Hype Case Study #1 – Boards of Canada

Anyone connected to the internet couldn’t have helped but be drawn into the recent excitement around Boards of Canada’s announcement of a new LP, and not necessarily because it’s the first album in 8 years from the Scottish brothers.

I’m not sure who’s responsible for the promo campaign that’s been slowly unfolding over the last couple of weeks, but they’ve certainly earned their crust.

Rewind to May last year. Nothing’s been heard out of camp BoC since 2006’s ‘Trans Canada Highway’ EP. A fan posts on the Boards of Canada Facebook page asking if there is any truth to the rumours of a new album. A single word answer is posted in reply by ‘Boards of Canada’, “Yes”. Cue delirious excitement from beard stroking leftfield electronica fans around the globe.

Months go by. Nothing. Not a sausage. Until…

Record Store Day 2013. A mysterious record in a Boards of Canada sleeve is found in New York’s ‘Other Music’ record store. The baffled buyer of the frankly bizarre vinyl audio message contained within does what any confused young person does in this day and age, and reaches out to the online community for their assistance/opinion.

Before long a second YouTube clip appears of a similar recording, with a different sequence of numbers, this time purchased from London’s ‘Rough Trade’ record store.

Other number sequences are derived from website source codes, radio transmissions, etc. Geeks of the world unite to decipher a quite frankly bizarre set of clues. Most recently an ad airs on the Cartoon Network to help complete the picture.

Why the Cartoon Network? Well, why not? What gets broadcast generally gets put online in one shape or another these days, so where the original broadcast takes place is largely irrelevant. This whole campaign has been an exercise in online collaboration, and has gone off without a hitch.

Eventually all of the pieces get put together, and point to the passcode for a new website for the duo. The cracked code leads to a short video confirming the new album, and leading to a pre-order page. Pre-orders go through the roof. (I’m guessing at that last part).

So, to recap: niche IDM producers on a UK indie label excite a worldwide audience with a marketing budget that can’t have cost much more than $1000, and drive fervent fans to a direct-to-consumer pre-order page on the label owned and controlled webstore. How achingly bloody web 2.0.

The Rise of the Anti-Celeb

Reality TV. Celebrity culture. Heat. Closer. The Only Way Is Pissing Essex.

Since the rise (and subsequent fall) of Big Brother, mainstream UK culture has been dominated by those that shout loudest, those least inhibited by their dignity and sense of reservation. In a world where X Factor et al provide a convenient route to the nation’s living rooms for those who are willing to make a spectacle of themselves, finding and exposing true talent from those unconcerned with the accompanying spotlight has become increasingly difficult. Indeed, the reality TV route is already old hat. Today a child in their bedroom can generate an army of online followers simply by spouting banalities into their iSight camera, which goes some way to explaining why we’re all so fascinated when a character emerges and chooses not to plaster their face across every available means of communication whenever possible.

We are now positively drawn to those who wish to avoid the limelight. Why don’t they want us to know what they look like? How come they’re not suckers for fame like the rest of us?

Daft Punk have played this game superbly. Despite being amongst the very biggest names in dance music, which itself is currently at an all-time popularity high, I’d be willing to bet Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter could comfortably walk down London’s Oxford Street without being recognised (provided they left their helmets at home). What’s so fiendishly excellent about the way they’ve gone about creating android alter-egos is that they could still go out on a world tour playing to sold out stadiums if they’d like to, but need never show their faces the whole time.

Jai Paul has been the most recent case of hype-by-mystery. Whilst press shots of Jai exist, and he’s not been shy about letting us know his name, the way he has kept in the shadows since blowing up with BTSTU and Jasmine has created a public fascination that has only intensified over recent weeks and months. Not even Jai’s label seem to know what he’s about to do at any given time, and I love the guy for it. Richard Russell, owner of XL Recordings, was recently quoted as saying,

“The way he’s going about things is, I think for many, baffling. But it’s how he’s going about things, and as such it can only be right because it’s his way of doing it. He’s going about things in the most Jai Paul way you could possibly go about things. And who knows where that may lead.”

The bizarre events surrounding his debut album ‘leak’ only serve to prove that nobody quite knows what Jai’s up to at any moment in time.

An even more extreme case is the positively introverted Burial. I make no bones about the fact that Burial is amongst my very favourite artists working today, his emotion-laden post-garage offerings striking a particular chord with my musical tastes. In the early days of his rise to prominence, nobody paid too much attention that he chose not to show his face. So it was a rare case of a producer not also being a DJ, who cares? I’d be hard pushed to pick Kode9 out of a line up after all.

However, when his second album, Untrue, was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Award in 2008, the spotlight intensified significantly, culminating in Gordon Smart’s tactless campaign to unmask him in The Sun. Rather than give them the pleasure of seeing their tawdry little campaign through to some kind of Bin Laden-esque reveal, the mystery man in question popped up on MySpace to put the issue to bed, in typically low-key fashion:

“For a while there’s been talk about who I am. I wanted to be unknown because I want it to be about tunes.

