Hip acts increasingly find that the easiest way to get talked about is to stay silent
Introducing... The Weeknd?
It usually starts the same way. Some band posts a song to a music sharing site like Bandcamp or SoundClick. One person sends it to two people, who each send it to four, and so on, until it gets picked up by a music blog like Gorilla vs. Bear or Brooklyn Vegan and then aggregated on the Hype Machine. A week later, the band has caught the attention of record labels, tastemakers, and promoters.
But everyone wants to know, who is this act? They won't do interviews, so all anyone has to go on is two MP3s and a low-resolution profile picture where they're too far away from the camera to make out anyone's face. And still, Pitchfork just gave their song the Best New Music designation. They're booked for a South by Southwest showcase. Fifteen days have passed, and the band is now the blogosphere's next big thing—even though the blogosphere couldn't recognize the band on the street.
This is how underground bands come of age in 2011.
"Mystery" is quickly becoming the default PR strategy for breaking indie acts. Over the past two years, groups like WU LYF, the Weeknd, jj, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Shabazz Palaces have drawn attention even as they've turned down interviews, concealed their likenesses, and, in some cases, withheld their own names.
Deception has been common as well: At the start of their blog-buzz rise, New York ‘60s girl-group soundalikes Cults, for example, played a few shows as "Lady MJ and the Highwater Bong Boys." Drone-making trio Salem made a name for themselves, in part, by basically grunting their way through interviews. Others release stylized art in lieu of standard press pictures. Drake-affiliated Toronto R&B vanguards the Weeknd have worked this angle with measured uniformity, posting their songs to YouTube with original black and white photos that look scanned from late-‘70s issues of Vogue.
Mark Richardson, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, says the latest wave of press-avoidant buzzcatchers may have started with Tom Krell, the Brooklyn artist who records ambient bedroom-pop under the name How To Dress Well. His music appeared in late 2009 in a series of anonymous blog posts.
"It was a multimedia project without knowing much about the guy behind it," Richardson says. "But even as quickly as a year later, [this approach] now is starting to feel a little bit like a cliché."
"There is some sophisticated thought going into when to stop and start press so that you can stay relevant, wanted and viable in the public eye," says publicist Kathryn Frazier
Before Krell, there was UK electronic artist Burial, a pioneer of the country's dubstep genre. His 2006 self-titled release and 2007 follow-up Untrue were exalted by critics, but his true name—William Bevan—wasn’t published until a British tabloid chased him out of hiding in 2008. "He's somebody who seems to have made a huge difference in the way that music exists in London and probably throughout the world," says Matthew Schnipper, editor-in-chief of Fader. "Doesn't want to talk about it. And that's his prerogative."
The smoke-and-mirrors technique plays on human psychology at its most basic: the need to know. It's also a rejection of the mixtape-a-minute, chatterbox tactics that made Lil Wayne ubiquitous on magazine covers and Deerhunter ubiquitous on MP3 blogs late last decade.
Perhaps as importantly, maintaining mystique gives bands a greater degree of control over their own image, safeguarding against the the sort of over-hype that made Brooklyn band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah a somewhat cautionary tale around 2005. So overwhelming was the buildup, many listeners were turned off before really giving their music a chance.
Ironically, most of these artists do have publicists whose job it is to make sure they don't receive too much attention—the traditional sort, at least.
"I've been doing/not doing press like this for years," Kathryn Frazier, owner of Biz 3 Publicity, writes in an email. Her client roster includes enigmatic acts like Salem and Crystal Castles. "It's laughable to hear artists publicly proclaim an aversion to press—an oxymoron, if you will, in these days of the Internet. A trend I'm seeing in our work with artists is less reliance on national print press and more efforts into virals and song leaks on the Internet that we orchestrate. It's all still press and PR, it's just done in different ways now."