Halfway Report August 2018

To pretend that the music industry was ever some sort of hallowed institution which sought out and nurtured genuine talent is to participate in the grand championship of nostalgic gymnastics. You’re wearing blinders and rose-coloured glasses at the same time. Manufactured stars date back to the nascent days of the Great American Songbook, and countless works of both fiction and nonfiction have covered the unapologetically avaricious nature of the almighty record executives.

It’s only now however, that the curtain’s dropped.

A way to go around developing the talent is finding talent that only needs to be developed in the music part,” Torres says. “When you grab a talent from zero, you need to develop every aspect – social media, content creation, plus the music. When you have somebody that already has the other parts, you just have to focus on the music and put it out. It’s a safer bet for some people.”

And while development remains costly – building a fanbase is more competitive than ever since so much new music is instantly accessible every week – recording and releasing songs has never been cheaper. “Finding a good songwriter is straightforward; good songwriters are 10 a penny,” says the veteran A&R. “Finding someone who people actually like, are invested in, want to engage with and stream, that’s more difficult. You can’t cultivate that, in a way.”

* As the flaming wreck that is the music industry flips and rolls in slow motion, any pretense that authenticity is part of the proceedings has been vaporized. I’ve been yelling about this for years, so it’s cold comfort that I’ve finally been vindicated. All those nonstarters whose names I dredge up again and again and again- the industry is finally admitting that they were all failures. It was just too hard to build up an organic following for Rita Ora, Skylar Grey, Mikky Ekko, Mondo Cozmo, and countless other never-weres. Too bad they realize this only after years of foisting this oatmeal on us. I do find it funny that apparently “good songwriters are 10 a penny” and yet they keep using Ryan Tedder and Max Martin to churn out hits.

So, what happens to rock bands now? Or any artist, for that matter, who wants to follow the old paradigm of working their way to the top?

IT AIN’T HAPPENIN’ BUDS.

Let me present to you, the absolute state of modern rock:

4/10 are the same band.
6/10 are from 2017!
2/10 are the exact same song.

It’s a terribly sad state of affairs, especially since that double-entry (and the biggest de-facto alternative song of 2018) belongs to these dorks:

* I halfheartedly defended lovelytheband at the beginning of the year when I correctly predicted they’d be ruling rock radio, but hearing their full album puts me firmly in the naysayer corner. It’s fourth-tier synth-pop that is only being noticed by default. Six years ago these guys wouldn’t have registered on any radar, much less the top 100. They’re like fun. without the fun. And they’ve all got that stupid new 2018 hairdo that’s a curly take on the Pidgeotto pompadour every thin-faced hipster jock has been rocking for the past half-decade.


* This whole mess is why seeing new songs from Canadian Rude boys MAGIC! in iTunes’ Alternative section fazed me for all of five seconds. Yeah my initial reaction was an indignant scoff, huffing and puffing like “What! What! This can’t be! This must be some sort of mistake. I must alert iTunes.”

But then I remembered that music boundaries are a thing of the past. The two new MAGIC! songs could just as easily be found on a Vampire Weekend side project album. They are interchangeable with the aforementioned lovelytheband, so it makes little sense to classify one as a more “legit” genre and the other as a different one.

There is no more genre in the big tent; everyone’s playing everything. It’s no wonder that even Madonna’s spoken up about it.

The problem however lies in that above quote from the music exec, which essentially blasts out the message that I said here: music is now besides the point in the music industry. So why try? Everyone is on an equal playing field now, leveled by Spotify and sheer luck.


* One of those lucky artists is faceless boy band Five Seconds of Summer, who I can tell you absolutely nothing about other than they have a solid songwriting team behind them. New song “Youngblood” is one I am thoroughly enjoying, a bingeworthy slice of electro-swing. It remains to be seen whether it’ll stand the test of 100 plays though. Will it be this year’s “Into You”? Or will it be more like “Cake by the Ocean”? (Which I am very, very embarrassed to have ever listened to).


