Tuesday, 17 July 2012

#LongReads: Buzz Bands RIP


I haven't done any free-form writing on the blog for a while, but now that I've said bye bye to Don't Panic I feel I have the time to do so again. And the topic that's been cropping up in conversation with fellow music-loving friends time and time again over the last few weeks has been that of disappointing gigs played by buzz bands. Specifically, these tend to be those with blog-hyped bands scraping together thirty minute sets, sounding little like the mp3s that initially showed promise and performing with either a hint of arrogance spawned by said hype, or a quivering nervousness.

Needless to say, these shows are rarely fun. The last one I went to was headlined by a young Nordic act whose shimmering swells of synths, samples and sighing vocals have left me hitting repeat on my iPod for months. I'm not going to name names, but they burst their way into my top 50 tracks of 2011 last December based on their keen ear for a pop melody and are also signed to one of my favourite labels.

Regardless, when I found myself shoulder to shoulder with other eager fans packed into the room the spreading disappointment was palpable by approximately the third song. And mind you, most people there were baffled that the entire set only stretched to another three songs or so on top of that: I couldn't shake the feeling that this band just weren't ready for the platform they'd been given. It seemed like a combination of nerves and lack of live experience were going to swiftly turn a dream gig into a patchy affair that, while still lukewarm, did little to ignite an impassioned performance from the band or rapturous reception from the crowd.

But online, their track record is still so strong. So should their inability to deliver the goods in one London showcase negate all the previous praise thrown their way? And, leading on from there, are we now living in a world where capable and talented bedroom musicians should be allowed to call themselves performers? Has the very hype machine that sets out to propel them away from anonymity cursed them into a rushed burn-out career?

One bold case that goes against this concept of bands who can't live up to the hype and should stick to GarageBand is Brooklyn's Friends. This four-piece, fronted by the devastatingly sexy and undeniably charismatic Samantha Urbani have only been making music together for a couple of years but showed their flair for performance (and then some) on their first-ever string of UK dates last autumn. They demonstrated the tight-knit cohesion of a band that use live instruments and don't rely on pre-recorded samples or the booming bass of drum machines to lend their songs gravity in a live setting.

Both Friends and the average Nordics played the same London venue on different nights, but had the crowd feeding off their energy and skill in ways that lean dangerously close to polar opposites. In the case of Urbani's band, they sat below the radar for a good year or so before the blogosphere took note of them, and in that time hashed out rehearsals and DIY recording sessions together - the fruits of their labour can be seen now, in harsh contrast to the watered-down vocals and timid show I stood through earlier this year.

As hype acts get snapped up faster and faster by PR representation, record deals and international management teams, more pressure is placed on new artists to get straight out on the road and play those much right-click-saved songs to baying crowds. This new model is spinning faster than it seems anyone can control. That includes the bands, the press spin doctors, the avid music news sites always keen to know about The Next Big Thing first and the bemused gig-goers. I worry the industry is compromising on quality in a bid to stay up to speed. And every time I watch another nervous new act stumble their way through a few songs onstage, that worry grows.

It'll be interesting to see how the new music industry, which is increasingly based online and becoming a self-congratulating exclusive club of writers, publicists and tastemakers, keeps up its quality control. A balance needs to be struck between having faith in new acts when they're still finding their feet, and jumping on the hype bandwagon of a song or two before the band responsible has actually become a band. An act that's never played live is not a band. It's that simple. And while a really good set on Soundcloud is still something to be proud of, those songs automatically lose staying power if they haven't been torn apart in hours of rehearsal and tested on a few audiences first.

It's a cliché, but practise makes (the closest thing to) perfect.

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