This is not news, of course, nor will the new model supplant the tendency of corporations to snap things up at the first whiff of salability. It is, however, quite clear we're in the midst of drastic changes in how music is discovered, cultivated, packaged, sold and acquired.
The 2006 object lesson in these rapidly shifting dynamics is Tapes 'n Tapes, a Minneapolis quartet with naught but a smallish local following as recently as last October (they actually had to get a better-known band to headline the release party for their 2004 EP). Midyear finds them in the enviable throes of nationwide adulation overload--receiving critical tongue baths from bloggers as well as traditional media writers, selling out shows in major cities both home and abroad, and more recently, signing to influential British label XL Recordings after an extensive courtship by several other labels. XL's first move will be to re-release their debut self-released full-length The Loon and put some hefty distribution muscle behind it.
One could make a strong argument that The Loon (named after a local deli and, serendipitously, the state bird of Minnesota) is sufficiently meritorious to warrant all the attention and praise--and indeed, The Loon needs but a half-decade or so worth of seasoning before it can be called "seminal"--but the truly dispositive reason behind the instantaneity of Tapes 'n Tapes' success is the MP3 blog--suddenly, the aspirant rocker's most powerful tool.
"Loon caught on really fast. We put it out locally in November 2005, and the bloggers picked it up first, and that's why I think our New York shows were so well-attended," explains Tapes 'n Tapes multi-instrumentalist Matt Kretzmann in a recent phone conversation. "I think A&R people pay a lot of attention to blogs, so that's kinda how that all evolved, I guess," he continues, betraying the penchant for understatement with which the indie-rock ethos is so thoroughly imbued. "Keri (T 'n T's manager) had a plan to get it a chance. She was the one who was hip to maybe what bloggers might like it. So she knew where to at least start it to see if it would take."
And take it did--first, on a couple of well-positioned MP3 blogs, then the blog-o-verse!
"I think that Music for Robots posted on (The Loon) first, and then really shortly thereafter, Gorilla vs. Bear. Those two were the first to write (it) up, and then after that, it was kind of a tidal wave of bloggers." Splash!
Of course, hype alone won't get you far, unless you're Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or somebody (man, that band name has become fucking painful to type). And in contrast to their arriviste brethren in CYHSY, Tapes 'n Tapes have actually made a record that's worthy of all the superlatives. I asked Kretzmann if he knew that they had something special on their hands when they finished The Loon: "We definitely didn't expect (the success). We knew it was good, like a 'putting our best foot forward' kinda thing, but you'd have to be completely delusional to think that anything like this would happen."
"Putting our best foot forward" in this context means an 11-song record devoid of throwaway tracks, replete with an arch sense of humor, and peppered with not-quite-scrutable lyrics (sample: "Do you want to live a lie / a lie to shake / a lie / shake / I've been so sure ... " from "Cowbell." It should be noted that "shake" could either be "shame" or "shit" or something else entirely). The Loon is dynamically eloquent, which is to say that the sonic textures across the whole album and within each individual song are fresh and exciting and thereby compelling on that basis alone. Not since Surfer Rosa or Slanted and Enchanted (Tapes 'n Tapes are most frequently compared to the Pixies and Pavement, and while both bands are audible influences, T 'n T aren't cribbing anyone's moves) has there been an album with such a broad gamut of appealingly varied tempos and inventive rhythmic interplay. Put another way, The Loon sounds as if it could be a compilation record of jukebox hits from an alternate universe (an alternate universe, mind you, where every singer sounded alike).
Now in the sweaty thick of their first full headlining tour, Tapes 'n Tapes were afforded the luxury of hitting the road with two of their favorite bands--Cold War Kids (fun fact: Cold War Kids are from Whittier, Calif., home of the Poets of Whittier College, Nixon's alma mater) and Figurines, both of whom Kretzmann praises unreservedly.
"I love playing with those guys; I think it's like unusually complementary," he says. Perhaps he meant "complimentary," which works just as well.
Ultimately, the surprising and heretofore unusual instant success of a band like Tapes 'n Tapes is a harbinger of a shift that's been underway for nearly a decade. Prior to the advent of the MP3 blog and MySpace, the primary impact of the shift (and the attendant, and justified, hand-wringing by the majors and the RIAA) had been on distribution models--the impact of illegal downloading and whether digital tracks and music players will eventually supplant the physical disc (it's doubtlessly so). But now there's another, even more important aspect of the business being wrested from the gnarled hands of obsolete corporations--Artist and Repertoire. When the major labels are no longer needed for their distribution resources to get music to people, or their artist development resources to identify and develop new talent, well, what the hell are they needed for?