Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is viral marketing killing new music?

Last week on The Voice, a contestant turned up who said he was Jessie J's biggest fan. "I've been following her," said Lem Knights, "for about eight years."

Eight Years! I'm sure most people thought this was a mistake... Jessie's only been irritating our eardrums for, what, 24 months? But no. Lem first found the pre-fame Jessie Cornish on her YouTube channel, warbling away in her bedroom. She's been posting updates for years - announcing her record deal, previewing new material, and experimenting with eyelash technology.

This is increasingly the way new acts surface - Nina Nesbitt, Ed Sheeran and Gabrielle Aplin all built up loyal fanbases through home videos before going pro. It's great marketing... as long as it works.

Look at Azealia Banks. The loud-mouth NYC rapper has been releasing what feels like a track a fortnight for the last 18 months. Her approach to quality control is as consistent as her management, which seems to change with the frequency of a traffic light. And so fatigue has set in, even amongst the most easily-excitable music blogs.

If Azealia had put an album out after the extraordinary 212 hit radio last January, it would have gone gold in a week. Now, we've all moved on to Taylor Swift.

Azealia Banks - 212

The thing is, music websites and PR teams love this constant stream of "content" because it makes them feel they're doing something: Here's a shoddy remix! The album artwork will be revealed on Thursday! We're having a Google Hangout... whatever the fuck that is!

Personally, I think all this pre-amble deadens the senses. This week, I wavered over buying Charli XCX's debut album because I'd already heard 75% of the songs on a mixtape or an EP or a free download. When I finally succumbed, I discovered that even her slightest, sketchiest songs work better in context. True Romance is genuinely great: A quirky, rhythmic pop symphony.

As Becca Nicholson said in The Guardian: "By not rushing out an album until now... [Charli] seems to have found the time to iron out the creases that made her seem like one of a dozen similar acts." But by showing us her naked baby photos along the way, she's lost the opportunity to burst onto the scene fully-formed, as a bona fide pop star.

You could argue that this only matters to people (like me) who hoover up blog posts, buzz tracks and viral videos. But those people are the same ones who choose what you hear on the radio. Has Charli XCX's elephantine gestation cost her daytime exposure on Radio One? Quite possibly.

Charli XCX - Nuclear Seasons

Of course it's tempting for artists to release new songs the minute they're finished (all that instant adulation on Twitter!) but I prefer the stealth approach... Because if no-one had praised Jessie J's vocal acrobatics, would she have made the jump from talented bedroom vocalist to "ambulance siren doing scat jazz"?

I like to think not.

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