Is it really "buzz" we hear — or just static?
By Ann Powers
Tapes 'n Tapes. Beirut. TV on the
Radio. Cold War Kids. Lupe Fiasco. Lily Allen. Birdmonster. Grizzly Bear. Sufjan
Stevens. The Knife. Clipse. Destroyer. The Hold Steady. Joanna Newsom.
These were, by a certain measure, the most important new musicians of 2006.
Heard half of them? If you're a casual or even moderately engaged pop fan,
possibly not; your ears are busy with commercial radio, ringtones and music
television. If you're involved in the music industry, you know the names and
might have heard some music. But if you're one of those people creating that
rare and ever-present commodity, "buzz," you not only know these artists — you
might have touted one as "the only band that matters."
In 1979, the Clash's record label, Epic, coined that phrase to describe
England's brainiest punks to American record buyers. Similar excitement has
greeted the greats of pop, including the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Bruce
Springsteen, Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. When these stars touched down, the
world hummed with excitement. The buzz felt real.
Today, it's hard to know when buzz is more than just noise. In an age of
accelerated connection, the buzz around every art form has intensified, but
nowhere as much as in music. The growing ease of music-making and distribution
resulted in 60,000 releases (that's in the U.S. alone) last year. Downloadable
music multiplies that number like bunnies in spring. And pop's historical
embrace of novelty and amateurism means that few heavy gates stop the flow.
The only criterion for buzz today often seems like buzz itself. "To me, 'buzz'
was always about, something really great is happening, don't you want to check
it out?" said Jay Babcock, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Arthur.
"That's different than what I hear now, which is, this is going to be big, don't
you want to check it out? That kind of industry-think has degraded the
Babcock calls what's happening "buzz overload," but the feeling might better be
dubbed "buzz vertigo": a balance disorder that makes it hard to proceed
confidently through pop's ever-expanding archipelago of Web sites, blogs,
magazines and podcasts. Professional rainmakers flood the mailboxes — now
inboxes — of media folks, hoping something sticks. The honchos at record labels
still claim that the music comes first, though sometimes they call it "the
brand." Artists still crave coverage in major media outlets but sometimes feel
better served by tiny user groups and Web sites. And fans still show loyalty to
what they like, though it might be a sound (dubstep) or a trend (Swedish
electropop) rather than one artist.
Who knows what, when
What is in flux is that imaginary portal where an artist makes the leap into
public consciousness. There, where perception and reality don't quite match,
time and space themselves are being messed with. In some cases, the very ground
where music once emerged has been abandoned.
"You don't have to go to a record store or go out on a Tuesday night to see an
opening band to get in on things," said Scott Plagenhoef, managing editor of
Chicago-based Pitchforkmedia.com, the indie-rock-leaning site that's often cited
as a source of today's groundswells. "And we're not part of the music industry.
The industry knows a couple of months in advance what print magazines will put
on the cover. I don't think anybody knows what we're making our lead review the
Digital media marketing firms focus entirely on servicing the Web. Bloggers need
content, and often enjoy the recognition. "Bands such as Birdmonster, Cold War
Kids and Sound Team are relentlessly marketed to bloggers, just this
never-ending stream of e-mails from flacks," wrote New York-based writer Matthew
Perpetua, who pioneered the MP3 blog with his Fluxblog, in an e-mail. "It's
depressing that all you need to catch on among the newer MP3 blogs is to barrage
them with PR e-mails."
The publicists feeding the machine don't disagree. "Are blogs really an
independent medium to express a voice?" one pondered anonymously. "It's hard to
know what's genuine, or what is being paid for. One of my employees was given a
free phone from Virgin Mobile just as a 'gift,' because he blogs about music."
Andy Slater, president of Capitol Records, a major label that's signed several "blog
buzz" artists, including OK Go and Lily Allen, said he doesn't think much has
changed in 30 years. "Somebody you think is cool is telling you something's
cool," he said, "and you're going somewhere to check it out."
Local scenes still matter, but instant access across all boundaries leaves
little time for a reputation to percolate. "Labels turn into research companies
that sign independent acts who look like they're blowing up in certain areas,"
said Ethiopia Habtemariam, vice president for publishing for Universal Records.
"But by the time they sign these acts, it's over."
Who wants to work?
Habtemariam, whose clients include producer Polow Da Don and R&B darling Ciara,
criticizes record labels for not developing the artists they sign. In truth,
many buzz acts aren't novices; half on the list that begins this article are on
their second, third or fourth album. Even an MTV sensation such as Ciara,
Habtemariam says, must pay some dues. "Ciara toured with her last album for two
years," Habtemariam said. "She was Gwen Stefani's opening act, then went out
with 50 Cent and Lil Jon, and then with Bow Wow and Omarion. She was able to
tour in different arenas. And now, her fan base really is that wide."
That kind of dedication is one thing buzz vertigo could endanger. When it seems
like your peers are blowing up all around you, months or years of prep work can
seem like prison time. Several publicists mentioned "unrealistic expectations"
as a problem. "The media market may have fragmented, but bands and their
managers don't know or understand that," one said. "Ten years ago, indie and
punk bands did not expect mainstream coverage. Today, it's what they demand."