September 19, 2013

RAINIS | New Slaves to Hype

Print More

By JAMES RAINIS

If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of an Internet music snob the past couple weeks, it is without a doubt that you’ve heard the exalted news: “Arcade Fire are releasing a new album! The cover art is super mysterious! The lead single criticizes social media and has two music videos! One of them involves iPhones!” Then the SNL spot, the NBC concert special and the Winn Butler-Regine Chassagne sex tape were all announced (one of these didn’t happen) and one gets a little weary over their incessant and looming presence. I mean, “Reflektor” is great and all, but the absurd P.R. drive is a little exhausting.

For some big-name artists, this perennial image management has become the norm. Kanye West embodies this. He constantly attaches his name to big-time projects, premieres videos on the side of random city buildings and began dating a Kardashian in what seems like the first intentional instance of celebrity-based brand synergy. I imagine that Kanye has a personal brand manager who suggested the move, following extensive market research that determined which celebrity girlfriend would invoke the greatest amount of public ire.

Daft Punk, too, have been everywhere this year: seemingly innocuous moves like selecting the obscure town of Wee Waa, Australia as the site of the Random Access Memories listening party and ditching a performance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report (thusly instigating a rebellious and highly viral Colbert performance of the French group’s “Get Lucky”) all managed to grab headlines for weeks on end, keeping Daft Punk on the tip of our tongues and “Get Lucky” at the top of the charts.

Even smaller artists are getting in on the high concept marketing ploys. Retro-leaning British electro duo Disclosure released a 360 degree interactive video of their Central Park performance of “Latch,” while cloud-trap producer Ryan Hemsworth, among others, has partnered with Levi’s for their #MakeOurMark campaign. It feels awkward and, perhaps, a little compromising, but you can’t blame them. We are a finicky, ADHD-afflicted public; for artists with money behind them, these sort of marketing gimmicks keep them within the public consciousness. They build hype for upcoming releases without the release of lots of music and help turn albums, even those that are just being torrented en masse, into events worthy of anticipation.

However, some contest that these sorts of shenanigans are unnecessary. The relatively high-profile experimental electronic musician Four Tet, announcing the release of his upcoming Beautiful Rewind (which includes the absorbing and meditative single “Parallel Jalebi”), made it very clear to his fans that he wasn’t going to be pulling any Kanye West-sized stunts for publicity. On Twitter, Hebden was sure to specify that there would be “no pre order, no youtube trailers, no itunes stream, no spotify, no amazon deal, no charts, no bitcoin deal, no last minute rick rubin” for his record. In a crowded electronic music scene, it’s a bold move at anti-publicity. It strives to downplay the anticipation of the album in favor of letting the music speak for itself once it’s released, whether out of derision of the Arcade Fire-style media onslaughts or out of a desire for simplicity.

Treating art like a commodity has never been a problem in other fields. Galleries trade and sell paintings like third graders pushing holographic Pokemon cards. The fashion industry has turned the concept of the art-commodity into a something of a capitalistic religion, with holy periods (the seasonal fashion weeks) and scripture writers (Vogue, et al.) to boot. If fans of those mediums can withstand the integrated marketing campaign onslaught, why are music fans — especially those who so doggedly follow music blogs — so uncomfortable with the idea? After all, these artists want to make a living.

Sure, the idea of non-conformist, non-commercialized music might come from punk, but even Black Flag enacted aggressive marketing strategies, however guerrilla (the posters designed by Raymond Pettibon are punk advertising masterpieces). I think the discomfort felt by all Internet music fanatics has something to do with why people turned to the web for their music, rather than MTV and pop radio: control. The ability to more carefully tailor our art consumption has led to more cosmopolitan tastes and a sense that we’ve beaten the corporate feeding cycle. We’re so rebellious, dude.

But so were Bob Dylan, The Sex Pistols and Nirvana, and their images have been used for Victoria’s Secret promos and in Guitar Hero video games (much to the chagrin of much of Kurt Cobain’s camp). At a certain point, when artists reach a level of popularity where other people are providing them the resources to help them record and distribute their music, they are indebted and need to curtail that costs by ensuring that they are a competitive product. Thus, the marketing onslaught begins.

Once upon a time, albums didn’t need any sort of hype-inducing marketing campaign to become an event. Records from Dylan’s classic Blonde on Blonde to the rapturous folly of Oasis’s Be Here Now inspired out-the-door lines at record stores across the planet. With the communal sources of album-related entertainment — radio, music television and, yes, in-person record sales — on the wane, artists desperate to have their moment need to step it up and manufacture a moment. Some, like the inimitable Kanye, need only to be themselves to do so. But Arcade Fire — far less quotably arrogant — need to step out of the box to do so. Let’s just be happy that it’s a somewhat ill-advised iPhone video rather than, like a cartoon tie-in.

Then again, if Arcade Fire played on Adventure Time, that would be amazing…

James Rainis is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Science. He can be reached at jrainis@cornellsun.com. Irresponsible Listening runs alternate Thursdays this semester.