But the unknown thing has become an issue. My name’s Will Bevan, I’m from South London, I’m keeping my head down and finishing my next album.”

I hope that made you feel like a right bell end, Gordon. He explained his reasoning slightly more eloquently in this fantastic in-depth interview with The Wire a year or so earlier:

“I’m just a well low key person. I want to be unknown, because I’d rather be around my mates and family than other things, but there’s no need to focus on it. Most of the tunes I like, I never knew what the people who made them looked like anyway. It draws you in. You could believe in it more. I like it if it’s more secret, people can get into the tunes more. I just want to be in a symbol, a tune, the name of a tune. It’s not like it’s a new thing. It’s one of the old underground ways and it’s easier.

Everyone goes on about themselves, they reveal everything and give it away. It’s an obsession in London, people and the media are too blatant, trying to project this image, prove themselves and trying to be something. They should just hold back a bit, it’s sexier.”

And he’s right. My personal drum & bass and UK garage vinyl collection has no photos of the producers splashed all over the place. Just text credits on the label stickers and basic logo design on the sleeve 90% of the time. I didn’t know who was black or white, I didn’t know that Source Direct was two people, I didn’t know that DJ Rap was female… but it didn’t matter. It was about the music. It should always be about the music. Anything else is just a distraction.

Rhapsody gives an honest appraisal of TV advertising tactics

Another great piece has popped up over at sidewinder.fm. John Maples, VP of Product and Content at Rhapsody, has written a brilliant article detailing Rhapsody’s past efforts at TV advertising, and why he thinks Spotify and Rdio are going about it in the wrong way. I’d encourage you to click through the above link to read the article in full, though I’ll pull out a few key highlights below:

I know this is revolutionary, but it turns out you need to show what a service does to actually sell…the service!

If we’re going to be successful, we all have to start with the service, up front and center.

Since neither of our companies sell advertising, Rdio and Rhapsody are in the business of sourcing, identifying and enticing fans who are willing to pay for music. How you go about that is the hard part. My belief is that streaming companies have to sell the value of a music service and the benefits to customers instead of relying on an emotional connection to music, giving songs away or buying exclusive rights to a band’s new release.

There are two key issues raised here.

  1. Music services have been going about engaging TV audiences in the wrong way, by appealing to their emotions (“music is important to me, so of course I’m happy to pay for it!”), rather than their logical thought processes (“that service actually looks really useful, I’d happily pay $X a month for it!”). 

    For an illustration of how it should be done, we need look no further than Apple’s adverts for the iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc. which are essentially stylised video demonstrations of how the items operate.

  2. There is a clear distinction between people who are willing to pay for music, and those that aren’t. A lot is made of price sensitivity, and the $10 a month price barrier, though this is overblown. The bare fact of the matter is that those who value music and have a modicum of disposable income are happy to pay for convenient, ad-free access to a music subscription service (assuming that’s how they choose to consume their music in this day and age). The rest of the population simply have no inclination to start handing over $X a month given that the world’s largest collection of online music (YouTube) is available to listen to for free anytime they choose. Putting up with a few ads in order to keep the subscription fee in their pockets is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a price worth paying.

‘Daisy’, Beats by Dre, and the Power of Celebrity

Those of you who read the erratic, often irrational, but always entertaining Lefsetz Letter are no doubt familiar with this Gizmodo article detailing how Beats totally screwed Monster when they got into bed with HTC. You really should take the time to read it if you haven’t already. Whilst Noel and Kevin Lee, the father and son pairing in charge of Monster, were well and truly turned over by Jimmy Iovine and pals, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the owners of a company that regularly charge upwards of £200 for HDMI cables. (Hey, if there are people out there stupid enough to buy them then why not, I guess?)

But what I found most intriguing about the article were the clues it gives as to how the Beats team will go about marketing their music subscription service when it launches later in the year, currently codenamed ‘Daisy’. Jimmy’s an incredibly smart man, and more importantly he’s surrounded himself with the best in the business. Trent Reznor is on board as Chief Creative Officer, and Topspin head honcho Ian Rogers has been named as the incumbent CEO. Both Trent and Ian bring a wealth of digital music nous and contacts to the table, and they must have the existing big players in the digital music space looking over their shoulders in anticipation/trepidation for when Daisy finally gets up and running. But just how will they go about grabbing market share in a field that’s already become so crowded in such a short space of time? Spotify, Rdio and Deezer are all establishing names for themselves (some more than others), and the two biggest players are still yet to step into the ring (Apple and Google for those of you that couldn’t guess). Well, here’s an excerpt from the above linked article detailing how Jimmy Iovine explained to Kevin Lee they’d make a splash in the headphone market:

The Dr. Dre task force took Monster’s audio gear and pimped it, tirelessly, as a gadget status symbol without rival. That was the plan—period. Marketing, Iovine told Kevin Lee, would take too long. Education would take too long. Instead, the strategy was to enchant the public: Beats would be “the hottest product to have, and sound will be a Trojan horse. And that’s what we did. Beats was in every single music video,” says Kevin. Iovine made sure Beats had prominent placement across Interscope’s sterling roster, infiltrating the money and product lust-addled brains of video-watching America.

