The trouble with South by Southwest, we’re told, is that every year the legendary Austin music festival becomes less about the bands playing and more about the brands footing the bill. More time is spent putting up signage than doing sound checks. This happens because it’s hard to get any sort of event off the ground without some brand-positive patronage, at least if you want to pay the talent, so the shift in perceived focus is merely a more accurate reflection of who’s making it happen. For enlightened boho music lovers like ourselves, that’s a little uncomfortable, for sure. But doesn’t all of this hand-wringing feel at least slightly hypocritical at a time when creating strong brand identity is now one of the key things determining a band’s success or failure? It’s come to matter as much as songs and albums. More, probably.
The second most common complaint made at the 2013 version of SXSW was that big-name acts like Prince and Justin Timberlake swooped in to steal all the attention and recap slideshow blurbs that should have gone to the unknown bands who still fly in from all over the world hoping to get noticed. This gripe is basically the same as the first one. Why would these top-shelf entertainment brands sit out one of the country’s premier brand conventions, certainly the biggest with any nominal tie left to music and culture? Festival paychecks, along with licensing songs to commercial endeavors, is the last thing making a truly successful career in music even possible. The big guys are expected to skip a major event out of a sense of honor?
For the truly ambitious alphas on top of the pop charts, a music career alone is too limited a thing to get seriously rich on in 2013, really. As sales slump ever further, and tours become too much of a grind to embark on every year in perpetuity, “music” has started to feel like a pretty small pond. So, the person-as-brand-beyond-narrow-product-categories model pioneered by Oprah or Martha Stewart seems like the more viable path to follow than even a legendary career arc like Bruce Springsteen’s. Records alone do not an empire make. You need singing-show judging gigs, movie roles, clothing lines. I saw CNN’s Jake Tapper act like this was a surprising new wrinkle on his show the other day when talking about that soupy new Timberlake album. It felt like some final switch had been flipped between obviously ascendant trend to banal, established fact.
But for the supposedly more-grounded, less omnipresent “rock n’ roll” acts, the ones just hoping to play gigs and get their songs heard, is creating an instantly recognizable “what these guys are all about” impression any less important than it is for a company launching a new product line? How often do we hear any new song that comes separate from a narrative hook and encapsulated press release bio telling us what to expect from it? Are we delighted or annoyed when it fails to match up to that advance capsule?
I wonder if this is an unintended side effect of now being able to glean whole decades-long careers in quick Wikipedia and bit torrent skim sessions? We’ve developed an easy sort of shorthand to make sense of information overload. The Kinks: squabbling brothers, crunch chords, super British, 1960s, village green silliness. Got it. New bands now enter our consciousness with their signifiers already decided, yet without that preexisting body of work. “Here’s what we think they’ll be all about if you grant them enough time to earn it.” It’s understandable salesmanship, but it affects how we hear each new record by these bands we’ve been pre-sold. It’s always tough to fully absorb new information about things you think you’ve got figured out.
My, and the wider Internet’s, reaction to new material from The Strokes and Vampire Weekend is a good case study. On paper, in the driest descriptive terms, both bands might seem strikingly similar. Both are New York-centric makers of guitar-based indie rock, forever shaded by their biographical privilege. But the particular brands that have been assembled around both are importantly, not-so-subtly different. The Strokes represent rich kids slumming it. They’re aloof, stylishly disheveled. Glamorous dicks. Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, embrace their own WASP-y poshness by projecting education and post-grad wanderlust. It’s an embrace of wealth rather than a disavowal—a country club, not a dive bar. Boat shoes that have actually been on a boat. It’s no surprise that one identity seems much more capable of carrying on indefinitely. Aging barflies become sad at a certain point, with their rehabs and breakups, their sweaty second acts. Melancholy Whit Stillman preps are allowed to gray in dignity.
The Strokes’ fifth album, Comedown Machine, comes out this week. It’s a set of well-made songs that aren't much fun at all. It’s full of studied genre dabbling and tightly wound guitar solos that evoke gritted teeth more than shrugged shoulders. It doesn’t feel right because it doesn’t feel easy. That’s not fair, but it’s not false either. The band has avoided press for the record, declined to tour. Their album art is just a red RCA logo and a series of silhouettes. They’re giving us no new narrative to dig into, trying to self-consciously let a record do all the talking. How out of step with times can you be?
Vampire Weekend’s impending third record, Vampires of the Modern City, is still mostly mysterious, but they’ve already been much more canny in how they’ve presented it. They formally announced the album with a New York Times classified. They released a double A-side first single of strikingly dissimilar tracks that manage to project artistic variance within a coherent aesthetic. Their cover art presents the fog-shrouded city in lavish Woody Allen black and white. Manhattan as Manhattan. It helps that one of those songs, “Step,” is elegant, instantly memorable, and far better than anything on Comedown Machine. But am I just falling into some marketer’s trap? Hearing Gershwin by association? It’s hard to even tell. What is clear is that they’re far more skillful in moving through our current landscape than The Strokes. And if it all feels like a viral ad campaign for a new high-end perfume? Well, you’re missing the point if you think that’s not the fucking point.