As recently as two or three years ago, when myspace.com couldn't get a prom date and music blogs were still breastfeeding, if independent rock bands ever hoped to reach a national (or even regional) audience, they had to do it the old-fashioned way -- by touring their asses off, earning fans one at a time and garnering any press they could along the way. But today's music-loving Internet junkies have rendered that approach obsolete. The old-school ladder to exposure has been replaced by a hydraulic-powered lift of digital hype.
Minneapolis's Tapes 'n Tapes is the latest act to benefit from this viral phenomenon. Last November, when the band issued its debut effort, The Loon, rather than shop the disc around, the members strategically sent out a batch of MP3s from the album to a carefully selected group of influential bloggers such as Gorilla Vs. Bear and Music for Robots. According to Tapes keyboardist Matt Kretzmann, the sites were chosen by the band's manager, Keri Wiese, and vocalist/guitarist Josh Grier, both avid blog readers.
"They came up with a list of ten or so blogs that they read and sent MP3s out," Kretzmann explains. "Almost immediately, [bloggers] posted on it and really liked it. After that, it kind of took on a life of its own. We didn't have to harass other press outlets to write about it; it just kind of happened."
Tapes 'n Tapes
With Figurines and Cold War Kids, 8 p.m. Thursday, June 22, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $10, 303-291-1007
For the uninitiated, most of the higher-profile blogs are run by scenesters living in or around the boroughs of New York City. Aside from opining about new bands and albums, they offer links to free MP3s and provide an accompanying "comments" section where regular readers pimp their own blogs, spread rumors and talk shit. Next to sites like Pitchfork -- not to mention myspace and purevolume -- these bloggers have played a pivotal role in exposing rabid indie music fans to the hordes of label-less bands whose music might never reach another state's borders otherwise. At last count, myspace had more than 1.4 million band profiles. One point four million. That's a lot of bands. And with major-label consolidation and the indies -- despite their good intentions -- struggling to stay afloat, the Internet has become a viable way for all of these unknown musicians to get their name out.
Take Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, for instance, which sold 30,000 copies of its debut album without any help from a label or costly PR flacks. Likewise, Kretzmann and his bandmates -- Grier, drummer Jeremy Hanson and bassist Erik Appelwick -- pushed almost 10,000 copies of The Loon on their own.
Really, though, that figure isn't that surprising, when you consider how entertaining all eleven tracks are. Listening to any single song is like babysitting your cousin all day and forgetting to give him his Ritalin at lunchtime: One minute everything is calm and subdued, and the next, it all explodes into an unpredictable ball of hyperactivity. That exuberant playfulness is what makes Loon memorable, from the distorted background "wah-hahs" and condescending laughs in "Just Drums," to the gang vocal "ba-ba-ba-da-das" in "Crazy Eights," to the hand claps in "Cowbell," it's clear that these guys are having fun. And the feeling's contagious: Trying to sing along with the generally unintelligible lyrics -- imagine doing karaoke without a monitor -- is equally grin-inducing.
But then, levity is probably the best approach to blatant borrowing. In addition to evoking Pavement, the Femmes and the Pixies (to whom Tapes owes a sizable debt), throughout Loon the act conjures the crunchy guitar riffs and overpowering bass lines of Modest Mouse and the mild-tempered melodies of Travis. Despite Tapes' obvious derivation, however -- and no doubt thanks to the fun-loving bloggers -- the band has been praised by the likes of the New York Times, Rolling Stone, NME, MTV and Pitchfork, and has garnered a deal with XL Recordings, which is slated to reissue The Loon at the end of July.
"We started getting contacted by labels almost immediately after all the blog stuff went up," Kretzmann says. "It was never our stated goal -- we didn't do the record and shop it to labels. But once the record was really taking off, Josh and Keri were spending all their time filling orders and sending records, and they thought, 'This is ridiculous; we need to do music, not ship CDs.' You don't need a label until you need a label, and it became more apparent that we needed a label."
Indeed. Tapes 'n Tapes is in the midst of an extensive two-month-long U.S. tour that includes stops at New York's Siren Music Festival, Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival and the San Diego Street Scene festival. Prior to that, the band played seven dates in the U.K., where it filmed a video for the song "Insistor." This fall, after the quartet has finished cementing its ridiculously catchy choruses in the heads of American indie rockers, it will head back across the Atlantic for eight more shows, including stints at both the Reading and Leeds festivals.
"It's totally awesome," says Kretzmann of the band's slew of impressive shows. "There's no other word for it. It's really flattering, and we're kind of blown away. We just played two nights at the Bowery Ballroom that were sold out. The last time we were in New York City, we played really small clubs."
Because of the blogular way in which Tapes 'n Tapes was thrust into the spotlight, the group has been criticized for being nothing more than a hype band. Music purists assert that without releasing successive, solid albums bolstered by relentless touring, all of these recent Internet darlings won't have much staying power and will simply fade away, leaving music fans dismayed and distrustful of bands and musicians who actually earn their esteem the hard way and have what it takes to stick around.
Maybe so. But Kretzmann makes it clear that although he and his bandmates may not be quite as road-worn as many of their indie counterparts, Tapes did do a bit of DIY touring before being proclaimed the Next Big Thing.
"Our first tour ever, we toured without amps because we didn't have a vehicle big enough," he confesses. "We had my parents' 1992 Toyota 4Runner, which we put 7,500 miles on before giving the keys back to my dad. It was rough times, you know? It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't the way to tour, but we had a really good time."
The bulk of that tour was booked by the bandmembers, who each took a chunk of the country and begged promoters and other bands for merciful consideration.
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"That's got to be the worst thing for any band to have to do," says Kretzmann. "But despite all the frustrations that go with booking yourself, we did have some bright spots. We played a show at the Silver Lake Lounge in L.A., and the promoter there, Scott Sterling, said to us, ŒI'm going to lose money on this, but I like your demo.' And the amazing thing about that tour is that even if there were only fifteen people there, half of them bought EPs. It was kind of validating. I would never regret that we did that."
When the band pulls into the Larimer Lounge this Thursday night, it will mark Tapes 'n Tapes' debut performance in Denver. And later this summer, the group will return to the Bluebird -- thanks again to substantial Internet buzz. Back in the DIY days, Kretzmann was in charge of booking this area and says that until now, "I couldn't get any love from any of the bookers.
"We've never been out there for shows or been to any of the clubs there," he adds. "I'm excited."
So are we. Well, at least until the hype wears off.