Stars are No. 1 with a bullet — and in more ways than one. The band’s recent album, In Our Bedroom After the War, debuted on the digital sales charts at No. 1 this past July in Canada. It’s an impressive feat for the Montreal five-piece known more for lighting up blogs than the charts with the sort of lush and extravagant indie pop that Montrealers seem to create with utter ease (see Arcade Fire).
Equally notable is that the album was released digitally a mere 10 days after the group finished mastering it, and a full two months before the scheduled CD release date. It was 2007’s first shot in the War Between the Formats; bigger names like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have glimpsed the short-lead-time, pay-what-you-want downloadable future, but Stars were prophetic (by a few months).
“I know that it definitely was a really good thing to do, because it hadn’t been done before,” enthuses vocalist Amy Milan about the warm iTunes reception In Our Bedroom received online prior to its proper CD release on the Arts & Crafts label. Milan is no stranger to modern-day indienomics. A working musician in the truest sense, she divides her time among Stars, her solo effort Honey From the Tombs (2006), and another Canadian indie powerhouse, Broken Social Scene, which shares a grand total of three members with Stars — Milan, co-vocalist Torquil Campbell and bassist Evan Cranely.
But even the cred coming from this indie cabal hasn’t been enough to completely insulate Milan and Co. from the gale forces inside the blogosphere. For while In Our Bedroom was met with positive reviews and solid sales, the band still found itself in a bit of a pissing match with the 400-pound gorilla of indie-rock Web sites, Pitchfork. Taking exception to a personal snipe in the overall positive review of In Our Bedroom, Campbell unleashed his own blog criticizing the critics. Such behavior might come across as unseemly, but in this age of instant access to all levels of fame, Stars are happy to play the game. Even Milan’s take on the controversy reveals something about her musical partner.
“I know that he’s always been a big music fan, and he’s always on top of what’s going on,” she says. “He reads a lot of blogs and stuff, and rather than sort of a review, he was personally attacked — and I think that he’s human and it kind of just got to him.”
Milan herself avoids this particular bit of music-business flotsam — in part to protect her own sanity and in part because she herself as a youngster never experienced the indie scene, or the genre’s long history of geeky critique. Growing up “in a Lithuanian bingo-hall basement listening to Johnny Cash” before joining Stars, she never even heard the Smiths until she was riding in a van on the group’s first U.K. tour. But she is more than willing to discuss the business of music as it stands today, seeming to actually prefer it to questions about the creative process.
“I know people are still going to go to the record store and buy the Radiohead album, even though they can buy it for free,” she insists. “You have to have faith that there are people out there who are going to save part of their income to pay for art. Whether it be books or paintings or comic books or records, there are people out there who are music fans who want your collection of work, and not just for their iPods.
“But things like having free downloads with vinyl, all these things help,” she adds. Also helping is a fantastic live show — documented extensively on the music-blog aggregator Hypem.com — which Stars have taken on the road for the latter half of ’07. Of course, the dollars and cents behind that is a whole other matter.
“[The exchange rate] is about equal now,” Milan laughs. “Just in time for our North American tour. We’re finally going to come in and make some money in America. But it’s not going to be a lot, because the Canadian dollar’s so strong right now.” Which might be a nice way of saying that the U.S. dollar is weak. Or maybe just our indie pop.