Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Your Band Sucks"

Hopes were high for Summer Hymns on the eve of the release of the band’s fourth album, Backward Masks, in 2006. The quartet had already been exulted by Pitchfork Media, the premier indie rock tastemaker, for its previous albums, receiving 8.4 and 8.8 ratings out of 10.0.

“I was thinking, ‘Best New Music,’” says Lucas Jensen, the band’s publicist at the time, referring to the web site’s most prestigious seal of approval. “It could take them to a new level.”

But the fickle Pitchfork slammed the album with a 4.4. Despite acknowledging that the album echoed their acclaimed back catalogue, reviewer Jason Crock concluded, “This might be the most alarmingly tedious indie release of the year.”

The fallout was immediate. Jensen spoke to writers, all of whom mentioned the negative review and assumed the record was bad. When Gresham tried to tour, booking agents scorned him and audiences were tiny.

“I don’t necessarily blame Pitchfork for it. It’s more about people who like the record, and then read something on Pitchfork, and then decide they don’t like it. I think that’s more their fault than Pitchfork’s fault,” says Gresham.

But it’s everyone’s fault, really.

The music revolution that has left major labels liquidating and record stores crumbling has also sparked an overload of opinion. Music geeks have never been so able to smear their opinions across the Internet, and the exhilaration of hype has never been so fickle. But the breathlessness that comes with each discovered gem is tempered by the thud of abandonment, sometimes just months or weeks later, as the next buzz-worthy group emerges. The speed of decay is often outpaced by the viciousness of the response. Bands that are old news are ignored, or become punch lines. Careers are destroyed or created with a click. Backlash has become more than inevitable – it has become anticipated.

Gresham lives in Athens, GA. and works as a clerk in Horton’s, a local drugstore. Music was never a full time job for him – he worked as a carpenter before the economy tanked. But after releasing numerous albums over 15 years and still struggling to break even during a tour, he can’t help but be wistful.

“We just haven’t found the right way to reach the masses,” he says. “I guess I’m better at writing songs than figuring out a marketing strategy.”

But there was also the issue of timing. Summer Hymns’ earlier releases were reviewed by the nascent Pitchfork of the early 2000s, in the absence of a hyperactive blogosphere – and less susceptible to inflammatory hype.

“The first couple albums we got an 8-point-something - that was the early days of Pitchfork. If we had put out our first record in 2004, and we had an 8.8, we would have had 500 people at our shows,” says Gresham.

At the eve of the release of Backward Masks, the band had received steady press elsewhere, and charted well on the blog aggregator, says publicist Jensen. But then things crashed after the negative review.

“The paradigm shift has totally occurred, it used to be the thing to do was play shows and hit the same towns, and build up your following slowly but surely. That’s kind of the old model,” says Gresham. “There’s definitely a new model emerging where your first tour, you’re playing in front of 500 to 1,000 people a night [with hype]. For a band like us that’s been doing it for 10 years, you can’t keep touring.”

As the traditional radio and physical album model crumbled, Pitchfork grew up and become notorious for its influence. The Washington Post described its founder, Ryan Schreiber as an “Indie-rock kingmaker,” crediting the site for propelling bands such as Arcade Fire (Rating for their debut album, Funeral: 9.7) from obscurity to stardom. But with great power came great negativity.

In 2004, the site gave Travis Morrison’s Travistan a 0.0, five years after declaring Emergency & I , by Morrison’s original band, The Dismemberment Plan, album of the year. The album was pulled from store shelves and college radio stations refused to play it. A 2006 review of Jet’s Shine On featured a monkey peeing into its mouth in lieu of text. In October 2007, the site championed Black Kids’ self-released Wizard of Ahhhs EP, with an 8.4 and Best New Music stamp (“catchy, tightly executed songs that put a memorable stamp on pop's classic themes."). But by the time their full-length album, Partie Traumatic, arrived the next July, they were old news. Again, the reviewer declined to include text, aside from a 3.3 and a “Sorry :-/” superimposed over a picture of two sad puppies.

