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Though commercially obsolete for the most part, old school melodic hardcore bands still pack clubs. Their fans welcome the opportunity to see their pop-punk heroes play full sets indoors, as in the pre-Warped days. It’s a nice full-circle route to sold-out shows for aging rockers whose subsequent album releases have failed to activate interest outside a niche base.

Pennywise, however, has a plan to make its release dates relevant again. This week, the group releases Reason to Believe as a free digital download. That’s what the kids are into these days, right?

Pennywise posits that this is a revolutionary act. “We know that this will piss off a lot of people in the music industry,” rants guitarist Fletcher Dragge via press release, “and what do we say to that? ‘Who cares?’ There are a lot of people out there who want their music for free, so … with the help of MySpace Records and Textango we found a way to make it happen. We couldn’t be more stoked…. PENNYWISE FREE TO THE PEOPLE!” (Sadly, the press release doesn’t mention whether he suddenly rose to intone this all-caps exhortation before striding away, accompanied by patriotic fanfare.)

Later in the presser, Dragge’s use of the corporate buzzword “proactive” and listing of promotional partners provides clues that this might not be the brazen “who cares” gambit it’s trumped up to be. In order to download Reason to Believe, fans must add Textango, a company that distributes music through text messages, as a MySpace friend. (Not coincidentally, Reason to Believe calls MySpace Records home. MySpace was acquired by NewsCorp head Rupert Murdoch for a half-billion dollars in 2005.)

This option will be open until April 8, then you have to buy it in stores. Some prospective listeners will have to create MySpace accounts that enable them to receive ad-filled messages and bulletins from a company about which they couldn’t care less. That’s not subversion: It’s synergy.

Pennywise proudly trumpets the fact that 350,000 people have signed up at Textango. By contrast, when Radiohead unveiled their latest album, In Rainbows, as a pick-your-price download last October, the group refused to reveal its Internet sales totals. That’s because Radiohead’s decision was a middle-finger gesture, not a showy jab at in-cahoots fat cats. Thom Yorke told Time “`Y`ou have to ask why anybody needs `a record label`. It probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘fuck you.’”

Back in 2002, rapper Tech N9ne made his album Absolute Power available for free downloads as part of his Fuck the Industry campaign. Earlier this year, Big Head Todd distributed 500,000 free cardboard-case promotional copies of its latest album All the Love You Need, inserting them in magazines and utilizing jam-pop-friendly radio stations’ mailing lists. Neither of these gestures required any spam-baiting action on the part of the free-album recipient. Pennywise’s strategy most closely mirrors the grossly cynical Ozzfest 2007, a free-admission event that used populist propaganda to justify unpaid bands and rampant corporate influence.

Pennywise promotes itself as rebellious, but the Reason to Believe stunt doesn’t shout, as the band once did, “Fuck Authority.” Rather, it proves that with shrewd marketing, a group can disguise its desperation as benevolence. Now that’s warped.

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