I interviewed Aaron in 2014, just weeks before the New Zealand-native indietronica group would perform at The Governor’s Ball Music Festival. I had contacted about ten talent management organizations for interviews with some of the artists attending the festival. CRS Management, who at the time managed The Naked and Famous, was the only talent group that expressed any interest. The effort CRS put in to coordinate an interview between Aaron and I was worth the while.
The guest blogger and author of this post, Gary Reese, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” on Idolforums and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” on The Voice Forums have received several page views. These pages have given Holly Henry the “third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who as competed on “The Voice.”” I am happy to say that in 2015, Gary’s guest blog was the fourth most viewed article on Music Historian.
No. 3 – An artist who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes
My interview with George Mihalopoulos, also known by his stage name, Gypsy George, had opened doors to several themes: entrepreneurship; creativity in today’s music business; and being bicultural in America. I initially learned about this artist while researching the music roster for The Northside Festival. His name first grabbed my attention. When I asked the American-Greek artist how he decided to choose his stage name, and call his band – The Open Road Love Affair – I knew I was an for an interesting story. According to the numbers generated by the readership, I might have been on to something.
No. 2 – Lessons from a prolific slide-guitarist: Better to be a trendsetter than a ‘trend-follower’
Throughout his career as a professional slide-guitar player, Arlen performed on television, taught famous performers, and even acted as a director for a popular film. However; he never strayed away from his life as an artist and a teacher. Arlen says that showing an artist’s passion is what he is all about. Arlen’s stories of where he has been, his experiences and the lessons he has learned attracted many readers in 2015.
No. 1 – The story of how a Las Vegas band started their journey, even after they have made it “big,” remains a favorite
When I interviewed Ben McKee in 2012 for a story on Music Historian, I never imagined this story would attract so many readers, nor would I believe that someone would cite my article in their work! I continue to feel so grateful for this opportunity. Also, I feel humbled that so many readers continue to enjoy this post.
Although it is a few days late, I wish you, my loyal readers, a very Happy New Year! Thank you for your readership.
If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.
The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.
The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.
The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.
While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.
The A&R Movement: Where music is headed
Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.
Trends in Music
Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.
On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.
A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not
One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.
If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.
In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.
On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.
Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs
Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.
If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.
What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.
So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.
The Take Away
The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.
Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.
Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions
This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.
I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”
Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.
Some of the Songs up for Critique
The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”
Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”
The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.
A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists
Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.
One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”
An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”
As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.
The Take Away
All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.
“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”
Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”
They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.
So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.
Online Media Music Discovery
Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.
Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player
As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.
Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention
The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.
On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.
Do Use Social Media to Create Attention
Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.
Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention
Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”
In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.
Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them
Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.
Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.
Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big
Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.
The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.
Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.
Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”
He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.
“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”
New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.
If you came to the Governors Ball Music Festival on Randall’s Island for the first time this year, you probably learned to expect the unexpected. For one, I learned the shuttle from 126th Street and Lexington Avenue to the West End entrance to the festival is far more convenient than walking the bridge, which stretches along the entire length of the Triborough Bridge. If you really want to experience the bridge, which results in a 30 minute leisurely walk or a 15 minute jog (at 5mph), go for it, as long as you are not running late for the show.
The Chain Gang of 1974 and Little Daylight at the Gotham Tent
I ran to the grass field underneath the Gotham tent from the East end entrance to catch the last few seconds of The Chain Gang of 1974’s performance of “Sleepwalking,” the single from the Los-Angeles based band’s second full-length release, Daydream Forever. Afterward, Kamtin Mohager introduced the closing song for their set, the hit that most fans recognize from their 2011 debut Wayward Fire, “Hold On.” The strength about this performance lays in the fact that the band was able to display plenty of gusto in their performance, and the lead singer’s efforts in paying attention to the audience members at the right hand and left hand corners of the standing area just beyond the stage was appreciated by the audience.
My only criticism at this moment focuses around the tent as a proper performance space. The speaker for the bass player might have been too loud, preventing me to hear the little nuances in “Hold On,” like the little trills in the last two minutes of the song that are produced by a synthesizer. However, this might also have something to do with the elongated tent. A highly raised canopy over the entire audience standing area and the sound control panel possibly made the sound bounce more than project.
I experienced the same loudness with the next band Little Daylight. Luckily, the timbre of the lead singer’s voice and the rhythm-driving synthesizers in the songs stirred my intrigue about this band’s musical style. Little Daylight is one band to research in the future.
