It’s South by Southwest 2012, and I have time to kill between panels. So, I duck into this especially tiny 6th Street bar, whose name escaped me even then, for a beer. There’s a guy and his guitar onstage, and he’s got to be no older than 21-22. Even between me, the bouncer, the next band up, and the bartender, I served as an audience of one. With a kind of rustic charm, he performed John Mellencamp covers and Bruce Springsteen standbys between originals about prom night and leaving Charleston. Maybe I was more pacified than entertained, but for a brief period he held my attention, and I felt obliged to shake his hand.
We got to talking, and when it came out what I do for a living, he got antsy and excited. Tossing out Twitter handles and SoundCloud links, I’ll never forget when he grabbed my arm, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I’d sell my grandma or buy you a horse just to have someone listen.” I left a few minutes later, and though I never did look him up, I still think about him from time to time.
I think about his state of mind, occupying that hazy space between determination and desperation, and I can’t help but see a sense of that throughout the music industry. No one’s offering anyone people or farm animals, but there’s this unshakable notion that the business is also struggling just to be heard. So, as the cliche goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, and more and more labels and PR reps and bands are getting clever with their album rollouts.
Artwork by Cap Blackard
The rollout is every step of an album’s life span, from the moment it’s completed until the very last show behind a record. It used to be a kind of even-keeled cycle: announce a record, release a few singles, drop the album, promote with videos and tours, and repeat ad infinitum. Only now, with returns diminishing more each year and an ever-unstable consumer base, that tried-and-true model is no longer enough.
Like my friend the Nameless Singing Cowboy, the industry is dealing with an increasingly distracted and occasionally apathetic audience. Oftentimes, it takes the big, left field gesture to really shake people up. On the more generic end, it’s teasing Instagram photos, signing folks up for a mailing list, or requiring a tweet in order to download an mp3. But more and more, though, it’s scavenger hunts in the middle of downtown Manhattan, gold semi trucks towing around LA, stem and remix contests, and good, old-fashioned spaghetti dinners.
With so much working against it, the industry is being forced to evolve, requiring increasing levels of inventiveness and cunning just to survive. Some of the results are ingenious, and some of them are hokey disasters. But there’s no denying the whole business is in a massive state of flux.
Now, the question becomes about figuring it all out. Why are bands and labels and PR reps going to such lengths? Are they having any actual results? Do they fear the future, clinging to desperate ploys, or are they rebuilding a broken model? Can a shift in commerce have an impact on the sanctity of art? And what does this mean for you, the consumer, who vote with your wallets and pocketbooks?
To understand just what’s happening to the makeup of the music industry’s promotional landscape, it’s important to recognize how the entire industry’s protocol has changed. Judy Miller Silverman runs Motormouth Media, home to acts like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The Men, and Flying Lotus. With years of experience under her belt, she notes that the time frame for an album’s announcement cycle has been drastically reduced, necessitating more and more creativity to have the same amount of impact in an increasingly saturated market.
“In my experience, all labels roll out in a similar way,” she says. “The standard used to be three to four months pre-release when print magazines ruled the planet. In this era, those timelines are tightening up. I have worked albums from one to four months lead time. The label usually provides the independent publicist a timeline or assets for a rollout (song, video, tour dates), and together we often discuss dates/ideas. I recently met with a band i was pitching to do press on and told them we should announce their album in the classified section and do some funny things with Craigslist, and they liked that I was thinking in a unique way. It’s hard to be uber creative without a band willing to be so or the time and luxury of putting something together.”
Still, the whole idea of the “gimmick” in the industry isn’t anything new. Eric J. Lawrence serves as the music librarian at Los Angeles’s KCRW. With a keen eye for archiving and the history of the business, he recognizes that bands and labels and press people have been utilizing gimmicks for decades.
“In the ’70s, there were billboards on Sunset Boulevard that started popping up,” he says. “It seemed so foreign then, to have rock ads on music stations. Heck, The Beatles were the first to do the gatefold with the lyrics on the back. It was a way to have more of a message than the content. And then there was Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II. It was a double LP, like the music was pouring out of Axl’s ear. But it all just felt forced. It’s not an issue of style but of their judgment. When Sonic Youth signed to Geffen, they released this mysterious 12″ that was a new, untitled song from Sonic Youth. It lent a sense of mystery amongst the alt community.”
Similarly experienced and grizzled music critic Jim DeRogatis also has countless stories about various bands and their marketing ploys.
“When OK Computer came out, Radiohead sent out a Sony Walkman with the tape permanently glued in the player,” he explains. “And a lot of us threw it in the back of a drawer with 100 other records because it was absolutely pointless. You had the band who were big supporters of Green Peace, and then they have this whole Sony deal. How does it all square? How does all that mesh together?”
