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Music Blogs Become New A&R, Run Niche Record Labels

Gorilla+vs+Bear+gorillavsbearBy Kyle Bylin (@sidewinderfm), founder and editor of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

So far we have explored the music blog landscape and how it has has changed in recent years, as well as whether music blogs have reached a mainstream audience. In this final interview panel on music blogs, David Greenwald and Nicole Cifani, two influential thinkers and tastemakers in the music industry, weigh in on how the way in which music blogs tell stories has evolved and whether they think music blogs have turned into record labels.

Sidewinder.fm: Are linear narrative and story telling are integral to music as a culture? How are the narratives and stories music blogs construct for their audience evolving to engage new generations of music fans?

David Greenwald | @daverawkblog
Contributing editor for Billboard.com. Founder and editor of Rawkblog and Uncool

This is a good question. As a writer, it’s hard to gauge if the public cares so much about angles and backstory over music or if we just keep pretending they do so we can keep our jobs. Artists from Daft Punk to Bon Iver do show how much image and history remain part of the context and mythology of musicians, even as Twitter and Instagram make it possible for bands to humanize themselves or even oversaturate us with their everyday lives.

But this question assumes music blogs are effectively constructing narratives, when in reality many sites simply say “mysterious” because the band hasn’t bothered to write a biography yet. Outside of primal, powerful stories like Bon Iver’s cabin in the woods, most bands are building their own narratives through art direction, the trendiness or influences of their sound and social media. You’ll learn as much about many artists from Twitter as you would from the results of a surly 10-minute phone interview.

Even indie band YouTube videos are seen by much larger audiences than read blogs’ take on the matter. My guess is it’s still important for artists to differentiate themselves from their peers via all of these methods — to create an overall portrait of the band that ranges from vests to banjo use, the better for listeners to remember them.

Nicole Cifani | @cifanic
Executive producer, writer, and DJ. Interactive at Guggenheim Museum

 Absolutely. Outside of traditional mediums like film scores and DJ mixes, music blogs are evolving to roll out interactive features that engage fans on many levels.

The Creators Project is a great example of a content driven site that marries various incarnations of the arts and technology. With posts released daily, the site is consistent in unearthing new discoveries.

When it comes to tools, interactive technologies like augmented reality and WebGL are significant advances for creating a compelling storytelling experience. In WebGL, one-way formats like video can be completely transformed. This allows the audience to participate within an immersive, interactive environment, with the intent of leading them to the creation of a more personalized story. Augmented reality can be used during live shows in countless ways. The opportunities are endless — it’s a very exciting time.

And of course, for sharing musical content, lists are huge. They’re easy to skim, to the point, and great for SEO. This comes in the form of a series — for example, a daily or weekly segment — that touches on a specific topic. For example, some music blogs do a “music news roundup,” while others choose to focus on a genre of choice (i.e. “remix Fridays”).

Sidewinder.fm: Years ago, many people believed music blogs would become the new record labels. How has this vision faired in reality? Good or badly? Who is making the most compelling and successful effort?

David Greenwald: It has become clear that blogs are the new A&R. Attempts at blogger labels appear to be working for limited-edition vinyl, but if anyone can think of a band moving significant (say, over 5,000) units on a blogger-run label, I’d love to know about it.

Instead, blogger labels from Gorilla Vs. Bear’s to I Guess I’m Floating sell out their runs and serve to test the waters or whet the appetites of bigger labels ready to swoop in. YouTube and cloud services have made it easy for everyone to keep up with mainstream music — the occasional left-of-center blogger is still the rare person willing to dig deeper and bring back fresh acts from Bandcamp or SoundCloud or at least beyond their inbox, and you’ll see those discoveries making their ways to film and television placement, public radio and other more popular outlets, in addition to label attention. A track post on, say, Yours Truly might score a band a minor festival gig or an email from a manager or booking agent.

I wouldn’t say a blogger label exists that’s transcended its blog yet, though on a smaller level, sites such as Aquarium Drunkard (likely the most successful blog label, though that’s a guess), Jaxart and Eardrums continue to release new material on a regular basis — a good sign for sustainability, if not breakthrough sales.

Nicole Cifani: In their short history, music blogs have helped shape the landscape of what we tune in to. They adjust the collective antenna and affect the resulting sound that fills the room. What music blogs are not necessarily created to achieve from their inception are to execute on the many varying ins and outs of the music business as a whole.

Music labels are a business. Music blogs are a cultural voice. They are two separate entities, and from the onset they are structured to function in very different ways.

Record labels are highly connected organizations with deep ties into the worlds of publicity, promotion, licensing, and sales. I’m going to sound like a hater but the bottom line is this: they don’t book an act because the material sounds “interesting” — they book it because they think it has the potential to be a success.

For a music blog, trust is primary currency. If it’s not, it should be.

Indie labels are a little different. In Los Angeles, Alpha Pup, Stones Throw, and Iamsound are examples of indie labels with strong community followings powered by a cultivated brand. They’ve built this organically over time. It’s the fans that drive demand for the music, as opposed to larger label affiliates who excel at leveraging “proper channels” at TV, print, and radio.

With that said, some similarities can be drawn between music blogs and indie labels. Music blogs are similar to indies because they excel at marketing and branding by taking a very DIY approach. This independent mindset is one that for whatever reason resonates well with music fans.

Just go to SXSW or any popular summer music festival to see collaborations between blogs and indies in action. It’s incredible what blogs are capable of successfully pulling off. It’s not because any site is singularly well connected or has deep pockets — although those things certainly don’t hurt — but more or less it’s because they have good taste and know how to bring collections of acts together.

Blogs have the flexibility to engage with talent on the fly. They have the ability to curate something specific to the current zeitgeist that makes the most sense for what’s buzzing at any given moment — often times using low-fi tools like Flipcams or Instagram for capturing it all. In other words, music blogs can move quickly. And they do.

Record labels take longer to seek and grow their talent. They invest, build, and strategize. They encourage and foster communities for specific artists they’re invested in. For large artists Beyonce’s Beyhive or Gaga’s Little Monsters come to mind. I’m not entirely sure what kind of devout follower would follow a music blog in the way a die-hard hip hop fan would follow a label like Stones Throw.

The primary job of a label is to build an artistic community and foster the development of their artists, while overseeing the production of great music. Then, they share it with the world through their channels, with the hopes of building a strong community around it (with strong numbers to boot).

A music blog builds around their own community by sharing great content from the labels. It’s a dance, a partnership. Music blogs move fast, they’re ephemeral, and their impact is strong. The two need to work together, each doing what they do best.

Sidewinder.fm is founded and edited by Kyle Bylin of Live Nation Labs. If you would like to contribute a post to be featured on the site, please reach out.