Busking for Stardom

Before Bell Orchestre's recent sold-out show at Tonic, home base to New York’s scrappy art-music scene, I was briefly introduced to a member of the band — Richard Reed Parry. He seemed a bit like the lead character in Napoleon Dynamite — red hair, chunky glasses, tall to the point of awkwardness, relatively guileless. Yet he was also comfortable in his own skin, any goofiness leavened by an artist’s attentiveness to the world around him. Tonic is not used to sellout crowds, much less playing host to alt-rock royalty. And one wouldn’t rationally expect a group like Bell Orchestre, an instrumental band from Montreal whose songs flit between the subtle colorations of classical music and the improvisational energy of jazz, to bring this kind of heat. But on that Monday night in November, the room was full and the Strokes’ bassist, Nikolai Fraiture, was still there at the end of the night, milling about in a GQ-quality suit.Despite all that, Parry is such an unassuming guy that later on, as I drove with him and his bandmates to an after-party at a pool hall near Union Square, he had to reintroduce himself to me. After a long weekend of schmoozing, I’d forgotten we’d met. (Full disclosure: The band opening for Bell Orchestre on its East Coast tour releases records on my label.)“Sorry,” I said, “I’m a little burnt out from indie-rock networking.”“I know what you’re saying,” he replied. “Now you know the story of my life.”Then it hit me how churlish I must have sounded. See, Parry and his Bell Orchestre bandmate violinist Sarah Neufeld play in another young band from Montreal called the Arcade Fire, which, based on its 2005 career trajectory, many have pegged as a contender to become one of the world’s biggest bands.The group’s music exists apart from the nostalgia fueling much of the recent hype around young rock bands. The Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, has little in common with the garage rave-ups of the White Stripes or the dirgelike, Joy Division–derived sound of Interpol (and so many others). On Funeral, strings, keyboards and teapots whistle out weird harmonies and overtones. Detritus floats above the proceedings. Rhythms stop and start like a child with ADD. The lyrics hew to a quasi-literary thread about fading youth, circling around memories of “our bedrooms and our parents’ bedrooms,” the ice that “covered up my parents’ hands,” and a family tree “losing all its leaves.” Every celebration is tinged with melancholy. The album is like a bracing memory.Funeral has sold a quarter-million copies in the United States, and is on target to become the best-selling release in the 16-year history of Merge Records, the small North Carolina indie label that released it in late 2004. I later found out Fraiture was at Tonic because the Arcade Fire had recently played with the Strokes at Brazil’s Tim Festival. Apparently there is a natural affinity between next big things. But in fact, the Strokes are insignificant compared to the company the Arcade Fire now keeps. In late November, for example, the group opened three Canadian dates for U2. iTunes recently debuted a live duet the band recorded in September with David Bowie. The Arcade Fire weren’t covering their idol. Rather, David Bowie was covering them.The point is that Parry might not seem like a rock star, but he is this era’s version of one. The infrastructure for supporting larger-than-life acts has disappeared. Overall sales declined this year, after a modest spike in 2004. While the Arcade Fire is one of the lucky few indie bands added to the playlists of mega rock radio stations like KROQ in our post-payola era — others include Postal Service and Bright Eyes — the big rock-radio story in 2005 has been an overall dip in its fortunes. Major-market stations like Philadelphia’s Y100, Washington, D.C.’s WHFS, Miami’s WZBT and Houston’s KLOL were shut down or shuffled onto new frequencies with weaker signals. A number of rock stations switched to new formats like Hurban (“Hispanic urban”), and then there is the syndicated JACK FM, which is meant to mimic the shuffle function of a digitally encoded jukebox.By contrast, the Internet’s ability to transmit music has solidified. Run through a chronology of the past decade’s most notable Internet music stories, and you’ll notice the media have been chattering about infrastructure, not artistry. Amazon.com opened up the much-trumpeted “long tail,” making the back catalogs of labels and other publishers more accessible than ever before. Napster and MP3.com created a big bang of peer-to-peer piracy, freeing music from the packaged-goods delivery system that defined the medium in the 20th century. Finally, Apple has convincingly shown how the music business might be able to sell its properties in a world without that physical product.The year 2005 marked a clear shift from the era of airwaves to the era of iPods. The digital landscape has been laid; the critical apparatus necessary