Still, he readily admits that it’s much easier to hype now than ever before. And the results are often much less thoughtful than Radiohead’s ploy.
“Just recently, you had Alicia Keys’ ‘Girl on Fire’ in that new HG ad,” he adds. “It just makes me want to puke.”
The problem, Lawrence explains, is that more and more gimmicks breed more and more competition, and that level of competition has to be maintained just to break through the teeming seas of bands. “In the digital media era, you’ve got to do what you can to keep your name on people’s tongues,” Lawrence says, “and keeping it as conscious of an experience as you can.”
That whole idea of awareness, then, seems to be a problem, at least for individuals like Silverman. She claims that, as an extension of all of these gimmicks, people are inundated with information even when there’s almost nothing to offer, leaving even the most experienced of insiders feeling burned out. It’s especially true of the indie world, where creative freedom is king.
“In the indie label world, the artist will always have the upper hand on creative decisions but might encounter resistance on the label side,” Silverman says. “It’s a groupthink sometimes of how best to make things work and make everyone happy. I think the smaller the artist the less elaborate you can be; you can fatigue the media trying to get them to entertain something new. I was fatigued during quite a few rollouts of bands that were not my own this year. Suffering through news on every machination and minute detail; I think we have to be cautious not to turn people off.”
Before one can adequately look at the gimmicks themselves and whether they work, it’s crucial to look at the reasons why more and more marketing plots and enhanced rollouts are occurring. If history dictates that they’ve always been a part of the industry’s life cycle, then why are longtime industry vets like Lawrence, DeRogatis, and Silverman feeling such exhaustion? What sort of crisis has occurred to garner a ramp-up in efforts to be different and unique and unlike anything presented ever before?
Right off the bat, money seems to be a major factor. By now, it’s no secret that labels are hemorrhaging money, and they have been for years. It feels like labels have been in a downturn for so long that it’s hard to remember when they were more financially viable and successful. Despite issues in amping up or even maintaining album sales, another industry vet doesn’t see the increase of gimmicks and more varied rollouts as being inspired by financial means.
“I disagree on the battling dwindling sales angle,” says Steve Martin, whose Nasty Little Man represents the likes of Radiohead, Damon Albarn, The Breeders, Nick Cave, and Arcade Fire. “The recorded music business is in a state of transition, to say the least, but the McCartney/Radiohead/Dave Grohl/Arcade Fire/Jack White/etc. business is doing just fine. Things are more stable than they appear when you’re talking about artists like the ones I represent.”
Instead, Martin points to the same history and backstory as DeRogatis and Lawrence, highlighting a time when cold, hard cash was the only tool necessary for success.
“I’ll tell you what the genesis of all this is, in my opinion,” Martin starts. “When I started in this business 20+ years ago, making a splash was all about how much money was shoveled into your campaign to get your song on radio and your CD into big chain stores. That doesn’t work anymore. Now you have to be more creative to stand out above the din. I think that’s an improvement, don’t you?”
There you have it: creativity, the phrase on the lips of many bands, label heads, and publicists across the great musical divide. As Martin puts it, we’re in a golden age in the here and now, one where greed and petty pursuits are a thing of the past, replaced by an obligation to push envelopes and mine new wellsprings of ideas.
“Creativity is more necessary than ever,” he says. “That’s a trend I like. I prefer being on calls and in meetings where the manager says, ‘Who’s got some really creative ideas?’ than the ones in the ’90s, where PR was an afterthought, where the radio and sales guys held court and we would just occasionally be asked where the cover stories and big TV appearances were, what we were doing to back up their hit single.”
It’d be easy to dismiss Martin’s talk of a new-age renaissance if the idea wasn’t shared by the entities most people associate with the real creative process: the bands. Singer/guitarist Taylor Rice of Local Natives said he recognizes that while bands and labels aren’t as flushed with cash as they one were, it’s helped breed a better mentality.
“I think it’s awesome when bands are involved in curating how they share their music from the creative side,” he says. “No one is Led Zeppelin anymore. Fans can get close and personal on the Internet with bands, even if those bands refuse to take part in social media themselves, so why not be the one in control of how they see you? I do think there’s a whole jungle of knowledge having to do with the media and promotion that there’s no reason for a band to get bogged down by, though.”
Photo by Debi Del Grande
If anything, Rice recognizes that these rollout campaigns are not a way to help recoup money, but rather a stopgap as an entire industry attempts to rewire itself in terms of selling music as a viable commodity.
“It’s necessary for labels and a music industry built around buying LPs,” Rice says of gimmicks and enhanced rollouts, “but I don’t think it’s a long-term reality. It is a bit like throwing buckets of water out of a sinking cruise ship. As a person who loves LPs, wants to buy them, and wants to make LPs people will buy, it’s still a goal I have myself, but we basically gave up on the idea of making a living off of selling recorded music a long time ago.”
