Bands and fame
June 22, 2008 5:14 AM   Subscribe

A question about how bands get noticed.

I suppose this is actually a set of two related questions. First of all, how is it that some bands manage to achieve fame before releasing an album in any capacity? Second, what measure of fame qualifies a band to play on a television show?
posted by LSK to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Playing a shitload of good shows. And, often, being lucky enough to be on the cusp of some exciting scene, whether it's regional or a stylistic zeitgeist. Getting hyped in blogs and weeklies.

Do you count the circulation of some mp3s as 'releasing an album in any capacity?' If not, I'd add this to the list.

A pertinent question: what do you consider fame? TV appearances? It might be helpful if you gave some examples of what you take to be bands that just make it past the 'fame' post (e.g. obviously REM is famous, but how about the National?)

Scoring above 9 on Pitchfork would be 'famous' for some, I'd imagine, but it doesn't mean you'll be followed by packs of screaming teens.
posted by Beardman at 6:02 AM on June 22, 2008


Beardman has answered your first question pretty well. Talent plus being in the right place at the right time.

what measure of fame qualifies a band to play on a television show?

Depending on what television show, of course, but if you're thinking musical guest on a late night talk or sketch show, or getting your music on the latest O.C.-type show, I'd say being signed to a major label (or one of the bigger indie labels) with a whole separate marketing and PR machine working on your behalf is pretty much a necessity.

Getting signed to a major involves a lot of self-promotion (making a press kit, handing out demos to A&R types) and also a lot of the aforementioned luck.
posted by AV at 7:42 AM on June 22, 2008


There's no one thing. Working a scene is a cumulative effect, and there's rarely ever a band that makes it over night. A band could become relatively well-known before releasing an album if they played their asses off all over a tri-state area for a few years. There is no measure of fame to qualify a band to play a TV show- I think you must be wording this wrong. Like AV mentioned above, half the battle of getting notice is PR, PR, PR. You have to saturate the scene with yourself (obviously in a non-obnoxious way). It doesn't happen by itself.

I guess the short answer to the initial question would be: lots and lots and shitloads of hard work, on top of being a good musician.
posted by self at 8:22 AM on June 22, 2008


I think what he's asking is more along the lines of "How do bands come to do things like appear on the Late Show promoting their debut album that's only come out that week? They don't even have a product out yet and they're already TV-level famous?"

Part of it is because a band doesn't debut like, say, an author does. You can exist and even be considered successful before having put together your first 'product', simply by playing live shows and, nowadays, releasing music online.

Honestly, though, most of the time that a band becomes famous-famous before putting out an album, it's just plain old marketing. These days you can see half a year passing between an album being finished and being released to public, as the label shows it around and tries to build buzz. Like a movie that's been screened but not yet released, an artist can become the next big thing before playing a show or earning a single fan, because the handful of people who've heard them are all People Who Matter.
posted by Simon! at 9:02 AM on June 22, 2008


Being attractive and/or connected probably doesn't hurt either.
posted by box at 9:06 AM on June 22, 2008


I read it almost ten years ago, but this article about Train when they were just starting to break still sticks in my mind. It's the most vivid picture I've seen of how much work goes into breaking your band.

In terms of a band that appears to have just come out of nowhere and is suddenly playing The Late Show or a similar late-night show, I think in most cases they've demonstrated the ability to draw crowds, enough to impress a label, which has then thrown the weight of their marketing department behind the band (much as AV said). Major labels are interested in bands who have demonstrated that they can make money; that tends to be an important factor in signing a band. A lot of bands demonstrate this by selling discs at shows; those that don't pull big enough crowds to show they can sell tickets.

Once a band has gotten signed, internal label politics can play a big factor in which band gets the publicity department pushing for a spot on TV or really working the press.

While there are exceptions, it seems to me that most acts on TV (national network TV) are on major labels, and are getting the attention they get because of major label promotional clout.
posted by kristi at 12:28 PM on June 22, 2008


Meh, there isn't a secret formula. You don't have to be on a major label or have a massive PR machine behind you at all. Some TV shows/films have exceptionally tasteful and/or widely knowledgeable music supervisors/bookers. (The OC was an example of this.)

