has seen them live just how hard a female band can rock. They stole the show a few years ago at a rainy Great Bamboozle Festival in Asbury Park and they also stole the show at the recent South By Southwest Festival. The trick is in getting people to come out to the shows.
Cassidy once said in an interview with Glide Magazine that "it's probably fair to say that management at record labels will only sign a certain amount of women and radio will only play a certain amount of women." Even with the recent success of the band, she still believes that not only is that statement still true but it's still something Antigone Rising deals with every day.
"We hear it even from people who are our allies - people who are trying to break the band and who love the band, " said Cassidy. "You'll hear them say things like rock radio doesn't play chicks. That's the bottom line. That's what they say. And I think that it's sad but it's true. I think that there is a double standard."
"I think it's been perpetuated by female bands coming out and being sort of kitschy," she added. "I don't want to discourage any other bands - I think it's great whenever a female band gets together, but when it's a kitschy thing you lose a little bit of credibility. And it's been a really long time since a female artist like Stevie Nicks or Chrissie Hynde or Pat Benatar has come. It's hard. I think there is a lot of fear. I think people are afraid of losing their jobs. You count on the 14-15 year-old girl going out and falling in love with the boy teen heartthrob. I think that women are less proven unless they're a pop act like Britney Spears.
"But we're working really hard and we're trying to break some of those stereotypes and prejudices and we're not walking in with a chip on our shoulder either. We're walking in like we're willing to prove ourselves. We're willing to work really hard. We don't expect you to hand us anything we haven't earned or don't deserve. But I do think we have to work a tiny bit harder. I really do."
Even with all of the cards stacked against female bands, Cassidy sees a bright light in the way things are going.
"I really think people want to help us," said Cassidy. "I think that they see that we are honest in our mission and that we are good at what we do. Sometimes a little bit of hard work pays off. I think people recognize it. They see that we are the underdogs and it's like a humbling experience."
It hasn't been all struggle and pain for the band; there's been good times too. Like the time Cassidy was brought up on stage to sing with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith at the Garden State Arts Center. Not only was it in front of 17,000 people but her family and friends were there as well. In fact, she still has tons of messages on her answering machine from frantic friends of hers screaming at the top of their lungs while watching their friend belt it out with Tyler.
Then there was the first time the band saw their video played on VH-1. Of course anybody that watches any of the programs on VH-1 is bound to have seen a clip of Antigone Rising at one time or another. Their special was promoted so heavily that you'd have thought VH-1 had signed the band.
And, of course, there was the surprise of finding "From The Ground Up" debut in the Top 100 from Billboard Magazine. This was something people not only didn't expect but also didn't even know if it was possible. Yet the record industry learned two things that day. First, that Starbucks has emerged as a new distribution channel to be reckoned with. And second, that these five girls from New York and New Jersey just might have what it takes to become the next big thing.
One highlight that is bound to happen soon is hearing the band's single on the radio. That's something Cassidy says she's really looking forward to.
"I'm hoping I'm not actually behind the wheel when that happens," laughs Cassidy. "Because it could end up being bad for all people involved!"
The success of the Starbucks release has been so great that it is allowing the band more time to work on getting their Lava debut record just right. The record is just about finished but they may remix a few tracks now that they know the release won't be out until February or so. That record will be a bit heavier but should definitely appeal to the masses to pick up on the band from "The Ground Up". All in all, the experiment turned out just about as well as anyone could have hoped.
"So far the press and the record sales have been pretty sufficient, now we just have to work on the coffee..."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.