For Rice and his bandmates, being creative isn’t always about ploys and buzz words; it’s about recognizing that a band needs to take on a more proactive role in their career.
“It definitely shocks me when I find bands being tossed around by their labels, or that they’ve signed away live rights,” he says. “I want to shake them and tell them they don’t have to do it that way! We’ve been really happy working with both our labels, Frenchkiss in the US and Infectious in the rest of the world, both of which have always let us do whatever we want and been nothing but super supportive.
“We do concern ourselves with how we present ourselves to the world, whether it’s our artwork or music videos or the live show. The important thing is that it comes from us and not out of the mind of some ad agency. In most cases, the ‘PR campaign’ and the album itself have little to do with each other. The Internet creates a democracy for music where people vote with their feet, and you can think of the labels’ PR firms and media as the Super PACs trying to throw money around to control the conversation.”
The other side of that conversation, inevitably, is that this brave new world has nothing to do with expanding creative potential. Instead, it’s making it harder and harder for bands to really utilize any meaningful sense of creativity. Echoing her disapproval of an increasing tendency for over-sharing, Silverman said there’s a huge disconnect in the fundamental relationship between album sales and their respective campaigns and budgets.
“I think its becoming harder to be more creative in the marketplace where nothing is a secret anymore,” she says. “When your band has the profile of Katy Perry or Arcade Fire, I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to spend copious amounts of dollars on marketing gimmicks. Most of these ideas become fodder for the ever-shifting news cycle for about 24 hours and then “poof,” onto the next breaking quirky idea/story. If you look at Arcade Fire, (the first week) release of Reflektor did not sell more than their previous record in the first week.
“However, what fans do not know is that the marketing machine this time out was run by Universal Music, and I will assume the money spent on pre-album marketing likely tripled or more. The sales did not reflect the increase in marketing dollars spent. Merge Records did an excellent job on their own marketing and providing for this band, but there is a certain point where you need the strength of a much larger team and network to get your goals achieved. It’s not always just about money. Sometimes it’s about bandwidth.”
Force Field PR head Daniel Gill, whose clientele includes Woods, Mount Eerie, Blitzen Trapper, and Neon Indian, mirrors a very similar sentiment: “You can still come up with good ideas. But you can’t find them with the right money.” Adding, “The rollout for most bands is still pretty typical: the single, then the video, a stream, and tour dates. But if you have the creative idea and then enormous budget, then go with that. It takes a lot of brainstorming sessions and conference calls to come up with something wacky and gimmicky.”
He adds that it’s actually developing a culture of secrecy, where “the issue is coming up with the bright ideas and then protecting them so no one steals them. It makes it so the artist is forced to get creative and think of ideas. Because you could think of something, but then someone else comes out with the same gimmick three months before. So, it makes artists more secretive, to be less telling of the nuts and bolts of their work and approach.”
If it’s not about generating money or emphasizing creativity, then why are there a rash of gimmicks out there? And with so many, what kind of lessons can be learned? Even if nothing new can be gleaned, there’s plenty of time for reflection for labels and PR firms alike.
For Sacred Bones’ co-founder Taylor Brode, this whole tumultuous time is one where she and her cohorts can re-evaluate their own business practices and overall approach. As a whole, Sacred Bones has prided themselves on a kind of boutique mentality, serving a niche audience of devoted vinyl fanatics. While the ways they get said records into people’s hands hasn’t much changed, Brode said they’ve had a chance to really understand their own inherently gimmicky approach as more and more labels and PR firms enact an increasingly varied list of ideas.
“A lot of gimmicks/marketing tactics used in rollout campaigns are very expensive stunts, which is more of a successful model w/ major label pop stars: Kanye, Miley Cyrus, Gaga, etc.,” she says. “We are soliciting to a very different market, so while it’s not an intentional counter-reaction to how we perceive those stunts, it’s more just a matter of them being financially impossible and intellectually inappropriate to what we perceive our fans responding well to.”
It’s also allowed them to have a built-in hook (their tendency to steer completely away from MP3s in favor of pristine vinyl). But as Brode explains, they always work to maintain a core sense of authenticity.
“It’s certainly not just a gimmick,” she says. “We just think MP3s sound terrible, and we really appreciate the artifact of the physical LP. An album is a format designed for the collection and preservation of songs, in a certain sequence, with physical artwork that represents and/or explains the album and artist in some way. An MP3 is the exact opposite, containing zero tangible information, stored only on a temporary device whose primary function defaults to “shuffle,” thereby undoing the entire significance of the album format. It’s the difference between having real or imaginary friends; a blow-up doll vs. a lover; talking to SIRI vs. having a conversation with a human, etc. I could go on for hours, but suffice it to say, yes, our feelings on vinyl are authentic.”
