What Pressure? Moby Isn't Shooting for 'Play'-Size Sales

Moby has an Olympian task looming--and we're not talking about his scheduled performance in the Salt Lake City Winter Games' closing ceremony next Sunday.

The challenge awaiting the electronic rocker is to repeat the 2.4 million U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide sales of his breakthrough 1999 album "Play" with the follow-up "18," due in stores May 14. Moby has a plan in regard to reaching those heights again: don't.

"I saw the success of 'Play' as an anomaly," says the New York musician, whose next-best in U.S. sales is 1995's "Everything Is Wrong" with 180,000. "Most records I've made haven't sold blindingly well, so making this record, I thought, 'If I end up making something that sells well, that's terrific, but I'm not expecting it.'"

Neither are the executives at the labels that release his albums, the independents V2 Records in the U.S. and Canada, and Mute Records in the rest of the world.

"Neither company has put commercial expectations on me," Moby says. "We'd have meetings and they would listen to songs and wonder if perhaps they were too commercial. I can't imagine this happening often in the world of corporate music."

Not that the label executives would reject "Play"-level sales.

"It's unrealistic that this will sell the same number of records," V2 President Andy Gershon says. "But it absolutely will touch anyone who bought 'Play.' That's the challenge to the label, to market this record to the people who bought 'Play' and might not have been true fans of Moby, but bought the record because it was such a huge lifestyle record.

"'Play' had that word of mouth and that magic every record company wants, whether it's a 'Play' or something like 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' that seeps into the consciousness of so many people."

That's exactly what "Play" did, taking more than a year to get any meaningful sales and radio exposure, then getting a second wind from the single "Southside."

But it didn't come saddled with a precedent of big sales; "18" does.

"I'm not going to be freaking out and going, 'Oh my God, what will we do?' if this album doesn't take off right away," Gershon says. "We can afford to be patient."

One thing that won't be part of the marketing plan is something that proved a key part of the "Play" breakthrough. Every song on that album was licensed for use in at least one film, TV show or commercial.

"I was criticized for that by a lot of people from a lot of quarters," Moby says. "That's understandable. I would criticize me as well. But when 'Play' was released, no one was interested in it. The only people interested were people making commercials and movies. When they came to us, I of course said yes. That led to commercial promiscuity, and with this record I'll probably be less promiscuous."

The new album likely will appeal to "Play" fans, although it's hardly a repeat. While some of the songs use the kind of soul and blues vocal samples that were at the core of its predecessor, Moby reaches into new territory as well.

The opening song and first single, "We Are All Made of Stars," evokes '80s new wave, with a guitar part recalling Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera. And guest appearances by Sinead O'Connor, Angie Stone with MC Lyte, indie-pop female duo Azure Ray and a sample of a '70s soul song by Sylvia Robinson provide an aesthetic thread.

"I think it's a more feminine record in the sense that it's a little warmer," Moby says. "'Play' had some songs with harsh edges. In '18,' even when it gets more up-tempo, it's still more feminine."

In any case, Moby has now made albums following up flops ("Play" came after 1997's disappointing "Animal Rights") and one following up a hit.

Hit is better.

"People keep saying there must be so much pressure," he says. "In my mind there wasn't. Since 'Play' was so successful, more people will be paying attention. Hopefully I've made something worthy of the attention."

HARDBALL: The Rock the Vote organization--which holds its annual Patrick Lippert Awards on Feb. 26 honoring the Dave Matthews Band, Destiny's Child and "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin at the House of Blues--plans to launch a sure-to-be-controversial campaign with three public service announcement television spots challenging what some view as the unquestioning nationalism that came in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In one of the spots, which are due to begin airing in March, a school class recites a variation of the Pledge of Allegiance that in addition to saluting the flag affirms a national mandate to harm the environment and get oil "no matter what."

"The spots look at traditional American symbols and adjust them to bring light to certain issues," Rock the Vote deputy director Jehmu Green says. "We are definitely trying to push viewers to look at other sides of issues. We have strong feelings about the need to protect freedom of expression and use these ads to show that you wouldn't want to give up certain freedoms in the name of fighting for freedom, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin."

SMALL FACES: L.A. hip-hop group Dilated Peoples has signed on to headline a tour in conjunction with "Scratch," a documentary about the evolution of DJ turntable artistry. Joining them will be pioneer scratcher Grand Wizard Theodore and DJs Z-Trip and Jazzy Jay, with special guests in most cities, all performing in between excerpts from the film. Tour stops include March 6 at the Palace and March 7 at the Anaheim House of Blues.... After some uncertainty about the band's future, Hootie & the Blowfish have reconvened in L.A. to start a new album with producer Don Was. This will be the group's first collection of new material since 1998's "Musical Chairs." No release date has been set.... 'N Sync's Chris Kirkpatrick can be heard poking fun at his boy-band world as a guest voice in the second-season premiere of Nickelodeon's animated "The Fairly OddParents," airing March 1. Kirkpatrick voices Chip Skylark, a teen-pop sensation kidnapped by a smitten girl.... Rancid's Tim Armstrong has done a guest vocal on the coming album by Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge's side project, Box Car Racer, due May 14. Blink bassist Mark Hoppus had already done a guest spot on another track.

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Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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