Houses of Hype?: Music Blogs and Websites Race to Find the Next Big Thing | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Blogs: Houses of Hype?

Music Blogs and Websites Race to Find the Next Big Thing

Feb 07, 2011 Issue #34 - Year End 2010 - Sufjan Stevens Photography by Alex Mathers (Illustration) Bookmark and Share


Great artists have to suffer for their craft, and the greater the artist, the greater the suffering. Or at least that’s the cliché. True or not, the history of popular music is littered with such tales. From the two years The Beatles spent as the amphetamine-fueled house band at a German strip club to Bruce Springsteen’s tireless years of touring before finding mainstream success, it is part of the accepted lore that artists have to invest a little sweat equity into their profession to earn their success. But with the rise of the Internet and the instant connection of everyone to everything, suddenly anybody with a good idea has a chance of immediately finding someone else who also finds that idea interesting.

As our attention spans have diminished, our appetite for the new and novel has increased, leading to an era when albums are already old by the time they’re released and every week features a new breakthrough band. That’s not an entirely new dynamic, of course; the British music press has a long-held tradition of feeding the best and worst of these tendencies. But by 2005, music blogs had moved that culture online and created a new phenomenon: the blog band. And for some bands—and some listeners—the relationship proved to be rooted on a shaky foundation.

“I think that [‘blog band’] probably was meant derisively, because that became synonymous with being ‘overhyped,’ like, ‘Here’s this band that the blogs love, but the blogs love everything,’” says Frank Yang of Toronto’s Chromewaves. “And that’s fair, because that does happen. In the wake of Arcade Fire’s success, which Pitchfork essentially made, I think a lot of sites wanted to be able to do that and find the next big thing and be able to hang their hat on that. So they’d find something that was maybe a little above average but in the right place at the right time, and they’d completely lose their shit over it and hope that, when it came time for the band’s episode of Behind the Music, they’d be mentioned as the ones who created this classic rock monster of the 21st century. There was an agenda at play. People are looking for something to write about, and you’re not going to write about something that you’re only ‘meh’ about. So you may get overexcited, and it may be that it doesn’t have a shelf life. It’s very difficult to see a long perspective of time. Can you really see if there was quality there or if it was that you needed something to listen to and it showed up in your inbox and wasn’t terrible?”

While blogging hasn’t become big business, and most bloggers work day jobs to pay the bills, it’s undeniably true that the first wave of music bloggers that emerged between 2002 and 2004 worked hard to define themselves and develop their own voice as an online presence. As more and more bloggers added their voices to the chorus, though, standing out from the pack became increasingly difficult. By 2005, the hype machine was firing on all cylinders, and some bands saw their careers accelerate while others were caught in the gears.

“Bloggers, for their own ego or for their site’s reputation, are constantly looking for the newest thing, and newest thing doesn’t mean the newest song by an already recognized artist,” explains Sean Michaels of Montréal’s Said the Gramophone. “They’re looking for the newest band that shows potential. The consequence of it is that you have very young artists, band age wise, that are suddenly being trumpeted, and bands that haven’t been around very long aren’t necessarily that stable and don’t deal with any kind of major pressure very well. So I think the result of young artists suddenly being lifted up on everyone’s shoulders and being carried around town introduces a lot of strain. It’s not that it makes them go through the typical band arc in an accelerated way, but rather that they are put under a lot of pressure really quickly when they aren’t that well-practiced. Then you see groups just flounder. I really feel bad for the artist that released an exciting debut and then made a strong second album that nobody cared about. It’s not as exciting and new and shiny, and nobody cares anymore. The crisis that must inspire in a lot of artists I find really sad.”

“There are more than enough people trying to dredge the depths of the music world and I’d much rather flick through some of what people find, to try to find the things of genuine quality amongst such a vast quantity of mediocrity,” says Sean Adams of the U.K.’s Drowned in Sound. Given his experience with the British press, he knows well the revolving door that ends in the media anointing every Arctic Monkeys as the next Beatles and dozens of bands jostling to become lesser gods in the rock universe. “The entire concept of firsties and being into a band who’ve yet to develop is totally idiotic. The entire process has created this abundance of bands people are vaguely aware of, that few people are championing more than once or twice and the churnover of music this has created is more damaging to the business of music than file-sharing will ever be, as few acts are finding large enough fanbases to sustain releases, let alone international tours.”

It’s a story that has repeated itself far too often, and for every Arcade Fire or Bon Iver that translated blog momentum into near unanimous acclaim, there was a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Midlake, Voxtrot, Sound Team, Cold War Kids, or Tapes ‘n Tapes that received a strong push from the blogosphere and found that by the time their second album was released, a lot of people had jumped off the merry-go-round. Without the opportunity to develop a fanbase that would invest time and money in them, those bands found that the same listeners and writers who had championed them had either moved on or weren’t interested in watching a band go through growing pains.