As an extension of that authenticity, they have a whole new sense of appreciation for their business model’s practicality. If they want to continue in the business they’re in, Brode says, then they have to set realistic goals for their bottom line and for what they can offer their roster.
“Art as commodity is an extremely complicated discussion, and as a label we feel as uncomfortable about it as many of our artists do,” Brode adds. “That said, we do want to stay in business and be able to support our artists to the point where they are able to survive off their own art. That is really our dream — that our bands can live off this and not have give up due to financial destitution or to ever have to get straight jobs. It’s a tall order given that our society has decided that paying for music is no longer necessary, and then when they do pay for music, buying MP3 singles is an adequate substitution for a full album. Sorry, had a little tangent there.”
By understanding the history, development, and current attitudes of labels and PR alike, we get the idea that these campaigns are here to stay. Even with that understanding, what does all this mean for the industry as a whole? What kinds of campaigns have been born from these attitudes and limitations, and do these prove to be successful, be it financially or in terms of publicity garnered? What sorts of downsides will inevitably occur in the current landscape? By looking at the ideas and machinations of several outfits in more detail, we see how the shifts in operating procedure impact business and vice versa.
Pains of Being Pure at Heart frontman Kip Berman has noticed the one trend that seems to actually put the spotlight on the music: the “anti-campaign,” as some might refer to it. With Pains having recently announced their new album (Days of Abandon, due out April 22nd), Berman has spent a lot of time as of late contemplating and meditating the whole rollout process.
“The latest trend is to (seemingly) have no campaign: Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, Death Grips, Beyoncé,” he says. “Of course, this gesture will diminish in impact over time, but a brand-new record without all the lyric videos, 30-second track previews, fan remix contests, band saying something ‘controversial’ in the press, and other ephemera is refreshing. The incessant machinery of promo has had a dulling effect, and the very absence of all that noise can allow for the music itself to be heard.”
For Silverman and the rest of the folks at Motormouth Media, some of the best campaigns are ones that manage to both work with the tight promotional cycle and have a sense of spontaneity to them. But more so, they’re ideas that often feel the most connected to the artist.
“I think the idea of a surprise attack works best,” she said. “If people love a band and you can keep a real lid on information, I think it helps, but oftentimes things trickle out. With Dirty Projectors, the label/band idea was to have a pop-up store set up for a day in Brooklyn with activities going on around it (and I loved the idea), but ultimately schedules and logistics proved too difficult. You have to take into account that bands have to make the videos and approve everything done along the way and promote records on a global level. Time is a big issue, figuring out where and when an artist can do everything expected of them. There are many times great things can’t happen simply due to logistics.
“I have certain bands who are not gimmicky at all; the last thing they want to do is humor anybody. I have others that are game for almost anything. One of the gimmicks that we did this year that got a ton of mileage was “Win a Date with Marnie Stern.” We got some poor feedback from feminists (I consider myself one), but Marnie was 100% game for this and often espouses her disappointment with the dating pool and men live from the stage. Two years previously, she did a kissing booth. Nobody was exploiting her; Marnie is a highly capable women who made the choice to have a good time.”
That very notion of the band acting as the guiding force was crucial to Cut Copy’s campaign. Back in September, the band debuted new single “Free Your Mind” by streaming it on six remote billboards in countries across the globe. The campaign’s approach is simple: fans were given access to several sets of coordinates to billboards in Mexico City, Chile, Australia, UK, Detroit, and the arid California desert. Once a fan reached any of the billboards, they’d gain access to a secured site that was streaming the song. As band manager Neil Harris tells it, the whole genesis of the billboards was the band themselves.
“It all really started with a conversation with the band,” he says. “But the real impetus came from the band itself. It was this whole idea that everyone does the same things, like free MP3s with an email address. But the band wanted to do things in the physical world and not just online. They wanted to really create an experience, like a real place for art to flourish.”
On the one hand, Harris said part of that experience was grounded in emotional sentiments, with the band hoping to serve as “pilgrims, beacons, and transmitters for people.” Still, a lot of their reasoning was based in logic and a sense of business savvy.
“So, they came up with the six billboard idea and then to spread it out as globally as they could,” Harris continues. “What really helped pick the destinations were the stats. Like, Chile, for instance, was an important place for them for touring market and their overall fan base, so it was important to feature something there. We were seeing sites all over the globe, but one of the factors was that there’s a big piracy market in Chile. It’s like they would approach a tour: go to every place that they can.”
Even with that fiscally minded approach, Cut Copy decided to keep the emphasis on the art. It seems a novel concept, the worlds of business and art achieving not just cohesiveness but a sense of genuine harmony. Harris, though, believes there’s a way to do it incrementally.