Some bands have broken this way from being popular on Myspace. Also helpful is being from a city where TV shows and movies are made, like LA or NYC. (Increases the possibility that you know someone who knows someone and etc.)
posted by loiseau at 1:43 PM on June 22, 2008


The answers above don't stress two things enough: money and connections. Bands hire PR companies to send their records to magazines, newspapers, blogs, radio stations, and labels. Your favorite mp3 bloggers don't usually just discover the bands they write about in some dive bar. They get their records in the mail with a PR company's stamp on them. It costs a lot to hire someone to do that for you. It also costs a lot to go on tour, and to have good equipment, a good practice space, good photographs, and a good web site. You can do all of that without having a lot of money, but it's a lot harder.

Being well-connected works the same way. When you've got friends and family in the media a lot of things come easier than they would otherwise.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:46 PM on June 22, 2008


All the PR and promotion cannot and will not help a sucky band. I don't know if you would consider Vampire Weekend "famous" (they did play "Saturday Night Live" and were on the cover of Spin Magazine), but when they started out, they sent a burned CD demo with their band name scribbled in Sharpie to radio stations. Completely unimpressive presentation, but the songs stood on their own and look where they are now.

So, my answer to your question is, talent.
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 4:08 PM on June 22, 2008


When I was an arts editor I would listen to bands that e-mailed me their MySpace URL but only if it was personally sent to me and not some lame-ass press release (I really, really despise the way PR folk write stylistically... yech).

I actually preferred this method to receiving CDs, because unwrapping the plastic, loading in the CD, opening iTunes, etc. would take more time. Plus it is less environmentally friendly.

But even solid, non-blinding MySpace pages featuring a bunch of your songs won't get you anywhere if you don't have the talent and something unique to offer. I got approached by plenty of talented bands, but they bored the shit out of me, so guess what? I didn't cover them. If you have that unique something though, it won't take much to get your local media to notice you, esp. if you guestlist them for your shows. Getting connected and doing side projects with established bands in your city is also a shoe-in. Arts journalists and music bloggers are itching to spot the next big thing so they can plant their big hipster flags on you to claim you as their own. So if your musician-friends start pimping you out when journalists ask them about their latest favourite bands, then you might very well become buzzed.
posted by Menomena at 4:19 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


All the PR and promotion cannot and will not help a sucky band.

Sure it will. Plenty of sucky bands do well, and a sucky band with good PR has a better shot than a sucky band with no PR. Suckiness is subjective though.

I don't know if you would consider Vampire Weekend "famous" (they did play "Saturday Night Live" and were on the cover of Spin Magazine), but when they started out, they sent a burned CD demo with their band name scribbled in Sharpie to radio stations. Completely unimpressive presentation, but the songs stood on their own and look where they are now.

Of course that's how a band wants people to perceive them. I don't have any inside info on VW, and this is not a comment on their music, but they're an NYC band full of Columbia grads. I'd be extremely surprised if they didn't have expensive PR help. Not a great example.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:01 PM on June 22, 2008


box: "Being attractive and/or connected probably doesn't hurt either."

Bingo! We have a winner. I play in a band fronted by two blondes and a redhead and they are hot as well as incredibly talented. I'm under no illusions that the gaggle of dudes who crowd the stage are there to check out my guitar playing. Its a tried and true formula that works when nothing else does. This three-pronged attack has worked to get our feet in the door of places that would normally take a pass. They know its part of the game and the deftly play it.

All the PR and promotion cannot and will not help a sucky band.