“I think there was a backlash against too many bands getting too much love too quickly,” says Craig “Dodge” Lile of Indianapolis’ My Old Kentucky Blog. “There’s too much hyperbole. The next coming of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and whoever, and it reached critical mass until people were tired of hearing about a certain band, especially if they didn’t like it or didn’t get it. I think that’s what it was in 2005-2006. People just got sick of it, like, ‘I don’t want to hear about Tapes ‘n Tapes anymore. Everybody is writing about them and everyone is saying nothing.’ I think those bands, unfortunately, did experience a lot of backlash or more people just decided to ignore them, and the larger outlets of that time decided not to support them because of the fact that blogs were writing about them so much.”

Cold War Kids’ debut album Robbers & Cowards made them an indie it-band whose momentum carried them all around the world in 2006. But when their sophomore album, Loyalty to Loyalty, was released two years later, it was almost immediately seen as an unfocused, meandering work, leaving lead vocalist and songwriter Nathan Willett to wonder exactly what went wrong. As he and his bandmates worked on their third release, 2011’s Mine Is Yours, they carried those criticisms into the studio with them.

“I think, inevitably, it had to be that way,” Willett explains. “I think that part of what was interesting is that for some of the criticism that Loyalty to Loyalty got, there were things about it that I, myself, had to say, ‘Well, maybe it was a less focused work, and maybe that was my fault for not working hard enough on some things.’ I think there’s a lot of truth to that, which definitely affected me. It made me want to flesh this out more and have more of a purpose.”

For some bands, however, the honeymoon was over before they even got their first full-length out. Such was the case for Voxtrot, an Austin, Texas, band whose first EPs caused a blog firestorm that resulted in them getting a record contract and opening tour slot with the then red hot Arctic Monkeys. By the time they were releasing their debut full-length in 2007, though, the hype had created expectations that would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet, and the album was greeted with less than enthusiastic reviews. By the summer of 2010, they were on their farewell tour.

“There definitely was a sense that we had to do it then and we had to do it right,” says Matt Simon, former drummer of Voxtrot and current member of The Black with former Voxtrot bassist Jason Chronis. “But, then, with all of the blog build-up and the oversaturation of people talking about it, there was this expectation that I don’t know how we would have fulfilled. A lot of the backlash was absurd. I remember we were getting called ‘Nickleback-lite’ on message boards. [The record] had leaked three months before it came out, and it felt like a really long time that it had already been out there and we had already heard the verdict, and it wasn’t good. We were getting letters from fans that were like, ‘The record still hasn’t come out. You still have time to change it!’ Sadly, leading up to our big tour for our first full-length, it seemed like we had already had the wind taken out of our sails. And then when the Pitchfork review came out and it wasn’t as good as we had hoped, that was definitely something, too. I’m not sure this is the way that it still is, but back in 2006 or 2007, it felt like that review had a lot hinging on it. It was make or break for how the next year was going to go,” he says with sigh. “And it was all based on that number of 6.8 or whatever.”

If blogs were the gatekeepers for the indie rock kingdom, Pitchfork were and are the undeniable kingmakers, having essentially launched the careers of Broken Social Scene, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, and others with one glowing review. The blogs might discover a band, but if that band is going to move beyond the blogs into the larger bloodstream, Pitchfork needs to officially confirm it with a “Best New Music” review.

“A lot of people I know say, ‘I don’t read Pitchfork. I pay no attention to them.’ But the fact is, they define the conversation now,” Yang explains. “If they come out and say, ‘This is the “Best New Music,”’ and you’re a journalist or a booker or a label, you have to pay attention to see where the wind is blowing. I think they, for the most part, use that power responsibly, even more than they did a few years ago. I think back to the British Sea Power ‘U.2’ review or the Jet ‘monkey drinking his own piss’ review. Something like that, they’re deliberately trying to stir the pot, and I personally find that irresponsible, because you can destroy a band’s career. If you’ve got that kind of juice, you can’t do that. If [the album] sounds terrible, it should be easy, and you can do it in an amusing way. But to throw up a YouTube video of a monkey drinking his own piss, that just strikes me as cruel. Any 0.0 is deliberately provocative. To say that ‘This has no redeeming merits,’ is like, ‘Really, guys? You’re bored and you want people to be talking about you, and you know people will come and click on this.’ But I think they’ve grown beyond that.”

