They’ve always had great arrangements, lyrics, and production. What made me wonder if they’d be a good live band is their studio wizardry- their recordings are so good and so compelling that you kind of wonder if they can match (let alone surpass) the intricacy and subtle intensity they bring to the studio to the stage. The Vevo videos, taken from a gig at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on May 15, erase all of those worries in my mind. Their chops (which are considerable- check drummer Bryan Devendorf, who’s probably the best in rock and roll right now) translated in full- the players were exciting and technical but not flashy. The arrangements, which are compelling even as a five piece, were a stunning rock band/big band/orchestra mashup arranged (presumably) by Yale Masters in Music holder/guitarist Bryce Dessner. The energy and focus was palpable; High Violet could easily be the National’s breakout album (off the chart hype and a #3 on the charts debut say as much) and they were doing a hometown gig for a worldwide Internet audience.
So this was a great gig, and you should watch all the videos. What’s interesting about this gig (besides the genre-expanding music and aces performance) is the means by which it is promoted and how that promotion tells us a great deal about the current music industry.
If you watch all those videos, you’ll probably see a 17 second trailer that reads “Zync from American Express (TM) Presents/A New Concert Experience/An Evening With the National Benefiting Red Hot/Relive It: Watch Highlights of This Vevo (TM) Event on YouTube (TM).” Quick count- that ad sports two corporations (American Express and Google), four brands (Zync, American Express, Vevo, YouTube), one charity, and one band (which are, one might argue, brands in themselves, but that’s for several other posts). In sum: there’s a lot of cross-promotion here.
As a media watcher, you can doubtless spot a few of the big reasons that there’s so much commingled interest here. First, there’s the sea-change* we’ve recently seen in the music industry. Concert promoters, record labels, and artists are all trying to find new ways to promote themselves and what they provide in the consumer/listener-driven era we live in. Back before filesharing and the myriad promotional methods of the Internet, record companies would, in large part, dictate taste: certain artists would be put in certain “formats” which would give them radio play in specific markets with specific demographics.
Quick example: a poodle-metal band in the 1980s would get signed to a hair-rock label, get played on rock and hard rock radio, and tour big arenas in the Midwest. Their marketing materials would probably be geared towards straight white males- videos would have scantily-clad platinum blondes and they might have a single called “Big Bottoms” and an album cover as tasteful as the one to the below.
But it’s 2010, not 1980, so we’re in an era when music listeners get to pick what music they like and how they relate to the artists. So a canny label or band will do untested marketing techniques like a live stream and “concert experience” on the Internet in the hope that more people will buy the album/merchandise/tickets of the band in question.**
Another big item you might notice is the cross-promotional aspect. American Express seems to be making a move for cultural tastemakers, as this concert and their TV ads extolling the community-driven charitable ventures of “Members’ Projects” demonstrate. Google, too, is using this concert as a means of corporate promotion/advertising for its Vevo channel, which is a joint venture between Google’s YouTube subsidiary, Sony Music, Universal Music, and Abu Dhabi Media Company (whoever that last crew is). Got that? Don’t worry, this stuff is pretty tough to disentangle (as this nonsensical post doubtless shows you!). Vevo is a venture inspired by Hulu to get users to stream individual songs through a venue that will generate revenue for music companies.
Check it: think about all those times you’ve been at a party without your iPod, or want to listen to a new single from Big Boi,*** or peep the new video from Justin Bieber (OMG! OMG! OMG!)- you go to the nearest computer/phone/whatever to get on YouTube and listen to the jam you have in mind, right? The music industry (finally) thinking creatively after the collapse of the revenue model mentioned above, is looking to get a piece of that action instead of letting people who put up those “videos” that have the song and a slideshow of promo photos from the artist.
Clever, no? Bringing this back to the National, they’re hoping that using popular bands and promoting “experiences” like the BAM concert will increase Vevo’s visibility and indispensability- in the way that many of us don’t bother looking for crappy streamed versions of Lost**** now that we can find every episode with a short commercial break in HD quality on Hulu.
Huh. That was quite a ride. But seriously, watch the videos!
*Lots of people use the term collapse, but that’s a pretty silly way of looking at the drastic changes to the music industry’s revenue model. Every industry goes through sea change every couple decades; since vinyl was invented in the early 20th century, the music industry has undergone a number of changes driven by technology, media, and artists. The Internet-induced changes might be the most dramatic and/or traumatic, but they’re changes, not the end of the world.
**I should mention that The National seems to be sincere about the charitable aims of this project; they curated and organized a great deal of the excellent Dark Was the Night compilation, a charity album with many indie superstars that benefited the commendable Red Hot organization, which fights HIV/AIDS and the associated evils it brings. Similarly, this concert was a benefit for Red Hot and they shout them out constantly during the videos and put a linky so you can donate to the org. Do it!
****Really!? That ending is what I spent the last six years of my life waiting for!?