The impact of one snarky review is sometimes magnified, but often it’s because early hype was so breathless. Even Jensen, who has witnessed the impact of backlash first hand, can’t help but embrace to the backlash. He cites Wavves, a recent Pitchfork favorite.

“I think it’s terrible. I think it’s as pedantic a low-fi record that I’ve heard in years. Somehow he’s getting hoisted up as this halcyon example of the noise rock movement,” says Jensen, who now writes for the music industry blog Idolator. “Bands that are crappy should be called out. But it’s dangerous. He’s a 22-year-old making records and playing at shows. Why should that be wrong?”

“I don’t know him. Why should I discourage him from making music? I’m not commenting on him personally. I’m commenting on the hype itself,” says Jensen. “The cycle throws people high, and then we got to knock them down.”

“People are smart enough to know half the time, if someone is slamming an album, it’s a personal issue,” says Scott Mou, who works at the tiny, influential Other Music, a record store in Manhattan. “It’s beyond having an issue with the music. There’s entertainment there. If you’re that snotty or nasty, you’ll make an impact. I don’t think they’re out to hurt anyone – but sometimes it seems too much.”

The hype cycle isn’t new. Jensen cites Melody Maker, a British music magazine published weekly in the relatively small and insular country throughout the 1990s. The quick turnaround meant that a favorite band could become a joke in just a matter of days. But the Internet has transformed the single-stream, critic-to-audience feed into a tremendous, all-consuming roar.

“People feel the need to weigh in on everything. Not only do you have backlash moving faster, it’s much louder than it was before,” says Jensen. “When you’re on the internet you’re on a feedback loop. You’re either making statements in ones or zeros – ‘Cold War Kids are monumental’ or ‘Cold War Kids are horrible.’”

It’s not merely a problem of attention deficiency or malignancy, but also one of saturation. The collision of caustic criticism or breathless praise suggests that while CD sales are limping, the consumption of music as an art form is alive and well – and many publicists prefer damnation to indifference. But as liberating as choices are, old models of hegemony are emerging.

“The sad part is that when people are faced with a lot of choices, they follow the lowest common denominator. Or they look to gatekeepers, like Pitchfork,” says Jensen.

Another danger of hype is the uprooting of bands in incubation – artists who may very well develop into something special, but our collective short attention span relegates them to media flares that quickly fizzle. Black Kids, who became a sensation during the College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon, an industry event, did so with a handful of tracks – not quite a one hit wonder, but one with about the same life expectancy – and often praise is based off of a demo or leak. Sometimes the backlash is over before an album is even officially released.

“We make these instant superstars, but what does it mean? We cover them like they’re superstars, and then we forget about them,” says Jensen. “What would we have done to Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, New Order, the Cure or U2? A lot of these bands got better.”

“But for Wavves, I need to shut up. Because he’s a 22-year-old who’s making music on his four track,” says Jensen. “We should be encouraging people. We need to comment more on the music and less on the hype.”

But sometimes, the hype – or lack thereof – is more relevant than the music.

On September 17th, 2008, Pitchfork published a scathing reprisal of the Airborne Toxic Event, a Los Angeles band. The reviewer, Ian Cohen, began gently, describing the music “lyrically moody, musically sumptuous, and dramatic,” but then rattled off obvious indie reference points and concluded, unceremoniously, “The Airborne Toxic Event is an album that's almost insulting in its unoriginality.”

The rating was a precipitous 1.6, a rating that would send most bands running for more sympathetic ears, burying it with positive press. But instead, the Airborne Toxic Event responded.

In an open letter, the band argued that the review was biased, if not entirely invalid.

“We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn't so much critique bands as critique a band's ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic. We don't match it,” wrote the band.

Jim Merlis of Big Hassle Media, the Airborne Toxic Event’s publicist, was initially against releasing the letter because of what he called Publicity 101: “Never react to negative reviews, some journalists will take pleasure in torturing you if they know you care,” he says. But his views changed.

