Hip acts increasingly find that the easiest way to get talked about is to stay silent
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."
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."
None of this is to say the tactic is new, of course.
"It actually used to be more prevalent in '90s when indie rock was at its height," Frazier says. "My first artist was Will Oldham, and he turned down very large pieces consistently... From Will into mysterious acts like Autechre and artists we have now like Daft Punk, there has always been this reaction that press want more what is unavailable to them."
Indeed, rejection of press has been the M.O. of present-day legends ranging from Lou Reed to Prince. But the shy or ornery stance that may have once seemed like principled eccentricity is now often part of a marketing plan, set in place before a band achieves even a smidge of fame.
"The Internet pummels everyone with so much information that things arise and pass with a fury," Frazier says. "I think 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. It seems more calculated now and frankly I think it can be smart if done well so an artist can survive."
Maintaining a covert image won't work for every act, however. There needs to be some kind of initial spark, be it incubation on message boards (as was the case with L.A. shock-rap newcomers Odd Future) or the co-sign of a more popular artist (Drake endorsing the Weeknd through his blog/vanity label, October's Very Own).
"If no one is looking to you, then saying you won't do press is like the question of the tree falling in a forest," Frazier says.
And most importantly, the band needs to possess some actual talent behind their carefully sewn emerald curtain.
"The group can't suck," Schnipper says. "You have to be good, and have some kind of confidence that what you're doing will speak for itself. But I think you probably also have to either, one, be completely naive, or two, have a pretty decent marketing plan. Because I know for a fact that these people can't be secretive forever. Like, I mean, Salem dressed up in fancy, straight-out-of-a-Dali-painting, gilded costumes for T Magazine. At some point, it doesn't work anymore."
Perhaps that's part of the tension that makes this phenomenon so alluring—deep down, listeners know that ultimately there will be some sort of reveal.
"It seems like the watershed moment is always, 'Are they going to start playing live,'" Richardson says. "Once that happens, the mystery kind of has to end. Once you start sharing a physical space with people, it dissolves very quickly."
From that point on, there has to be enough substance to the group to sustain them through the post-hype phase. Look at Die Antwoord. The South African rave-rap duo baited the media for months with a lewd web art, bizarre videos, scarce information, and exotic promise. Once people learned that they were a satirical act helmed by Johannesburg performance artist Watkin Tudor Jones, who had released music under other personas in the past, excitement for the group largely vanished, right on time for their Interscope debut, $O$, to debut at 109 on the Billboard 200—a flop by major-label standards.
In some cases, secrecy isn't contrived, but an actual symptom of an act coming from out of nowhere. Often, those bands unintentionally create the aura that most "mystery" groups go to great lengths to emulate.
"Of course some 14-year-old producer from some tiny island in the Netherlands is going to be mysterious," Schnipper says. "And when he comes out, it's just some kid. There's no mystery. It's mysterious if there's something to hide. What are you cloaking, that your name is Robert Jones, and you grew up in Ohio, and you're a sophomore in college? That's not a thing. When Cults finally showed themselves, it was like, 'Oh my God, there's a picture of... two people.' And that doesn't do anything. Every band is two people or four people. Every band is just some guy. And at this point, being mysterious is just that."
None of the bands mentioned in this article were available for comment.