The rise and stall of musical acts signed to major labels

Pete Sison feels like he's finally arrived. It just took a while.

As a bass player he gigged for years with one Florida band after another -- The Genitorturers, Raped Ape, Schnitt Acht, Massacre. Then, two years ago, he fell in with the hard-hitting crunch-metal outfit JoJo. The combined talents of the scene-pounding veterans clicked. Audiences took note. So did major record labels. Last month, JoJo picked from among several offers to sign with RCA Records.

"Everybody's real excited," says Sison. "But it just hasn't hit us yet. When the album comes out and things start to pick up, that's when the band is going to start feeling `it`."

Adds drummer Will Hunt: "We've been waiting for this for 10 years."

Members of My Friend Steve know that same feeling.

Picked up by Mammoth Records, the acoustic alternative band released their debut, "Hope and Wait.," last year. It was the reward for all the hard work logged by frontman Steve Burry and his fellow musicians. But for a band that imagined itself poised for wider acclaim, "Hope and Wait." turned out to be an accurate description. The big breakthrough has yet to come.

It hasn't come for virginwool, either. Or for Mighty Joe Plum. Or for Seven Mary Three. Or for Virgos Merlot.

Each embraced their major-label signing as the moment that would move them beyond their local connections and loyal followings and into the broader musical arena. It's the goal of almost any local musician: Write a song, secure radio play, follow it up with concert tours and impressive album sales, then sit back and enjoy the benefits of a high profile that guarantees, if not fortune, at least some small measure of fame. (Well, OK, the fortune part is not an entirely bad thing, either.)

That dream never dies. And Central Florida -- driven in large part by the Orlando-based music machine Trans Continental, which birthed the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, among others -- today claims a connection with more chart-topping acts than ever.

"Orlando really couldn't be much hotter," says Steve "Steve-O" Robertson, an Orlando-based rep for Atlantic Records who has been integral to the major-label interest in area acts. "Yeah, I know a lot of downtown locals really don't want to be known for Backstreet Boys and Britney `Spears, another Trans Con artist`, but those groups -- combined with our own rock bands -- make for a thriving music scene."

The problem is, the dream is one that overlooks the reality. Though the reasons in the case of several local bands are each unique, their dreamed-for major-label deals have preceded some major-league disappointments.

Case in point: Guitar-driven pop-rockers virginwool, formerly known as GumWrapper Curb and now contracted to Breaking/Atlantic, had its career put on hold because band members didn't see eye to eye with their first label, Universal. The separation "took a long time," says virginwool vocalist Jordan Pouzzner. "The more they got to know us, the more they thought, 'Maybe this isn't exactly what we thought it would be.'"

Tampa-based -- and Orlando-bred -- Southern-popsters Mighty Joe Plum didn't even make it to album No. 2: The group fizzled out and broke up before its 1997 Atlantic debut could pick up any steam.

And after witnessing its debut go platinum behind the megahit "Cumbersome," Atlantic recording artists Seven Mary Three watched sales drastically decline on two follow-up records. The original label's (Mammoth) business dealings, along with the death of grunge, played a big part in the band's drop in sales. "Mammoth and Atlantic split their partnership," says Darrel Massaroni, Seven Mary Three's manager. "We got caught in their divorce, which held up our second album by seven months. Atlantic got custody of Seven Mary Three."

He adds, "They've just sort of taken it in stride. ... Fortunately their past sales have provided them with enough to not have to be in a panic."

For hard-rock transplants Virgos Merlot, things have fallen apart since releasing its debut "Signs of a Vacant Soul" on Atlantic earlier this year. The group is retooling under a new name (The Devine) as a four-piece, dropping founding guitarist Marchant and the glam-metal sound in favor of a more rock & roll approach.

Whether that improves their chances remains to be seen.

"We've still got some killer bands on the way up," says Robertson. "But realistically, we are probably contracting right now, as opposed to expanding. All scenes expand and contract, and there are only so many bands that are going to make it from an area."

As for My Friend Steve, which Massaroni also manages (along with JoJo), the band continues to pack local venues although it remains nonexistent on the national radar. "Somewhere between the time we started recording and we got the record out, it seemed like a lot of radio had taken a sharp left turn into a very crunchy, very hard-rock-oriented stance," recalls Massaroni. My Friend Steve has responded by "beating themselves five nights a week in a rehearsal space working on the next album."

Things can even turn sour when album sales are multiplatinum: Pin-up popsters Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync have spent just about as much time in court as they have on stage, battling behemoth label/management company/studio Trans Con for a larger share of the pie.

Sure, the music business can get ugly. But plenty of area musicians still are willing to play the game. A rash of current and future releases by Orlando-linked acts -- teen queen Mandy Moore's "So Real," 'N Sync's "No Strings Attached," Full Devil Jacket's "Wax Box EP" and the self-titled debut by male soul quartet Jazé, just to name a few -- proves that outside interest in the ever-growing local scene shows no signs of slowing.

