It’s hard out here for a Blowfish… or is it?

It’s hard to be a Blowfish.

In the last 10 years, Hootie & the Blowfish have released four albums, but they haven’t had a Top-10 hit since 1998’s “I Will Wait.”

However, they have a 25-date summer tour in the works, which includes a return to the annual Drive For Show, Rock Fore! Dough concert on April 8.

But the Carolina quartet has no album to support the tour.

What’s a Blowfish gotta do to get some work? As it turns out, not a whole lot.

These days, they play a lot festivals, like the July 19 Rib America Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. “There’s a ton of events like that. Most of what they play is events. It’s not a rock concert,” said Rusty Harmon, the band’s former manager.

Hootie & the Blowfish have become corporate-friendly event stars, more an entertainment corporation than rockers. They’re like Yanni or, yes — Waffle House! They’re as much a brand as a band.

Hmm. Maybe it’s not so hard after all to be a Blowfish.

“When a band gets to where Hootie is, and has a couple of hit singles, you’ll always be in demand in one way or another,” shrugged Harmon, who managed the band for 12 years. Harmon now owns Murphy to Manteo (MTM) Management, a North Carolina music management company. He also teaches a course at North Carolina State University about the music business.

Hootie & the Blowfish had more than a couple of hit singles. Hearken back, lo, those 14 years ago to 1994, when both “Let Her Cry” and “Only Wanna Be With You” hit No. 1 on the Mainstream Top 40. The two songs off of the band’s debut album, “Cracked Rear View,” accompanied the band’s No. 2 hit, “Hold My Hand.”

In 1995, they hit No. 1 again with “Time,” off the same album.

Then came their sophomore album, “Fairweather Johnson,” which brought on name-related controversy due to a number of bar-boys believing it was a reference to erectile dysfunction, because that’s what top-selling bands are so very liable to sing about. That album netted them just one Top-10 hit, “Old Man & Me,” which went to No. 4 — although some measurements, from “Radio & Records,” claim that the song “Tucker’s Town” hit No. 9.

The “Friends” soundtrack in 1997 netted them a No. 3 hit with “I Go Blind,” and 1998’s album “Musical Chairs” brought them their last No. 1 hit, “I Will Wait.” Since then, they haven’t had a meaningful Top-10 list, although they have managed respectable Top-20 hits on a couple of occasions.

At one time, the band was ubiquitous enough to be included in pop culture references across the spectrum. Monica Geller on the ’90s TV show “Friends” supposedly made out with one of the band members. Singer Darius Rucker appeared on an episode of “Seseme Street,” singing a reworked version of “Hold My Hand,” to help Elmo cross the street. Prime-time TV cartoon “The Simpsons” referenced them when one character recorded over a Hootie & the Blowfish cassette. “It’s cheaper than blank tape,” he said.

The band hit big as cheerful, goofy throwbacks at a time when the industry had signed every angst-ridden grunge or garage act they could find. Like the Waffle Houses that dot the Southern landscape, their sound was bland, familiar and, yet, when paired with the then-current backdrop of heroin grunge, seemed refreshingly new.

It’s the same feeling a Carolina college student might get after passing miles of backroad barbecue shacks with a growling stomach before the yellow glare of a 24-hour Waffle House rises over the horizon. Someone has to provide the masses with a cheap and filling meal.

And the masses are the ones buying the waffles, people — or, in this case, the CDs. Since Hootie and the Blowfish formed in 1985 at the University of South Carolina, they’ve sold more than 25 million records. And even though no hipster seems to want to admit to being a Hootie fan, they’ve managed to make a living doing what they love for longer than many bands.

“It’s what a lot of bands did: work with corporate American to make a career,” Harmon said.

Just as Waffle House was once a start-up diner in Avondale Estates in Atlanta, and now comprises more than 1,700 stores. How decidedly un-rock-star-ish of them. How very… “corporate.” Maybe it’s not so great to be a Blowfish.

Or maybe it is. After all, Waffle House does sell nearly 500 million waffles a year. And, after all, Hootie & the Blowfish did name one of their albums “Scattered, Smothered & Covered,” after the beloved Waffle House dish.

