As the music industry landscape undergoes yet another shift, the traditional marketing template is on the verge of extinction. The overwhelmingly positive commercial response to Radiohead’s recent download-only release is a harbinger of things to come, and similarly established artists like Nine Inch Nails are prepping their own recordings to surf the web for potential sales windfalls. The clout that Radiohead and NIN carry with them is certainly a mitigating factor to the success of their current (and prospective) electronic releases, but what of indie bands aggressively distancing themselves from the pack? Is a targeted online distribution strategy the key for an independent up-and-comer? Can an unsigned artist craft its own blueprint for recording and distribution, and make it commercially viable? New York’s Me Talk Pretty thinks so, and is charging hard with its self-managed, self-promoted business plan. Building a steady buzz on radio, on stage, and as a featured performer at the 2007 CMJ Music Marathon, the feisty foursome has dispensed with the standard “play and pray” methodology for reaching the next level, and garnered industry attention in the process. Guitarist Leon Lyazidi sits down with PopMatters to discuss the merit of a digital release concept, his band’s new twin EP recordings, and how Me Talk Pretty beat Radiohead to the ‘Net by nearly five months.
Explain the somewhat non-traditional route you’ve gone with the new album.
With the new release, RUBY, our first full-length recording, we decided to split it up into two EPs and release them separately. At first, we were kind of nervous about doing this, just because we felt that as a new band, we needed to produce as much material as possible. But we figured that if we marketed and timed the release of the EPs correctly, we could take advantage of a steady increase of interest as people learned about the band. In addition to staggering the EPs, we decided to release the first one as digital-only. The way the industry has been, we felt that going a traditional route wouldn’t really set us apart from anyone else. Touring is too expensive to do on a consistent basis, but it’s necessary. And the web isn’t a terrible second option. There’s a lot of great music out there, so anything you can do to bring light to what you are doing is good. At this time in the music industry, there’s lots of new and amazing websites doing some pretty cool things for indie bands. Sites like Discrevolt.com, Mytracks.com, and Snocap.com have found ways to maximize exposure in non-traditional ways … download cards, college music databases, and MySpace respectively.
Did lack of a “hard” product present any unforeseen challenges, or alter the standard marketing template of “press a disc and tour”?
RUBY has been out digitally since May 2007, and we still haven’t really found a challenge with targeting our type of listeners. That’s the beauty of music on the Internet … there are specific sites and areas in social networks that basically have built-in audiences that you can tap into right away. If you stay persistent and communicate with your target audience, then you’ll succeed in marketing the release. Now, even though releasing the first EP digitally was a success for us, there hasn’t been one show, or one day where we haven’t had someone asking for an actual disc. I think the industry realized a while ago that instant gratification is what drives people to buy music. Consumers want their music right away, and the ability to do whatever they care to do with it, which has led to the iPod and iTunes revolution. But we’ve learned that even the small downtime between the end of a live set and the time it takes to get home and download what was just heard is prohibitive to certain fans.
So despite the relatively simple accessibility of an online offering, there’s no substitute for having something physical in one’s possession for certain buyers?
Exactly. Radiohead got a massive response to their recent download offering, but they’re still pressing a hard product, I think in January, and it’s supposed to have enhanced sound clarity, etc. But the very fact that their download did so well in its first couple days validates what we did with RUBY at the beginning of the summer. Now, speaking as a consumer, there’s still value in buying a CD at a show or a store, then driving home and listening to it. We found out that trying to sell download cards or telling people at gigs to go to our sites to download our EP, left some people bewildered and feeling like they got the short end of the stick in their live music experience. Buying the record and merch is just as vital to enjoying a show as watching the actual band perform. So, at the end of the day, we are in fact pressing the EP, and using this neuvo marketing strategy only as a supplement to having a physical product.
Is the creative process any different when you’re looking to record staggered twin EPs as opposed to a single full-length?
It depends if you write the entire record and then split it up, or if you write two separate pieces of music. In our case, it was a combination of both. We set out to write a full-length, but fell into an opportunity to work with a marketing firm that wanted music as quickly as possible. So we talked about it and rolled with the punches.
Was there ever a concern of being overly ambitious?
When artists release dual discs simultaneously, like Foo Fighters did with In Your Honor, or staggered dual discs, like System of a Down did with Hypnotize and Mezmerize, there are high expectations for equally strong works. There has to be a reason for it. For an indie band, we felt that we needed to think about how to capitalize on that initial buzz of a new and fresh product. By splitting up the LP, we’re taking advantage of that buzz twice. As soon as we feel like RUBY is slowing down in sales and people are wanting new material from us, then we’ll release the second half; that way, we make sure to cultivate consistent and steady interest in the band.
With most albums, there are two or three strong tracks supplanted by filler. How do you gauge the quality of the split material on both EPs?
I think they’re equally strong, with both providing something different for the hard/alternative rock listener. We’ve gotten amazing responses about the songs … that they stretch the boundary of what the current pop trends are following.
By initially committing to a strictly electronic distribution plan, how would the band view a major label’s decision to sign you and revert to a hard product marketing campaign with minimal (if any) downloadable accessibility?
I don’t think labels really care how you do it, as long as you do it. Labels are investing considerably less these days into artist development. Instead, I think they watch for who emerges from their own self-funded and self-managed career trajectory, and then take them on. There’s no need to fight or have an opinion about that philosophy, it’s just the way it is. Whatever a label does when it picks us up will polish what we already have in place.
What about the band’s divergent international backgrounds? How did you come together in such an amalgamated musical form?
I think Julia’s Romanian/Armenian heritage is vital to what we do because she’s so new to the States. Her beauty lies in the fact that she writes with the freedom and innocence of a child who is being introduced to new things everyday. That keeps the band on its toes musically and pushes us to try new things when we write. She brings similar things to us that Serj and Daron did with System of a Down, or Omar and Cedric did with the Mars Volta: fusions of their own cultures to American pop culture through melodies and lyrics. My background is Spanish and Moroccan, so I try to compliment Julia through my own ethnic, cultural, and musical experiences.
Describe the group’s maturation process from the previous EP to the current recordings.
Time. That pretty much sums it up. The first EP, ANA, was a product of four strangers hoping that their chemistry would provide listenable music. It did, and we are lucky, but it really takes time to get to know your bandmates. Living together helps, and writing as much as possible allows us to get to know the strengths and weakness of each other. I think Paul McCartney said it best; it was something like, “If you like these songs, then you should have heard the other thousand that we tossed…” I don’t know, something like that. But I think what he is implying is, if you put it in this context, is a lot of writing and some time will eventually lead to great music.
Who have you looked to for artistic inspiration or career modeling?
Collectively, we draw influence from bands like the Cure, Bjork, System of a Down, Tool, and Incubus; ultimately trying to write aggressive music on the dark side, but with a sense of hope. You can’t re-invent the wheel. You can paint it a different color, but there’s always inspiration from someone or somewhere else. Personally, I think Dave Grohl is the epitome of a rock star. I cannot comprehend how someone who was in the most revolutionary group in our generation turns around to lead one of the most successful rock bands in the last ten years. And be so humble, while keeping a sense of humor and finding the time to work with other artists like Queens of the Stone Age and Jack Black. He’s an inspiration for getting it done with hard work and staying true to oneself.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given for surviving the fickle indie circuit?
Believe in yourself and your band; because at first, no one will.
One final inquiry for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the band, and any major label reps trawling for unsigned talent … sum up the MTP philosophy in a single sentence.
www.myspace.com/MeTalkPretty … Ha! But I guess you knew that was coming.