In the 90’s, my father was a record promoter for Elektra and MCA Records. He was assigned a certain region of the country and would go to radio stations and meet with the music directors and pitch music on his label in hopes of getting it played on the radio.
For a long time, radio was the main way music was exposed to the world. But for many reasons my dad’s job doesn’t need to exist anymore. (And for the most part it doesn’t.) These days, radio doesn’t break out many artists. Now, radio plays it safe. More and more, pop radio will wait until a song is popular elsewhere before they start putting it into heavy rotation. Rock/alternative radio plays mostly the back catalogue of well established bands.
So how to explain the success of a band like the XX? They get relatively little radio play and are on an independent record label (XL/Young Turks). Yet, after being out for three years, their self-titled debut album is at #88 on iTunes. Their new album Coexist opened at #3 on iTunes.
Is it that the XX has a catchy name and a simple and cohesive aesthetic? Is it that they’ve gained mainstream exposure by producing songs for Drake and getting sampled by Rihanna? Is it just being in
the right place at the right time? Just dumb luck? None of that hurts, and it will likely contribute to what looks to be a sustainable career.
The XX doesn’t need radio to be successful. Neither do many artists. But is good all that you need? Besides music that people want to hear, you need assets.
I play in a band called Ceremony that is signed to Matador Records. I had never heard the term “asset” in regard to a band until our Matador release was approaching. An asset is a logo, band photo, interview, promotional ad, music video or anything that exposes somebody to an artist apart from the band’s music. For one thing, we are becoming more and more of a visually stimulated, web-based culture. Would you rather go on YouTube and watch the video of your favorite song as many times as you want or wait/hope that it comes on the radio?
As a music fan, I was always kind of subliminally aware of the importance of assets but I never saw Ceremony as anything other than a group that just made music. I would love to think that all you
need to do is write great songs and play shows to have a sustainable future, but according to my Matadorian bosses that just isn’t the case. They’re not wrong; in fact, they’re right on the money.
When we got signed we made it clear to our label that we are not into social media, taking promo photos or turning our band into a brand. At the end of the day Matador gave us final approval over anything but they made it very clear that they think having as many assets as possible will only help the band sell more records and play to more people. But we come from a world where selling records and getting exposed to a wide audience isn’t something you strive for. Not necessarily because you don’t want that to happen but because when you start playing punk and hardcore music you accept that you’re not playing an accessible style of music and you’re doing it strictly out of the love for the music. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, we were in a position to reach more than just 40 or 50 sweaty teenagers in a basement while not compromising our musical integrity. Reevaluation and reconciliation was the next step. Have we been resistant to obtaining these assets due to integrity and morality? Or have we just been trained by this scene that we come from to think and act a certain way?
As far as social media is concerned, it wasn’t much of a discussion. We weren’t interested. We existed just long enough before social media was a prominent asset for bands that we were able to gain notoriety more or less the old-fashioned way. And it’s not like we’ve been around for decades and need a way to reach out to younger music fans who wouldn’t be exposed to us otherwise. Then there was the issue of promotional photos. This was something I was adamantly against — I thought they made you look cheesy and sort of desperate that you wanted everybody to know how cool your band looks. But at the same time I can’t say there aren’t band photos that exist that are great and well done. So now, when we’re on tour, you may see our forgettable faces in your local/free/”hip”/alternative newspaper in an effort to promote our upcoming show.
It sounds lame that what you see with a musical artist can be just as important as what you hear, but it’s true: extramusical aspects of a band can make people interested in listening to your album or
going to your show — or just maintaining the interest of people who are already on board. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard Iron Maiden on the radio, but we’re all acquainted with their ghoulish mascot, Eddie the Head. And Eddie has a lot to do with the image that people have of Iron Maiden.
Now look (literally) at the XX. You see something that’s already familiar to you, that you attribute to this band. You see an aesthetic that leaves space, illuminates restraint, is sharp and minimal. All of which are common denominators with the band’s music. It’s important that when you start to include things besides actual music creation into your band, that you’re conscious of how they reflect the music. That is, if you care about the music.