“We went mostly through promoters,” he says. “We knew record labels wouldn’t have the budget, so we wanted to use our friends and the like. To use people who we thought could help us with our goal. But from the very beginning, we knew it had to always be about the art side. Yes, it has to be done in the most high-traffic way possible, but we always made sure to preserve the art side of it. That’s one of the reasons we did it in the cool city in Mexico–so it’d be a very organic kind of process.”
With auspicious goals, the results were nothing if not a mixed bag. On the upside, Harris says the band saw definitive growth in their touring capacity.
“What it did build is goodwill with places like Chile and Mexico City, which helped to develop those markets further,” he says. “We’d go from playing one festival there to hopping on the headline stage at the very next. We definitely think one thing had to do with another. Email mailing list quadrupled in between singles. And we want as much of a community aspect as possible. This has been said by a lot of people, but the album really is about the two summers of love, where people went to fields together and listened to music. This is just a continuation of that.”
Not everyone proved to be as progressive, though. When you’re skipping the ease and comfort of downloading a new song for something new and unfamiliar, there’s bound to be ardent resistance.
“There were some blowbacks from some quarters, people who thought it was kinda arty and weird,” Harris says. “There were people that hacked the website, and we had to move it again to the point where it became this game of Whac-A-Mole. It definitely wasn’t in the spirit of the enterprise, but you’re always going to have someone who is trying to be smarter. Here we are doing it for the sake of art, and we had a lot of people saying, ‘Where’s my MP3? I just want the music.’ It made us kind of sad to put in all this time and work.”
The whole hippie, Summer of Love mentality may be a part of some larger gimmick and sales plot, but you can’t blame them for trying to do something to shock people into emotions or a sense of action.
“We experience a lot of things kind of right in the middle, neither interest nor disgust, and the band wanted something that was more of a genuine reaction,” Harris says. “I’ve heard a lot of conversations in the last couple weeks, which is good. Usually people are so ready to move on to the next one, ready for the next great thing after three days from downloading a song. So, what does it mean to make that connection with billboards? There were a couple that went up, even though no one knew what they were, and people got out of their trucks and went to it and got drunk.”
No band could pay their bills with the drunken enjoyment of fans, but Harris and Co. admit that money wasn’t the immediate end-goal. While profits were surely affected, they knew that doing something potentially polarizing would lead to life lessons and dividends down the line.
“We weren’t in it for the media payoff or to sell X records,” Harris says. “No one regrets doing this. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s much better than whacking some MP3 online. I don’t know how things work in 2013, but we did what we did, and that’s that. Cut Copy feel like they’ve been on an adventure for six years, and they wanted to extend the spirit of the time frames they were inspired by. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s not, but what makes them happy is that it comes from that spirit.”
As an extension of that, Harris said they learned that opting out of ad sales and website clicks can actually be a good thing.
“Oftentimes, the more you have to lose the less inventive you are. There’s this relationship, though, where having money means a lot less work, but there’s also a lot less digging creatively. With budget constraints, you have to improvise. We learned a lot on this project: time management and how to try and think outside of just yourself. There are lots of things people won’t remember, but I won’t forget. It’s something I never did before, and I kind of like that aspect to it. It’s an experience to draw from and another story to tell people.”
The need and driving desire to maintain some semblance of artistic merit amid a sea of business plans and talk of synergy is evident in other campaigns. Similar to Cut Copy’s idea, Boards of Canada and their label, Warp, came up with the idea of streaming the album from a remote location in the California desert. Before that, they got creative by holding a “Cosecha numbers scavenger hunt,” where fans had to hunt for clues that revealed the album’s title. Hokey, yes, but as Warp publicist Steven Hill recalls, it fit perfectly with the album’s obsession with numbers and the grander narrative arc.
“It had a lot to do with the themes of the record and what they wanted to say with it,” he contends. “There’s this strong narrative thread throughout the album, which we then used as a kind of launchpad. We really wanted to help communicate the album’s bigger picture. Boards have always been about these kinds of messages, even into very politically charged stuff and conceptual pieces.”
Again, another commonality emerges: bands are driving the bus more and more creatively. So, then, where does that leave the labels, whose job it is to worry about these sorts of things?
“What we were there for was to help figure out the specifics of how we roll out all these ideas and how we make sure they all tie back into the themes of the record,” Hill says. “So, for us, we looked at it not as a promotional campaign, but as a way to help set the scene for the album. The band really kind of produced everything. They had a ton of ideas and inspiration. We just tried to be this soundboard for the guys. We also really just tried to help with the logistics and the mechanics. Like, they weren’t going to know about the ins and outs of Record Store Day. It’s really been the goal of the label to never say no to an artist. If they’re really passionate about something, we’re gonna just do whatever it is to support them.”
That seems like the sort of MO any label, major or indie, might want to tout on the regular. But for Hill and the team at Warp, it goes beyond just signing a band and putting out their album as a means of demonstrating a belief in their abilities. When they say an album is genius, even if that also seems like the standard language of a label, they work to prove it with the proper campaign.