to govern its borders is settling into place. It’s a hierarchy of Web zines, MP3 blogs, podcasts, and message boards with peculiar names like Music for Robots, Coolfer, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan and Tracks Up the Tree. An artist can make or break a career via a thousand different sites that are insignificant on their own, but together quite powerful. Even the majors have realized this. New albums by Neil Diamond and Madonna debuted on MySpace.com. The Strokes’ new record has been strategically leaked to the Web, and they are playing a full slate of “secret” shows this December, with the primary intention of generating Internet buzz. So far, reaction to these well-plotted efforts has been ambiguous.The Arcade Fire is a better case study of how online excitement is supposed to work: organically. The loved and reviled PitchforkMedia.com site gave the band’s Funeral an early 9.7 review, and later named it the best album of 2004, creating the possibility of a backlash. “I almost feel bad for you guys,” fretted the site’s editor-in-chief, Ryan Schreiber, when he interviewed the Arcade Fire in February. “Like we tend to get really carried away when we love a record, and while that tends to help a lot of bands we think deserve attention, there can also be negative repercussions if we go too nuts.”The weird thing is that the backlash never happened. Martin Hall, publicist at the Arcade Fire’s label, says the reason is that there wasn’t front-loaded publicity around Funeral’s release trying to convince traditional media outlets that the band was the next big thing. Audiences weren’t force-fed the Arcade Fire’s music. That wasn’t even possible, because the organization behind the group was uncommonly modest. In February, for example, the band sold out New York’s 1,500-capacity Irving Plaza, yet still hadn’t hired a tour manager. Their record label’s entire staff consists of less than a dozen people, and the group never hired an outside PR firm, leaving the in-house publicist to manage their steadily mounting press profile by himself.Well, not quite by himself.“The people who were making paper zines 10 years ago were reaching five people at a time,” explains Hall. “They reached a certain amount of people, but it was hard to continually reach new people. These days, those same people are doing stuff online, have less overhead and reach 5,000 people. All you need is a link, and bang, you’re there. It’s totally viral.”The ability of one enthusiastic fan to reach 5,000 consumers only starts to explain the conceptual importance of the Net’s new infrastructure in the understaffed world of indie rock. Better to see it in action, like at the Bell Orchestre’s gig at Tonic. Perhaps one could argue that the larger crowd was there because there are a lot of people who appreciate the choral flourishes Parry and Neufeld add to the Arcade Fire’s songs; those details are what make its music seem like a collective celebration, and that talent for rich harmonic expression blossoms fully in Bell Orchestre, a band whose formation actually preceded the more famous outfit. But that’s not likely. Was it simply that anything the Arcade Fire touches turns to gold? No, that’s not true either. The day before the show, only 65 tickets had been sold for a venue that holds several hundred.What mattered most was that on the night before the Tonic show, Parry and Neufeld’s other group played an impromptu 2 a.m. gig in Union Square. The set was short, low-key, and not really intended for public consumption. (The band was in New York for their lawyer’s wedding and merely blowing off steam.) As it turns out, one of the passers-by was armed with a camera phone, and posted a photo of the performance on a little-known blog called Let’s Do This. Though witnessed by only a handful of actual people, the experience lived on through the wonder, humor and excitement of comments from fans and friends visiting the blog.Indeed, the post was soon linked to by a dozen other blogs. Most of them mentioned Bell Orchestre, too — advertising the show and offering MP3s, kind words and links to the band’s Web site. For a brief moment, a one-and-a-half-year-old blog became the coolest club on the indie-rock Internet, filled with close friends, snooping journalists and envious outsiders. An editor for Blender magazine even left a comment asking the photographer to contact him. More important, a small, spontaneous busking gig — amplified by the Internet’s global audience and interconnectedness — went on to transform a Monday night at an obscure club into the hottest ticket in New York City. Common wisdom says that this kind of buzz can also backfire, right? I’d argue that the dreaded backlash phenomenon is unlikely these days, because most Internet buzz is actually the real thing, not just hype. Rather it mimics the “invisible hand” that governs markets, or the synchronicity that leads crickets to chirp in coordinated bursts.Take the case