By Jim Schutze
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It's only taken the internet a decade or so to almost singlehandedly cripple the record industry: The rise of Napster in 1999 brought about a surge in peer-to-peer file sharing, and with it the notion that music was no longer something that ought to be paid for; the prevalence of devices such as the iPod have made the mp3 perhaps the most preferred format; meanwhile, bands like Radiohead and Pearl Jam self-released records, challenging the traditional music business model and the necessity of record labels in the process. As a result, music fans have been seeking out and digesting more new music than ever before, and from a number of previously unconventional sources.
A recent example of the rapid pace that comes with the emerging internet-fueled music business model can be seen in the rise of Portland psych-rock outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Within days of recording the song "Ffunny Frends" in his basement, former Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson was featured on the net's most prestigious webzine, Pitchfork, which then saw the song being subsequently re-posted by hordes of music blogs. The entire process, unsurprisingly, quickly attracted the attention of several labels, too.
It all happened so quickly that Nielson didn't have time to make a website or really build any sort of web presence before Pitchfork caused a stir; thousands of fans searching for any information whatsoever on this enigmatic new band came up empty.
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"I thought I was going to have time to build up this BandCamp page and put it together pretty slowly and gradually," Nielson now admits. "I underestimated it. I've never really known that a site like Pitchfork would post up a track like three days after I finished mixing it and just threw it up on BandCamp. I thought it would take more time."
But the shroud of mystery surrounding Unknown Mortal Orchestra was partially what lead to the increased demand for the band to tour. And, fortunately for Nielson, the speed of the internet age is also what made the process of assembling a backing band for his live set-up such a breeze.
"Jacob Portrait, who is the bass player, showed me a YouTube video of Julien [Ehrich] playing drums, and it was pretty good, so we were like 'OK, let's try him out,'" Nielson says. "We did maybe 10 practices and then we were on tour."
Still, the story of UMO's success isn't all just dumb luck and happenstance. Nielson's former band, The Mint Chicks, were a staple in New Zealand's noise rock scene for a decade, racking up a handful of Tui awards (the NZ equivalent of the Grammys) in their time together.
That past experience, Nielson says, is impacting the way UMO have been operating.
"It's like playing a video game [over] from the beginning and having a better idea at how not to waste your time and how to enjoy it more," he says.
Still, the way Nielson turned his lo-fi bedroom recordings into some of the web's most-hyped tunes, earned himself a deal with Fat Possum Records and garnered several months of tour dates for his band speaks volumes about the way the business operates these days.
"It's not like I was trying to crack the music industry," Nielson says. "It's more like the opportunity was too good to pass up."