Wrong. In the beginning it helps immensely. Our manager has always told us "I'm selling the sizzle - not the steak." If a band truly sucks ass, they won't last long but if they can bring the rock or whatever, hell they've got a hell of a head start.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:42 PM on June 22, 2008


Shrugs to KevinSkomsvold and ludwig_van. I won't divulge any additional information in a tiny attempt to protect my anonymity 'round these parts, but I will say my knowledge of VW is not a perception, and leave it at that. If your band is really good, I believe you'll get the attention you deserve.
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 11:07 PM on June 22, 2008


There are numerous layers of the music biz (and varying levels of success) that different posters are talking about. From one week to the next on a show like Saturday Night Live, you might see two bands who've arrived there by completely different means. Obviously the Arcade Fire and the latest American Idol winner have chosen very different career paths. They probably have pretty different goals. So while to some extent you can discuss "the music industry" you have to acknowledge that it's not a monolith and that people aspire to different things, for different reasons, and define success in different ways, and approach it all with vastly different ethics. For some, being plucked from obscurity by a music supervisor who uses their song in a commercial is an ethical conflict but often an acceptable way to get better known and sell some more records in order to continue to do what they're doing on their own terms. For others it might be an exciting stepping stone to a major-label deal. What's the point of this? Just to say that we're probably all talking about the same thing, and are mostly right, but since there are so many ways to get to the same place and so many different places to go it's kind of pointless to discuss it like all artists are on the same level and have the same aspirations.

That being said, just because your band is good absolutely does not mean you'll get the attention you deserve. It's just not true. Lots of people toil in obscurity. Lots of very good musicians can't make a living at it. Just because newbie hotshots like Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys or Tokyo Police Club or Clap Your Hands Say My Band Name Is Too Long get lucky doesn't mean that the world's a fair place. I know many many people who've worked much harder for much longer than those kids (some since those kids were in diapers) and who objectively deserve it more.

And also: as a former music writer I can testify that professional PR can work well against you. You wouldn't believe the trees that have been needlessly sacrificed for the press kits that the PR machine emanates every single day. I seriously don't need a pocket folder with your logo pasted to the front and an 8x10 glossy, okay?!
posted by loiseau at 3:15 AM on June 23, 2008


There's an interesting book by the drummer of Semisonic on this topic: So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. His reaction seems to be "how the hell did I end up on the Tonight Show stage?", so it's not like anyone necessarily knows they "why".

As far as TV, SNL in particular sometimes seems to try to "break" bands that someone at the show must have fallen in love with. Like sometimes a band will be on SNL way before they would seem to have "earned it", in order to seem more relevant and hip. Sometimes you look back and it's very surprising who they give a slot to.
posted by smackfu at 9:29 AM on June 23, 2008


Shrugs to KevinSkomsvold and ludwig_van. I won't divulge any additional information in a tiny attempt to protect my anonymity 'round these parts, but I will say my knowledge of VW is not a perception, and leave it at that. If your band is really good, I believe you'll get the attention you deserve.

You are so horrendously wrong it makes me sad.

I've spent a good portion of my life trying to help independent bands get somewhere. Admittedly, the majority of them are mediocre at best. However, I've seen plenty of insanely talented bands who play lots of local and regional shows trying to get noticed and build a fanbase and not get noticed. Your band being really good doesn't mean your band will get noticed.

One band was so good, in fact, that despite the fact they often played shows as small as people, those people who'd seen them for the first time were so blown away that on several occasions the lead singer of the band was asked for autographs. I guess people thought for sure they'd be big someday, so get the autograph now. I saw it happen at at least half a dozen shows of theirs ranging from 25 people to 200 people.

Where'd that band go? Nowhere.
posted by twiggy at 11:39 PM on July 1, 2008


I'm sorry you're feeling sad, Twiggy.

I've spent the majority of my life helping independent bands get heard, too. So, I can say from experience, that things like attractive band members, fancy press kits, or anything of that ilk has absolutely no affect on what we do. In fact, a lot of the best bands we hear are handed to us on burned CDs, handwritten sleeves, recorded at home, what-have-you... but the talent is there, and THAT's what makes us take notice.

I know my opinion is unpopular, and it's certainly idealistic, but everyday, I truly get to see it in action. And, success means a lot of different things to different bands. Many of them don't want to be the next Clap Your Hands Say My Band Name Is Too Long (heh), but since the OP specifically asked about how bands get on TV shows, I used a newbie hotshot band as an example. And the OP also asked how bands get noticed before even releasing an album, and Vampire Weekend fit that description as well since they were on the cover of Spin Magazine before their debut even hit stores. And personally, I don't even like their music!
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 12:52 AM on July 2, 2008




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