Is The Offspring’s Columbia Catalogue Worth $35 Million? An Investigation
Posted on January 28, 2016
January 28, 2016 | by Nathan Adams
Earlier this year, Round Hill Music announced that it has purchased the Offspring’s Columbia Records catalogue, six albums making up the bulk of the band’s career, as well as publishing assets for all the band’s albums (Epitaph retains ownership of those that they released, including 1994’s Smash), for $35 million. In an effort to determine what was gained, and if it was worth the price tag, I listened to all the albums included in the purchase. This is what I found.
Ixnay on the Hombre, 1997:
The Offspring’s first major label release isn’t much different from its last independent one. Like Smash before it, Ixnay on the Hombre is a speedy record of youthful So-Cal punk that adds pop to the area’s hardcore pedigree. The goofball humor that would come to define the band’s most commercially successful work starts to crystallize here; besides the throwaway Yacht rock track “Intermission” and the opening circus of “Disclaimer,” which finds the band more or less comparing Ixnay with Huckleberry Finn, there’s “Don’t Pick It Up,” an apparent ska diss track that features a person eating dog shit, and “Cool to Hate,” which is, fittingly, a satire against people who hate everything. Even beyond specific songs, there are odd vocal tics (the deep accented voice on “Mota”; the borrowing of biker slang for “Me and My Old Lady”) that point to what the band would become on its next two albums.
More than anything, though, Ixnay is a straightforward record of genre-shaping, radio-ready punk. “All I Want,” “Leave it Behind” and “The Meaning of Life” sound as kinetic in 2016 as they did in 1997. Crossover single “Gone Away” remains a song out-of-time, free of the carbon dating of other alt-rock hits of the same era. The album sold 5 million copies, which makes it a relative failure compared to Smash’s success (12 million sold), but the numbers alone don’t paint the whole picture. This album is the last one the band’s first and oldest fans can point to as a mark of both growth and welcome stasis, of success not changing the band they love.
Play “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” to someone who has never heard it, if such a person exists, and see if they can pinpoint it as a pop sensation or a novelty also-ran. The song lived on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for 20 weeks, nearly half a goddamn calendar year, peaking at 52. Though it is borderline unlistenable now for its dated lyrics, it’s “give it to me baby”s and its placement on the wrong side of history regarding rap music, “Pretty Fly” was a certified crossover success that drove Americana to sell over 15 million copies.
The argument in favor of the smash hit is that it provides an entryway for new fans. In 1998, album sales still mattered, and a hit single is the doorway which one must walk through to establish real, lasting fandom. Those who heard “Pretty Fly” and decided they wanted more were met with an album that mostly delivers on its pop promises while suggesting something a little harder, should one want for it. “The Kids Aren’t Alright” still sounds like it would fit on whatever rock stations still broadcast out of the heartland. “Why Don’t You Get a Job” remains a fun trifle against freeloaders. For all its outdated gender politics, “She’s Got Issues” is a totally acceptable pop-rock song, with it’s snaking lead riff and hand-claps.
Speed-based pop-punk becomes the exception on Americana; “Staring at the Sun” and “No Brakes” are rippers, but most of the album is equally split between radio singles and experiments in expanding the limit’s of the band’s punk sound. Some experiments, like the Middle East-inspired guitar on “Pay the Man” and the stereo channel jumping of “End of the Line” work better than other, more questionable choices (there’s a chance the world would be a worse place without a needless cover of “Feelings,” but I’m not losing sleep over it).
With the gift of hindsight, one can draw a line between the success of “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and the band’s decline in popularity over the next decade. That doesn’t change the fact that, minor missteps and massive success aside, Americana still sounds like the band operating at peak confidence and being told, via the speech of money, that all its ideas are good. Worth mentioning: the album’s three lead singles, “Pretty Fly,” “The Kids Aren’t Alright” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job,” account for over 131 million of the band’s plays on Spotify.
Conspiracy of One, 2000:
Of all the songs that Round Hill purchased in their $35 million acquisition, there might be only one or two songs worse than “Original Prankster.”
