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.”

Returning music to the physical domain, at the right stage in a band’s development, helps create more rapid, viral, word-of-mouth Internet buzz. Indeed North operates exclusively on the Internet. He’s never lived in New York, Los Angeles, or any other capital of creative industry. Yet he is credited with discovering and/or bringing to release major international acts like the Teenagers, the Tough Alliance, and Crystal Castles.

In today’s world of MP3s, the big record labels continue to make money off established acts but are dumbfounded when it comes to breaking new ones. North is not, and his acumen has not gone unnoticed. Universal Music’s famed Australian subsidiary Modular Records, home to bands like Cut Copy and Wolfmother, is about to announce that North will take over its North American operations. Under North, Modular aims to begin signing American bands and breaking them on an international scale.

If North makes Salem a success, a whole new genre of music--dubbed by some insiders as “dragged”--may follow it into the mainstream. Salem is part of a far-flung collection of bands playing this new genre of dark, distorted, slowed-down music that has taken over the world’s dingier stages. The sound has roots in numerous underground styles including juke and footwork. But most significant is a hip hop remixing technique—pioneered in the early 1990s by DJ Screw of Houston, Texas—wherein the constituent tracks of a song are slowed down, sometimes beyond recognition. Traces of the technique, often called “chopped and screwed,” are found all over current pop music, including in the odd vocal style of platinum-selling rapper Lil Wayne. Official chopped and screwed editions of his albums Tha Carter I and Tha Carter II are even available on Amazon.

The dragged scene extends beyond music and into the visual realm. Bands (and their fans) post spooky, occult-tinged images—usually in the archaic *.GIF file format—all over their websites and MySpace pages, and the aesthetic informs their fashion, live shows, and album artwork. This visual component isn’t restricted to online forums; the Berlin-based artist collective AIDS-3D, featuring the youngest artists to be included in the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2009 triennial “Younger Than Jesus,” uses this type of imagery as its medium, and in doing so has brought dragged into the world of high art. But aside from AIDS-3D’s museum and gallery gigs, the genre as a whole remains largely in the shadows. Salem seems poised to change that.

If the Salem template is any indication, Patrick North’s Modular could bring aid to an ailing industry. Or at least bring a lot of good music to people’s attention. In the meantime, Salem’s currently unnamed first full-length release is due out this spring from IAMSOUND Records. It won’t be limited edition.