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And then in 2014, the Hypenet became self-aware

Disclaimer: History is told by those with the words. More accurately, history is presented by those with a mechanism to copy-and-paste words into an application that adds them into a database and then retrieves them when required, presenting them to the world with an essential combination of protocols, stylesheets and character sets. In this particular case, this is me. Deal. With. It. Cue an M.I.A.gif cruising across your screen, cold dark shades and a gun held to the temple of a ginger child (a metaphor for pop-culture). Opinions are like M.I.A records, everyone's got one. Even if it's buried deep in that wardrobe full of shitty promo/useless compact discs that your obsessive compulsiveness won't let you permanently discard. Sometimes an unloading is needed. And this is just an opinion piece, not a celebration of piracy or a statement against the current role of marketing. In addition, there's billions of factual errors here that in no way should detract from my argument that piracy is awesome and marketing is fucked. Winky slant.

Like most logical arrangements involving sentences, it's probably best to start at the beginning.

When Seth Green and Justin Timberlake invented Napster back in 1999, it's doubtful the two Future Hall-of-Famers would have been able to predict the enormity of its future implications. I remember popping my download hymen with Black Star's Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star record, pulling the album down one song at a time, each sluggish 56kb/s transfer accompanied by sweaty palms and frequent glances at the bedroom door, expecting the Federal Police to bust in any minute.

The next few weeks weren't great. Well, that's not exactly true, Black Star is an incredibly good album, thus it was relentlessly "bumped outta ma jeep" (1984 Holden Gemini), only pausing occasionally due to the absence of any form of anti-shock on my discman-to-tape-deck connection. But I felt like shit, and not solely because of my inadequate automobile audio device. I'd directly robbed from Mos Def and Talib Kweli, two rappers who had taken the high road of credibility, avoided the lucrative materialistic temptations of 'bling rap', only to be have their pennies pinched from their pockets by a pimply punk from Sydney with a lust for "conscious rap". And alliteration.

In my defence, this was 2001 and rap music wasn't exactly readily available in Australia. Sanity had an 'urban' section, but it consisted solely of Boyz II Men's II record, Slam It Up Volume 6 and $2.99 CD singles of TLC's Waterfalls. I guess I could have always asked that nice fella at the rap store in Bankstown to order the Black Star album in for me. He was still about a year away from doing that messy insurance job on the shop, at this stage still trying to keep the business afloat by charging middle-class chumps from "the other side of the bridge" $45 for an imported CD. But I was at university, stacking shelves for $9 an hour at Coles and all my money was tied up in bourbon-and-coke-and-sloppy-makeout investments. And, most importantly, even though I'd recently become obsessed with Mos Def's Black On Both Sides record, I didn't want to take the risk on a record I'd never actually heard.

There's several positive repercussions that came from the widespread popularity of file-sharing.

Firstly, there's the obvious — the increased globalisation of creative endeavours. If you can get an album in Brooklyn, you can get it in Belmore, Belarus and Bulgaria. Touring artists being "stoked" that they're popular in the far off distant land of Australia is no longer a thing. The illegal distribution of data has dramatically shrunk the planet. World dot rar.

Secondly — and more important to our discussion here — file-sharing also inadvertently created a stronger try-before-you-buy methodology. Good cover art wasn't enough any more. Greasing the palms of editorial staff at The Source, Rolling Stone or Polaroids Of Androids wasn't either. In this modern age, chances are before record stores have the album on their shelves and reviewers already have their pronouns correctly formatted and/or have unfairly pigeon-holed it with a decimal rating between zero and ten, the kids have already thumbsed up/down the album.

As file-sharing became "common-place", three things immediately happened...

  1. record companies shat their pants;
  2. record companies replaced their shit-filled pants with Iron Clad Lawyer Pants;
  3. record companies sued every 12-year old kid who'd downloaded Metallica's Load and;
  4. there was a culling of "talent"

In 2003, as the Napster stock-price rose to $400 and even 62-year-old Jannette in accounts was able to successfully download Blink 182's serious record, those who'd been proudly sporting "faking it just to be making it" t-shirts were hastily red-carded from the music arena. The result was a World Cup-like scenario where, aside from the 4th best side from the Asian qualifiers, all teams were talented and competitive. This resulted in a plethora of top corner crackers (goals), including, but not limited to: Modest Mouse's Good News, Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut, Scribe's The Crusader, Kings Of Leon's Youth and Young Manhood and, of course, some bloody album called Meadowlands.