“After a conversation with the band, I was supportive of their efforts, and I actually feel it was helpful. You know the letter was cogent, well written, and it sparked dialogue, and that's always a good thing these days. I think the goal of press these days especially is to create echo chambers of conversation,” says Merlis. “To be honest, we weren't getting love from the ultra-hipsters anyway, so why not go at them? They are the goliath in this story and they've written negative things about a lot of bands and I was pretty sure that there would be a lot of sympathy.”

If Pitchfork is the elitist arbiter in its ivory tower, the cesspool of backlash is undoubtedly the comments section of brooklynvegan. The ferocious underbelly of the vigorously updated New York blog is saturated with anonymous users, who tear into artists, both established and emerging, with zeal.

Naturally, they ate the Airborne Toxic Event controversy up.

After the site posted the letter, comments ranged from dismissive (“Such a pathetic cry for attention. You're [sic] band sucks. Deal with it.”) to absurd (“OMG-BAWWWWW! TEH INTERNETS NO LUV US!”), but others saw Pitchfork as the greater evil. The post ballooned to over ninety comments within hours.

“First reading the review, then the letter, and then all of these comments, I am struck by how staggeringly ridiculous we all are,” wrote one anonymous poster.

But there remains a segment of the audience that sees the proliferation of negative comments as necessary, perhaps even noble, task.

“If you're not passionate about the music you like, then what's the point? We're fans of real indie rock, so when shitty bands incorrectly labeled as indie rock come around and get all popular with trendy douchebags, yeah, the defamation of the name and genre of indie rock pisses us off,” posted HBK, a brooklynvegan commenter and author of

“There is backlash because people like HBK are talentless idiots who have nothing better to do with their lives,” countered another anonymous poster.

But even among writers, there is a sense that quality control must be maintained.

“The way I look at it, there are so many bands out there, as journalists, it’s our job to help the listener weed out the crap and spend their time and money on the worthwhile,” says Dean van Nguyen, a music critic and contributor to Wireless Bollinger, an Australian music web site.

Ultimately, that 1.6 hasn’t really hurt the Airborne Toxic Event. The band has toured throughout the United States, played the late night circuit on major television networks, and recently signed with Island Records, a major label. The exceptionally low number may have introduced the band to those wondering if they were really that bad.

Meanwhile, Summer Hymns is working on their next album, tentatively to be released in the fall.

But one can’t help but wonder who the next victim will be.


Charlie said...

Quite a post. It reaffirms my extreme dislike for teh Pitchforks. Yuck.

Nicola said...

Excellent review of the review process... Personally, music, art, film, theater is all so subjective.. Can anyone really be the "authority" or the "word"... Let each person be his or her own critic... I for one, make my own mind up...
Thank you for your thoughtful post!

Nicholas said...

There are some Pitchfork reviews I agree with, while there are others I have a different opinion on. They have introduced me to bands that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, and there are some albums they have hyped that I listed to a few times before eventually shelving for good (sorry Vampire Weekend, you're just not for me). There have also been plenty of albums they gave low marks to that I still listen to (I have a feeling they don't like Metric or Tegan and Sara, but whatever). I'll continue going to the site, but I won't use them as my sole source of music reviews and news.

Catshoe said...

Without sounding 'bleh' I've kinda given up reading PF, I find them a bit too mainstream (no, that's just a joke) We've been round this a few times before, specifically when they slagged off the (IMHO excellent) track Barricades by Stars. They got a wonderful ripost from Torq Campbell who tore into them and pointed out just what lazy journalism that one was. Oh, and amused us by accusing the PF journalist of being more interested in having a wank over pictures of Annie Clark (poor girl).
It's just a pity that bands can be thrown into loss-making rather than earning-a-living just because some posturing would-be journalist thinks she or he can get the hip vote by appearing jaded and bored.
Glad I read this, totally convinced me to but tickets for the TATE show in Manchester in a few weeks
And to echo Nicola, thank you for the thoughtful post

Catshoe said...

Oh, and I love this "Jensen cites Melody Maker, a British music magazine published weekly in the relatively small and insular country throughout the 1990s."
You'll find that replaced these days by NME
Greetings from Wales, which is kind of a sub-country of the UK. I always thought we were important in the world. You've made my day

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