Coldplay is the biggest rock band on the planet by almost every rubric: The polite English quartet's latest record—the misty, Brian Eno-helmed Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends—sold more than 700,000 copies in its first week as other respectable rock acts struggle to crack half that. 2008's best seller, Viva La Vida has since been certified double platinum in the States while moving nearly 8 million copies worldwide. And now, the band is in the midst of a string of 30 dates at North America's biggest venues. When they return to Europe, the king of hip-hop, Jay-Z, will open for Coldplay for two days at Wembley Stadium. Impressed yet?
Perhaps the most compelling distinction Chris Martin and company can claim is that they're the first band to break the million mark in digital album sales. In other words, they're the Internet Music Kings. Billboard hooted and hollered about the broken record last month, and music trade magazines groveled. Indeed, in a market where selling 50,000 records seems to be the new 500,000, it's instructive to consider why a little band from London changed the rules of digital success.
The short answer is Apple. Last year, iTunes' parent company launched a full-scale ad campaign for its latest software in conjunction with the release of Viva La Vida. Coldplay got the whole shebang: full pages in glossies, billboards in every major market, that ubiquitous commercial featuring the band emphatically playing through the title track as colorful, iTrademark silhouettes. But Apple didn't pick Coldplay out of the ether. Rather, its always-shrewd marketing and advertising department chose Coldplay to carry the banner for very specific reasons. And so, the short answer falls short.
First, Coldplay represents the evenly distributed weight of the past 30 years of serious rock music. When they emerged with 2000's Parachutes and its slow-[e]mo "Yellow" video, the band was fairly pegged as Radiohead biters. Then, with 2002's A Rush of Blood To The Head and 2005's X&Y, Martin and company dug further into the past and deeper into the crate, cribbing from the romantic melancholy of Echo & the Bunnymen and the stateliness of U2. In each instance, the reference points were sanded down to their least threatening iteration. Coldplay has always has been about safety and familiarity. The band, its music and its lyrics are made for easy connections. Despite insistence to the contrary, there's only a small bit of art here. It's mostly a commodity.
To be fair, the 1.4 million online shoppers who've snatched up Coldplay records over the past eight years have likely done so as a result of their connection with Martin and the bouquet of his weepy falsetto and plaintive lyrics (and some tertiary tabloid appearances and some activism, for good measure). The front man/ mouthpiece/ figurehead focus allows "serious" rock fans to entertain the notion that they're listening to more than a singer-songwriter, even as the lights go down and Martin sits alone at his piano, spotlight on nothing else.
That's not to take too much away from the surrounding players: Jonny Buckland's dry guitar leads peak in moments of Edge-like melodrama. Guy Berryman anchors the era-spanning bombast with simple, direct bass lines, inspecting the rhythm alongside Will Champion's no-frills timekeeping. This offers the perfect support for the perfect heir to Bono's throne, each member getting out of the way while fans foster a deep connection with Messiah Martin. But that's not enough to explain Coldplay's electronic eminence. Plenty of acts have emblematic figureheads, after all.
Couple Martin and the band's familiarity with the momentum Coldplay creates for itself online, and we begin to understand the figures. Last year, Coldplay gave away a free download of the first promotional track from Viva. Most major labels and, by proxy, their bands still curse leaks and keep their content under lock and key (an idea that's slowly yielding). In May, Coldplay unveiled a free live album for download on its Web site. And the band and its crew regularly post behind-the-scenes vignettes, allowing a level of constant access that fans increasingly demand in a world of Twitter accounts and RSS feeds.
The drawback, of course, is that the construct of "band" is no longer restricted to albums and live shows. Coldplay is now a full-scale, 24-hour enterprise, churning out backstage content and general ephemera (set lists, song ideas, an "Oracle" you can question) at a furious clip. The mass of "stuff" saps some of the magic and mystery from the old idea of a rock star. But it's the way the band negotiates around that falling barrier—never half-assing it, fully embracing even the tiniest online initiatives (really, a blog at every tour stop?)—that turns that lost mystique into a net positive. In short, Coldplay rewards its following (specifically online), and its online following has repaid the band handsomely.
It's important to note, though, that Coldplay is not trailblazing with these techniques. Established titans have been experimenting with similar or even more radical lab tests for releasing music for years. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has given away actual studio releases and turned his Web site into a social media hub. Radiohead forwent pricing and adopted the ballyhooed pay-what-you-want model for its most recent album, In Rainbows. Had the sales administered through the band's own W.A.S.T.E. store (reportedly somewhere near 2 million) been counted by Nielsen SoundScan, you'd be reading a different article today.
And Coldplay's many years behind indie artists who, out of necessity, have transferred their focus from the old radio-CD-print press model to this new open, fan-engagement approach. Independent labels like Merge or Matador depend on intimate connections with their fans or on giving information directly to the people who care. Coldplay has simply taken that strategy to more people. Indeed, through kind circumstance and a handful of smart decisions, Coldplay stands almost alone within the major-label system as a shining example of how to do it right—and how to do it big—in the digital era.
Coldplay performs Thursday, Aug. 6, at the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek at 7 p.m. Elbow and Kitty, Dasiy & Lewis open, and tickets cost $35-$97.50.