Talent was clearly all that mattered now. Spin, press quotes and street teams had been destroyed by Has It Leaked notifications, Kim Dot Com and magnet torrents that operated similarly to regular magnets that stuck onto your fridge which, conveniently, now also had the Internet built in.

But the marketing arm of the grotesquely disproportionate music industry body was loaded with ketamine and cocaine and steroids. It was stronger and less predictable than anybody had ever imagined, thus it wasn't going to go quietly into the night just because it's primary function of selling albums to people who didn't want them was now redundant.

By 2009, the "music marketing biz" — as it had renamed itself in an attempt to re-attach with the youth demographic — was no longer interested in the tried-and-proven promotional methods of hanging up posters in cafes and sending press quote PDF's to editor@nme.uk.gb.org with helpful descriptors such as "the virality of Radiohead and the arrogance of Pete Doherty". Creativity was now required. New strategies, new age techniques, new technology. People were able to hear the music, so the music itself was no longer enough. Attention-grabbing antics were required. Anything to kick off the self-perpetuating hype machine. Thus, album release schedules were now being treated with the same level of importance as presidential campaigns - meticulously planned, with measurable outcomes, gantt charts and contingency forked sub-plans at the ready, just in case the initial viral #hashtag teaser didn't quite resonate with the @core_demographic.

Over the past few years however, the importance of these digital hype strategies has started to overshadow the actual projects they're designed to promote. The whole process has morphed, whereby instead of actually being utilised as a promotional tool, it's become a measure of the record's significance, wherein the 'ad spend' directly correlates to the label's faith in the release.

Most recently, Canadian cult (band) The Arcade Fire attempted to excite people about their forthcoming single via a confusing "synergised international release", whereby the new music would be available to everyone on the planet from 9:09pm on the 9th of the 9th (month), 9 years after 2004 (the last time the band released something good).

While it's understandable those involved accidentally overlooked the minor issue of timezones, their main misstep was that they'd obviously missed the invention of Torrents and Zip Files. In a similar way to every piece of music recorded since 2002, the band's new song, Reflektor, leaked a few days ahead of it's actual scheduled release. While the finest Web Sheriff's money could buy responded with impressive haste, blasting off stern emails to all offending parties — the damage was already done. The synergised global moment had lost all it's significance. The entire plan was ruined.

Worse still, there was no need for any gimmick at all. Reflektor signified the advent of a new sound for the band. A bold new adventure. With former LCD Soundsystem maestro James Murphy at the production helm, the song showcased a band actively taking steps to evolve, bringing danceable disco and pop elements into more prevalent positions. It was risky, ballsy. And like dangling your testicles on an active railroad, it didn't require any fanfare; the act alone was enough to gain attention.

Of course, The Arcade Fire are no strangers to the use of attention-grabbing marketing tactics. For their last record, The Suburbs, the group partnered with spyware tech giant, Google, to create maps of every childhood home on the planet. As a guy that loves turning on a computer just as much as the next guy, I was excited that my three key life pleasures — technology, music and voyeurism — had been merged into a single package. But now, several years later, if you asked me to hum the song we (the world) made the "interactive" video clip for I would fail miserably.

And, in a nutshell, that's the problem. These hype mechanisms are temporary, yet overbearing. They're loud and brash and purposefully designed for maximum impact. Their success is measured by how dominant they are, how good they are at sucking the attention from everything else around them. Often including the music itself. Thus, when they succeed they become the focus. And, in turn, fail.

Not long after The Suburbs' tech/music hybridity experiment several other entities attempted to replicate the success. Most notably, there was The XX's partnership with Internet Explorer to "share history of the worlds" as a promotion for their 2012 album Coexist. Unfortunately, due to Microsoft's insistence of upgrading to the then-unreleased Windows 12 operating system in order to "experience the experience", the project's impact wasn't quite as widespread. But I still remember it, which is more than I can say for Coexist.

And now. 2014. Where the majority of these ploys are re-hashed ideas, dragged out by desperate marketing machines, attempting to steal even a moment's focus. In turn, however, they're devaluing the music itself. I understand this will sound incredibly naive (and wishful), but I honestly believe that if it's good enough, people will get to it. Placing these obstacles in the way, directly and blatantly "targeting" your market and creating confusingly drawn-out schedules will only cause people to retreat.