“I don’t think we could have done this whole campaign if it weren’t such a genius album,” Hill says. “If there was something lesser to work with, I don’t know what we’d do with it. That, I think, helps give it a certain kind of clarity, which makes it feel all that more real and genuine. Because it’s so brilliant, it let us get away with a lot of things, as opposed to if we just said, ‘OK, this is the record.’
“There are so many special elements to this album and to the band that I don’t think we could replicate it or do the same for other acts. Also, if Boards hadn’t been away for so long, it wouldn’t have worked. It’s sort of like what Louis C.K. said: ‘You’ve got to go away to come back.’ You’ve also really got to be organic. It has to fit and feel natural and be worthy and part of the art.”
Still, aside from the stream itself, there were some complaints that Boards’ entire campaign felt like a huge tease. Sure, they weren’t rolling out new songs before subsequent steps in the operating manual. But they also weren’t really offering much. Again, as was the case with Cut Copy, the true meaning lay hidden a little deeper, in a context that no 30-second preview could ever hope to achieve.
“We’re not really there to tease people,” Hill argues. “What we wanted to do was a project, something kind of harking back to the days where people felt anticipation about new releases. We’re definitely fans of the pre-Internet age, and we miss that feeling of collective anticipation. The whole point of the campaign was to set up the narrative, to be the opening scenes of this larger movie and story.
“Still, we wanted to do something that had artistic merit in its own right. Say you release 10 seconds of a three-minute video; when that whole video eventually comes out, that little clip loses all of its artistic value. And how many people actually go back to a clip? But with these (listening) stations, it’s something that existed otherwise and outside the album. We’re purists, and we very much admire big, full discographies and the sort of canons of people’s life work. We kind of feel that the stations are just a part of that larger discography, which makes it all feel really substantial.”
It’s that tiny little idea, of a sense of utter cohesion, that makes Warp’s whole approach so important. It wasn’t just about picking and choosing what worked but adhering to this one designated approach. If they were going to try and revive some lost spark of anticipation, they were going to really go for it. Part of that was making sure to actually work with record stores, those warm and happy places that trade patience and anticipation for memorable experiences in musical discovery.
“The thing about surprise releases is that as important as iTunes is, so are the record shops,” Hill says. “It doesn’t make sense to penalize them in favor of your little plan. Including them definitely made it far more risky, but it paid off. The album was something like the sixth best-selling vinyl in the UK, which is pretty amazing for an instrumental record, and we couldn’t have done that without our retail partners.
“I don’t understand how people can do it. I mean, sure, Beyoncé is on another level, but we knew how important the record stores would be. It would have absolutely impacted album sales had we not had the support of indie stores. I think by not having it in stores, you have people feeling excluded. It’s also sort of odd to have the digital come out and then the album hit stores physically like four weeks later, which is when everyone already has the album.”
Once more, that managed to both hurt and help their bottom line when it came to sales. Rather than chalking it up to some grand gesture of communal bonding and creative ascension, though, Warp and Boards of Canada saw it in another light. Good press, more than money or album sales, is something that can help an album gain true prominence and cultural merit.
“It’s kinda trite, but to see all the coverage was hugely exciting to have happen,” Hill says. “All the images and sounds and GIFs. It felt a part of the pop culture landscape of 2013. It was also kinda subversive: with surprise album releases by Kanye West and Daft Punk and David Bowie, it was exciting to be in that same space, to be kinda peers with these names and still be very avant-garde.”
Similar communal vibes are definitely the aim of California’s Burger Records. While they didn’t stream signs from roaming gold vans in the desert or create a fake band, the whole of their operation can be looked at as a kind of mass gimmick. The cassette-centric label embraces its stoner vibe not only with a certain creative aesthetic, but many of its bands adhere to a similar mantra of lo-fi, DIY rock, regardless of its place on the rock and roll spectrum. Talking to co-founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, you get the notion fairly quickly that they don’t put much thought behind why they do what they do. If anything, they’ve taken a tactful approach to being totally carefree and down for anything.
“We like gimmicks. We like doing wacky things,” Bohrman says. “People need to stop being too serious and just have fun. If we had a million dollars, if we had that kind of money to play with, we’d blow people’s minds. But now we do the best with what we got. Warner Bros. is a huge and gigantic entity; we’re just six people in a warehouse trying to function and do business. But everybody’s doing whatever they can.”
Rickard quickly supports his partner’s claims, explaining that the product is their singular concern. “We like to think of ourselves as renaissance men, and we’re even a bit of control freaks,” he said. “Sure, things get lost in translation, but things are also very open and free. We just want to make the best product. It takes a lot just to grow a little, but you have to let go of everything you think is scary and try something that isn’t someone else’s hand.”
