"Europe Takes Big Dose of Placebo"

Billboard, Nov'00


by Paul Sexton

Multinational Virgin Rock Act's 3rd Set Enjoys Strong Start

LONDON-Placebo is doing a roaring trade in "Black Market Music" by speaking the same language as many of its key supporters.

The London-based American-- Swiss-Swedish modern rock trio has generated global career sales of some 1.5 million albums since its 1996 debut, according to Hut/Virgin. The U.K. media cycle in which acclaim is swiftly replaced by disdain now almost dictates that Placebo should enter a commercial decline, but instead, the group's third album, "Black Market Music"-released Oct. 9-is off to a spectacular start.

It registered no fewer than 10 top 10 sales chart debuts, including at No. 1 in France and Greece, while a top 10 entry in Australia and early success in Mexico underlined that its appeal is not limited to Europe. Those figures are a reward for Placebo's assiduous touring and for the fact that this cosmopolitan group can conduct promotion in at least four languages.

The new album follows Placebo's self-titled 1996 debut, which Virgin says has reached total sales of 500,000, a figure doubled by the 1998 follow-up "Without You I'm Nothing." The band started its latest, 20 date European tour Nov. 4 in Paris, set to conclude Dec. 9 with its firstever gig in Turkey.

The instant chart-topping status in France, on Delabel/Virgin, was in one of its traditional strongholds, but the speed with which "Black Market Music" has infiltrated other countries has impressed band, management, and label. "Germany [No. 4] and Greece [No. 1] were the two surprises," says Placebo's Swedish bassist, Stefan Olsdal. "We were dead chuffed [delighted] about that. If you're only big in your home country, your world may not stretch beyond that, but we've always had a global outlook. We feel we can do it everywhere."

In the U.K., propelled by the top 20 singles "Taste In Men" and "Slave To The Wage" and followed by a 15-date British tour, the album debuted at No. 6, one place higher than "Without You I'm Nothing." It is already certified silver (60,000 units) and approaching gold (100,000), although it fell away sharply to Nos. 17, 34, and 48 in subsequent weeks.

"We have been touring a lot in Europe, so in some ways it's not a surprise that we've done better [there] than in England," continues Olsdal. "We come from three different countries, so there's a very international feel to the band. We speak French, and we can get by in Spanish and Swedish, so there's more of a human connection with these territories. It feels like we're theirs."

Dave McLean, who has managed Placebo since its inception with partner Alex Weston at Riverman Management, has also noted the band's increased profile in both record and ticket sales. "On the second album, it took us about a year to sell 70,000-80,000 in Germany, but with this album we've done it in two weeks," he says. "It's opened up, on average, three or four times as quickly as the last one."

McLean, who also praises the "storming" support and enthusiasm of local Virgin labels, says the band has stepped up to 3,000-capacity venues on this tour, with some 50,000 tickets sold up-front. Gigs in Australia and New Zealand are sealed for the new year, with another trek across the continent already confirmed for March-by which time the next single, "Special K," will be in circulation-and festival dates are planned for next summer.

"The band have been working incredibly hard for a long time in the true way of a rock band, playing live and playing an exciting show every time," says Virgin international marketing manager Orgie Agostinho. "Each time they go around and visit a territory, we see an increase in the fan base. We had 2 1/2 months of setup on this record. They realize [widespread success] takes more than just writing and playing music, and it's really paying off."

Stephan Laack, music editor at top 40 station WDR Eins Live, serving North Rhine Westphalia in Germany, says that while the station is playing several Placebo tracks, "Slave To The Wage" is "perfect for [daytime] because it's got an '80s attitude and a strong melody." He adds that the station is staging a concert by the band during November, limited to an exclusive audience of 120. "You can't buy tickets for it," says Laack. "It's a monthly event, and we've had Moloko and Travis on before. The whole team here likes the band very much; [it's] perfect for our mix."

Jim Penistan, buyer for Sonic Sounds in Lincoln in England's east midlands, says that Placebo's hard-- touring determination is extending the shelf life of "Black Market Music." "It's kept selling, this one, whereas `Without You I'm Nothing' slowed down almost immediately," he notes. "And there's another two potential singles on the album, so it's probably done better than we thought."

Virgin plans to release "Black Market Music" in the U.S. next April, building on interest in Placebo that saw it co-headline dates with Stabbing Westward in spring 1999, doing "98% business" at the box office, according to McLean. ("Without You I'm Nothing" peaked at No. 20 on the Heatseekers chart in Billboard's Feb. 20, 1999, issue.)

"A major part of this being so successful in Europe is not having a conflict of interest," says Agostinho. "It means they've had time to tour properly in Europe. They'll be able to go [to the U.S.] when the time is right and when it fits in the diary, and it sets up a nice vibe [there] for this record."

To judge by Olsdal's attitude to the road, Placebo could be the ultimate new-wave troubadour act. "The more you travel, the more you learn to be open," he says. "Also, when we go on tour we don't become homesick, because we don't really feel [London] is our home. We've been here for the past five years, our record company's here, management's here, but we've been constantly touring. This country feels as foreign to me as Germany does."