Charging Stations and Conversations at the Miller Lite Tent
After Little Daylight’s performance which concluded at 1:30pm, I scouted the festival area to see the different business vendors, merchandise tables, game areas and food stations. By 2:30pm, the battery on my Samsung Galaxy had a life just below 50% and I knew I had to find a charging station quickly. At the festival, Citi Bank has a charging station for Citi Bank card holders. Then, the lounges reserved for VIP ticket holders had charging stations, but exclusively for these customers. My last hope was the Miller Lite lounge between the Gotham Tent and the Governors Ball Stage. I successfully found a station – a small bar table – where I could charge my phone, place my iPad mini, and chat with some interesting fellow concert goers.
The first visitor came from Melbourne, Australia. A college student who was traveling after completing a semester abroad in Los Angeles. He booked a ticket for the ball in January to see Outkast, and had come to the festival early where he waited to meet up with a friend. The other was a resident of Queens, who had moved to the states from the Philippines when she was 13 years old. She had also come to see Outkast, and while she planned to meet with friends for the entire three days, she claimed she wanted to attend the festival by herself for a few hours.
The young college student claimed that spending the first few hours of the festival alone enabled her to partake in additional musical acts and activities the festival had to offer without compromising her preferences. This reminded me of one of the perks of attending festivals alone – answering only to yourself.
The third stranger stood across from me from the bar table. He currently studies music business in college, and he came to the festival to see both Phoenix and Outkast. As I typed notes on my iPad mini, he told me about the festival last year and the shows that were cancelled due to Tropical depression Andrea – a storm that had not affected me, but certainly affected those who attended the concert. Luckily, many of the bands set to perform during that unfortunate storm were rescheduled the next day. Trust me, wet New Yorkers, who spent hundreds of dollars on a festival ticket never want to hear that the band they paid so much for and traveled long distances to see, cancelled the show.
The final visitor I spoke to came from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and he talked to us about the difference in security etiquette and people’s behavior at Bonnaroo versus The Governors Ball Music Festival. Apparently, Bonnaroo allows visitors to bring with them a specific amount of alcohol into the premise as opposed to Governors Ball. Based on experience where I saw a member of the security staff empty the booze from one man’s whiskey flask, I can attest this festival very strictly imposed a zero-tolerance rule. All alcohol had to be bought and consumed inside the festival gates.
Some Market Research: How Guests Used the Governors Ball Smartphone App
I asked these four visitors how they created their plan for the festival. They used the free Governors Ball Music Festival app. I too used the app and conducted a simple quantitative marketing research, a T-test in which I analyzed the number of times app users scheduled specific shows within their own course in comparison the number of app users who said they “liked” a band playing at the festival.
The data showed that more people scheduled bands than “liking” them and my initial hypothesis was the means for the samples of these two populations were very different. I then ran the test, and thanks to some help from one of my Facebook friends, I rejected my initial hypothesis. In layman terms, there was no difference in the mean of the two sample sizes of those visitors who included a band in their itinerary, and those who simply “liked” a band; those who scheduled the band perhaps did not bother to “like” the band.
All four concert goers claimed they used the app more for scheduling purposes than for fandom entertainment. I happily gathered some qualitative marketing research to help support the T-test results. Plus, it brought me great pleasure to find a way to mix what I learned in my Business School curriculum with social data from a large-scale musical event.
Janelle Monae and Bastille
As 3:00pm approached, I checked my Governors Ball Music Festival app and saw that I had to head to the Governor Ball stage for Janelle Monae’s set. During her set, I experienced the importance of little steps to the perfect spot within the audience that would give me an excellent view of the stage. While I got a view of the stage, I was so far away from Janelle Monae, I could only take pictures of her from a distance. Here was the best I could do; and in the midst of all my efforts, I indulged in the sounds of her hits “Electric Lady” and my personal favorite, “Queen.”
My experience with seeing Janelle Monae taught me that if I wanted to have a better view, a closer view of the stage and the artists performing, I had to arrive at a set at least 20 minutes early to beat the stand-stills of the crowd and squalor and ultimately, get a decent place for taking pictures. Luckily, whether a large mass of people dominates a large outdoor space or an intimate indoor setting, the performing artist can facilitate a sense of community among listeners. Bastille demonstrated this in their performance by performing covers of songs from the ‘90’s many of the audience members, especially those around the age of the band members, knew very well. These selections included “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona, and TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
Aside from creating a temporary sense of musical nostalgia among attendees; Bastille’s covers helped the audience sing along comfortably and confidently with the band. Of course, let’s not forget that members of the audience had come to listen to and watch live performances of Bastille’s original record, Bad Blood. Here is a snippet of one of their songs titled “Blame.”
