Searching For Nirvana Ii

In his home in Lawrence, Kans., Peter Fitch picks up the phone on the third ring. "Pizza Hut."

Fitch doesn't really live in a Pizza Hut. It's just that these days, he's gotten a little paranoid. The phone has been ringing constantly, always some record-company guy, or maybe a lawyer or a music publisher-someone from a coast somewhere, representing more money or more power than Peter Fitch and his ratty-jeaned friends know what to make of. Fitch's voice sounds quavery, shellshocked. "We didn't ask for this," he says. "We don't want it." You see, Fitch plays drums in a talented, somewhat underripe punk band called Paw. Last month Paw was part of a healthy but unsung local scene that included such notables as Kill Whitey and Sin City Disciples-it's no Seattle, maybe, but the locals can call it home. Paw has never made a record and has barely played outside Lawrence; the members wanted to try Los Angeles in February, but they all work minimum-wage jobs, and the L.A. clubs had never heard of them, so they decided they couldn't afford it.

That was last month. This month Fitch's little punk band is suddenly one of the most hotly sought-after acts in America. Record-company executives have started flying to Lawrence to scout them. When the group performed at a heavy-metal bar in Austin, Texas, two weeks back, as part of the schmoozy South By Southwest music conference, half the music industry was there. One talent scout says he walked into the club, saw 20 other A&R people (it stands for Artists and Repertoire) and left. " I didn't want to be a sheep," he says. Next week Geffen Records plans to fly Paw out to L.A. to lunch with its marketing staff. "It's really asinine and out of control," says Fitch. " We're just a bunch of scumbags from Kansas in ripped jeans, and we're sitting in the best restaurant in Austin, eating $35 entrees. That's not reality."

Oh, but it is. After the recent, unexpected success of Nirvana, a punk trio from Aberdeen, Wash., whose "Nevermind" album has sold more than 3.5 million copies, the record industry is jumping through hoops to court punk bands--bands with names like Helmet, Hole, Come, Afghan Whigs and Urge Overkill. "Now everyone says, 'Get us the next Nirvana'," says Tim Carr, who scouts talent for Warner Bros. "It's a feeding frenzy." In an industry known for theatrical groveling, this is a particularly juicy prospect. "Clive Davis went into my lawyer's office," says Courtney Love, who plays guitar and sings-screeches, really-in the abrasive L.A. band Hole. "He said, 'I'm begging you, I'm begging you ... I'll give them a million dollars'." Clive Davis, 59, is the president of Arista Records, best known these days for turning Whitney Houston into a star and Aretha Franklin into bankable elevator music. Hole is best known for a song that begins, " When I was a teenage whore." Love, 25, is also the pregnant wife of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, a tidbit whose value is lost on no one. " I had one A&R guy tell me, 'Sleeping with Kurt Cobain is worth half a million dollars'," says Charles R. Cross, editor of the Seattle Rocket and a new regular on the A&R lunch circuit. After an intense bidding war that even included Madonna as a bidder, Hole signed with Geffen last week. Of this educational experience, Love concludes, " I learned about this thing called creme brulee at all these lunches, and it was the most amazing thing I ever had."

Janet Billig, for one, is amused. Billig, a part-time law student, is the director of artist and media relations at Caroline Records, the independent label that put out Hole's "Pretty on the Inside" last August. "When we signed Hole," she says, "part of the idea was, 'No one's going to poach them from us, they're the most abrasive thing I've ever heard'. " But since Nirvana, no one is safe. Love says, "One guy told me, 'You know, with Nirvana [having succeeded), we could really make some stupid money. Nirvana reminds me of when the Police broke through'." Not only record companies, but lawyers, agents and publishers are cramming into clubs where the patrons pierce their body parts and the plumbing is always an issue. At a Feb. 11 Hole show in L.A., the guest list outnumbered the paid crowd. "It was like being in a sauna with all these people you'd never want to be in a sauna with," says Leigh Lust (ne Lustberg), a talent scout for Capitol. " If you dropped a bomb [on the club], you would rearrange the face of the music industry." In Seattle, things have gotten so silly that the label that nursed the scene, Sub Pop, now shies away from local bands. "They've become too jaded," says co-owner Bruce Pavitt. " Half the people I know are making a living giving sound bites to MTV."

Since Feb. 12, the Afghan Whigs' lawyer has received 22 calls from labels or major publishers wanting to work with the Whigs-not bad for a band that appeared on the cover of its last record with its hands dripping with blood. Helmet, an arty New York band whose independent records have sold fewer than 10,000 copies apiece, recently signed a deal worth more than a million dollars for three albums-but not before lunching with 14 suitors. A Warner A&R man says he bowed out after the band asked for a higher royalty rate than Prince. "We joked that after we got signed, we were going to send a basket of fruit to Nirvana," says guitarist and singer Page Hamilton.

Feeding frenzies of this sort are nothing new to the industry. What's new is that this one is for punk-rock acts, distinguished largely by their stance against the record industry. Suddenly, this stance is worth something. According to Marc Geiger, an A&R man at Def American Recordings, "The bands that were worth $5,000 a couple years ago are worth $250,000 now." While that seems a windfall, it isn't always. The figures are advances against royalties-loans that the bands have to pay back out of their earnings. " Driving the price up is very dangerous for a young band," says Lust. "If they don't sell, they're totally in debt. Imagine the stress on the band."

But for the record industry, the punk boom makes sense. Punk bands remain relatively low-maintenance-they don't need to be promoted to radio, which is the industry's biggest cash drain. And with MTV, they can reach a national audience anyway. The companies are content to lore money on most of the acts (85 percent of all major-label releases lose money) in the hope of making $50 million on one Nirvana. The music also represents an ideological, uh, free lunch. So far, the '90s are shaping up as the decade of anger: angry women, angry African-Americans, angry gays, angry taxpayers. For a $7.8 billion music industry run largely by European white males, punk offers anger without guilt.

For its show at CBGB last Friday night, Afghan Whigs asked owner Hilly Kristal not to let any A&R people in. Fat chance. At punk clubs across the nation, the sharks continue to circle, drawn by the smell of blood-and the phone calls of well-connected lawyers, managers or agents. And sometimes, maybe, by a good band that deserves a shot.

The Sex Pistols sang, "There's no future." Did they mean Mortons was out of desserts?

$$$ Helmet: Sound like a million, plus they lunched with Madonna's manager. $ Babes in Toyland: Female grunge-rock band, now marketed as "foxcore." $$ Urge Overkill: Toured with Nirvana, plus wear sharp velvet suits. $$ Afghan Whigs: Sub Pop band, couldn't keep the A&R people out of CBGB. $$ L7: Foxcore quartet used Nirvana's producer but signed pre-Nirvanamania. $$$ Hole: Courted by Madonna, married to Nirvana. Whoa! You make the call. $ Come: The new kids on the block, still doing breakfast.