Cartel have made the big leagues. They’ve reached the big time almost directly, with only a brief pit stop on the way to the top. They recorded their first album for The Militia Group, but by the time the album was ready for release Epic had already picked them up. That album, Chroma sold over 180,000 copies. Cartel was named a band to watch by Alternative Press and won Yahoo! Music’s “Who’s Next” competition. They’ve headlined at Warped Tour and are headlining their first nationwide tour this spring. With this rapid success, there have been (of course) the naysayers. They’ve taken heat for how quickly they moved onto a major label. Things have been happening for Cartel—and fast.
So fast, in fact, that they have had to make a conscious effort to soak it all in before it’s gone. “We’ll catch ourselves sometimes getting caught up with all the hastiness of it,” says Will Pugh, lead singer/guitarist. “Then we’d be like hold on, we just sold 100,000 records. Do you remember six years ago when we said if we ever sold 100,000 records we were gonna FREAK OUT? We always have to remind ourselves that it was something we said, and we have to freak out. So we sit there and go AHHH and freak out.”
While some bands argue the virtues of a grassroots approach to rock stardom, Cartel have gone the opposite route. Pugh for one is happy to have gone almost straight to the big leagues. “We’ve always been a band that wanted to try to be as big as possible for the sake of playing to big crowds,” says Pugh. “If we only sold 500,000 records ever but could pack a stadium we’d much rather do that then sell tons of records. A lot of heat has been put on that, but I think its stupid for anybody to think that somebody wouldn’t want to progress their business, their life, their band, their career, as far as possible.” Cartel have progressed far quickly, forgoing the years of toiling on the road and miniscule recording budgets that are so often celebrated by independent artists and the select fans that have had the opportunity to hear them.
Cartel are bent on global domination, or at least a global following. Over the past year they have been touring incessantly, but it’s not the touring that gets to them, it’s when they are promoting when they are supposed to be on vacation. “When we come home we should have two months off, but we go to L.A. and New York for TRL and marketing conference trips,” says Pugh. “Seriously, touring now is the easy part. Touring we don’t have to talk; we just do our thing and break down the set.”
Partly, at least, because of the backing of a major label, they have really been able to get the word out, performing on the aforementioned TRL and being featured on MTV2, Myspace and Purevolume have all been chances for Cartel to shine and get the word, and the music, out. “When people come to our shows it’s a mix of everything from ‘my friends showed me your record’ to, ‘I heard your song on MySpace’,” says Pugh. “The next one is ‘I heard your song on MTV; I love you guys.’ Really? That’s impressive.”
Along with the huge positives that Cartel has experienced, they’ve seen the dark side of the industry as well. They’ve developed their own strategy to handle the negativity and cynicism inherent in the industry. “Most everyone will tell you that whatever industry or job you are in, there will always be a little bit of backstabbing. The best advice you can give is to make the best friends you can and be loyal to those friends and hope they are loyal to you. When you build up that friendship network you aren’t going to be screwed too bad if the worst happens,” says Pugh.
Their perception of the recording industry is part of the reason they decided to move up to a major as fast as they could. “The only reason why they say major labels are bad is because they have more money. The indie business has just as much B.S. and evil as majors. But if you are in that ballgame at least you accomplished something. It’s worse if you are on an indie label busting your butt for 10 years and get dropped.”
As negative as all that sounds, it’s understanding that which has helped Pugh to stay positive about the band’s future within the industry. “That’s helped me to still have that brightness about it. Twenty-two is not that old. I have a little more partying to do, and there is a whole lot of fun left in what I write. The difference between the reality and the dream is starting to get a little closer. It’s very surreal; I don’t think I ever really planned on it. I hoped really hard.”