The song’s Wikipedia page calls the track a “spiritual successor” to “Pretty Fly.” There’s no citation for that quote, but the proof is in the listening. If the stilted language of “Pretty Fly” could be written off as a reflection of the out-of-touch culture vulture it lampooned, what defense is there for “Original Prankster,” which finds Dexter Holland re-purposing the catchphrase of a Rob Schneider character from The Waterboy two years after the film’s release? If nothing else, let us hope that it filled Redman’s dollar box for another few years.
Dissecting the song, which I do so you do not have to, it’s broad failing is its lack of focus, its void of purpose beyond an attempt to do what worked before. This starts, though by no means ends, with the lyrics, which are nonsense all the way down. At least “Pretty Fly” had some clarity of vision.
The band is as far from their So-Cal punk roots as ever on Conspiracy of One. Besides two songs that pay lip-service to where the band came from (the excellent “Come Out Swinging” and the too-brief “All Along”), the album is mostly varying shades of alternative rock. “Want You Bad” sounds like the band’s attempt to cash in on the bubblegum pop-punk of New Found Glory while maintaining their edge. It doesn’t really work, partially because the band’s idea of an “edgy” lover is someone with tattoos, but the song would sound right at home on the soundtrack to a teen sex comedy. “Denial, Revisited” points to the balladry that the band would come to lean on in its later work. “One Fine Day” plays like it was intended for soccer hooligans. “Vultures” has the guitar tone and rhythmic drive of the band’s earliest songs, but devolves into a Foo Fighters delivery system beyond its opening seconds. If Americana is the sound of confidence, Conspiracy of One very much feels like a conscious effort to live up to that confidence. They say to never let them see you sweat, but Conspiracy of One distractingly glistens.
All that said, props to the album for exposing the band’s flaming skull logo, which I still think looks pretty cool. I am 30 years old.
In 2016, calling an album that goes platinum and scores a Billboard Hot 100 single a “failure” is obtuse, but the world was very different in 2000. In light of Conspiracy of One’s lukewarm reception, it’s very easy to cast Splinter as a “return to form” record. The music bares that theory out; the record is heavier, faster and less jokey than anything the band released during its Columbia years, Ixnay included. “Long Way Home,” “(Can’t Get My) Head Around You,” and “Lightning Rod” all harken back to the band’s speed-punk beginnings with their uncertain, anguished lyrics and tight harmonies.
The Offspring being The Offspring, the album is not without its quizzical diversions and suspect ideas. The album ends with a two-song suite of abbreviated tracks that add further fuel to the revival narrative (“Da Hui”) and serve as continued evidence that the band is at its worst when it’s making dumb jokes (“When You’re in Prison,” which is about taking a shower in jail and I assume you can finish the punchline yourself). What makes Splinter especially interesting is its two singles, “Hit That” and “Spare Me the Details.”
Smack in an album full of the fastest, most straightforward songs of the band’s career, there is “Hit That,” a dance-punk track. Anchored by a rolling bass line and a Dire Straits-era keyboard riff, the song’s lyrics are a more serious look (at least, more serious for The Offspring) at the youth culture the band perpetually tried to capture in its singles – this time, the issue is teen sex. I will go to bat for this song being the band’s best single, Smash-era songs included. It is a total left-field success, one that the band has yet to repeat.
“Spare Me the Details” is the most traditional pop song in the band’s catalog; it’s a buoyant, acoustic guitar song about not wanting to hear about a partner’s infidelity. It also displays a gender perspective which is problematic, at best. It’s interesting to consider how this song would be received were it released in 2016. As it stands, it’s an artifact of a less policed time and a song that could be featured on any Adam Sandler movie soundtrack. I mean that in the best way possible.
Even taking into consideration the further deterioration of traditional ‘90s alt-rock in an early 2000s landscape, Splinter underperformed. The record went gold, and one has to assume that the low number means the attempt to recapture departed fans didn’t take. That said, Splinter remains a worthy album for Offspring apologists and agnostics to revisit. Commercial success aside, this is likely the band’s third (maybe even second!) best album, full stop.
Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, 2008:
If Splinter is the point at which the Offspring realized it could not go back, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace is moment the band decided to try and be a less lofty Foo Fighters.