Of course, they didn’t learn their Zen-like approach to business from some ancient synergy guru. It’s perfected by being consumers of the kind of pop culture candy they were reared on. If it ain’t broke, they seemingly argue, then why try and connect with your audience in any other way?
“We’re big fans of the WWF, specifically back in the ’80s,” Bohrman admits. “Everyone had a gimmick, and most guys had enough creative control to try and come up with their own. That’s just as important for the label as it is for the band to build our life and legacy. Guys like Max Moon, the robot dude, and George the Animal Steele are forever ingrained in the culture because of everyone giving every single ounce of their weird and wonderful energies. We also learned a lot from the history of rock and roll. Bubblegum music and even cartoons from the mid-’60s are all a form of manipulation, convincing you they’re trying to be real.”
Because, at the end of the day, Burger recognizes their business model and makes no bones about what they’re attempting to do. “We’re enticing people to buy a piece of plastic,” Rickard says. “That’s a gimmick, man.”
With such freedom and self-awareness, they’re able to focus on what really seems to move albums: distracting people with shiny colors and lots of kitschy hooks. “We use a lot of weird gimmicks and packaging,” Bohrman says. “Like with this Grapeface record: we had a lot of colors and glow-in-the-dark stuff, or ones that’d make animal noises while the record spun. If you stop and look at our vinyl, a lot of it doesn’t make sense. But then I’ll remember that record forever. Most of our packaging is pretty ghetto fabulous: lots of DIY stuff and types, kinda somewhere between gourmet and fast food.”
Is that the truly efficient approach, then, to be like McDonald’s or Burger King? To give people the fat and sweet they crave, the unnecessary but life-affirming calories that music essentially serves as at the best price possible? To a degrees, yes, but Burger Records still puts the art in a place of sanctity, just like their cohorts and competitors. The only difference, though, is to do so in the most fun and non-sanctimonious way possible.
“We always try to love and respect the music,” Rickard says. “But you got to do something, some sprinkles or cherries on top, to get people’s attention. It’s like when an artist submits something, and if it’s just a
stock one sheet, I’m bored. But give us some weird handwritten letter, and it feels very warm and inviting.
“Every band is different in how driven and focused they are. There are bands that are just teenagers having fun, and then there are others that use Burger as a kind of stepping stone or a springboard to new opportunities. We just want to turn the world on to good music. We love pop culture, which means we’re open and just want to be heard. You can’t take it serious.”
Instead, they take it decidedly un-serious. There are no business meetings or spreadsheets involved, just a bunch of people that like music and know they can recognize what’s good and what’s bland.
“You want the complete package, though, something people will laugh at or talk about,” Bohrman says. “It’s not something you can be strategic about, though, and it almost has to be kinda uncontrollable. We do everything from dirty, trashy pop to weird ambient noise. No matter what, it’s got to have that hook, ’cause you can tell when people care and when they’re faking. I can listen to something for two seconds, be like, ‘No way,’ or I can listen and say, ‘This is the best thing ever.'”
Rickard almost chimes in fast enough to finish Bohrman’s thoughts entirely.
“Not everyone can have a cool label ’cause not everyone has a good taste of music,” he says. “You can’t get away with putting out bad music. To a degree, it has to be about self-discovery. I think it’s about finding the thing that says, ‘No one’s doing what you guys are doing.’ You also gotta look at who played what. In the web of rock and roll, there’s all these connections to bands. You’ve got to build a brand people can trust. So, when they see an album, they can go, ‘Alright, that’s on Burger, I can count on that.’
“People want that instant gratification and the jokes. They need to know something about the band, like what they ate and how their day is going. We update people constantly because people want it. And then we put those people’s records in the shop, and that’s why we’re doing so well.”
Because, in the end, if it’s not entertaining to everyone involved, fans, label reps, and bands alike, then what’s the point? “We’re just down for whatever,” Rickard says. “Cause, yeah, fuck, it all sounds like fun.”
With all the talk about connectivity and artistic integrity and pushing things beyond the realm of mere commerce, all of these individuals and groups still have to worry about a bottom line (at least to some degree). What if that didn’t have to be the case? That there could be a label who could really do whatever they wanted, profits and investors and bills be damned. There is: Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Even though they rake in a lot of cash, based on their surplus of gimmicks and White’s mere presence as owner, label manager Ben Blackwell readily admits that Third Man doesn’t pay much mind to how money comes and goes.
“In terms of Third Man Records, we are, in almost every respect, non-traditional,” he says. “What we are is more of a reaction; if everyone does it this way, what makes it all special? It’s like, if it doesn’t get people excited about the record label and the way we live our life, there’s no point.”
In fact, there have been several releases they’ve all but given away.
