TAPES 'N TAPES. Beirut. TV on the Radio. Cold War Kids. Lupe Fiasco. Lily Allen. Birdmonster. Grizzly Bear. Sufjan Stevens. TV on the Radio. The Knife. Clipse. Destroyer. The Hold Steady. Joanna Newsom.
These are, 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 experience."
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 websites, blogs, magazines, podcasts and other outlets.
I succumbed to buzz vertigo sometime this last fall. Like most pop geeks I know, I'm a total Web junkie, having broadened my lifelong love affair with the music press to include an ever-growing list of online sources. I grew up loving and trusting Rolling Stone and Village Voice, but it had become apparent that those cultural clearinghouses no longer had the last say on cool.
My daily perusal of MySpace and the blogosphere, not to mention the piles of CDs under my desk, was seriously threatening my ability to focus on any one new release. There were just too many to absorb, all with tags attached declaring them the most downloaded, most discussed and most anticipated hit of the minute. Too often, I'd find myself slamming shut my laptop and stomping off with my DiscMan for a head-clearing walk with something "hot" I could trust, like the seventh album from Mary J. Blige.
It's become difficult to distinguish between real critical interest and the momentary attention of Web surfers. And it's hard to tell when real fans, not an intern clicking a button, are upping the numbers on interactive websites like MySpace and YouTube.
To get some perspective on my own buzz vertigo, I consulted with pop geeks of all kinds, from the solo bloggers to major-label execs. The conversations left me feeling that, while everything in pop is new, it's old again too.
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 websites. Fans still show loyalty to what they like, though it might be a sound (dubstep) or a trend (Swedish electropop) rather than a particular artist. And a handful of obsessives still dominate the public conversation, though now their words extend beyond the ink of alternative weeklies and fanzines to reach worldwide.
Charting new territory
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 website 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 next day."
It's also unclear how to measure the disembodied splash the next day's Web sensation makes. Online MP3 aggregators like the Hype Machine and elbo.ws have become popular sources of buzz, collecting data on the most frequently downloaded music on the Web. The hits parade on such sites changes so quickly that Idolator.com, the good-naturedly snarky music blog launched in New York last fall by the Gawker conglomerate, runs a feature about them subtitled "Today's Biggest Band in the World."
"You have these bands nobody's even heard of, and all of a sudden their song is No. 2 on the charts," said Maura Johnston, Idolator's associate editor. "That position usually results from only about 10 blogs posting in the previous week. Sometimes it just happens because a publicist sends out the MP3 and people need to post something. I can follow something going to bloggers at 10 a.m. and charting at 4 p.m."
Three-quarters of the publicists I surveyed supply MP3 files directly to bloggers. 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 the Queens-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 emails."
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."
And so the old vices of the buzz business -- skilled seduction and possibly even bribery -- have penetrated the supposedly free space of the Web.
"Some bloggers genuinely write about what interests them, because they're crate-diggers," said Glenn Peoples, who runs the music business blog Coolfer.com from his home in Nashville. "But bloggers don't always mention the extent to which they are comped and courted. About two years ago, I started noticing quotes from blogs on publicity one-sheets. All of a sudden, indie labels were like, 'This is our press.' "
The similarity of rapidly selected Next Big Things is also a problem. "There are people always looking to discover something," Babcock said. "An artist reminds them of another artist, so that becomes the hot band. People check those bands out, they're disappointed, and they begin to doubt the validity of the source." Buzz vertigo sets in.
For execs trying to find commercially viable acts, all the noise can be confusing. "At one time you had Creem and Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone; now you have MySpace and Pitchfork and blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear," said Andy Slater, president of Capitol Records, a major label that's signed several "blog buzz" artists, including OK Go and Lily Allen. "I don't think it's really changed in 30 years. Somebody you think is cool is telling you something's cool and you're going somewhere to check it out."
The best strategy for breaking a musician, said Slater, is to make sure the offering is solid. "Lily has all of the elements of a star," he said. "She's smart, she's talented, she has a great voice. She has a mission statement that's clear: She is saying something for women under 25. I think she has succeeded online not just because that world is there, but because she represents things that are reflecting the attitudes of that world."