The campaign attached to Daft Punk's latest record, Random Access Memories, is a perfect example of this. While announced in January last year, the actual promotion for the record commenced in March, with a 15-second television commercial airing during Saturday Night Live. Almost three weeks later a second commercial aired, with different music, which was described by many (Dads) as "funky". Another two weeks passed and more details emerged during a presentation at Coachella, which included a list of the collaborators and another snippet of music — this time it was the first single, Get Lucky, a collaboration with Pharrell Williams. Amidst all this, a series of billboard adverts were spotted and Instagrammed across the world - occasionally with a little bit more info about the record.

Megan Buerger for the Wall Street Journal (May 9, 2013):

The stealth campaign to limit the group's exposure has helped make "Random Access Memories" one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2013. By holding back from TV and concert appearances, the group and its management went against the industry-accepted wisdom that you can only hold fans' attention by plying them with nonstop appearances and regularly dispensed songs. Such suspense is rare in today's rapid-fire music industry, [...]

I would argue that, personally, the campaign had the opposite effect. The information came out so slowly, so stagnantly, that I completely tuned out. I think if they'd done everything in a week, or even over a fortnight, then it could have been an 'acceptable level of engagement', but drawn out over a few months it just became a confusing mess. Most notably, with the 'snippet' release of the lead single, Get Lucky, which was proceeded by a fake leak from some 14-year old kid with a cracked-version of Ableton who simply looped the 15-second promo clip into a full song. Much like the Arcade Fire's attempts to ignore file-sharing, this was a clear example of those pushing the buttons not understanding that someone at the other end had already found a way to re-wire the resulting actions.

And, of course, amidst all this, there was also the decision to stage the first "official" listening party for the album in the rural New South Wales town of Wee Waa. Whatever the fuck that was about.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the approach taken by Scottish electronic duo, Boards Of Canada. On International Record Store Day (April 20) they began the promotion for their highly anticipated new album, Tomorrow's Harvest. The plan was simple enough - send the world on a giant goose chase, with a series of codes on hidden vinyl records, hidden YouTube videos and not-very-hidden television commercials on cartoon networks. When all the codes were revealed they merged together to create a password sequence for a locked website. When unlocked, this website displayed a new song and pre-order details for the new record. Primarily pushed along by the detective sluthing of the Reddit community, the campaign worked well, with the timing perfectly suiting the intended audience — running for just a bit over a week from when the first clue was found to the discovery of the actual "press material". Sure, you can argue that they didn't really have any control over how long it took people to join the dots (or that people would even bother) but either through a thorough understanding of the online ADHD generation or some behind-the-scenes nudging along (the pessimist in me obviously thinks the latter) the momentum was sustained for the full week, with slow slithers of information uncovered regularly enough to keep the news tickers ticking, the page ranks ranking and the RSS's syndicating. Browsing through the news items listed on the Pitchfork BoC artist page how it all unfolded.

But even Boards Of Canada's quick-fire approach, which showed a far greater understanding for the chosen medium (ie. the Internet) than those daft French cunts, still felt incredibly forced. And in many ways, so unnecessary. I mean, why even bother. After all, it's a fucking great record...

I'm completely aware that bringing any form of attention to these 'campaigns', via the 40,000 poorly arranged sentences contained within this opinion piece, is drenched in more irony than Alanis Morissette attending a Spork Collectors Convention. I also understand that marketing plays an important role in our modern consumer-based society and that employment in that specific industry is a requirement for many to ensure their long-term survival as a functioning member of the human race.

But this goes beyond that.

These marketing campaigns are alive. They're not merely notifying people of an upcoming release, but instead attaching that release to a gimmick. The artists themselves, as in those actually creating the 'product' being marketed, mostly don't have control over these promotion mechanisms, thus the arrangement becomes a collaboration. All good and well, except when one side of this collaboration is significantly less enjoyable, the whole thing suffers.

The answer: give the music some space. Really, it's all in needs. It doesn't require all this decorative shit you're covering it in. Shit that, if you're sitting on a computer staring at the Internet for 8-10 hours a day, is becoming increasingly unavoidable.

Let it hang out there alone. The widespread acceptance of pirated music content means that it's now all easily accessible. It's free and everyone can get to it. And if it's shit, it'll be shit because of it's own doing, not due to some additional promotional aspect that's been awkwardly lobbed onto the side of it.

Let's hope that Blackstar are currently working on that long overdue second album. And, further still, let's hope they're not also attempting to invent some clever marketing ploy to attach to it.

Filed Under
Articles
Arcade Fire
The xx
Daft Punk
Boards Of Canada

 

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