The sound, the cultural shifts, and the new way of doing business in the Internet-era music industry may have made the Strokes stars in 2001, but also contained the recipe for their undoing. Is Comedown Machine it for the Strokes?
A rumor spread across my college campus in the fall of 2001 almost as quickly as the album and band it concerned. It was the blue, halcyon September before September 11th, and each of us arrived at college toting cardboard boxes of CDs, hundreds and thousands of petroleum cases containing our musical lives. Some of the cooler among us had acquired a burned copy or the import original of The Strokes’ Is This It, released at the end of that July in Australia and in late August in the UK. The record circulated our small college campus that September with the viral vigor of an engaging secret. The music was passed with a rumor: “I heard they recorded it for less than $10,000,” we murmured and repeated. It was absurd and apocryphal, but we spread this too as we burned the music onto CDs and into our computers.
Is This It wouldn’t officially arrive in U.S. record stores until that October with a new puritanical album cover and the replacement of “New York City Cops” with “When It Started” in the wake of September 11, but the music was already rippling outwards at our school, connected to our weird rumor of its supposed “cheapness”. It was an exciting vulgarity, an invocation of a new age of free and freedom: $10,000 was nothing for a mainstream band. We knew just little enough to believe in its truth. The Strokes represented the laconic and edgy rock from downtown New York, a place of cheap or expensive thrills -- a place few of us knew then -- and $10,000; it seemed like a shockingly small sum of money in these last decadent years of the music industry.
This was how so many adolescents and post-adolescents heard the Strokes for the first time, a lent and burned CD of Is This It, then lent again, the organic beginnings of new ways of interacting with recorded music. Even with limited options for sharing and acquiring music, the world was changing anyhow. Napster suffered a court injunction shutdown in July 2001, and the iTunes Music Store, the first of many mainstream digital outlets, was still two years away from making owning music officially invisible. The rarity of high-speed Internet meant most albums were still passed hand-to-hand or on burned CD-Rs, a technology that seemed itself too good to be true. Clutched in grubby adolescent fingers, we passed our CD cases up and down freshman hallways, ripping entire collections into our brand new Mac laptops, a device that carried something far more generation-defining and transformative than any band: the iTunes music organizer. The Strokes’ debut album emerged as the sound and physical pillar of our growing collections, the intersection of this new music and this way of sharing music. This was the birth of a new cool.
We stood unwittingly on the edge of history, feet planted firmly in the era behind us and in the terrifying uncertainty of the one to come, petit monarchs in the age of Enlightenment. It was the first time many of us stole music with such regularity and carelessness. It didn’t feel particularly wrong, like passing along a good book. The fact that borrower could make an exact duplicate and then lend it to others was ancillary, or unintended collateral damage in the pursuit of new music and bands that would have otherwise remained a mystery to us. Our snow-globe universe began to expand. Time moved on and we used our high-speed college networks to take music from classmates we knew and didn’t via our colleges’ intranets. Peer-to-peer software might have been banned as a global model, but it was alive and well inside the walls of college campuses, the incubator of the next wave. As the music industry changed under our feet -- after all we were helping to change it -- the Strokes spun in our iTunes and through the speakers of our coveted Aiwa mini-systems.
The Strokes emerged the perfect band to ride this tectonic shift from musical feudalism to a more democratic marketplace, a system that would prove as destructive as it was creative. It had been the Age of Nickleback and Three Doors Down; Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment” flirted with ubiquity that summer and fall of 2001. Even in modern rock circles, the alleged “alternative” to mainstream radio, it was a world of Incubus, Staind, Korn, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, and Creed, each one aimed at an arena and awash in ProTools flourishes, churning guitars and a sense that $17.99 was exactly what music like this must cost. These were the great alienating bands of the late 1990s. The Strokes were different, representing a new paradigm; the very title of their record, even minus any punctuation as they intended, indicated a shrugging and half-impressed interrogative, “Is This It?” or the excited corollary response, “This is it.”
But it was the small ideas, the smallness of Is This It that revolutionized rock music and mainstream alternative for the coming decade and onwards. Cultural contrarians, the Strokes repeatedly said the recording of their debut EP The Modern Age would be about doing the opposite of everything they saw and heard around them. While Nickleback wouldn’t have to pack their things and head back to the Red States where they would remain popular into infinity, the Strokes crafted a third way between what was then acceptable on Modern Rock radio and the titanic but obscure indie rockers of the 1990s: Malkmus, Martsch, and Brock. Mainstreaming and commercializing the margins became the new project of modernity.
This was how the Strokes carved out a new cool and a new way of being. Gritty rock music, something that sounded cheap and dirty, like singer Julian Casablancas wailing into a wax-paper microphone, something that sounded at the time almost intentionally shitty, could still chart on Billboard. Casablancas called this “a raw efficiency,” in a May 2001 interview with NME, reflecting a desire to record without unnecessary takes and production. It amounted to a marketing of the heretofore unmarketable. The walls came down. If a basement band from the Lower East Side could ride into the top 50 on the Billboard charts and into the top 10 at Modern Rock Radio, the business landscape was trending toward the everyman, a democratization of culture and production that would destroy the CDs we passed to each other and destroy the music world as we understood it; Casablancas, Hammond, Moretti, Fraiture, and Valensi were the five horsemen riding on the horizon. This was the sound of the Age of Do It Yourself.
Of course, the Strokes were no DIY band at the time of the release of Is This It -- they had the backing of RCA and their Lord Fauntleroy background as prep school silver-spooners was well documented -- but they still came to represent the new avatar of a musical free-for-all. The band launched a thousand other guitar bands, groups of guys and girls who figured music didn’t need to sound perfect to be perfect. Downtown became cool again, and really, downtown could be anywhere; The Strokes were an attitude, not a place. The White Stripes continued this revolution with their mainstream popularity during 2002 when 2001’s White Blood Cells gained traction, but Jack White’s authenticity was daunting. Too many bands, Jet, most notably, would die trying to follow towards the summit of his legitimate weirdness and cool. Casablancas and the Strokes, perhaps for their very artifice in crafting their music and image or perhaps because they were prep school kids in Wayfarers and thrift store t-shirts, seemed better dealers of the commercialization of a rock revival, to sound DIY without actually needing to be DIY. Triple drivers, the business and cultural climates shifted with the spread of the Strokes’ music.
The original and untrue rumor of the band making Is This It for a low, five-figure sum began to look prophetic. Before 2001, mainstream music was supposed to be expensive, polished, and elite. Power was held in offices on Fifth Avenue, and labels selected bands out of regional markets and then pushed their music to radio, directing what bands the kids would choose their rebellion from. Within years, music would be effectively and troublingly free. Bands would control much more of their marketing, sales, and image-making on the Internet. Label money, ironically some of the same RCA money that allowed for the recording of Is This It, would begin drying up.
Casablancas and his crew represented the new era, even while they benefitted from the last great days of the recording industry empire. RCA signed the Strokes to a five-album deal in 2001, an almost inconceivably generous offer more than a decade later as the band finally completed the last record of the contract with its fifth LP, Comedown Machine. More importantly than the finances, the band created the sound, the shabby confidence and individualism that described the shifting cultural and business geography beneath their feet. They were right, this was The Modern Age. Unwittingly, though, this sound and these new modalities contained the recipe for the band’s undoing.