Flavour of the week: Will our obsession with 'newness' finish fledgling bands' careers before they have even started?
No sooner has the ceasesless hype machine of the music industry served up 'the hottest new acts' than it has another half-dozen to replace them. Can anyone hope to keep up? Larry Ryan crawls out from beneath a pile of CDs to find out...
Sunday 26 September 2010
Three weeks ago the young London trio The xx stood on stage at a ballroom in the Grosvenor House Hotel, shy and slightly overwhelmed, accepting the Mercury Prize for their self-titled debut album. Alongside the £20,000 prize money, which the band suggested they might spend on building a new studio (they recorded their debut in a converted garage), the major reward is the vastly increased attention and large bump in sales that can help sustain a small band for years afterwards.
However, one oft-trotted-out trope each year is the "curse of the Mercury Prize": a band plucked from the fringes, whose star shines brightly for a few months after winning the award with their debut album, only to spend the next few years languishing, struggling to live up to the early hype.
Back in 2007, Klaxons were Mercury winners thanks to their debut LP Myths of the Near Future and anointed kings of the "nu rave" scene. Remember nu rave? I don't think it even had 15 minutes of fame. Klaxons' follow-up record finally arrived in August and was met largely with indifference from critics and fans alike. "There are people who seem to be good, solid, 'We're in it for the long haul bands,'" says Simon Halliday, the head of independent music label 4AD, "but then if you look at the Klaxons campaign, you're like, 'That's the classic example of how not to do it.'"
Though the Mercury Prize does not limit its eligibility to debut albums, it frequently includes several new artists. And beyond the Mercury, the clamour around new bands can be intense. Two years ago, the Brit Awards even started giving an award to a new musician who hasn't actually released an album yet – but it's further down the food chain where the flurry is most marked.
There has always been a steady stream of fledgling bands, but with the internet making it ever easier to discover new music, musos scrambling to stay ahead of the game and record labels getting ever more frantic in the face of their decline, it seems that these bands are rolling by at an increasingly swift pace. Every week throws up new bands you're told you must hear: in the past few days alone, I've been pointed towards Letherette, an unsigned beat-making duo from Wolverhampton, while music blogs have been alive with talk of Twin Shadow, a solo artist from Brooklyn who makes melancholy synth-pop. Meanwhile, LA's Best Coast were the big summer break-out, releasing their debut album of fuzzy surf-rock confections to much fanfare.
The past few months have also brought attention for the likes of Egyptian Hip Hop (Manchester teenagers knocking out low-fi indie-pop), Tame Impala (Australian psych-rock), Perfume Genius (a Seattle solo artist playing melancholy chamber-pop) and Twin Sister (neo-shoegaze, folk and more from Brooklyn), among many, many others.
Last month, NME published a list of the "50 Best New Bands of 2010" and, shortly after, the US music website Stereogum responded with its own rundown of the year's "40 Best New Bands". Some were promising; some might even make albums that get nominated for next year's Mercury Prize; others we'll probably never hear from again.
"The cycle's too quick," says 4AD's Halliday. "Publications, radio, they're constantly trying to be the first thing on to something. You get mainstream publications doing upfront lists on things that are just demos. It's as though, if you're signed and on the procession up the ladder, people don't want to know. Either you're huge or you're just starting.
"It's hard for the general public to focus on anything; it's even hard for a record company to focus," Halliday adds. "It's my job to sit here and listen to music all day. Imagine someone who's got a job [having all that to keep up with]. It's just bewildering. Where do you focus your attention?"
I write a weekly column about new music online for The Independent. I am sent a daily pile of new CDs from record labels as well as a large batch of emails from labels and bands offering MP3 downloads and album streams. Most days I'll also scan a handful of music websites and MP3 blogs – The Fader, Pitchfork, RCRD LBL, Gorilla Vs Bear, Stereogum, to name just a few. I'll keep an eye on some bands' websites or MySpace pages, too, and I also have a haphazard Twitter list of 60 bands, labels and music sites to follow; I could double its length in less than 10 minutes. Much of this deluge involves brand new music that is being talked up somewhere or other.