of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the National, two more bands emblematic of contemporary hype. (Another disclosure: I also released the National’s first three records.) Clap Your Hands came to prominence on the indie scene after they circulated a number of MP3s on the Web, leading to impressed mutterings in the blogosphere and eventually a Pitchfork rating of 9.0. The National’s ascent has been slow-growing, but an Internet site called Information Leafblower recently conducted a poll among music bloggers to determine the Top 40 Bands in America, and they ranked No. 2 — between Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West. In both cases the buzz originated when small sites with significant followings banded together to sing a band’s praises. That’s a big switch from traditional gatekeepers like MTV, The New York Times, Rolling Stone or rock radio, where one programmer or one critic determines what’s worthy of discussion.This is what ran through my mind two months ago while backstage at the Troubadour, waiting for the first performance in a two-night stand by the two groups, who were sharing a cross-country tour. The overwhelming vibe was Something Happening We Need To Be a Part Of. The drummer for the Wallflowers was there, but no one caught his name, because no one cared about one-hit wonders. Rumors circulated about an O.C. cast member trying to wheedle a way in, and there was a confirmed sighting of late-era Dawson’s Creek star Busy Philipps.I spotted Clap Your Hands lead singer Alec Ounsworth, 27, gliding quietly past, until he was buttonholed by Ben Kweller, a more well-established songwriter — at least in the old order of things. Kweller looked deep into Ounsworth’s eyes and said to him with a straight face: “You guys are doing it right. You’ve got to use the record business, don’t let them use you.”The wisdom was offered with a bit too much authority — Ounsworth is three years Kweller’s senior — but it showed that Kweller’s been paying attention. Clap Your Hands used blog buzz to fuel a self-release of their debut, which has been a breakout success. Eschewing “real” labels paid off. They’ve shipped more than 30,000 copies. Cutting out the middleman means the band is likely to earn upward of a quarter-million dollars if those copies sell through. In a more traditional arrangement, it would earn a third of that, at best.Really, though, I got the sense that Kweller was trying to share his hard-won insights about big media, big hype and the dangers thereof. In the late ’90s, he fronted a third-generation grunge band called Radish, which signed to Mercury Records when he was only 15. In April 1997, a week before Radish’s debut album hit stores, he received his first major press, a flattering 10-page profile in The New Yorker. Very few music fans had heard Kweller’s music, yet the writer was already asking if he was “a rock savant or just a talented kid who has been thrust into the role of rock star more or less by accident.” As it turns out, he was the latter. No one bought Radish’s debut album, and the article served as both the highlight and lowlight in Kweller’s subsequent career. It was the type of in-depth character study that was supposed to give him what the music industry calls “story” — an interesting, high-profile hook to template all future stories. But the piece was too flattering, an exercise in significance-mongering that didn’t take root.Things work just the opposite these days. The original Pitchfork review of Clap Your Hands, for example, didn’t venture that the band was potential rock stars or savants. In fact they were enraptured by how low-key the band was: “There’s something really refreshing about stumbling across a great band that’s trembling on the cusp without any sort of press campaign or other built-in mythology . . . [W]e have the rare chance to decide what a band sounds like of our own accord before any agency cooks up and disseminates an opinion for us.”The point was that this band wasn’t famous. There was no “story,” no A&R interest, no good word from long-established gatekeepers, just some MP3 files that a bunch of kids online really, really liked.The mainstream gatekeepers were left playing catch-up. Major media outlets like TheNew York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Billboard practically plagiarized Internet coverage of the tour. The L.A. Times called it “a lightning rod in the indie-rock sphere, sparking debate over questions of substance, hype and backlash.” But was it really? The entire tour was sold out, and there was no stopping its momentum. I was a firsthand witness to the fact that both bands had a great time with each other. They were simply thriving in a landscape where you can busk for stardom, make great music, release your own records and hope it works out. It’s not about the big score anymore. It’s about dozens of blogs, a few good bits and a million tiny bytes.?


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