One of the most prevalent misconceptions about music and the music business is that truly talented musicians don’t need to, or shouldn’t have to, promote or publicize themselves. Publicity is naively thought of as the natural and direct byproduct of a musician’s quality: the better the music is, the more publicity it should generate. Most people don’t want to think of themselves as force-fed their culture, they want to think that they like good things and that the things they like are good. If Miley Cyrus is the most popular teen pop sensation, then Miley Cyrus must make the most sensational teen pop. Likewise, if Young Jeezy’s cousin has the most downloaded ringtone of the week, it must be the most bangingest ringtone available, at least from one of Young Jeezy’s cousins. Stands to reason. Capitalism, social Darwinism, and American Norman Rockwellism all lead us to believe that the cream rises to the top without any outside help.
Unfortunately, we know this is not true. As good as Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 surely is, I find it hard to accept that it is finer than any Leonard Cohen song, although it certainly charted higher. Leave aside the obvious truth that just because the majority of people like something doesn’t mean it’s any good; the music business is not a pure system. An army of publicists and agents uses kickbacks, graft, handjobs, cell-phone radiation, blackmail, and lethal doses of boring e-mails to ensure that their anointed artists are virtually ubiquitous. A circular logic ensues: people assume that prevalence equals popularity, and that popularity equals quality, so they embrace whatever’s prevalent, ultimately making it popular. This reasoning also explains mock-Craftsman townhouses, pre-stained blue jeans, and the continued casting of Julia Roberts in movies.
Indie rock culture was born out of a desire to circumvent this mainstream music juggernaut. The cultural elite of bored suburban snobs took it as an obvious truth that popular culture was a bloated corpse and that it had perversely inverted its founding logic: The cream no longer rose to the top, it was buried and neglected under mountains of spoiled curds like the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Mainstream culture was too lost and corrupt to recognize the greatness of small rock bands, but that was OK. The college-educated fans of alternative rock didn’t need to have their tastes dictated to them by publicists; they could discern quality music with their own senses and from the suggestions of their trusted friends. Thus the indie-rock community adopted a sleeker and more elitist version of the mainstream capitalist logic: Great music by definition cannot rise to the top of the culture, because most people are too stupid or brainwashed to appreciate it, but it will be obvious to those “in the know.” Buffalo Tom or the Minutemen don’t need standard publicists because everyone capable of enjoying them already knows about them, and those who don’t are excluded, not by design, but by their own pathetic tin ears.
This idea had massive traction here in the Northwest. The whole grunge era was a product of this founding principle: that straightforward publicity, promotion, and press are either unnecessary, unhip gibberish or the unholy refuge of the untalented. Megan Jasper’s famous coinage of “swinging on the flippity-flop” to The New York Times encapsulated it perfectly: Publicity was for lamestains. Greatness was all around us—all you had to do was check under enough barstools at the Comet Tavern and the next genius would be sitting there in a puddle of beer and slobber. Of course, five years later everyone was crying in their Hefeweizens over how the mainstream culture had perverted the scene and ruined everything by publicizing it.
A new, even more draconian regime was instituted in indie-rock culture: Publicity was Shiva the Destroyer. If you willingly publicized your band, you were a traitor and a sellout. Bands flaunted their contempt for promotion and intentionally chose unlikely and unlovely band names as a middle finger to those who would try to co-opt them. (Ever hear of the band Fuck?) Sunny Day Real Estate refused to do interviews or play in California(?). My own band called itself the Bun Family Players in a conscious attempt to choose the unhippest rock-band name in history. (We were trumped, many years later, by the Barenaked Ladies.) Indie rock became obsessed with popularity. If you were too popular, or popular with the wrong people, or in the wrong way, or if you appeared to want it or enjoy it, or to be making music for any reason other than that you were a total idiot savant who never brushed his teeth and sang in a distorted howl hoping that someone would barf in your food bowl, then you were a sellout and you sucked.
Well, here we are 10 or 15 years later, and indie rock and mainstream culture have met somewhere in the middle. Major-label bands carry around barfy food bowls and have stylists tape leaves in their beards, indie bands get endorsement deals with Honda and appear to put lip gloss on their ears, and the writers at Pitchfork and People all agree that Vampire Weekend are the next Geggy Tah. The whole thing is a massive jumble of corporate and small-time operators all vying to create the next big smash using all the hype techniques of the worst Hollywood slimebags, while masquerading as publicity-adverse paragons of integrity. The potential for hypocrisy has never been higher. Professional publicists feel obligated to introduce themselves with a conspiratorial wink: “I hate publicists myself, they’re the worst, and I’m only doing this because I’m working on a novel about how lame being a publicist is, but since I’m here let’s talk about how we’re going to publicize your record without appearing to be publicizing it.” The music business is rife with this kind of cynical gaming, and the musicians are the worst at it. They want every effort made to make their band a household name, as long as they are portrayed as humble back-porch songsmiths who just learned to use a telephone so they could call their mothers in prison.
