We're here, Wednesday, the day after Earth Day, at a round-table music discussion set up by The Recording Academy, because we all care. These are the people who, for better or worse, make the Grammys, that purest travesty of taste and spectacle that somehow still comes around every year and lets Amy Winehouse heartbreakingly, tear-streamed, lovely, thank her mother for everything. But here, today, the notion is we're all here to talk about how a band—any band, a good band, a ruination, whatever—can get popular on the internet.
The host for this panel is Nemo Design and the therewith-aligned Dave Allen, who if you didn't know is the bassist of Gang of Four, a band that turned blood and sweat into its own industry, made Marxism into rhythm, made England into Scotland in its own syncopated vision of the rising working class. But these days Allen is a likeable and somewhat fuzzy sort, softened a bit by the years and much more sympathetic to notions like the power of Web 2.0 to launch a band who already deserved it anyway.
The panel consisted of Decemberists producer Taylor Martine, Kill Rock Stars owner Portia Sabin, Wieden & Kennedy music guy Eric Johnson, Film Guerrero founder John Askew, and former WW music editor (and current Seattle Sound music editor) Mark Baumgarten. WW's former go-to Mark was busy during the discussion making the point for "meatspace," the real non-cyber world where bands play to real people in real rooms, along with the old-fashioned notion that bands are only as good as how they make you feel in a smoky hall. In a speech known to record label representatives everywhere but here, Mark made the case that local magazines were made for local music, and that nobody in Portland or Seattle needs another goddam article about the Arcade Fire. Dave, on the other hand, made fun of both Mark and LocalCut (which Mark largely founded), on account of our antiquated notions and rampant, possibly damaging provincialism.
But this was the only moment of disagreement in what was, in the end, a sort of group-hug to music. Wieden's Eric told a fun story about K records's Calvin Johnson hanging up the phone on him about ad licensing, and Portia (whose label, Kill rock Stars, sits alongside Thrill Jockey as one of the most band-friendly around) said there was no sense in signing bands who won't do a real-world tour, Tucker likes music and wants it to be what it can be. John broke the news that his job is hard as hell. (It is.)
Surprisingly, though, nobody talked about the downsides for bands who get big primarily over the internet. The thing is-—and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! is an obvious example—Myspace sometimes blows up bands before their time, bands who should have spent their time paying their dues and learning how to be a real band. It's the brand-new age, when somebody who can't quite play live can become a superstar and embarrass themselves in front of more people than any well-meaning amateur should ever be subjected to.
As it goes, the "meat filter" if you want to call it that—the filter of the real world and its discontents—is just as important as a music label's good taste toward performing the industry's underrated and underreported curatorial function. Bureaucracy ain't all bad. Ask for more.
But in the end, the whole event this Wednesday was less a how-to for aspirational musical heroes than it was a confirmation of some things that we should all already be knowing how to know together. E.g.:
- Bands don't really make money from the recorded songs but rather from the tour and the merch sales (thanks to the stalwart Barbara Mitchell for reminding us),
- If you're a band, you damn well need a damn website with 300+ dpi photos, please, so places like WW can put you in print and make you look pretty.
- Quality labels like Kill rock Stars are making oodles more (rather than less) money in the new, bold iTunes world.
- The only people really threatened by SoulSeek downloads are obsolete (and probably doomed) dinosaurs like Sony and Time-Warner.
Because here goes: when any band can be found by any half-interested, mostly lonely kid from Wyoming, things start looking pretty damn good for the once-marginal. Everyone gets equal Google time and the cream has never had such a good chance to get skimmed from the milk.
Nonetheless, steadfastly holding up the tent for the Luddite camp was local musician Al James, who didn't like the idea that his hard-won music would ever be compressed into an inferior mp3 format and thereby demeaned by low fidelity.
I'd give you a link to his music, but... well... you know