Commentary: Arcade Fire interview on not interviewing, unveil eight album covers
In late spring, Arcade Fire announced they'd be headlining a few scant festivals this summer. Then, Amazon posted a June 1 release date of new Arcade Fire music with no other information, and the band posts a hello and teases a 12". Prior to its release, a copy of that 12" shows up in a Glasgow record shop after the band Tweeted that there was one to be found. Those songs, "The Suburbs" / "Month of May," end up on Zane Lowe. Then, band members Win Butler and Richard Reed Parry talk about them on NPR and two more songs are farmed out to Zane Lowe and an Entercom-owned Seattle radio station. Tour dates arrive, and exactly one official album announcement goes out from Merge and the band's publicist.
Earlier this week, Billboard posted one of the first print/online interviews the band and its team has permitted. The band also reiterated its request that folks donate to help Haiti. And today, an online shop in Australia unveiled the eight different covers to "The Suburbs," of which a Arcade Fire fan Twitter got wind.
Covert in its dissemination and "hype" of the album's arrival, overt when it comes to getting people donating money to charity: information has been the controlled substance of the band's album release cycle for "The Suburbs" (due. Aug. 3) while the shows and -- ultimately -- the album are the payoff, for fans and the seven-piece group.
Arcade Fire paid for the record on their own, from building out studios to the making of videos. They own all its copyrights, and licensed the record out to labels all over the world for release. Even before, with Merge, they still had a 50/50 deal, unheard of in today's 360-deal-or-nothing press from the majors. Their success is all theirs and their teams'.
The Montreal-based band has been wise containing its public image, keeping behind a curtain when nothing's happening and when everything's happening at once. It's a contrast to the new media environment when seemingly every artist incessantly Tweets, interviews, shoots video blogs and behind-the-scenes clips, takes up every sponsorship/soundtrack/licensing offering, extends every opportunity for "access" online, blab about personal matters beyond what's necessary. This outstanding outpouring of information works for some artists, while others could benefit from saying "no" every once and a while.
Arcade Fire did something like five interviews leading up to the release of 2007's "Neon Bible," and announced the record's existence three months before its March 2007 release. We've been witnessing a similar scheme with "The Suburbs."
"It was such a blessing to really be able to achieve what we wanted to achieve and to be able to pay for it ourselves and do it ourselves," Win Butler told Billboard. "It gave us such a control over our own future that we are very fortunate to have. I don't judge anyone for wanting to take the money to be able to make the records you want to make. We had a very unusual situation."
"When your first album is [2004's] 'Funeral' and it does so well and is so well-loved by people and there's such a level of fervor about the band from the outset, that creates a high level of expectation for everything they do from there on out," said Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan.
And expectation is what is ruffling feathers, in both good ways and bad.
[More on Arcade Fire -- and the eight album covers -- after the jump...]
An article I read on ChartAttack seemed less enthusiastic about the Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" marketing and promotion model, calling these months a "self-produced assault on social media and Internet music publications that is designed to appear spontaneous, but couldn't be more tightly controlled."
For one, "assault" is a bit strong. Every music news outlet, including this one, has its choice of what minutiae it chooses to repeat/report, even with the temptation of what my friend Christopher Weingarten calls "firsties." And from the way the roll-out's gone, it keeps us guessing where and how the next part of the campaign occurs. It's a game, and not in a way that makes one feel f*cked with. It's three months, just like everything else.
And, after the album cycle of "Neon Bible," I don't think anybody who has thought of this year's tactics think of them as deceptively spontaneous. Playing a New York subway station at midnight, unannounced ? One could call that spontaneous. Happy accidents of the recording process like "woop" and the cracks in a voice? You generally can't plan that. But after a few dozen years of labels and bands repeating and adjusting a record release schedule, you can't blame a group for insisting tight control on their image and music when it serves to benefit their artistic vision and longevity.
Apologetic? I certainly am. I like Win Butler's refreshing candor in interviews, even when he's abrasive. "It’s not like we shun success, but at the same time we don’t’ want to shove it down people’s throats... There’s nothing less interesting to me than the idea of marketing the f*ck out of something so people are forced to like it. Some bands are just manipulating people to buy music. That’s how 90 percent of the record industry works! It’s basically the same as selling a f*cking toaster or a cruise package."
You're not going to see a lot of promo photos of Win standing solo, although in some he may stand up front. I think it's good to acknowledge when there's a "frontman" to a group, but still maintain that it's a group effort and not just facade for a single mind. He still does the majority of the interviews on the group's behalf, but its for what at least seems to be more-or-less a unified vision.
I've loved seeing the band grow live, especially the period where Regine Chassagne shed what stage fright she had to become the total beacon that she is today. I don't tire of the whole crew marching out into the crowd for a (calculated) encore. I think they're very giving and physical performers. I was friends with Will Butler briefly in college, and happily pick him out from the blur of action on stage when they perform. I'm still thankful for that early copy of "Funeral."
They're lightning rod for pot shots, from consumers and critics who don't particularly like their music or find Win's Sprinsteenian inflections too carbon-copied; from the mindless "beefs" and jabs from other artists; from sources who don't have the inside scoop of each new promotional maneuver, exclusive stream or open guest list.
"Every outlet that doesn't get to talk to the band will scalp the best parts of those few interviews for their own audience," that same ChartAttack article continued.
To this point: damn straight. I'm quoting my former outlet above, certainly, because they're one of what will probably be less than a dozen media sources that will score an interview with Butler. It's due to the report's business angle that it's worth quoting for this very article and why it's even running this early, three weeks away from the album's Aug. 3 drop date. While HitFix, for instance, would love to score some face-time with the band -- and God knows, we've tried -- history shows that the NMEs and Rollings Stoneses are next in line for the prize, closer to that date. The random Aussie online stores and Glaswegian record shops are just the exceptions. It's just the Arcade Fire business.
The band survived the sophomore slump blues on "Neon Bible" -- despite it not earning the same critical acclaimed that funeral "Funeral" did -- with a No. 2 start on The Billboard 200. I don't know yet if this particular scheme has helped or hurt "The Suburbs'" outlook of commercial success, but it's been done similarly before, and to great outcome. The songs making the rounds so far are promising. We're hearing and seeing the band in just the way they want to be heard and seen by us, which feels conflicting but comforting. The next three weeks should be fun.
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