Shawn Barber: Hanson takes ‘The Walk’ to independence
La Shawn Barber, The Examiner
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Guitarist Isaac, 26, keyboardist Taylor, 24, and drummer Zac, 21, are taller, darker and married, but the “blue-eyed soul” brothers are still writing their own songs, playing their own instruments and three-part-harmonizing their own tunes.
Hanson’s story isn’t one you’d expect from a so-called boy band of the ’90s. While groups like the Backstreet Boys were packaged and marketed like widgets, Hanson walked headlong into independence, having won the right to control and own their music.
Disenchanted with former label Island/Def Jam Records, the brothers rebelled against the label’s tunnel-vision quest to produce a hit song at the expense of the band’s artistic integrity. Trying to shed a bubble gum pop image, Hanson didn’t cave to the pressure. After a frustrating three-year ordeal over creative differences, it left and formed its own label, 3CG Records. The group chronicled its battle with Island/Def Jam in a documentary called “Strong Enough To Break,” which premiered at the 2006 Hollywood Film Festival and is available as a free download exclusively on iTunes.
With control comes responsibility. Releasing music independently even before hitting it big in 1997 on Mercury Records, Hanson could be the poster band for personal responsibility. Rather than sulking and pointing fingers, they took control of their product and crafted the music they wanted.
“The Walk” represents the creative and financial risks Hanson’s taken for the sake of artistic freedom. The brothers grew up listening to such diverse music as The Beach Boys and Otis Redding. R&B, rock and funk influences are evident throughout the album, especially on songs like “Been There Before,” an homage to rock ’n’ roll legends, “Tearing It Down,” “Blue Sky” and “Running Man.”
Hanson released the first single, “Great Divide,” on World AIDS Day, with proceeds going toward preventing mother-to-child transmission of AIDS in South Africa. While visiting Mozambique, Hanson recorded a children’s choir, whose vocals can be heard on “Great Divide” and other tracks. Footage from this trip is included in a docu-series available exclusively on iTunes, “Talking The Walk,” which documents the making of the album. More than Hanson’s previous albums, this one is socially conscious and, some would say, political. “We’re aware that the messages of this album are coming through in a stronger way, and it was purposeful,” Zac Hanson said in a telephone interview.
And the medium is just as important as the messages. With the emergence of the Internet, there’s never been a better time in the music industry to be an independent band. Rapidly changing technology has made production and distribution of music relatively cheap. Using digital tools, indie bands like Hanson can record and sell the kind of music they want. But there’s a downside.
“The Internet has changed the way music is made and also the way people find music and ... buy — or not buy — music,” Zac said, chuckling, referring to ripping and file sharing. “I don’t think there’s a model for selling music now that’s really working the way it should. Record sales are down, radio listenership is down and MTV is not playing any videos.”
Regardless, Hanson wouldn’t trade independence for all the corporate capital in the world.
“Those are the reasons why we wanted to do the independent label ... to just do those things instead of waiting to see if we can get the green light from the legal department or if the label is willing to license the master of the lead single,” Zac said. “We can just say do it and move with the times in a more active way rather than being victim to the times.”
In control and armed with fresh, new music, Hanson hit the road this week for “The Walk” tour. If you want to challenge your perceptions of what this band is, drop by the 9:30 Club (815 V St. NW) on Sunday.