For a music comparison, check out the stats from the ’70s glam band KISS. Their merchandising made them more money than their music ever could, wmore than $100 million between 1977 and 1979 alone.

And only bands concerned with “street cred” would turn down a paycheck like that. For a live show at a corporate event, Harmon said that Hootie & the Blowfish can pull in upwards of $250,000, and these boys have never been concerned with that — street cred, that is. Their uniforms of T-shirts over polo shirts and blue jeans haven’t changed since they were freshmen at USC. They mock themselves in their videos and champion the decidedly un-hardcore sport of golf.

But the money issue is where they really part ways with their more widely respected and, dare we say, more artistic brethren in the music business. But let’s all be honest: No one starts a band hoping to reach poverty and obscurity.

“I always say: They call it the music business for a reason,” Harmon said. When the band’s former attorney, Richard “Gus” Gusler, first met bassist Dean Felber, Gusler was in demand from a lot of regional bands to work with them. He was an experienced promoter with a freshly minted law degree, a hot ticket in an industry where even the clauses in contracts have clauses. But Felber didn’t ask Gusler about how to get a record deal, Harmon said.

“He said, ‘I want to know how to set up a sub-S corporation, and I want to know how to get these guys health insurance and dental insurance,’” Harmon said, and that’s how Gusler knew that he wanted to work with the band. “They were the first band that started by asking about the business side and not the music side.”

It was like the scene from “Jerry Maguire.” No, not that scene, the one where some tweeners in the airport demand the identity of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s football-playing character.

“Are you Hootie?” they ask.

“No, I am not Hootie,” he answers sullenly.

Instead, it’s like the scene where Regina King’s character, the wife of Gooding’s wide receiver, tell Tom Cruise’s sport agent: “He deserves the big four — shoe, car, clothing line, soft drink — the four jewels of the celebrity endorsement dollar. We majored in marketing, baby. We came to play.”

In other words, these four musicians came to play music, but also to win the big game.
“What they had was everybody had a role and they were all very active,” Harmon said. The members brought their respective talents to the band. At the band’s alma mater, Felber was an accounting major. Singer Darius Rucker and guitarist Mark Bryan were both broadcast journalism majors. Drummer Jim “Soni” Sonefeld was at USC on a soccer scholarship and majoring in liberal arts.

“Dean handled the money. Soni was really interested in booking. Mark was into production of the band and making sure they had a good work ethic,” Harmon said.

Sounds like hard work to be a Blowfish.

It’s actually hard work to be any kind of musician. Bands signed to a record label are like little cottage industries within a big corporate structure. It’s not all naked people trashing hotel rooms. A band needs a legal team, a producer, a publicity team, a distribution team, someone to handle retail merchandise and record sales, a booking manager, a touring manager and someone to handle distribution of music to radios. If any one of those puzzle pieces is not in place, the band has to do it themselves.

In addition, most record companies will record your music, master it, produce it and sell it — but that work comes at a price. The band is paid only a royalty on the sale of albums, usually between 10 and 20 percent. But that’s after recoupable expenses like studio time, music video production and touring expenditures. The band manager takes a cut, typically 20 percent. The remaining money is distributed among the band members.

Some bands end up in debt to their label, even against the advances already paid to them.

They go bankrupt. Witness Flock of Seagulls and Herbie Hancock, who both saw bands go the way of the dodo bird. The record label can simply write off the loss. But the band — and often its individual members — are written off by labels and fans. Making the band, to record companies, is really more like making the brand.

But they’re not running out to get day jobs, like Pat Badger, ex-bassist for the band Extreme, who is now runs an alpaca farm; or like Alex James, ex-bassist for the band Blur, who now produces goat cheese at his farm in Great Britain.

What’s the connection between bass players and farming?

The point is that the members of Hootie & the Blowfish couldn’t tell you. While the band might not have had a charting hit for a decade, they’re certainly not farming their days away.

And a lot of things are changing. Hootie & the Blowfish hit the scene just before the conquest of the digital revolution. Before mp3 players, MySpace and YouTube, a band could sell millions of albums and make a tidy profit. In this new world order, the record companies are struggling with their business model and trying to find a new paradigm that brings in the kind of numbers bands used to command.

It might be too terrifying to be a Blowfish. Of course, they could always sell Waffles.