In fact, a scan of the last few years of Pitchfork reviews reveals a downright cautious approach, with very few breathlessly glowing reviews of 9.0 or higher and a very judicious use of career-killing low scores. That said, most everything that falls in between and isn’t given a “Best New Music” tag is generally destined to be lost in the great indistinguishable morass of albums that are just decent enough to not remember. Still, Pitchfork looks positively conservative when compared to the more hype-driven blogs, and most bands that meet Pitchfork’s highest standards are usually being rewarded for building up a respectable body of work.

“It used to be that bands were able to do that,” Yang explains. “No one paid any attention to The National until their third record, and they had time to feel things out and develop their sound. The first record is pretty bland, and if they had sent out copies to every blog on the face of the Earth, no one would have talked about them. You really only get the one shot unless you do something really spectacular. To squander it when you’re not ready is a shame. I saw Cults this summer, and they had, what, an EP? And they were on this national tour, and they’re a two-piece playing with a six-piece band, and it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was like, ‘You guys aren’t ready for this. Why are you touring the continent? Why are you international right now? Gig your asses off, write more songs, make a record, and then go spend this money and this energy to tour.’”

Even bands that have a little more experience have struggled to deal with life as an overnight sensation, though. Tapes ‘n Tapes had been playing together for two years in their native Minneapolis, had toured regionally, and already had their full-length debut, The Loon, available when the wave of blog praise hit them.

“For me, it was overwhelming at times,” admits Tapes ‘n Tapes vocalist/guitarist Josh Grier, “because when we made The Loon, we hoped people would hear it and that folks would like it, but the amount of success we had so far exceeded what we could have imagined. There were times when I was like, ‘Oh my God. We’re touring Australia. How did we get here?’ But at the same time, we had been a band and had played a bunch of shows and had toured at least limitedly on our own and built up some rapport. But if something builds up so quickly that you haven’t had time to be a band and learn how to become a good live band or what it even means to be a band, I can see how that would be overwhelming and could definitely make it way harder.”

For many bands, music blogs are where conversations begin, artists are born, and careers end, and some artists have nothing to do but start over. Voxtrot went down in flames shortly after takeoff, but Simon and Chronis are learning as they tour with The Black that starting over provides an opportunity to build a career organically, one city at a time.

“That’s the thing about blogs; they’ll hype bands up and tear them down,” Simon says. “With this band right now, it feels like what’s important is making the personal connections every night. It definitely feels like there’s more of a personal, one-on-one, face-to-face connection, which I like. When your band is all over the blogs, and that’s the only thing driving the momentum, it can start to feel impersonal, like what’s written on the computer screen almost matters more than the music. It feels good to be outside of that and feel like there’s more of a personal connection and a more direct path toward growth,” he says, pausing to laugh. “At the same time, I don’t think we would be upset if we got some stupidly hyped article on a big blog.”



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lookie lou
February 7th 2011
3:03pm

lol

Print Is Dead
February 7th 2011
5:09pm

A dying print publication, out of touch music blogs, and Voxtrot wax poetic about the dial-up years.

thom
February 7th 2011
10:23pm

i think sufjan though had a decent following before the acclaim of Illinois on P4K, which was unanimous in the blogosphere.  He had already made 4 records (A Sun Came - 2000), (Enjoy Your Rabbit - 2001), (Michigan 2003), Seven Swans (2004) - few of which received any acclaim or even notice from P4k at the time of release…good article

Mark Redfern
February 7th 2011
10:58pm

I can assure you that Under the Radar is not a dying print publication. We’re still very much alive and print in general is far from dead, it’s simply evolving. On the other hand, there are certainly lots of great music websites and blogs out there, this article isn’t disputing that, it’s simply raising questions.

Rich
February 13th 2011
6:27am

Well written article. As a music blogger myself, I can definitely see how some bands flourish and others crash based on their reception from the blogosphere. It’s sad to see artists/bands put out good follow-up albums that fail to gain lots of attention or good reviews. Part of this is the fault of blogs but the listeners also play a large part based on their constant need for new music.

@stellaskid
February 17th 2011
5:55am

Would have been nice to see the hip-hop side of this phenomenon covered too (the difference between someone like a Charles Hamilton vs. Drake even though both were feted by rap bloggers)

yo diggity
June 1st 2011
3:40am

pitchfork is dead and has been since 2005. i listen to bands that don’t even exist yet.

Meaty
April 13th 2012
2:15am

Kinda scary to think of how low our attention spans are now.

Adz
July 5th 2012
7:29am

Very interesting article and agree with most of your points. As a start-up music blog, I do it mainly because I enjoy it, but your article has certainly made me think about things!

Trendy
July 6th 2012
5:52pm

Interesting article. I just recently found out about Hype Machine (a music blog aggregator) and there’s a pretty sick mobile app too, called UberHype. Love it!