"An intrinsic part of how the music industry is working at the moment is the speed at which things happen," says Jaimie Hodgson, NME's new-music editor – though he admits it can get a little tiring. "There's such a constant, relentless splurge of stuff to sift through. What's difficult is that a lot of it is actually quite good. But your ears can get quite numb to it after a while. It can get a bit weary. But," he adds optimistically, "on the whole it's very exciting and energising."
What's striking for Hodgson is the obsession with finding the next big thing. "It might be just that I'm immersed in it," he says, "but it feels like the record industry and the media industry is a lot more centred on being the one that tipped that person first. Although this has always been a factor for the more-serious music fan – the one-upmanship geekery that you associate with any anoraking, I guess."
Hodgson is also aware that NME plays its part in what he calls the "hype mill" for new bands – though it's certainly not alone in this. Near the end of last year, I was asked to vote in the BBC's "Sound of 2010", picking three artists I thought would be the "most exciting musical talent for the coming year". Klaxons were on the 2007 version of the list, which has been going, with increasing influence, since 2003.
For the list, I chose a few people whose early EPs had excited me: the UK producer Gold Panda, LA art-rockers Warpaint, and one-woman band Glasser, also from LA. Of the three, only Gold Panda made the 15-strong longlist, so what do I know? Gold Panda didn't even place in the end, either. Rather, the young English electro-pop singer Ellie Goulding took the nominal title, with Greek-Welsh singer-songwriter Marina and the Diamonds, Mancunian indie dance-rock trio Delphic, synth-poppers Hurts and Brooklyn indie-op three-piece the Drums following behind in the top five. It's fickle, but some of these bands almost seem passé now. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone mention Goulding or Delphic.
Now seemed a good time to check back in on the bands I nominated; altogether coincidentally, all three are releasing debut albums within weeks of each other. Glasser's Ring is released tomorrow, Gold Panda's Lucky Shiner comes out in two weeks, while Warpaint's The Fool arrives on 25 October. It's almost a relief to return to these bands, nearly a year on – to see them going from initial singles to an actual album release – without getting distracted by some newer band.
In my own highlighted trio, Warpaint are the most high-profile, despite not making the BBC bunfight. The band ' have been going with a shifting line-up since 2004. In the past year they have settled on an all-girl, four-person line-up, signed to Rough Trade, and recorded their debut full-length. Gradually, throughout this year, interest has grown – at festivals, on music blogs and in the more mainstream media. I saw them play at the Lexington in Islington in May; industry types and fans crammed together at the small venue, entranced by the band's poised performance (it helps that they look good, let's not lie).
"When we started the recording process, we were still relatively unknown," says guitarist and vocalist Theresa Wayman. "We had just finished our first tour around the US; in most cities there were only a handful of people there to see us. We weren't thinking about the rest of the world at all."
Happily, The Fool benefits from such nonchalance. It's a subtle, restrained art-rock album containing hints of psychedelia, grunge, post-rock, alt-country and folk, with vocals, shared among band members, landing somewhere between Cat Power's dusty drawl and the breathy tones of Suzanne Vega.
Warpaint's fellow LA dweller Cameron Mesirow has been trading for the past year-and-a-half under the name Glasser. She comes, in part, from a visual-arts background: working as a studio assistant to the artist Mike Kelley, and collaborating on a music-based installation with friend and artist Tauba Auerbach. Glasser's three-track debut EP "Apply" was made at home on Apple's DIY music program GarageBand, meshing dreamy ambience and electro-pop with her powerful, high-pitched voice. On Ring, Mesirow expands on her early ideas, while widening the palette with occasional live instruments – strings, drums, horns.
Neither Glasser's album or Warpaint's is a masterpiece – one or two songs don't quite hit the mark – but there is much impressive work on display. Both still have a way to go but they don't seem mere hostages to current whims of labels, critics or fans. You sense they haven't spent all their ideas already; that they could (whisper it) have staying power.
