[ARTICLE] The New Tastemakers
Five weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a Burning Ear reader who was writing an article on the way music blogs are changing the industry. May Wildman was writing the article for The University of Maryland’s daily newspaper. She asked me questions. We talked. Or rather, I talked. She listened patiently. Perhaps napped. Who can tell. Anyway, When I followed up a few days ago to see how it was received she said the paper never published it. Something about “end of the year and a lot of other material to publish.” Just cause that paper dropped the ball doesn’t mean Wildman’s work should go unread. After all, It’s pretty damn interesting. Plus a bunch of TBE bands are in it. Send it to anyone you know who doesn’t understand music blogs.
[All text is Wildman’s. Links, songs, and photos I put in.]
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The first time I heard Gotye’s hit single “Somebody That I Used to Know” was probably last summer, way before the Australian band made it big globally. The only reason I knew about it was it reached the number one spot on the blog aggregator Hype Machine’s popular chart in September before it climbed to the top of mainstream pop charts in Australia, the U.K. and finally the U.S. It is now number one on the U.S. iTunes’ top singles charts. [May 10, 2012]
Which raises the question—could it be that Gotye’s angry break-up anthem trickled down to the masses as a result of blog buzz?
Granted, there are many ways an unknown band can make it big on the mainstream pop charts. Radio, magazines and newspapers have traditionally delivered tracks by mainstream and lesser-known artists to new music seekers. However, there is more consensus by venues and artists that music blogs are gaining momentum as the new taste-makers, and are helping smaller indie bands reach a greater audience.
The Internet is a democratic equalizer. Anyone can edit an entry in Wikipedia, raise money for a new invention on Kickstarter, or learn how to make a tractor using open source manuals.
With more accessibility to the Internet came a huge wave of music bloggers starting a few years ago. Today, there are tens of thousands of music blogs, ranging from Twang Nation, a country music blog, to RCRD LBL, which gives away free legal downloads of indie music.
This “anyone can do it” mentality comes with its drawbacks, however.
Adam Tercyak-Morgan, who created the hip hop, indie rock, dance and mash-up blog Surviving the Golden Age, said the music blog world these days is over-saturated. This, ironically, has been a boon for Tercyak-Morgan’s own blog, which he said has about ten contributors in its ranks at any given time, ranging from high school kids to a man in his fifties. “A lot of the kids that write for me, the reason they write for me is because they try to start their own blogs, and then they realize no-one’s reading it,” he said.
The opportunity to connect with musicians, and to see unknown band rise to fame, seems to be what drives most music bloggers.
Brandon Bogajewicz, creator of The Burning Ear (which bills itself as “a music blog for people who don’t have time for music blogs,”) said his role in exposing lesser-known artists like Jhameel and DWNTWN to greater visibility gives him satisfaction.
His post on the edgy pop artist Jhameel’s song “Human Condition” put the singer and producer on the blogosphere map—a feat Jhameel himself later thanked him for. “It’s that kind of feeling that keeps me at it,” Bogajewicz said.
Blogs give even college students the power to make a difference in the music industry. Will Oliver, founder and sole writer of the indie rock blog We All Want Someone to Shout For graduated from upstate New York’s Binghamton University this spring.
He names bands Local Natives and Free Energy as examples of artists he was one of the first to blog about. He said the aspect of having the power to connect great bands with audiences motivates him to keep up the blog.“If I can help 100 people find a new song from an upcoming band, then I think that’s awesome…that’s something worth doing,” he said.
During Oliver’s time at Binghamton, he had to find a way to balance school and blogging. “In class I would sneak in my laptop and I would do a lot of blogging while in class so that definitely helped a lot,” he said. “Hey, everyone else is on Facebook.”
Blog aggregators like the Hype Machine and Elbo.ws have proven to be key players for success for bands and bloggers. The Hype Machine, which currently aggregates 873 music blogs, can be a huge source of site hits for some blogs. Tercyak-Morgan said that according to his site’s analytics, 75 to 80 percent of Surviving the Golden Age’s 60,000 page hits per month come from the Hype Machine.
