Photo by Philip Cosores
Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Nathan Huffstutter discusses the path that music takes to get to your ears, with Palma Violets, Motormouth Media’s David Marek, and Wilder Maker.
Chilli Jesson is elated. Less than 24 hours earlier, Palma Violets’ video for “Rattlesnake Highway” premiered at Rolling Stone, and the raucous mix of live clips and Pentecostal snake handlers rapidly wound its way across the Internet. Perfect timing – the London pub rockers were set to jet off on an international swing of club shows and festival dates, and this boost of exposure would add fuel for their send-off.
“We felt like we needed something coming over to the States again,” says Jesson, the more raspy and rakish of Palma Violets’ two lead singers. “And we felt that was fitting for kind of the end of the cycle.”
For Palma Violets, that cycle has careened forward with all the headlong and triumphant vitality of their shout-along choruses. Just last year, the band was still a quartet of unknown teenagers, working day jobs and organizing DIY shows at their own underground performance space. This past March, a series of show-stopping performances at South By Southwest brought a surge of attention to their newly released debut, 180, and by summertime, Palma Violets were holding down a featured slot at the Reading Festival.
“If we’re excited, then everyone else is going to be excited; that’s how it works,” says Jesson. “That’s why our live shows are the way our live shows are, because we enjoy it and we love it, and now we’ve got new songs and we’re like, ‘Man, I just want to get back out on the road again.’ Everything seems to be falling into place quite perfectly, you know?”
David Marek is elusive. Working for Motormouth Media – a “boutique PR firm specializing in cutting-edge music” – Marek keeps tireless hours, and I know I’ve put him in a difficult position by trying to pin him down for an interview. Part of a publicist’s job is to accommodate writers like me and maintain positive relationships with all the critics, photographers, and editors who cover their clients; another part of their job is to perform their services with something approaching total invisibility. The video premieres, the tour reports, the artist interviews: These placements are supposed to appear as if they were the organic result of audience demand, not the product of hours of promotional hustle.
In addition to representing established acts like Deerhunter, Animal Collective, and The Mountain Goats, Motormouth Media has supported the breakout years from artists as diverse as Charles Bradley, The Haxan Cloak, Chelsea Wolfe, and Autre Ne Veut. As budgets are slashed across music publications and entertainment sections – forcing journalists into an even more passive role in the discovery and reporting of new music – independent agencies like Motormouth Media, Force Field PR, Girlie Action, and Big Hassle Media are filling the gap. Unlike the mass of websites trying to wring a viable economic model out of free content, fee-based PR firms still have the resources to pound the pavement on the club circuit, sort through stacks of demos, and meet artists face-to-face, giving those agencies an increasingly vital role in the taste-making lead.
“As a publicist you kind of have to be your own A&R department and constantly seek out new acts to work with, be it at shows, from label friends, or from something as simple as your SoundCloud feed,” Marek says. “Even if a new artist is a few steps away from hiring a publicist, it can pay off down the line. I can’t tell you how often managers, labels, and booking agents come to us asking, ‘Have you heard of X band that I just signed on with?’ If your answer is, ‘Hell yeah, their lead singer kicked me in the face at 285 Kent in 2010, and their 2012 cassette on Opal Tapes was the best thing that came out that year,’ that goes a long way towards getting hired.”
Gabriel Birnbaum is resolute. In September, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter independently released the second album by his band, Wilder Maker, and throughout the preceding months Birnbaum logged countless hours chasing a contact list of freelance journalists, music bloggers, and magazine editors, all in hopes of placing track premieres and full-album reviews. Wilder Maker’s Year Of Endless Light is the type of record that demands and rewards careful attention, both to appreciate the seamless joining of expansive folk and free jazz and to follow the tonal shifts that veer from recalcitrant despair to communal joy to loving calm. The key to that appreciation, of course, is convincing an audience to commit to that first listen.
As Wilder Maker’s central voice and driving force, Birnbaum doesn’t come to that conversation as a complete outsider – the multi-instrumentalist plays tenor sax for Sub-Pop’s swinging Ethiopian jazz ensemble the Debo Band while also staying busy as a sideman and an arranger. In recent months, Birnbaum has performed onstage with post-rock experimentalists Miracles of Modern Science and scored a gig backing cult folk legend Rodriguez, improvising brass parts in front of 3,000 fans at Broadway’s Beacon Theater.
“John Darnielle once told me that I’d better learn to like paying attention to the business side if I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, and he was absolutely right,” Birnbaum says. “Most of my friends are currently either negotiating how to do this, much like I am, or they’re checking out and drifting into more normal lives. Your mid-to-late 20s is the time when you start to see that your life is really different because you’re a musician, and not just in wonderful romantic ways. You have a lot of roommates. Sometimes you eat sardines on toast for two weeks because they were on sale.”
“We basically got together as a band for one purpose,” says Jesson, discussing Palma Violets’ earliest days. “In London at that time, there was absolutely nothing going on. No angst, no excitement. We had Studio 180 that Sam [singer/guitarist Samuel Fryer] and I were paying for, and we thought, ‘Well, what if we start something here?’ You know, for our friends? So we got the band together, and after three months, we had five or six songs and we invited all our mates down – this place is underground, so you can drink what you want – and there’s no money involved, the ethos was always that it was free.