I was talking with a writer last week who said to me, “I haven’t finished my first novel yet, but I’m not sure I’m really ready for all the book signings and stuff. I have a low tolerance for that bullshit.” He said this expecting me to agree with him that, man, all those book signings sure are a bunch of bullshit. Whew, you’ve hardly put your pen down and then it’s one damn book signing after another. He honestly believed that the first order of business, even before he finished the novel, was to express his disdain for the publicity whirlwind that was sure to ensue. This disingenuousness (because of course he’s dying to have a book signing, or even better, to read in the newspaper that he, the brilliant author, refuses to do book signings) is epidemic now. No one can seem to admit honestly that they’d be willing to wear a funny hat or dance like a red-assed monkey in order for the thing they made, the record or book or movie, to be more popular. Let me tell you, if you’re lucky enough to have people who want you to sign your book, you better put on your best shirt and show up an hour early.
A year or two ago I went to a high-powered advertising agency in New York City to lobby them to use one of our songs in an ad campaign. This ad agency was straight out of the movies, glass and chrome cubes full of bright and beautiful young Ivy Leaguers in $250 blue jeans being paid a fortune to write “edgy” ads for toilet cleaner and M&Ms. I was hoping they’d use one of my songs to sell those M&Ms (not so much the toilet cleaner) to impressionable young indie rockers who hadn’t yet chosen a snack food. The idea of my music being used in advertisements was easier to swallow after I rode around a few times in the Corvette Stingrays my indie-rock friends had bought with their advertising income, but it was still a slightly degrading experience to visit an ad agency and pitch my music. It was like playing for any WASPy Ivy League audience, which is to say it felt like humping an uninterested mannequin, made worse by the conference-room decor and the self-conscious hipster lingo employed by my hosts. Googling my band name soon after (as was the fashion at the time, ahem), I found a blog written by one of the agency employees. In it he described himself as a huge Long Winters fan who was super-conflicted about my visit to his workplace. On one hand, he got to meet me and hear me play a couple of songs up close, but on the other he was disappointed at what a sellout I was for pitching my songs to his agency. He was keeping this blog, he claimed, as an exposé of the inner workings of the New York ad world, where he was working, presumably under duress, only until his own band took off, or his novel was published, or whatever, meaning: for the next 20 years. As such, he remained anonymous, not only changing his name but also the name of the ad agency and of the products they represented so that his boss wouldn’t learn of his alter ego.
He had no problem referring to me by name, however, because as a musician I was subject to a much higher standard of integrity. Musicians are a priestly caste, and since it’s impossible to judge for certain whether a musician is any good based on record sales, critical acclaim, press coverage, or even by listening to the songs, it remains that they can only be judged by whether they are authentic-seeming. No matter if their authenticity is the product of five Brazilian stylists, 11 jean pre-distressors, a team of uncredited songwriters, and a gallon of Bondo.
Likewise, we not very long ago played a private party for a large software company, which, owing to the drunken insanity of the employees, was one of the funnest shows we’d played in a long time. As fun as this show was, I would be lying if I said we didn’t do it for the money. Oh, and also for the opportunity to network with these people who prominently placed some friends of ours in their last ad campaign and paid them one billion Portuguese escudos and 14 Finnish handmaidens.
At the end of the night I was hesitantly approached by a guy who was clearly the hippest cat in his section. He had the Eraserhead ‘fro, the Where’s Waldo? striped Russian submariner’s T-shirt, and the ironic look of bemused detachment that marked him as the truly out-of-the-box dude in the creative subsection of the project team working on the redesign of the site architecture for the online content study group of the e-commerce wing of the operating-system upgrade department of the mammoth software conglomerate. He gave me this regretful look as he explained that he was a longtime fan, he’d seen us play many times in smoky downtown clubs that smelled of bleach and shattered dreams, and, although he was psyched that we played his company party, he was also disappointed in us for being such corporate whores. I quizzed him a little bit on what exactly he meant, trying to discern whether he was hip to the irony of his disappointment in us, and he revealed a familiar self-rationalization. He was only working for this company until his band got signed, or his novel was published, or whatever, but he would have expected better from us.
Let me tell you straight out: I’ll dance like a red-assed monkey if it means more people hear my records. I was going to be dancing like a red-assed monkey anyway. And these are actual leaves in my beard.