Band on the Run
Rock & roll's new indie reality: the 'Long Tail'
Under a sweltering September sun, Aaron Behrens and Thomas Turner seem ill-suited for the glare of an Austin City Limits Music Festival afternoon set. Turner's high-collared baby-blue cape drapes heavily in the heat, while Behrens' braids glisten with sweat dripping onto his tight pink shirt and even tighter blue jeans. As the local duo erupts into their electro-thrash groove, the crowd begins to swell to Behrens' sexually charged howls and Turner's beats, which draw a horde of curious artists stage-side.
Ghostland Observatory wasn't supposed to play the 2006 ACL Music Fest; the Austin duo was added to the bill only after a last-minute cancellation. Yet as their set drew to a close, it was already clear theirs was a career-making show.
"Austin City Limits was absolutely huge for us," says Turner as the pair prepares for their second coming at the festival this year. "That was the first opportunity for us to play for thousands of people from all over the world. People tell us all the time that that was the first place they heard us."
As the epitome of a River City DIY act made good, Ghostland Observatory had already built a solid reputation in town before their ACL appearance. A sold-out performance at Emo's three weeks later testified to the dynamic duo's brand-new notoriety, a throng of college kids pressed against the outside stage supplanting the usual hipsterati. By spring, Ghostland had staged an epic light show at Hogg Auditorium, played Playboy's South by Southwest afterparty, opened for Beck, and become darlings of Seattle's influential KEXP. This summer brought appearances at Sasquatch and Lollapalooza, with the Vegoose and Voodoo festivals still to come.
What's remarkable about Ghostland Observatory's success is its achievement almost entirely through the duo's own modest resources. The two still handle their own management and self-releases under Turner's Trashy Moped label, most recently the 12-inch vinyl Twin Cities EP. Ghostland represents a new industry model of indie feasibility that eschews label support and proves sustainable by its own merits.
Though this new paradigm is born of necessity for young bands trying to garner attention in a media-saturated industry, the effect is yet another nail in the label-based music industry's decaying coffin. A new generation of talent is increasingly looking at new technology and social-networking tools to not only disseminate its music to the largest possible audience but to specifically target its fan bases to maximize its efforts.
Recognizing the trend, corporations have moved in on the space vacated by labels' depleted A&R influence to provide indie bands with opportunities to reach broader audiences, as with this year's Dell Lounge-sponsored Sound and the Jury competition for the ACL Music Festival. The inaugural contest's grand prize is a position on the festival lineup, and while the 11:45am slot on the Dell stage on Friday morning isn't likely to propel the group to Ghostland heights, for a young indie band the opportunity provides incalculable experience and exposure.
"It all depends," says C3 Presents' Charles Attal, who organizes both ACL and Lollapalooza. "We did it at Lolla, and it was an overwhelming success. I've seen bands blow up out of these festivals. It's just right place, right time, right press."
Notes From the Underground
For Ian Schwarber, lead singer of Athens, Ga.-based sextet Blue Flashing Light – one of five finalists in the Sound and the Jury competition – the upheaval of the music industry opens a Pandora's box for independent bands. Schwarber speaks with an excited but easy fervor, grand ambitions bolstering the bigger-picture consideration of his group's position and strategy for success.
"There are no rules anymore," he declares by phone from Georgia. "The big guys with all the money are full of fear, and it's people like us that actually have the opportunity to go out there and break all the rules that they set in motion, the tyrannical, 'You can't do anything unless you do it through us.'
"Now it's almost like you can't do anything if you do it through them."
Whereas the lucrative po-tential of a major label deal once dominated the aspirations of young acts, today's talent is more skeptical than ever of labels' potential to properly manage their career. Doubt springs not from the traditional concerns over creative freedom or control but rather from corporate conceptions that misjudge most bands' already self-cultivated base. Austin's Sound Team serves as one unfortunate example, their major label debut, Movie Monster, being grossly mishandled by Capitol Records, which subsequently dropped the band last January.
"It's definitely the age of the independent band, and I think if labels want to stay in business, they need to learn to utilize the indie mindset more," offers Daniel Wheeler of Homer Hiccolm & the Rocketboys, who, along with locals Golden Bear, Quiet Company, and Nelo, round out the finalists for the ACL contest. "We don't feel like our ultimate goal is to get signed to a label, and if you're willing to work to make things happen for yourself, ideally you can be in a position where you stay independent and can still provide for yourself."
The increased responsibility of bands to manage themselves, however, also infringes on their primary devotion to the music. The freedom of independence carries with it a burden for artists to balance both the creative and business demands of their career.
"I remember a time when I would get up in the mornings and my only concern was to write music, and that was all I really cared about," says Quiet Company frontman Taylor Muse. "I don't really like doing all this other stuff. All the booking, all the promotion just takes so much time. It's definitely rewarding when something comes through, but I really miss the times I could just write music."
