[What follows is an article I wrote for Melisma Music Magazine, which will be puplished sometime in the Spring. So, consider this a fabulous sneak peak. A gift– from me to you. But do feel free to regift.]
The Vivian Girls formed in New Jersey in 2007, but by the end of the next year, they had found a place amongst the loudest voices of cacophonous Brooklyn. In quick succession, they released a single, an acclaimed self titled record (on two separate labels), a music video, another single, a cover of a beach boys song, two more singles—a truly remarkable level of productivity for a nascent, cheeky, lo-fi rock trio. The incredible part is that they did it all pretty much on their own, using whatever resources they had at hand, and a little help from whoever might offer it.
It has become commonplace to say that the Internet has revolutionized the music industry. What began with aural privateers like Kazaa and Napster has in subsequent years led to bands putting their music up online for free download, selling records directly off their websites or MySpaces, marketing their own shows and performances, and so on. Indeed, the industry has come a long way from the time not so distant when major record companies like Virgin and EMI controlled the means of production and distribution of popular music.
What mechanism, then, has risen in their place? While there are many bands who avoid the more traditional methods of gaining popularity and attempt to do so simply through exposing people to their music online, a challenge still presents itself in how exactly one truly talented band manages to stand out from the legions of high school rockers and wanna-be pop stars that saturate sites like MySpace. Where before talent scouts from Capital might discover an up and coming band performing at a tiny venue in front of a crowd of their friends, now bloggers are the ones going to shows, combing through local scenes, all just to find the next big thing to write about.
Though bloggers don’t have access to the resources most record company executives do, there is little doubt that (at least in the Indie music world) they have become the preeminent tastemakers in the industry. Without blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear and Brooklyn Vegan, or the team at Pitchfork, it’s unlikely that the Vivian Girls would be much more then a funky little garage (or maybe loft) band in Red Hook.
Of course it’s impossible for an outside observer to really know, but one can easily imagine the progression of events: Chris (of Gorilla vs. Bear) saw the Vivian Girls play a show, or maybe had someone tell him about them—he was intrigued and looked up their website, found their single, and posted it on his blog. Once the album came out, he reviewed it, writing “after listening to this record back-to-back-to-back over the last hour and change, I’m completely in love with Vivian Girls’ self-titled new LP, a collection of mostly sub-two minute, noisy/sweet pop songs that’s about as infectious as anything I’ve heard all year.” Considering such a auspicious sentiment, it’s hardly surprising that from that point on every bit of news from the Vivian Girls ended up on Gorilla vs. Bear.
But the blogosphere can’t take full credit for the success of this (nor any other) band. The Vivian Girls would not have become such a phenomenon without an assiduous dedication to their music, and, more importantly, without having that music be down right good enough to garner attention in the first place. Indeed, when the Vivian Girl released the second print of their album, Amy Granzin of Pitchfork wondered in her glowing review if the Vivian Girls would manage to be among the small group of “new bands that, when the hype settles, are more than inconsequential collections of postures and exhausted second-hand styles”. They were, and the only explanation as to why they never flamed out is that they continued to produce material and play shows. They kept themselves in the spotlight.
In the last few months, though the Vivian Girls have stepped a bit too the side, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that their sound has saturated the Internet. Gorilla vs. Bear, in particular, has offered up a near endless stream of coverage of similar, lo-fi bands: Eternal Summers, Wavves, the Mayfair Set, The Dum Dum Girls, and so on—and many other influential voices in the blogosphere have followed suit. Though this style isn’t an entirely innovative or revolutionary one, through it’s revival (it seems) a distinctive sound has already emerged for the New Year.
Of course, the Vivian Girls don’t have a monopoly on this particular method of getting the word out about themselves. Animal Collective, a group long lauded in Indie music circles, managed to dominate the blogosphere from the end of November of 2008 until weeks after the release of their LP Mettiweather Post Pavillion, through a succession of events that began with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste (as well as many others) linking to a leaked song off the album on his blog and ending with a series of new songs, remixes and live performances being diffused at the end of January. For a fair segment of that block of time, My Old Kentucky Blog, Brooklyn Vegan, and others scarcely went a day without posting some new tidbit of news about Animal Collective.
And Panda Bear, Geologists and the rest maintained that level of coverage just like the Vivian girls did—by offering up as much new material as possible as quickly as possible. What these and other bands understand is this: as long as your putting out something the blogs like, they will pay attention to you until you stop.
The most salient effect of all this on the music industry, then, is that the cycle bands used to engage in, where they would release a new record, tour in support of it, go to the studio to work on new material, release it, and so on—has completely changed. Bands like Animal Collective know that if you want to be covered by Brooklyn Vegan, you need to play as many shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan as possible; if you want to be picked up on My Old Kentucky Blog or Gorilla vs. Bear you need to release songs on line for free download; if you want to show up on Pitchfork you need to release albums, videos, or just do things that make news—whatever that ends up being.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that there isn’t a place for bands to become popular in this ever-accelerating environment. But most of those bands are the ones who have major labels behind them (or at least the promise of such a relationship in the future), or are more interested in making great music then people knowing who they are. But if you want your music to remain current, to not be subsumed into the constantly flowing sea of new music, to be a darling of the blogs, to be a band worth talking about, if you want to reach a broad, in some cases even National, audience—if you truly want to be heard, you need to be willing to manically create, to constantly and unflinchingly write and record.
And to do that, you need to do the most important thing of all: love your art the way the Vivian Girls do—even if they are a tad sardonic about it.