“We released the first Jack White solo song on April Fool’s,” Blackwell says. “We wanted it to be really unique, to the point where it was almost unbelievable. Almost to the point where people were like, ‘They didn’t really do that, did they?’ So, we tied ’em to balloons and sent them flying. That was the debut of the song, and no one had copies. If we’d released it any other way, no one would’ve cared as much two months later.
“The record for us was practically given away. It just so happened to be at a time when helium prices were at an all-time high — something about people with reserves bottling it and selling it. But we like to do things to be purposely different and do the things we really want. That way, it gets the record into people’s hands who don’t normally buy records. It’d be easy to call iTunes and say, ‘Hey, can you stream that knew Kelly Stoltz album?’ But we don’t want to create an idea, we want to create a memory.
“I’ve worked in the distribution game before; it can be a boring world. But I understand why some labels might be hesitant. They have to submit a budget and say, ‘OK, we can do this and this.’ But working with Jack, he understands the inherent value of all of this. And of course someone huge like Universal has trouble finding the middle ground between art and commerce. Still, while they can’t do things as easily as we can, our peers like Sub Pop or Matador are then more successful. But we get to be holden to few and far between.”
Third Man’s status as mavericks, out on the pop culture forefront, is something they relish. They take their freedom seriously and strive to put forth ideas they think can move things forward. Where Burger Records sees itself as a kind of playground, as it were, Third Man is quite serious in the occasionally absurd tactics they cook up.
“Standing out comes from a place of true innovation,” Blackwell says. “But it’s also about not doing it just to do it; it has to always be the right thing. Whether it’s the flexi-disc balloon launch or launching letters, if it’s not best served for the idea, it’s not going to work out. We do what no one else wants to do or even could do. Third Man is the kind of place where you’re up late nights drunk, talking about the kinds of things you’d do, and this is what you’d come up with. How many people with the means who could do this don’t?
“We don’t think of art as a commodity, and we don’t think of art as happening in the mind. We want to brighten days, to give you a story to tell, and for us to have a story to tell. We want these things to still be around 100 years from now. What gets lost in all of this commerce is the art. Not in some pretentious way, but about the love and experience of it all. It’s easy to play it safe, but there’s a real gratification of taking a leap or a risk. We could easily do stuff that sounds just like the White Stripes, which has all the reward and not any of the risk. But there’s no fun in being safe and rehashing the past.”
Again, though, anyone could be as brave without the incessant need to, say, generate a steady stream of income. Risky ventures can still have a silver lining, even if they never turn a single profit.
“I begrudge people who think being successful is breaking away from the template and do well enough to just recoup their costs even if they don’t make any money,” Blackwell says. “For instance, we put out stuff by a band called the Underwearheads, who was this band in Detroit from 30 years ago. I’d say maybe a dozen people know about them, and almost no one’s heard them. But based on conversations with Jack, we just knew it had to be out there and to exist. If it makes money, great; if it doesn’t, that’s great, too. A lot of what we put out isn’t designed to do gangbusters. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t do well. Ya just move right on to the next one.”
Because sometimes that next one, even if through some form of dumb luck, can turn out to be the goose that lays the golden egg.
“We had that Carl Sagan vinyl 45,” and normally our wheelhouse is right around 2,000 copies,” Blackwell starts, “but we didn’t know what the market was for this, so we did 1,500, because you can always make more but you can’t take any back. We couldn’t keep them in the store for years; I think we ended up selling something like 10,000 copies. I don’t want to call it dumb luck, but maybe a little. The point is, we just want to make it exist and worry about the rest later.”
In an industry that seems to be in an endless state of flux, Blackwell concludes that it’s those bands and labels who can be flexible within the market and its demands that will live to see another album cycle. “It’s all about the survival of the fittest,” he adds. “It’s those who are most able to adapt and to be fluid and adaptable that are thriving.”
As part of the whole industry, Pains’ Berman recognizes that gimmicks are a natural phenomenon. But he mentions that, at least to the artists themselves, there’s a sense of genuine artistry to each and every campaign.
“I think calling them ‘gimmicks’ unfairly discredits the possibility that these bands may be trying to create something meaningful beyond the confines of recorded sound – or at least bring a bit of creativity to something that is usually pretty rote,” he says. “Is it a gimmick to care about the physical packaging of the album, the art that will become synonymous with the music? Nor can it simply be dismissed as a ‘gimmick’ to attempt to push the boundaries of how people learn about a new album by creating spectacle and confounding expectations instead of more traditional methods of promoting a release.
“It’s fair to write off some of these campaigns as cynical, egotistical undertakings that simply exist to inflate a sense of the artist’s messianic self-regard or get free press. But I’m sure at least some of these artists want to do something far different than the normal, well-worn process of buying up a bunch of print and online ad space, making a video or two, and doing some interviews saying how ‘this is our best work to date.'”