John McCrea was delighted when his band Cake’s most recent album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 2011, but not for the reasons you’d expect.
“We don’t really fetishize victory so much,” he says by phone from California, before starting a tour that comes to Waterbury Wednesday, May 8. “We’re all about our process and all about our work. That said, it was great, and it was fleeting, and it was followed up the the realization that it was the lowest No. 1 in history, which was perfect for us.”
“Showroom of Compassion” topped the chart with sales of just 44,000 copies, at the time the lowest total to reach No. 1 since Billboard adapted a more accurate means of trackign sales in 1991. (By contrast, ’N Sync set the record for most sales in a week with 2.4 million copies of “No Strings Attached” in 2000.) Cake’s turn at No. 1 sparked dire talk about how the record industry is something akin to a jet plane spurting flames from its engines as it spirals into the side of a mountain. Frankly, that doesn’t disappoint McCrea either, though he drew a different lesson from the release of Cake’s first album since “Pressure Chief” in 2004.
“For me, the meaning of it was more about how, after seven years of precipitous decline in the music business, how we had maintained a relationship with our audience that they trusted us enough to buy as many albums the first week as they did seven years earlier,” McCrea says. “Given that incredible decline in music sales, I felt like it was a salutory thing for the band to even have people remember who we were, let alone buy recorded music.”
Cake has been wary of the record industry from the start. The band self-released its first album, 1994’s “Motorcade of Generosity,” before signing with Capricorn Records for its biggest selling releases, 1996’s “Fashion Nugget” and 1998’s “Prolonging the Magic,” which have each sold more than 1 million copies. When Capricorn went bust in 1999, Cake jumped to the major label Columbia for two albums, then regained its independence in time for “Showroom of Compassion.”
“Extricating ourselves from our label deal was a salutory feeling for us, and being able to do things for ourselves felt a lot safer,” McCrea says.
“Safer” is a relative term in an age of digital and economic upheaval, a point McCrea makes with employment statistics.
“According to the Department of Labor, we have 17 percent fewer working musicians in the United States than we did 10 years ago,” he says. “I think we probably still have a lot of musicians, they’re not just not able to support themselves doing it.”
They’re not the only ones. Expectations of free content extend beyond music and so far, McCrea says, the “huge Internet pipeline” companies like Google and Yahoo are the only ones who are making money from it.
“There’s all this advertising that’s being sold, but none of it is going to artists. There’s this weird cognitive dissonance,” McCrea says.
Although the singer can foresee a day when it won’t make economic sense to continue making music on the scale Cake has made it for the past 20 years, he’s not ready to quit quite yet.
“I don’t really know if listeners are really going to be supporting musicians to record for very much longer, but as long as there’s a few people still willing to help us pay for studio time, we’ll keep doing it,” he says.
Cake performs Wednesday, May 9, at the Palace Theater, 100 East Main St., Waterbury. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $50, $40 and $35. Information: www.palacetheaterct.org or 203-755-4700.