Although they generally help artists gain more followers, blogs tend to incur wrath from the music industry, because they often use illegal file-sharing websites to put up songs for downloading. This method causes headaches for government copyright protectors and bloggers alike.
Morgan’s first incarnation of Surviving the Golden Age got shut down in 2010 by the blog hosting website Blogger for having too many copyright violations. He said international copyright issues are problematic. “Sometimes I’ll get music promoted to me from promotion companies in Europe, and it’ll be totally cool with them for me to post it, but their American record labels aren’t happy about it,” he said. “It’s really confusing.”
Steve Lambert of Hood Booking, which does booking for Washington, D.C. indie venues Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel and the Red Palace among others, said although music blogs may not give royalties to bands, press is better than no press. “They could just fly by the seat of their pants and hope that people are at their shows,” he said. “Which in this day and age, will not happen.”
According to Lambert, music blogs are becoming more important when it comes to ticket sales. “Let’s say when a particular artist gets best new music on Pitchfork, their ticket sales usually skyrocket,” he said. “The amount of press that an artist gets in a range of blogs can definitely influence their performance fees as well.”
Lambert keeps up with about 50 music blogs from all over the music spectrum—a testament to the importance of music blogs as the new taste-makers.
Bogajewicz said despite the thousands of tracks he has up for download, he’s only had around 20 takedown requests–some of which were surprising to him. “Sometimes it’s a major label, it’s a Kanye remix, and so you’re like alright, fair enough, I could’ve seen that one coming,” Bogajewicz said. “And then sometimes it’s some tiny indie artist, and you’re like why? You need this song.”
Music bloggers receive perks like free passes to shows and festivals, but such enviable bonuses come at a price. Most bloggers must work day jobs on top of spending substantial chunks of time every day listening to music and posting on their blogs
Bogajewicz currently works for a commercial production company, but he said he has dreams of working on his blog full-time. “There is an opportunity now that I can take this passion project and make a living out of it,” he said. “I’m still a long ways off from that, but it sort of exists on the horizon in a way that I never would have imagined it when I had started it.”
Interestingly, up-and-coming indie dance duo Midi Matilda has embraced blogs and the Internet as central to its identity.
Logan Grime, the band’s drummer, defines Midi Matilda’s birth as the first time the band started putting music online in late 2011–although to be fair, the two band members Skyler Kilborn and Grime had been playing music together for years prior to that. The fact that the Internet is a seamless part of their band’s identity speaks to the increasingly important role of the web to young musicians. The San Francisco band, whose vocals are reminiscent of Surfer Blood’s and whose music sounds a little bit like Passion Pit but less irritating, rose to a higher level of prominence in a unique way.
“Before we even put out any music we planned… to try and personally reach out to different blogs and get our music on them by writing them emails and stuff, just stay persistent about it,” Grime said. “We got on a couple [blogs] from doing that over the first month or so that we had our music out.”
After record company blog Neon Gold Records picked up the band, “it went from being like five blogs to being on 85 or 90 blogs,” Grime said.
Cherub is an electro-pop band with major 80s synth influence coming out of Nashville, Tenn., consisting of Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber. The band released its first two albums for free online. Kelley said although the band isn’t making money off of selling its music, touring has paid off financially.
“I think publicity and the word getting out and the music being spread is more important than the money right now,” Kelley said. “At the same time we’ve been making money back through shows, we’ve been touring our fucking asses off all over the place.”
Artists who release music for free are great for music blogs, because listeners are more receptive to downloading songs by artists they’ve never heard of. Blogs that have featured Cherub include Earmilk and This Song is Sick. It also got “major blog love” from the Hype Machine.
Jason Huber said of the band’s Internet fame, “It always interests me when we get random emails like, ‘Hey, come to Anchorage, Alaska.’ How the fuck did you find out about the music, dude? People from Spain… I have no idea, it’s probably because of blogs.”