“And we didn’t put any of our songs online,” Jesson continues, “due to the fact that they probably weren’t ready to be recorded anyway. And we didn’t know where to go for a studio, all that kind of stuff, we just had no idea about that. We were just playing for fun. But every week we’d play a show and it was great for us because we practiced, you know? And then it got to a point where… there’s a very important thing called ‘word of mouth.’
“It has to come from a group of people – you can’t just start something. So all of our friends were telling their friends and their friends were telling more, and each week things started getting bigger and bigger – and nothing’s online at this point, nothing – and the thing with not having it online that worked so well for us was people were going, ‘Look, man, this is…something great’s happening here. I can’t really explain to you what it is, there’s no recordings, so you’re just going to have to come and see it.’”
There are different ways to come to an album. For a band like Palma Violets, performance is the signature medium, and LPs are the documents that capture their stage-honed songs. For other musicians, a mastered track is the original art object – in which case it is those recordings that need to move freely, either through the traditional airwaves or by securing visibility at one significant online hub after another.
That virtual tour requires a concerted and organized push – as Jesson says, “You just can’t start something.”
Heading into last winter, bedroom R&B auteur Autre Ne Veut remained a mystery: critically-praised, but widely unknown. Autre Ne Veut’s obsessively layered songs – featuring high-wire vocals, strings, treated brass, gospel singers, and synth effects – would require significant musicians and means to recreate live. Beyond the impracticality of touring, Autre Ne Veut was releasing Anxiety on a small label (Software) specializing in innovative electronic acts, a company without the reach to nudge his hook-drenched singles toward a more mainstream audience.
“We started working on Anxiety from start to finish,” Marek says. “Over the course of that project, our owner, Judy Miller, did everything from placing the first ‘Counting’ video to setting up early pieces like Pitchfork’s ‘Rising’ feature, to coordinating week-of-release album reviews, and so, so much more. Pretty much everything done in the press was the result of Judy’s hard work on that record.”
Hard work, but hardly mercenary. Like the vast majority of music PR firms, Motormouth Media are fee-based (“Artists pay a certain amount of money a month to us for our services,” Marek says. “In most cases, we’re hired by record labels. On occasion, management or an artist may pay us directly, but that’s less common”). Remarkably –serving a role that could easily lend itself to compromise – Judy Miller’s credibility exceeds that of most seasoned critics and editors: Her exacting taste, fierce ethics, and passion for seeking out visionary artists are qualities that associates like Marek take to heart.
“Every successful indie publicist I know only works with artists they genuinely love and believe in,” Marek says. “They don’t take on the easy clients just to pay the bills. Having seen it from the other side as a journalist, it’s incredibly obvious when a publicist is just promoting an artist to pay the bills. Those pitches stink to high heaven, and can poison future campaigns for artists that are actually pretty good.”
Birnbaum’s professional career dates to back when he was still in high school, playing what he calls “GB gigs, which is short for General Business or Gigs Where You Wear A Suit And Play Inoffensive Jazz Standards While A Bunch Of Rich People Ignore You & Eat Cheese Off Toothpicks.”
Moving on to a more ambitious stage, the stakes may have changed, but the same challenge remains: getting heard. Wilder Maker landed a coveted session on Daytrotter shortly before the release of Year Of Endless Light, but despite Birnbaum’s dogged efforts, thus far the album has only earned coverage at smaller music blogs and niche literary websites (including one where I reviewed the album – Birnbaum tracked down my contact information based on a review I wrote of Phosphorescent, and had he not sent the download link on a night I was stuck bored in a deadbeat hotel, chances are I never would have listened).
“We try to keep within the band’s financial means and spend hours instead of money,” Birnbaum says. “I’ve hired publicists for two previous records [under a different name and incarnation of the band], both for a relatively small up-front fee compared to what I was quoted by the bigger agencies. I think you generally get what you pay for. One of them I’m fairly certain ripped me off on purpose, and the other just wasn’t very connected, though he tried very hard. It’s a risky proposition when you’re not on a label. You’re paying out of pocket, good PR probably costs more than you spent making your entire record, and there’s no way to hold someone accountable for the job they do, or even know for sure that they’re doing what they say.”
Risky and maddening as that pay-to-play proposition appears, the alternative is to remain stuck at Bandcamp. Week after week, being a music journalist is like having a role in that TV show about the guy who gets his newspaper a day early: Our inboxes stack up with band-related press releases, and soon enough the subjects of those emails become headlines for the news feeds, review sections, and track streams at popular websites from Stereogum to Paste to Drowned In Sound. Without an established label or agency writing and disseminating that “news,” it’s virtually impossible for a band to make it on its own.
As much as the Internet has the potential to level the playing field, the result rarely shakes out as a meritocracy. Pop craftsman Dent May has had three albums reviewed on Pitchfork (5.5, 6.6, 6.2), this website has given the singer a pair of three-star reviews, and May’s average career score on Metacritic holds consistent at 66. Still, even venues that offer a lukewarm critical response provide certain artists invaluable space for video premieres, interviews, and tour photos – all the published content that confers name recognition and builds legitimacy.
