But that was before "Yourself or Someone Like You," the band's Atlantic Records debut, spawned a string of modern rock radio hits, including "Push" (with its memorable "I want to push you around . . . I want to take you for granted" refrain), "3 am" and "Real World." Sales of "Yourself or Someone Like You" have topped 7 million, making it one of the best-selling rock albums of the past two years.
But already the band members are plotting to ensure a future in a business in which futures aren't guaranteed. Rob Thomas, Matchbox 20's vocalist and chief songwriter, says they decided to forego a net profit on this tour by investing additional money in an arena-worthy sound and light production.
"We're going about it the right way," Thomas said over the phone from Atlanta recently, before heading to New Orleans for pre-tour rehearsals. "We realize the size of what we're trying to do, trying to pull off a tour like this. Everything that we're doing is to make it a huge show. We're not making any money on this tour, but we think that's the way to go. In the end, it's going to build our (fan) base."
More important, they hope spending money on a big production will help build long-term fans of the band, rather than fickle, here-today-gone-tomorrow fans of the current hit song.
"When 'Push' was first out, we were 'Push,' " Thomas said. "People had never heard of us, but they knew that song. After '3 am' and now 'Real World,' after a couple of singles under our belt, we've wound up with more fans of the album than fans of 'Push.' "
That doesn't make Thomas and his band mates household names and faces just yet. As with Tonic, Third Eye Blind, Creed and other young modern rock acts, the members of Matchbox 20 are still relatively anonymous. Without an identity beyond the songs, that may mean that when the hits disappear, so does the band; just ask Seven Mary Three and Candlebox, former rock radio darlings who are already well down the back slope of the popularity curve.
Thomas views the hit song/low profile paradox in a different light.
"There was a whole thing about how we had sold so many millions of records, and nobody knew what we looked like or who we were," he said. "To me, that means people are listening to our music, as opposed to 'I don't know that song, but I see you everywhere.'
"We haven't been everywhere enough for people to get totally sick of us. At best, you can get sick of these songs. Maybe that will add to the excitement of the next record: 'I don't mind these guys, I like them, I like this record, but I want something new.' And we'll say, 'Here you go.' "
Thomas says the band has already written two albums' worth of fresh material. But don't expect a new Matchbox 20 release anytime soon. After the current arena tour and a trip through Australia this fall, they'll take a break until early 1999, then "ease into the next record."
Thomas and company are well aware of the "Hootie factor": Sell a bazillion copies of your first album (about 14 million in the case of Hootie & the Blowfish), release a second record soon thereafter, and watch it go over like a lead balloon with a public that is still burned out on the first one.
"To this day, we tell everyone at Atlantic, 'Remember Hootie, and don't expect us to pop right out with (a new album),' " Thomas said. "That to me is bad business. We're going to take our time; we put out a good record, it's going to be a good record whenever it comes out.
"I think Alanis Morissette did a great thing. Her ('Jagged Little Pill') record was so big, then there's this whole period where you don't hear about her. Then it's like, 'Alanis Morissette? What happened to her? When's that next record coming out?' "
Given the amount of cash Matchbox 20 has generated for Atlantic - at least $30 million - the band has the clout to set its own timetable.
"This will be the only trite thing that I'll say the entire conversation: I'm surprised Atlantic can hear anything behind all the money we've made them," Thomas said. "If we take too long (with the next record), what are they going to do - jump off their wallets and commit suicide?
"We're going to keep our heads down, pay no attention to who's doing what or to what's going on, make a record of what we think are great songs, and put it out. To me, that's what Tom Petty would do. He constantly puts out brilliant records, they do well, he has credit for being a great musician, and there's not a lot of fanfare about it.
"In the end, I'd like to put out as many records as I can, and look back and say that I was a good song writer, and not that I was a rock star."
By Keith Spera