On October 12 Ditmas Park sensation Sufjan Stevens will release The Age of Adz, the highly anticipated follow-up to the critically acclaimed Illinois, after nearly six years in the making. It’s an ambitious record — dense, cryptic, beautifully melodic and at times a terrifying headphone listen from the online stream alone. News hit last week that Sufjan would ask fans to purchase the record from his Bandcamp site.
And with that the last ride at the empty amusement park that is MySpace stopped running, taken down by the next social media network-community-distraction-new fun place and forced to retreat into the splash page and spam comment oblivion. I’ll let David Carr discuss the finer points of where the user frustrations begin and why, but this finally begs the question for any band – and Brooklyn's full of them – when seeking an online presence, do you want a community or conduit?
Stevens’ says he wanted an alternative to the digital distribution model offered by Amazon; Bandcamp sells music first and foremost. It’s a direct artist-to-fan model only two years old, and despite the hilariously condescending name launched with a true independent spirit – according to founder Ethan Diamond. The virtual merch table to Myspace’s flyer-encrusted street pole. However, if you’re just another local band with nothing to sell en mass and not looking for another round of online updates to maintain what’s the point of switching over?
Music is worth “more than the cost of a latte,” writes Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, referring to the reduced price Amazon will offer for a limited time in a popular move to drive traffic. Sales jump accordingly, and bands like Arcade Fire suddenly find themselves topping the Billboard charts by week’s end. This isn’t terrible, as the label points out. Sales are good. It’s also no secret marketing campaigns for major independent releases can be tailored with this in mind, as those Billboard numbers still translate to residual sales. Yet Sufjan is right to ask fans to keep this choice in mind. If a record is worth $2.99 or $2.50 or $3.25 today and full price tomorrow we’re dangerously approaching what starts to feel like donation territory. Suddenly musicians are busking in a virtual world where no amount of virtual friends matter.
If that’s how the conduit works insofar as choosing a site to connect artists with fans via sales, what about those fans and the endless opportunities they have to discover music in return?
The first time I visited Bandcamp last March was the first time I heard Cults, the young New York via San Diego duo that Pitchfork dubbed Rising before they even played their first show. With little to no online information the band posted three songs for download. They’re now booked by Windish, one of the top agencies in the US. The same no-info mystery approach befit the Worcester, MA trio Dom this past Spring, as they waxed to the same influential site about a questionable history to hilarious ends. They just signed to major label Astralwerks.
It’s not the meteoric rise of these bands that’s unique, it’s the value of retaining information in a time when not having an online presence is the exception. Think about that. Myspace, Facebook, LastFM, Bandcamp and Soundcloud are all portals with a goal, in part, of connecting people, but never acknowledging their own irrelevance or inability to build upon anything more than MySpace's spashly billboards.
“We definitely encourage labels and artists to have an online presence,” says Jacob Daneman of Pitch Perfect PR, who handles press for Joanna Newsome, Girl Talk and Wild Beasts among others. “It makes our job so much easier for them to have a presence and develop their fan base on their own, especially when it comes to letting fans know that they're in town to play a show.”
“Having said that, I believe it's important to withhold works in progress until something the band is truly ready to propagate and spread through the blogosphere and webzine world. It builds anticipation as well, especially if it's a buzzed about band.”
From his roster alone Daneman has experienced both sides of the spectrum, but it’s safe to say buzz isn’t something that comes with choosing the right site for your band. “Facebook and Soundcloud seem more like tools that the bands themselves use to publicize their materials,” he says, “which is always an important aspect of any campaign.”
“Facebook exploded in Denmark some years ago,” says Jacob Johansen, drummer for Anchorless, the Danish sextet who just released their much-buzzed debut on PonyRec last Spring, “and naturally the bands and labels seek these out when so many potential listeners crowd them.” Johansen also drummed for The Fashion (Sony/Vagrant) and DIY underground darlings Lack, seeing both sides of the same coin in a changing industry over the last ten years.
“Personally I am tired of the ‘update update update mentality’ that I guess these sites helped to create and facilitate so well,” says Johansen, “that bands publish every little piece of news which is often not interesting, or even irrelevant, but merely serves the purpose of being present at all times.”
With nothing left for the artist to talk about then, the mysterious online “community” is asked to perform the heavy, word-of-mouth lifting. However, as both Daneman and Johansen note it’s become a one-sided conversation.
“LastFM seems to stay more of a consumer/user or fan-frequented site,” says Friederike Herr, Editor and host on Germany’s popular online station ByteFM based in Hamburg, while acknowledging Facebook has taken over in the past year. “It seems like the latest online-community 'du jour' always reaches Europe, or Germany at least, a couple seasons after it becomes the place to be and connect over here.” Herr is currently based in Brooklyn, blogging for ByteFM and working as an editorial intern at CMJ, who’s well-established music festival takes place later this month.
“True, Last FM does enjoy some popularity [in Denmark],” Johansen says, “how much in comparing with the US? I don’t know.” Cross that one off the list, Brooklyn, as something like LastFM would indeed be the last place to post and unknown band.
For the time being Daneman is understandably watching from the sidelines. “I think there are sites that bands and labels prefer to use,” he says, “and they stay that way until something new comes along and provides users with an easier interface or expanded usage possibilities. Then, I generally see the old site fall to the wayside, while the new one picks up steam.”
With Sufjan in full support, Bandcamp appears ready for The Age of Adz next week. But maybe we shouldn’t count out MySpace just yet. As reported in Spin last August the grunge dads of Soundgarden are finally creating a MySpace page to relaunch the group's back catalog according to lead singer, Chris Cornell.
What’s a latte cost in Seattle these days, fellas?