It worked. Disposable income was disposed of in the hundreds upon hundreds of millions. “Kids did go into a Best Buy and bought Beats not because it sounded cool, but because it made them look cool,” admits Kevin. The Lees were putting their audiophilic necks on the line to prop up what was, essentially, a fashion company. Beats’ dominance is clear whenever you walk down an American sidewalk—the Bs swarm. Jimmy and Dre took decent headphones that could swamp your ears with low-end, isolate you from street noise, and keep your skull relatively comfortable during a long walk, and made all of these qualities irrelevant under a sheen of rapper-lure. 

So basically: forget marketing the quality of the product and what it can do – instead leverage the power of celebrity and the public’s appetite for perceived wealth/status. Quite how they’ll transfer this tactic to a music subscription service remains to be seen, but it’ll certainly be exciting. I’m imagining endless celebrity/brand playlists and video/TV/film placements, and not less than a few exclusives. Seeing as Jimmy’s so high up at Universal, I imagine they’ll have quite the ‘vested interest’ in the project, and will no doubt do what they can to help it get up and running (e.g. “Listen to Justin Bieber/Lady Gaga/etc.’s new album, exclusively on Daisy!”).

A penny for Daniel Ek’s thoughts on the matter…

MNEK

I’ve been waiting for this guy for a while. He first came to my attention when I was working at AWAL. One of the company directors brought him in to try and sign him to a production deal (which sadly never materialised) whilst he was still about 15 (the main reason the deal never came together was because his mum wanted him to focus on his GCSEs). He made quite an impression, and I made a mental note of him as being one to watch.

Fast forward to April 16th 2013, and he co-wrote the current UK no.1 [Duke Dumont feat. A*M*E – 100%] and is featured on the B-side of the single that is set to replace it at the top of the charts this coming Sunday [Rudimental feat. Ella Eyre – Waiting All Night]. Perhaps most frightening is that he’s just getting started. He’s still 18. He was born in 1994, ffs!

I’ve had the privilege of watching him work in the studio, and he is incredibly impressive at working Logic. I’ve watched a fair few people create music with that software, but nobody with the speed and professionalism of MNEK. And he’s not even an engineer! He’s a producer/writer/engineer/artist – the full package in the truest sense. You can get a sense for the rich depth of his vocal abilities on the early Rudimental single ‘Spoons’.

I’m far from the first to fawn over his talents, he’s been signed to Modest Management for some time now, and already has writing credits under his belt for The Saturdays, The Wanted, Misha B and Little Mix, but I’m now wondering if we’ll get to see him step out in front of the mic and release his own material rather than penning for others. Here’s hoping…

Jai Paul’s album? Daft Punk’s single?

It’s been an interesting couple of days in the world of online music. It seems that nowadays you have to question the veracity of what you’re listening to before committing to believing it’s official.

Over the weekend a bandcamp page popped up claiming to belong to Jai Paul, the much-hyped XL-signed pop enigma, distributing what was purported to be his debut album for £7 a pop. The online music community lost its collective shit, and the thing spread like wildfire. The 16 track LP sounded unmistakably like a Jai Paul creation, but certain things didn’t add up. Why didn’t any of the tracks have names? Why were the levels and compression rates all over the place? How come XL allowed Jai to sell his debut album directly like this (presumably cutting them out of the equation)?

Today Jai put out this solitary tweet, the only tweet ever from his verified Twitter account:

Eh?

This rather impressive article from Crack in the Road explains just how baffling this whole situation is better than I could, so please go and read that. All I have to add to this is that I’ve heard from various well placed sources that the relationship between Jai and the powers that be at XL has been frayed for a while now. I imagine this was something of an attempt to reassert who was really in control in the relationship, before a quick retreat once he realised the legal implications. In any case it’s bloody fascinating and I’ll be watching developments closely (no sign of that ‘statement’ yet). Also, this is now out in the world, which is a good thing:

Elsewhere, an audio clip of a roughly 4 and a half minute long song popped up on Tumblr, claiming to be the full length version of the new Daft Punk single featuring Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams. Only that wasn’t really what that was either.

The pervading opinion now seems to be that this was in fact a creation of a (presumably deranged) fan, who stitched together various teaser clips into something that loosely resembled a song structure. This situation wasn’t helped by Fun Radio in France, who played this Frankentune (or another iteration of the same idea) and claimed that they were doing so as a worldwide exclusive. Idiots. You can hear the offending creation below.

Both of these cases have fascinated me as demonstrations of music’s ongoing struggle to get into bed with the online community, particularly when both projects exist against a backdrop of hype that is reaching frightening levels.