But as it turns out, these were smart guys; college boys who affected the college look and had a college bar-band sound and were huge Gamecock fans to boot. They tapped into the frat-boy circuit, playing house parties and bars and meeting weekly for business and strategy sessions — mixed in with a liberal dose of broadcast football and beer.

“We had the same interests. We liked to play basketball and drink beer and chase women,” Harmon laughed. But most of all, they had the same vision: “The vision was to be smarter than everybody else.”

To control their financial future, the band formed a legal partnership in 1990 called Fishco. It enabled them to book better gigs, grant employee health benefits and pursue music as a career. They put out two CDs before signing to JRS Records for one year. That deal didn’t last long, as JRS was never able to fund another album. So the band put out their album “Kootchypop” in 1993 on their own, and sold 50,000 copies. That’s when Atlantic Records snapped them up for “Cracked Rear View.”

“We never borrowed money. We never spent any money we didn’t have,” Harmon said.

They’d make sure a line stretched around the block at a small club — that fans were turned away at the door for lack of space — before moving up to a larger venue. They rode around in a ratty touring van until they could afford to buy a new one outright, instead of financing the purchase: “The vision was always smart business and grow at a rate that didn’t exceed our limitations.”

During their time with Atlantic, the band took advantage of some opportunities simply because they were sports nuts — like working with ESPN and getting Dan Marino into the video for “Only Wanna Be With You.” That video also included sports broadcaster Dan Patrick, golfers Phil Mickelson, Jay Hoss and Freddie Couples, and others as they could convince them to join the party.

“Next thing you know, we’re doing the ESPY Awards and Monday Night Football. Once the golfing community embraced us, then the football community embraced us and it became a cross-cultural thing,” Harmon said. “I wouldn’t say it was calculated. I would like to take credit for that.”

The band did work for with the Tiger Woods Foundation and the Dan Marino Foundation. They formed their casual pro-am charity tournament, Monday After the Masters, that has since attracted the biggest names in both the PGA and LGPA, including Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam. They got labeled a “sports band” and their laid-back attitude and no-frills appearances reinforced that. They became the most ordinary rock stars in the world. And despite their work ethic, without a big hit album, the momentum they built for themselves as a major touring act simply faded.

“When I left the band in ’01, we had started doing two to three corporate events a month,” Harmon said. “Hootie is one of the first calls they make, because they know that Hootie is a ‘golf band.’”

Although no standard definition currently exists for the phrase “golf band,” Nike wouldn’t want Smashing Pumpkins, the band’s contemporaries in 1995, to run around a clubhouse and sneer at corporate America. And if Hootie had any rage that made them feel like a rat in a cage, well, they’d probably grab a beer and watch the game. Maybe putt around the green a little.

Around those corporate bookings, the band books smaller venues. So when you look at their touring schedule on Pollstar and find that they have four June dates in Virginia towns like Glen Allen and Danville, but none in nearby Pennsylvania, you can assume that those shows are located within driving distance from whatever corporate event they were hired to play.
They haven’t hung up their waffle irons yet. Guitarist Bryan and singer Rucker are working on their second solo efforts that they plan to release in 2008, while drummer Sonefeld will make his solo debut later this year.

The first two solo offerings from Bryan and Rucker haven’t been particularly successful.

Almost as if Burt’s Chili had spun off from Waffle House into its own concept restaurant. Twenty-four-hour chili doesn’t sit too well on the stomach. And the band is branded a just that: a band — a band full of nice boys with good reputations who’ve made smart choices in life, rarely complain and seem genuinely friendly.

They enjoy their jobs. They like their fans. And whether or not these upcoming albums turn out another slew of hit songs, it’s not a bad life. They’re still making a darn good living doing what they love to do. As the boys hit the big four-oh, and Rucker more fully recovers from last year’s scares with knee surgery, a staph infection and more knee surgery, they find their lives filled with marriage and children and all of those things that rock stars, like Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan, are missing out on during their bouts of infinite sadness.

It sounds pretty good to be a Blowfish.

Hootie & the Blowfish play Augusta at the Drive For Show, Rock Fore! Dough concert with current chart-topper Colbie Caillat, rising star and Augusta native Josh Kelley and local songster John Krueger.

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