Rise and Fall stayed on the Billboard 200 chart for 30 weeks, peaking at 10, and featured arguably the band’s biggest single since “Original Prankster.” That song, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,” is some amalgamation of Muse and disco, filtered through The Offspring’s pop-punk history. It’s an odd song that lurches from verse to pre-chorus to chorus, never certain which kind of song it wants to be. That said, it works on the back of its hookiness; even at this late stage, Dexter Holland knows how to craft an earworm vocal melody.
The other real standout here is “Kristy Are You Doing OK?,” probably the most ballady ballad in the band’s catalog. The Offspring have never been shy about slowing things down and getting emotional. Its entire Columbia catalog is littered with examples of them writing their version of prom songs, but the band has never gone bigger than they do on “Kristy.”
These two songs represent the high water marks of Rise and Fall. On the whole, the rest of the album find the band getting heavier, slower and sillier. Songs like “A Lot Like Me” and “Hammerhead” are fine, as far as late-era mainstream rock radio go, but they share nothing in common with either the band’s beginnings or its playfulness. Then there is “Stuff is Messed Up,” which is more or less an Infant Sorrow song without the punchline. The remainder of the album’s tracks blend together, sounding not unlike late-era Papa Roach or Linkin Park; smoothed out, vaguely heavy, vaguely combative, and largely forgettable.
Any band that gets to album number eight is going to go through some maturity and changing, and there’s an argument to be made that making an album of generic mid-level rock is a path to success for a band that is on the downswing in terms of its cultural penetration. That said, it’s very hard to hear anything that represents The Offspring’s finest work on Rise and Fall.
Days Go By, 2012:
I hadn’t listened to Days Go By in its entirety until writing this piece (if, somehow, you’ve stuck this far through 2,000 words on The Offspring, let’s get a beer sometime). I, like many sarcastic punk fans who grew up listening to the Offspring, had heard “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk)” when it originally came out and was picked up by music blogs marveling at the inexplicableness of its existence. It is, as advertised, a rap song. I find myself wondering what the Holland of “Pretty Fly” would say if he were able to hear what his own band would eventually become. It’s a struggle to write about, because there isn’t much more to say. A punk band, now nearly 20 years removed from its youth, and nine years removed from any suggestion of the brashness that made its diversions at all interesting, made a rap song about how good it is to live in California. It is as inessential as any song I have ever heard. It is like Diet Coke in its lack of substance, devoid even of novelty.
The album is the final turn in a change that was set in motion on Conspiracy of One and took form on Rise and Fall. Despite the band’s history, the aged Offspring on Days Go By are in no way connected to Smash, Ignition or Ixnay. Rather, it sounds like a band very much inspired only by “You’re Going to Go Far, Kid” and “Pretty Fly.” It is a machine of commerce, one determined to grab whatever remains of the fractured pop-rock market. There is no shame in this, I suppose, nothing wrong with razor-cleaned production, with mid-tempo heaviness without depth, but there’s nothing fun about it, either.
The lone peon to the band’s history is its re-recording and release of “Dirty Magic,” originally released as a single from Ignition, a lifetime and handful of career-altering singles ago. If there is a unique answer for how a legacy alt-rock band can survive for 25 years, Days Go By doesn’t have it. There are Billboard statistics that suggest it was at least semi-popular; it stayed on the Top 200 chart for 6 weeks, getting as high as 12, and it sold 24,000 copies in its first week. Huddle around the fire, darkness is coming and there are less of us to hold the warmth.
What did $35 million get Round Hill? The publishing and licensing aspects of the deal are largely unknown. They control the masters, and conceivably have significant control over what happens to these songs, and where they will show up in popular culture. It is safe to suspect that one will probably hear more Offspring songs in commercials, movie trailers, video games, and on recent-classic rock stations. One could be forgiven for looking at the sum of the purchase and thinking this is where the value stops.
That said, there is a rich world of user-friendly and entry-level punk waiting to be discovered here. In its prime, The Offspring was good at the same thing all good punk bands excel at: making the user feel like they are part of something even when they are listening alone. Hearing the band lose that over the course of six albums is difficult, but it doesn’t change the fact that they flew high, for a time, and all the world watched.