At a particular point in the set, singer Dan Smith left the stage to travel through the crowded audience, followed by a single bodyguard while he sang the vocals to the song. Although this move easily excited the public, the tone of the atmosphere felt civilized. Everybody is respectful of each other’s space, including the musician’s. However, one audience member did overstep her – at least I assume it’s she – boundaries when she threw a bra on the stage. Dan picked up the undergarment and read the message penned on the inside of the cup aloud. I don’t remember the message verbatim, but I believe it suggested that Dan should Snapchat with her sometime. I recall that one of the musicians hung that bra on the keyboard and left it there for the remainder of the set.
When I asked a member of The Naked and Famous, Aaron Short, to share one of his favorite moments as a professional musician, he told me, “Every time our manager tells us there is a free buffet breakfast included with our hotel room. It doesn’t take a lot to please us. Imagine how we reacted when a label from the UK wanted to sign us?”
One could definitely say Aaron has learned to appreciate the simpler things in life, especially as The Naked and Famous’ journey grows more exciting, opportunity-filled, successful and complicated. Continuing my conversation with Aaron, he then talked about the New Zealand-native Indietronica band’s big move to Los Angeles.
“Between the time we left New Zealand for our Passive Me, Aggressive You tour in 2010 and landing in Los Angeles in 2012, is a blur of 200 or so shows around the world. We were very ready to pick a spot to settle once we reached the end of it, and LA made sense to us for many reasons,” explains Aaron.
The favorable turn-out of their career in the U.S. provided one motivation for the band to stay in this country, and Aaron even mentions they did not want to “stray too far from a good thing.” Additional motivational factors include affordable avocados, rapid internet connection, and a peaceful house just outside of Hollywood. In this home, the band transformed one of the rooms into a little demo studio, a room that would become the birthplace of their latest album, In Rolling Waves.
As I thoroughly researched the band in the press, and listened to their music from their 2010 release, and 2014 album, I definitely felt a strong sense of artistic development. The Naked and Famous are currently between tours – having just finished Coachella and now taking on the Groovin The Moo Tour in Australia. Aaron very graciously took some time out to talk with me about the band and share the story of this group thus far. One of the parts within the story he shared that stood out for me was his forecast of a third album on the horizon, which he describes as “the next chapter in our book once this current tour is complete.”
While The Naked and Famous work towards completing their Australian tour, and what is most likely the band’s current chapter, I examine the earlier chapters of this band’s life through Aaron’s point of view. I am happy to welcome The Naked and Famous to Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.
Chapter 1: The Rule of Performing Live
When Aaron met Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith at Auckland’s MAINZ music college in 2008, he did not consider himself a part of the band, nor really a musician. Instead, Aaron saw his future in co-producing within the studio environment. He credits Thom for being a “man with the plan.” Aaron recalls the moment they finished the band’s first EP titled This Machine.
“The demos we made doubled towards the end of term assessment submissions, which pretty much gained me that diploma. Thom was always a man with a plan though, and that [plan] was – make an EP, form a live band, get a song on college radio, play a few shows, and wing it from there, in that order.”
I wondered what Aaron meant by a “live band.” He explains, “Since day one, we’ve always had a rule that if something can’t be performed live, it shouldn’t really be in the recording. This law we followed was definitely more for us than the audience, and it dramatically changed our approach to writing, the way in which we recorded albums, and the live set up.
“What we have now is an incredibly exciting and active stage set up, which makes the songs much more satisfying to play. I find it is boring when I go to see a band play and hear a part [in their song] which sounds really cool, then I look around and realize no is actually playing.”
Learning this fact about The Naked and Famous’ approach to music also excited me. Based on what I initially understood from reading major popular music publications online; In Rolling Waves was the album that first incorporated this emphasis on the ability of successfully playing a song both live and in a recording. Luckily, the band has been doing this from the beginning.
Chapter 2: Push the Dynamics
Moving forward with the conversation, I wondered what changed in the recording experience of the band’s latest album compared to their first full-length debut in 2010, Passive Me, Aggressive You. When The Naked and Famous were writing their debut, the five members who – as Aaron explains – “draw from a massive range of musical influences” came to agree on one musical style.