Photo by Michael Roffman
While most young artists wrestle with the issue of how to spark that crucial buzz, Jesson and Palma Violets quickly faced the opposite predicament: making sure they didn’t swallow– or get swallowed by– too much outside hype.
“We learned quite early on, we had all these labels coming down when we only had five songs and they were going, ‘This is the best band in the world!’ and blah, blah, blah, and we just laughed at it all,” Jesson says. “Even early on, just four or five months into the band, we were laughing at these A&R’s coming down, making them bring booze… kinda taking them to town. We realized that you gotta take these things with a pinch of salt and we just rode it.”
No easy feat, as the wolf-crying UK music press has habitually sounded the alarm for the next Clash or the next Radiohead when really it’s only Keane, but if Palma Violets had a plan to throttle back the NME-hype and manage a potential U.S. backlash, Jesson isn’t letting on. Instead, Palma Violets move through the business of being a band with a characteristic mix of wry humor and boozy sincerity, shrugging off external pressure and enjoying each new step as it comes.
“[After] we signed to Rough Trade, it came to a point where you just have to put things online. So, we created a Facebook page after we started our first tour… and that was important because we could talk to people on the road – it can be a really good thing. But we only did it when we were ready… because a lot of bands feel pressured into doing it before they’ve even got anything, before they’ve even got a song!
“I’d love to write a book about how bands start off,” Jesson continues. “I mean, how exciting it is – those events that happened that may or may not have happened, all down to fate, you know, that you meet the right band members? For any band, that’s usually a very exciting story, and for us it was the same. We met at [the Reading] festival and were all kids from separate entities – we didn’t know each other, we didn’t go to the same school or anything; we just bumped into each other. We started a band around a campfire and that was that. And then coming back two years later and playing high up on the bill… to be on the other side of the tape… it’s just pretty incredible. I can’t even explain.”
“True story,” Marek says. “Before [Anxiety] even had a release date, a friend passed me along a rough cut of the album. I put it on in my car and listened to ‘Play By Play’ on repeat for about 30 minutes. Eventually, I pulled over on the side of the 110 freeway and called Motormouth’s owner Judy Miller, saying we had to work with Autre Ne Veut on his new record. She laughed and said that another publicist had already locked in that record a couple weeks ago: her. I think it’s a testament to the strength of that record that two publicists at the same company fell in love with the rough mixes separately.”
That love of music is definitely in Marek’s blood. After editing the entertainment section at his college paper and writing for Paste magazine as well as an assortment of blogs, Marek set off on a more stable career path, taking a job in New York as a paralegal and setting his sights on law school. That lasted a year. Hating the legal grind, Marek finally quit and stumbled into a position as a junior publicist at Girlie Action, working there for three years before moving on to Motormouth Media, where he’s been for the past year and a half.
“If you only work with people you love and put in the effort to find and work with great artists, people will take you at your word,” Marek says, talking about the intertwined functions of passion and credibility. “That way, when I say that the new Factory Floor record is a twenty-first century industrial masterpiece, or that Ski Mask is my favorite Islands record since Arm’s Way, or that FYF Fest and MusicFestNW are the best booked festivals on the West Coast, writers know I actually mean it. That goes a long way.
“We’re also feeling the same pinch as journalists: diminishing budgets, fewer opportunities, and young upstarts willing to work for free,” Marek continues. “But at the end of the day, there will always be a market for a good seasoned publicist. It’s a good gig if you’re good at it and willing to live with roommates… no matter what happens, this will always be better than being a paralegal.”
Photo by Garret Lang
Shared flats and frustration come with the musical landscape, and Birnbaum has channeled his own career struggles deep into his art – Year Of Endless Light pulses with the need for creative freedom and a stubborn will to endure. To that end, Birnbaum keeps on doing what so many of us do, tossing into the air as many balls as it takes to get by: juggling studio gigs, piling into the van for dates with the Debo Band, and handling all the logistics, social media, promotion, and grunt work that allow Wilder Maker to make money when they do tour. At the most grueling stretches, rather than give in to cynicism or bitterness, Birnbaum remains philosophical:
“Lawrence Weschler once spoke of his idea of grace in a really great interview, saying, ‘You work and you work and you work, and then it’s as though whatever happens, it happens by itself. It never would have happened without all that prior work, that preparation, but that prior work didn’t make [a breakthrough] happen.’
“Wechsler was talking about political unrest in Poland in the ‘70s, but this is exactly how touring/live shows – and, in a larger sense, careers – work. You put in this enormous amount of work, and that work does not directly create the success, but the success cannot happen without the work. When it does happen, it will be sudden and surprising, but it could take decades. You have to make every live show incredible, so when that one person who can do something huge for your career does come and see you, you don’t even have to stress about killing it dead. But you also have to find a way to just keep working forever with no success. You have to love it that much. We all talk about Philip Glass driving a taxi and working as a plumber into his 40s. We know these stories by heart.”