The Medium Is the Message
"Technology has really opened this 'Long Tail' of music where indie bands can compete on the same level with bigger bands," says Dell's David Clifton, who's in charge of the local computer company's involvement with the ACL Music Festival.
Coined by Wired magazine Editor Chris Anderson, the "Long Tail" refers to the ability of niche products to find lucrative markets through broad distribution and endless supply, essentially a marketplace created within the virtual economy. The limitations of physical distribution and storage necessitates the traditional hit-driven industry, yet given the opportunity, consumers continually drive further down the Long Tail into more obscure and taste-specific material.
"If the 20th century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses," Anderson speculated in his seminal 2004 article. "Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail, and you've got a market bigger than the hits."
iTunes and other online music services thrive on the Long Tail formula, introducing listeners to new bands through recommendations, taking advantage of vast digital databases. Customized Internet radio services such as Pandora, social media sites such as imeem, or even MySpace friends' lists all act on the principle to ideally connect fans with music they would most enjoy.
Even as competitors like Virb, Buzznet, and Uber continue to attract new users, MySpace remains the primary virtual tool for independent bands, and each of the finalists in the Sound and the Jury competition cite the social network as central to rallying support from their fans to secure the votes needed. Homer Hiccolm & the Rocketboys even followed the OK Go route of posting quirky song-and-dance videos each day during the final week of voting.
With more than 600 bands initially competing in the Sound and the Jury and more than 200,000 votes cast during the contest's six-week run, maintaining the support needed to break the Top 5 was no small feat of solicitation. Yet democratization in deciding the "next big thing," from American Idol on down to ACL's battle of the bands, reflects a new reality of rock & roll driven by real-time accessibility and personal, even if virtual, interaction between fans and artists. The Indie Age has deflated iconic rock-star aloofness, for better or worse, to pandering reality shows.
"There's nothing more humbling than knowing I'm at the mercy of people being generous with two minutes of their time," says Schwarber genuinely. "Having to get out there and garner support and rely on them, person to person, makes people more accountable for their music, more accountable for their behavior, and that can't be anything but a good thing. All this stuff keeps you down to earth."
The ease of discovering new bands in the digital era is proportionally frustrated by the sheer number of artists within a click of listeners' discovery, and technology has made the classic rock attitude of detachment untenable for fans and the indie bands vying for their attention. Yet tracking software also allows bands to connect with fans who actually want to hear their music, directing tours through areas of high downloads and, in the case of competitions like the Sound and the Jury, rallying that grassroots support to achieve even broader audiences in an inverse process of working as far up the Long Tail as a band can reach.
Each of the five finalists in the ACL competition already has built a dedicated following as evidenced by the votes needed to reach a position in the Top 5. The potential to play to a festival-sized audience offers the possibility of reaching thousands of new fans that lie outside the specific determinations of targeted algorithms. The festival stage is old-fashioned exposure in its most direct form.
"We hadn't done anything like this before, and it's really been interesting because it's really broadened what we thought were our horizons," says Golden Bear's Chris Gregory. "It showed that we have all these different avenues and that there are other ways to get ahead."
Most festivals now offer variations of ACL's battle of the bands, and corporate-sponsored contests from Taco Bell's Feed the Beat to Spin magazine's Hot Pursuit dominate the music scene. Homer Hiccolm already won a showcase at this past June's Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Ill., while Blue Flashing Light tried earlier this year for a slot at Bonnaroo. Locally, Octopus Project's surprise win in the MySpace-backed contest to play Coachella in 2006 and Patrice Pike's appearance on Rock Star Supernova vaulted both to national attention as well as multiple Austin Music Awards this year.
While the proliferation of these competitions within indie music circles opens possibilities for bands to reach the next level of exposure, it hardly substitutes for the sustained investment and support that ideally defined the now-faltering label-dominated model. Even established independent labels are increasingly unwilling to take a risk on a young band unless they've already managed an ample amount of success on their own.
"With so many bands and with MySpace, Pro Tools, Facebook, and YouTube, anybody can be somebody, and it's hard to get attention," relates Schwarber. "There's no artist and development anymore, at all. If you want to get people with a little bit of money to get behind your music, you have to have a business plan, you have to have a brand, you have to have either a healthy amount of gigs under your belt or a really rockin' album with plenty of singles. I think you have to have 90 different things now that back in the day they would give you time for.
"In today's world, I don't think Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie – they don't get record deals," he muses. "And imagine where this world would be without those guys having influenced everybody."
The bottom line for bands in the Indie Age remains simply taking advantage of every opportunity that is offered and exploiting every avenue of attention. After all, Ghostland Observatory first secured Attal's attention playing a halftime show at the Roller Derby, which is as DIY as it gets.
The Sound and the Jury competition culminated with all five acts playing Antone's Wednesday night, Sept. 12 – just as the Chronicle went to press.
And the winner is: Homer Hiccolm & the Rocket Boys. Catch their ACL Music Fest set Friday, 11:45-12:30, on the Dell stage.
[posted Thursday, September 3, 2007]