The reasons for Orlando becoming a musical powerhouse are many.

The continued industry dominance of the Backstreet Boys -- who, with a little help from 'N Sync and Spears, stole the show at the recent Chris Rock-hosted "MTV Video Music Awards" -- has opened doors for Trans Con acts as well as others pushing mass-market ear-candy.

But it's not just Trans Con's pop tarts that keep cash registers ringing. Orlando's rock bands also have gotten into the act. Hard-rocking Creed's performance at Woodstock '99 -- highlighted by a guest shot by Doors guitarist Robby Krieger during the band's cover of the Doors classic "Roadhouse Blues" -- helped propel Creed's sophomore effort, "Human Clay," to debut at No. 1 upon its release this fall. And thanks to savvy marketing, Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas -- who is still reeling from the runaway success of his band's 1996 debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You" -- helped legendary Latin guitarist Carlos Santana return to the Top Ten with the crossover hit "Smooth," a song that Thomas also co-wrote. In addition, Orlando's internationally acclaimed electronic dance scene continues to spawn new labels, producers and artists.

The city "is set up for bands to succeed," offers Jeff Hanson, of Hanson Management and Promotions, who manages Creed, Virgos Merlot and Full Devil Jacket. After researching several sites for his new base, the former DJ, club owner and concert promoter -- who also had a part in launching Gainesville popsters Sister Hazel -- concluded that Orlando was the place to be. He moved his offices, as well as his growing music industry might, from Tallahassee to Central Florida earlier this year.

"In my travels, especially around the Southeast, Orlando was the most artist-friendly environment," he says. "People have symbiotic relationships: Bands are sharing rehearsal spaces, bands are jamming with each other, doing anything they can to help out. It is that kind of environment that really creates something."

The one piece of the puzzle that doesn't get the credit it deserves is the audience, says Massaroni, former publisher of JAM music magazine and longtime proponent of the scene. "People forget, you can have the radio, or you can have this or that. But if you haven't got people showing up at shows ... going to a club to hear some guy do his own material ... if that critical piece wasn't there, none of this would've happened. When these A&R guys come to town and see everyday kids lined up to see a show, that's what makes this a unique music area."

The origins of Orlando's recent industry appeal can be traced to a meeting between Massaroni and Robertson, who was then the program director at WJRR 101.1-FM. Robertson already had broken Collective Soul's "Shine" on his station, cementing his credibility as a pro who could spot an unknown act and build an audience for it here. That fact also helped establish the Orlando audience as a savvy and discerning lot. (Matt Serletic, producer and manager for the Georgia-based Collective Soul, would later mastermind Matchbox 20's smash debut.) But it was local alt-rock band Seven Mary Three that finally put Orlando on the map.

"I got Hard Rock Cafe to actually let `Seven Mary Three` play a show, a weekly local-music show they were doing that `WJRR` sponsored," recalls Massaroni. "I had `Robertson` there, a disc in his hand, and next thing you know ..." The band's signature tune, "Cumbersome," quickly became a hit on the alternative-rock station, proving to other Orlando bands that it actually could be done.

Backed by the airplay, Seven Mary Three's independent CD sold nearly 4,000 copies in three weeks. "The song -- the original "Cumbersome" -- had moved up to within top-10 airplay, and then to drop that thing into retail and have those kinds of sales -- everybody was happy to come to Orlando," says Massaroni. "We had nine different labels at the showcase."

Seven Mary Three went on to achieve multiplatinum success behind the 1995 debut "American Standard." Robertson eventually left WJRR and landed a talent-scouting gig with Atlantic, first signing Mighty Joe Plum and later Virgos Merlot, which moved its base here from Birmingham, Ala. That transfer preceded the rush of other acts that began -- and continues -- to flood Orlando, eager to be a part of the musical gold rush.

"Orlando, to a certain extent, is a plus for me because of the success of the artists that have come out of the market," says Keith Thompson, senior director of marketing for Universal Records in New York. "People in the industry know that Orlando has produced two of the hottest acts in the business."

In fact, says Thompson, who has been promoting vocal group Jazé in the U.S., it's radio programmers who seem to have the biggest problem with the endless parade of acts. "'We got this band out of Orlando, four guys, they're really good' -- how many times have I heard that before?"

The wave of new recruits indicates just how strong the local scene is -- and how the hopeful are unperturbed by the fact that not every band that wins a recording contract succeeds.

Indeed, name your favorite local band and chances are they have performed a showcase for a record label or two. The hard-pop trio Precious, currently without representation, has even received surprise calls from label reps begging for material, something unheard of just a short year ago. They are not alone.

"We've had an enormous amount of attention without seeking it out," says Donovan Lyman of edgy pop-rockers Blue Meridian, five-year vets of the Orlando club circuit. "Not a single day goes by with-out something happening ... `calls from` record labels, management companies."

"It's just bands seeing the light at the tunnel and believing that they have shot," adds Hanson. "When their community nourishes that, look what happens."


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