So for the first time in THG history, we have label support to do something resembling traditional press. Our DIY method has always been to send a download to music blogs we liked and a physical copy to radio stations with a note attempting charm but usually exuding slightly zany desperation. Seriously, that was the extent of it. Back in the early 2000s, when blogging and social networking was still somewhat new as a promotional tool, this actually sort of worked. We can never thank those early (and late) supporters enough.
They spread the word, but just as important, gave us encouragement to go on. A post about us would appear in Delusions of Adequacy (now adequacy.net) and suddenly, we’d see our songs pop up unexpectedly in other places. One of the most charming examples I remember is seeing “Green Light” as part of a mix devoted to Tim and Dawn in a livejournal fan community for “The Office.” (God, how I love fan communities! Something about looking down a row of clever icons makes my heart glow.) It sounds suspiciously dewy-eyed but that was what it was about for us — every small mention on a personal blog about us or one of our songs made us so damn happy.
But by the mid-2000s, even the most reluctant nerdy-come-latelys had figured out how powerful a marketing tool the Internet could be. Social networking quickly devolved into SEO-type snake oil and a chilly hacking of people’s desire to truly connect to each other. Personally, the thought of using Myspace or the like to say happy birthday to people or leave a heartfelt 😦 when they announce their cat has died with the vague hope they’ll buy a shirt has always seemed a deeply cynical exchange. It’s profoundly exploitative of the sense of connection people have to art and those who make it. Think of poor old David Foster Wallace despairing at the “travel essay” that his hero Frank Conroy wrote for a free cruise in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Now imagine taking your own cruise, writing about it on your blog, and having Frank Conroy show up there to have a “personal” exchange about its value! Like you guys are just the biggest buds EVAR!
Then there’s Wallace’s take on the “Professional Smile” from the same essay:
The smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee…This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimilie or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. it causes despair.
And yet the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody who has ever bought a pack of gum at a Manhattan cigar store or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows well the soul-crushing effect of a service worker’s scowl, ie. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl: I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the counterman’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.
Genuine smiles, real art, and true goodwill wither when people pretend at intimacy for money, but what’s worse is the expectation that fake intimacy has created between fans and subjects of fandom. Well known musicians and writers and actors Twitter all damn day, and everyone else seems just th@ close to having an actual exchange with them. It looks like friendly chit-chat, but how can it possibly be? They are selling something, and those are Professional Smiles they are beaming in 140-character doses all day long. And even the most obscure nobody is expected to engage in this despair-inducing fakeass way because it is a lack of professionalism to deny anyone the Smile. So yes, we have a Twitter stream, which needless to say Hiram handles because I am too busy curling myself into the fetal position and despairing. Ha, ha.
We always had high hopes for the Internet as the great democratizing medium, the world’s most amazing playlist — and to some extent we still do. But the marketing has become so sophisticatedly insidious. It rewards a certain kind of savvy extrovert, people with the confidence and social skill to forge a lot of connections. At times, they may even be great musicians, but the sphere they operate in itself elevates people-pleasing above real feeling or skill. The whole “personal branding” thing other bands do, where they transform their personal style according to the most crowd-pleasing metric, is so not something we can do. We’re too old and funny-looking and weird. We’ve never had the wherewithal to make our band our job, and since Hiram lost his full-time job last year along with much of Portland’s population we’ve had serious financial problems. I’ve had some recent health problems and I can barely force myself out of the house, much less to play shows. In short, we’ve got issues, and they aren’t charming or quirky or photogenic. They are boring and they suck, just like yours do.
Now someone is going to be supporting our record in this alienated and alienating marketplace with actual $, sending it out to major press and in a few months, helping arrange a tour for Hiram. We’re very grateful and very scared shitless. We have had 7 years of mostly obscurity and failure and we don’t want to waste our generous label’s money and time, which could be going to more commercially viable bands instead. Argh. So…that’s our commercial. Terrifying, isn’t it?