Dispatch January 2010

New Sound, Old Strategy

The band Salem plays a 21st-century blend of rap, techno, rock, and metal. But don’t look for their music on iTunes—they release only albums on vinyl.

Salem is a band born for the new decade. Band members look like Goth-tinged indie rockers and make music that sounds like some otherworldly derivation of rap, techno, rock, and metal. Their concerts feature fog-machines and a video projection of burning cars and police chases. They make their music at home on laptops and second-hand samplers. They promote it on a website with a streaming player and lo-fi videos. Most of their fans first discover them on the blogs.

But Salem is confounding the conventional wisdom in the music world for young bands by selectively shunning the digital era. The band has issued five albums, each of them vinyl-only, and each of them now sold out. They put few tracks on iTunes. Nothing is available in stores. Every request for a “repress” of the vinyl has been turned down.

At their rare live shows, band members John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donoghue, each of them a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, hardly acknowledge their audience. Obscured by smoke and images, the band members chat between songs, share cigarettes with each other, and wander around checking the connections on their synths. This attitude toward performance is typical to the underground genre Salem represents. Watching the band play should make the audience member feel invisible.

“We aren’t the kind of band that gets its energy from the audience,” explains John Holland. “We get it from the music, from the loudness which we can feel on stage.”

“It’s like when you see a storm, a really powerful storm, but it’s quiet,” continues Heather Marlatt. “It’s just really intense in the distance.”

But the lack of traditional stage presence can be alienating to traditional critics. At a recent sold-out show at Glasslands, an only semi-legal-feeling venue in a not-so-easy-to-get-to corner of Williamsburg, New York, the well overcapacity crowd included R.EM.’s Michael Stipe and art star Terence Koh. A brief New York Times review, however, derided the performance as “hollow.” But what’s missing isn’t the core, it’s the façade; the band is up there alone, as if playing for itself in a practice space. To call Salem “hollow” would be like catching an early performance by an iconic late 1980s shoegaze band— say Ride or Slowdive—and calling it “distracted.”

Salem owes the popularity of its albums and shows to its own its members’ musical skills. Both Holland and Marlatt attended Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy where they received classical training in piano, cello, guitar, percussion, and voice.

But the band is also indebted to the record release strategy it has followed so far. A typical run of 500 albums disappears from online stores overnight. “It develops a true group of buyers, which is the perfect scenario. Each record has sold out within a week of being released,” says Chicago-based A&R guru Patrick North, who manages Salem and owns the indie record label that put out the band’s first EP. “In an age when you can type a band’s name into Google and hit play without ever leaving Google, physical records become fetish objects.”

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Jacob Brown lives and writes in New York and is an editor at V, a leading high-fashion/underground-culture magazine.

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