It's refreshing to hear artists, in a sense, not trying too hard; not stretching to be entirely of the musical moment. Without excessive amounts of hype and with the help of adventurous record labels (Glasser is on the indie True Panther Sounds), both seem to have the potential to quietly develop into very interesting acts.
The semi-mysterious east London-based producer Gold Panda, meanwhile, exists in a very different terrain to either Glasser or Warpaint, but his LP Lucky Shiner is the most accomplished of the three.
Beyond his musical moniker, the only name he offers up is Derwin. He appears to have a fairly bleak outlook on life, "I basically make music to stop myself being depressed," he told the BBC last year. His Twitter feed (@goldpanda) is a mix of black humour and pessimism – it can get a little dark, so it's perhaps no surprise that he didn't top the "Sound of 2010" poll. And he was rather nonplussed about the whole thing. "I just wanted to forget about it, really," he tells me. "Maybe it was good for a bit of exposure but ultimately it was a bit annoying. I'm really flattered that some taste-makers voted for me but I don't think it's such a big deal to talk about in every interview."
Thankfully for him, Lucky Shiner does the talking now. It's a wonderful, entirely instrumental electronica record that recalls Four Tet (aka the widely acclaimed British electronica producer Kieran Hebden). "It's great that my hobby has become my career and I hope that I can justify doing more and be able to not have to get a proper job," says Gold Panda, though he also counters this with a frank assessment of the album: "Obviously I'm not happy with it; if I was then I'd just quit making music." Hopefully, he can leverage his unhappiness and boredom into more exciting work. Like Glasser and Warpaint, it seems as if he's just getting started.
Of course, despite the fine debut, Gold Panda could disappear without trace. Or he could flourish. You can't really tell.
"The cogs have been lubricated to no end in the past few years," says NME's Hodgson. "If you get sucked into that 'hype mill' prematurely when you're not ready, when you're not in the right mental or emotional state, or not preparing yourself to make best of the opportunity, it can have a detrimental effect: there's been quite a few cases of bands having their careers kicked into hyperdrive way before they were ready. Albums have been rushed. Record companies and managers can be paranoid about capitalising on that hype when it happens, because of the whole industry speeding up."
But after a decade of music blogs and social networking becoming key factors in breaking new music, Hodgson, and others, are beginning to sense a slight adjustment in attitude. Bands, labels and managers are still happy to use social networking and those blogs, but they're becoming a little more reticent in their approach. For fear of being hyped and then forgotten about in a flash, record producers are withholding their music and limiting access to bands until they are absolutely ready.
Martin Hall, who manages bands including the Horrors and Manic Street Preachers, echoes this: "If you're clever, you hold something back. People are quicker to make judgements now, but that's just the nature of everything. The bands need to play a bit hard-to-get sometimes. It's always intriguing when bands don't send you stuff; you get more excited about it when you have to pursue them rather than just going online, seeing the four tracks and watching the video."
4AD's Halliday admits, though, that it is hard for bands and labels to take a step back when there is momentum building. Equally, there's no "right" formula. "It's kind of like falling in love. If it works, it works," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's the first date or you've been going out for a year. Sometimes we like a band straight away, but it's about signing people for the future."
Even Halliday, despite his scepticism about the speed of the new, can sometimes act fast and take a punt on a new artists. "We just signed this band from America called Twin Shadow," he explains. (4AD's announcement of the signing and Twin Shadow's debut album release accounted for the music-blog flurry mentioned earlier.) "We went from getting the demos to seeing them to signing them in about six weeks, which I think is as quick as I've ever done a deal."
The gushing words tumble out; it seems he's still flush with the excitement of new love. "You know, it was just right. I saw them, and thought, 'This is really good.' And actually pinching-myself type good, and it was like, 'Is this actually really good or am I just jetlagged?' It was so perfect. There was no point us hanging on for that, waiting for it to develop over an album or two – it feels like now is the time."
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