For Slater's hopes to be fulfilled, Allen will have to prove herself as a live talent and as a personality who inspires fan loyalty. The buzz artists who seem to be sticking have these qualities. The Arcade Fire was championed by Pitchfork but, as the website's editor Plagenhoef points out, won over the greater public by playing strong sets at festivals like Lollapalooza. Sufjan Stevens has kept in his fans' hearts by constantly releasing new music. Major stars as well as underdogs find that prominence on YouTube or MySpace can prove to be so much smoke. "Diddy had the most brilliant new-media campaign, and it didn't work," said Sickamore, an A&R; director for Atlantic Records who made his name in the competitive world of hip-hop mix tapes. "He had a crazy incredible YouTube campaign, MySpace updates, but people weren't that interested. When you say, 'I'm the man, I'm so cool,' that's not enough. It's about being on the scene."
In hip-hop, the physical connection -- with a neighborhood, a city, an arena full of fans -- prevails. Though there are many excellent hip-hop-oriented blogs, MP3 downloads can't make a rapper's reputation. "Hip-hop is not a blog culture," said Sickamore, who himself blogs on the XXL magazine website. "It's more like the political world. You have to shake hands and kiss babies. Go to record stores, do open mikes and build that buzz."
Kim Buie, vice president of A&R; at Lost Highway Records, sees something similar in her hometown of Nashville: "We have an independent record store, Grimey's. There's a venue attached to the record store and they have a whole section devoted to local music. Regional outlets like that are so important."
The spin cycle
LOCAL scenes still matter, but instant access across all boundaries -- from Iceland to Atlanta -- leave 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."
Habtemariam, whose clients include the 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 that buzz vertigo could truly 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."
There is an oasis from all the din, where the idea of reliable music curated by a few good ears holds sway. There are two, actually. One's in your car, and one will sell you a latte.
Starbucks is still finding its feet as a conveyor of pop hits, but the caffeine retailer is widely acknowledged as a pioneer, as Starbucks Entertainment President Ken Lombard says, in "creating buzz inside our own environment."
The chain's Hear Music media bars, which revel in Web-style variety -- a menu of more than 150,000 songs that visitors can burn to a CD -- haven't totally clicked with the public. So far, the stylistic accord of the music it sells within its cafes, which highlight singer-songwriters, classic rock and jazz, has been the more successful model. New artists like Antigone Rising sell decently alongside Sheryl Crow.
"Our customers can trust that we've done the work," said Lombard. "Our content team spends a tremendous amount of time reviewing each selection and making sure it truly fits what they expect."
Quality over uniqueness -- sounds boring, right? But that's the appeal of the chain; when you're lost in South Bend, find a Starbucks and you know what you're walking into. That sense of home is also a selling point for the most prominent antidote to buzz vertigo: National Public Radio.
NPR is a known force in breaking new artists. Star DJs at local affiliates, such as Nic Harcourt at KCRW-FM (89.9), become known as tastemakers, and the national programming is even more powerful. Yet Bob Boilen, director of the network's afternoon program "All Things Considered" and originator of its online music site, All Songs Considered, claims he doesn't even hear buzz.
"Everything I get from record companies, I toss in a bin," he said. "All of the press releases go in the recycling bin. I put in a CD, and if I like the song, I listen to the next, and if I like the third song I take it home. I hardly read music magazines. If I decide I like a CD, then I'll start poking around on the Web to see what people have written."
This declaration of immunity sounds a bit smug, but by limiting his intake of information, Boilen keeps his focus tight. The goal is not to grab the next big thing but to find what suits a very specific context. Boilen allows his small team of critics freedom, but he's also chosen them because they fit. NPR's increasing importance in breaking certain kinds of artists is directly related to its consistency and control.
Boilen recalled one time when NPR followed the buzz and it just didn't work. Will Hermes, one of the station's friendliest voices of musical good taste, did a piece on blog buzz superstars Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. "Playing them on our air didn't go over well," Boilen said. "It was nails on a chalkboard. I like Joanna, I interviewed her for "All Songs Considered." But the first time I heard her, it was like, 'Whoa, I don't know.' "
That feeling of "whoa, I don't know" can signal a risk well taken. But what most people really want is to be challenged, just a little. Perhaps the future in pop will involve more and more small islands of taste like Starbucks and NPR. And beyond that, pop will keep buzzing on.
Next Sunday: How the Web has become a giant popularity contest.