* I’m also slowly getting embarrassed saying that I was ever a fan of Muse, whose latest song “Something Human” is a blatant retake of 2012’s “Madness” with about 150% more U2 theatrics. Neither of those should be negative qualities, but Muse bungle up their crossover attempt hugely and only about five people even know this song exists.


* But hey, at least they’re trying to crossover. Meanwhile Saintseneca, who I’ve been rooting for since 2014, refuse to write that big tune that’ll make them the next Portugal. The Man. Personally I’m a big fan of Saintseneca’s new song “Frostbiter”, but it is not hit material in the slightest. It’s an expansion of their verbose folk-based sound, with reverb and glacial synths aplenty, not the new alternative jam the world so desperately needs right now.


* A jam that could one day come from the much-hyped Bass Drum of Death, who hail from the Southern States but have Canadian alternative smeared all over their punk rock core. They are essentially a mash-up between Hot Hot Heat and Death From Above, although hints of other Canuck bands emerge at times. “Leaving” switches out Hot Hot Heat for Sam Roberts but leaves a DFA style rhythm in place. There’s also the inexplicable case of “Odds are Good”, a song that sounds like…..the Odds. No, I mean, it really really sounds like the Odds. Could this Mississippi group have been influenced by the sardonic Vancouver stalwarts?

Unlikely inspiration aside, Bass Drum could potentially be a “big” name in rock circles in the future, as this album holds a lot of promise. Will they ever crossover to the mainstream? Perhaps.


* Interpol weren’t ever going to be crossover heroes, but they consistently delivered album after album of on-brand, quality material. Something’s gone terribly wrong with this new one. I know that I sound slightly obsessive when I ramble on about production and recording, but their new single “Number 10” is so obviously steeped in the “overblown speakers” sound that it is LITERALLY unlistenable. So much worse than first single “The Rover” was. If this David Fridmann guy they’ve got producing has made every song on this album extra crispy, then it’s been a huge waste of everybody’s time and money. (Side note: I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since the lo-fi craze that was just as bad as this recent Yeezus influenced trend of raw recording. Remember Times New Viking and No Age??)


* On the flip side, there’s some fantastic production going on in “Saturday Night”, a cover of The Blue Nile song by Pure Bathing Culture featuring Death Cab‘s Ben Gibbard. Who are The Blue Nile? I have no idea, but apparently they were some critically lauded 80s band. Regardless, this cover is lush and luxurious, and although it too isn’t the big pop moment the world needs in 2018, it is most definitely something that grows on you.


* There’s a couple more covers that popped up recently, and at first blush they’re kind of weird. We live in a world where a Miley Cyrus/Flaming Lips collaboration is old news- it wouldn’t really be weird for anyone to team up with anyone else at this point. Of course Buzzfeed would be SCREAMING if Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, and Vampire Weekend joined forces, but as Perry Farrell once said: “nothing’s shocking”.

Still, hearing The Offspring and 311 cover each other’s biggest hits is trippy. They don’t quite do each other justice –  a reggae “Self Esteem” ironically lacks the slacker energy of the original, while “Down” is undone with a goofy drum section during the chorus – but this is the sort of neat switcheroo I wish bands did more often. I’d love to hear polished studio versions of Arcade Fire doing M83‘s “Midnight City” and M83 taking on Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”.

A+ for effort on the idea, Offspring and 311.


* At the very least, those covers are far better than two electro-folk misfires I heard this past month. The first is Bon Iver‘s side project Big Red Machine, which is the most boring thing I’ve ever heard and makes one appreciate his wonderful 2011 album a hundred times more.

The second is a song called “There is a Ledger” by some band called Wild Pink (side note: a moratorium on “Wild” band names, please). This song is a bait-and-switch in the truest sense of the term, teasing a half-decent verse and chorus structure before throwing it all out halfway and introducing some porridge variety chord structure that I thought only milquetoast Canadian folk bands could come up with. “And I hope you find peace/ and I hope you find peace”, the singer repeats over and over and over again in the Kumbaya-hand-holding major key second half of the song. Utterly insipid.