“Though we all share many of the same favorites,” begins Aaron, “no one’s tastes perfectly match, which is beautiful. I personally come from a strong electronic music background compared to the rest, and this makes for an interesting dynamic when it comes to the production of our records.”
It is perhaps no surprise that, between the recordings of the two full-length albums, everything about the record-making experiences differed. Talking with Aaron, I felt Passive Me, Aggressive You was The Naked and Famous’ first chance to stretch their muscles as electronic musicians, helping create memorable and dreamy tracks like “Young Blood.” As for the second release, Aaron says:
“We put a lot more consideration into the parts being written and refined them to the point we felt they were as powerful as possible, without relying on the use of excessive production to make a track ‘big.’
“There is also this encompassing sense of being a little more grown up this time around. “Young Blood” was written as a demo in 2009, and we were 4 years on from that when In Rolling Waves was completed. You can definitely feel that in the themes of the lyrics, and the construction of the songs.
“We also made an effort to push the dynamics of this record; making those quiet moments even more delicate, and the darker and heavier moments more powerful than on the first record.”
The evolution in the lyrical themes between the two records will stand out to listeners. The lyrics in “Young Blood,” express a shaky love between two people – probably adolescents – who want to be together for no other reason than simply being together. The lyrics are:
We lie beneath the stars night/ Our hands gripping each other tight/ You keep my secrets hope to die/ Promises swear them to the sky…
Fast forward four years, the vocal timbre remains the same, but the tone behind the lyrics changed. Now, The Naked and Famous perform a slightly different tune in the song “Hearts Like Ours” which includes lyrics like:
Could we try to reinvent?/ Feed the head with common sense/ through the streets and avenues/ climbing up the walls with you…
The theme of growing up is evident to the listener in this song. Here, the story between the lovers may have started with the illusion of promise and might be now finishing at an impasse which is represented by the question ‘can we grow together and continue this journey, or should we part?’
Chapter 3: Cool Heights
One might say that time will change anybody’s attitude about their lover, life or even themselves. The same applies for artists. For The Naked and Famous though, their experiences as full-time professional musicians between 2009 and right now speaks louder than only the time that has passed between their album releases.
While the band did not make an additional full-length record between 2009 and 2014, The Naked and Famous did release B-Sides and Remixes which were extensions of their original works and compilations of songs that did not make the album. In addition, the band created a live film of their Passive Me, Aggressive You tour cycle in a live film they released in 2012 titled One Temporary Escape. Aaron says:
“We made it available for free download in HD and with fully mixed audio, as a nice way to wrap everything up before moving to the second album phase. Our live shows reached a pretty cool height at that point, and we want people to see how much better the show looked as opposed to watching if from one of the 10,000 shaky distorted mobile uploads on YouTube.”
Now, the band can expect plenty of additional mobile uploads from fans after “conquering two incredible weekends at Coachella” something the band has looked forward to for years. They are currently touring Australia, which according to Aaron, has involved enduring colder weather than they are typically used to, along with an overloaded van and plenty of long drives.
While Aaron did not mention anything in regards to a live film of the In Rolling Waves tour, fans can keep up with the band by following The Naked and Famous on Twitter – @tnaf – and Instragram – @tnaf. In the meantime, more information about their tour is available on their website thenakedandfamous.com. If you are a New Yorker, you have a chance to see The Naked and Famous perform amongst an exciting line up which includes Jack White, The Strokes, Fitz and the Tantrums, and many more on Saturday, June 7th at the Governors Ball Music Festival. Click here to get tickets.
The Next Chapter?
I feel fortunate to have caught one of the members of a band that is currently experiencing a riveting stage within their career. In addition, my conversation with Aaron reminds me of a piece of advice I received once during my time as an undergrad in Music History – “do what you love, and the rest will come.” Aaron’s experience perhaps parallels these words well.
For a musician though, ‘doing what you love’ is not always easy. Their career might involve relocating to faraway places, and taking on experiences filled with challenges like cross-country tours and squeezing in time for some publicity. Yet, getting to these experiences and achieving these benchmarks is part of the job, and the reward waiting for some, after the successful turnouts at shows, the large album sales, and the additional promotional merchandise, is a peaceful home and the beginning of another album. Although we so far only have a hint of news about a third record, The Naked and Famous would definitely say “We’re getting there.”
*All photos were published with permission from CRS Management in New Zealand