Anatomy of a Buzz
"You let me know when we've made it," says drummer Josh Garza, a passenger in a van headed for Cleveland, where his band Secret Machines will perform tonight before a cross-country haul to Seattle. He's not talking about arriving at their destination but rather about the feeling of success that creeps up on an unknown band as its flattering press clippings pile up like snow drifts in the Alps. Four years ago, Garza and Ben Curtis (guitar, vocals) and his older brother Brandon (keyboards, bass, vocals) left Dallas for New York, where they struggled to be heard over the din of the big city. Today, with their new album in stores but a mere month, the band is no secret at all. Secret Machines has become a media darling with praise scattered not only in music magazines, but in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and other publications that actually have the influence to send readers to record stores.
All three men were once familiar figures on the local scene, having been in bands you probably heard of even if you only drove through Deep Ellum: UFOFU, Comet, Tripping Daisy, When Babies Eat Pennies, Captain Audio. But at the end of 2000, they decided they had to lose themselves in New York to be discovered all over again. "What's kind of discouraging about Dallas," Garza says, "is that a few people will care, but after a while you can't be playing shows to the same people, because even they will be like, 'OK, man, I'm done. I got it.'"
They moved to Brooklyn and got a place together where they could live and practice all day and all night. It cost them girlfriends, friendships, jobs. They were broke, sometimes broken. Until, one day, Brandon and Ben and Josh got damned near everything they ever wanted. You know the cautionary tale? Well, this is the opposite.
On May 18, Warner Bros. Records subsidiary Reprise released Secret Machines' full-length debut, Now Here Is Nowhere. It's far too early to deem it a commercial success, because it has sold a little more than 10,000 copies in the past month--a respectable figure for newbies but still a fraction of what Warners and the band anticipate. Yet sales figures are only a footnote to this tale, which began with a fortuitous phone call and ends, for the sake of this article, with the band's appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman this Thursday, June 24. In between are the star-making stories that appeared well before the album was available in stores. In between is an experiment that proved you could indeed sell music online and build a deafening digital buzz. In between are the executives at a major label who fell in love with a band and didn't cheat on them after the vows were exchanged.
"We've always been so careful who we work with," Brandon says, after the van has pulled into Cleveland. "It's never really been about 'This person's really powerful and can get us this.' It's always been about enlisting people in our crazy vision, which is the Secret Machines...It's a gamble to invest your money on three guys trying to make a crazy record. I mean, rock and roll is on the fringe these days, and we're on the fringe of the fringe. It takes a lot of guts on their part."
Now Here Is Nowhere is not the sort of album majors look forward to marketing. It contains Spiritualized melodies fused with Beach Boys harmonies, Zeppelin drumming pounding over New Order singing; it's a rock-and-roll history lesson spread over nine songs encompassing everything from Krautrock to Britpop to prog. Now Here Is Nowhere bulges with epic pop songs that sound as good pulsing through the stoner's headphones as they do booming from a car stereo's speakers on a hot summer day.
But it's not enough just to make a great record. If that were the case, then Richard Thompson and Nellie McKay would fill arenas and Britney Spears would be hanging off a pole at Silver City while the guys from Hoobastank slip dollar bills in her T-back. The pop charts, which have made room in recent weeks for PJ Harvey and Modest Mouse and Diana Krall and Franz Ferdinand and OutKast, suggest there's an audience starving for something other than junk food. But trying to sell a band like Secret Machines, with its nine-minute CD bookends and anthemic space jams, remains a difficult proposition, like selling eggplant-goat-cheese-and-fig sandwiches at McDonald's.
Secret Machines got lucky, though. Brandon and Ben and Josh stumbled across the secret machinery of the music industry, those invisible players who transform nobodies into somebodies till it feels as though you've always known their names.
Not even two years ago, it appeared as though the band's move to New York might have been ill-advised. Despite some good reviews in the local weeklies, including the New York Press' proclamation that Secret Machines was the best live band in town, no labels had come calling. So the band moved to Los Angeles for a month, and toward the end of their stay, clubs were crowded with label reps eyeing each other.
A former assistant at Capitol tipped off Warners' senior vice president of A&R, Perry Watts-Russell, who had been at Capitol Records and worked with Radiohead from The Bends through Amnesiac, about Secret Machines. "They came onstage and started to play, and I have to say they just blew me away," Watts-Russell recalls. "I was looking around going, 'Wow, do you guys know about these guys? How come I've never heard of them?' I also thought, potentially negatively, 'Oh, my God, how would you capture this on record?' But I tend, perhaps somewhat foolishly, not to necessarily think of the commercial potential as the first thought when I come across something I like."
The band signed to Warners last July, and because the label had not invested a fortune in Secret Machines, it could afford to let Brandon, Ben and Josh produce their own album. Bob Ezrin, who had produced Pink Floyd (The Wall) and Lou Reed (Berlin) and Peter Gabriel's first solo album, heard some music and offered his services, but Watts-Russell graciously declined. He worried that Ezrin's involvement would mark the band as "a child of Pink Floyd," though that band is but one of countless influences. "They need to establish their own identity," Watts-Russell says.
"We've really earned each other's trust," Ben says. "When we sent him the record it was in the sequence it's in now, and of course we're totally skeptical because the first song is nine minutes long. We're all already ready to change it. But we got a call back saying, 'This is great, and that's the order, right, because we love it!' It's kind of surreal."
With the album done, and with no openings on Warners' release schedule till late spring, the band was antsy for people to hear it. The band's manager, Bill Bennett, and Robin Bechtel, vice president of the label's new media department, decided to make the CD available online months before it would be in stores, which was (and still is) almost unheard of. They began meeting with representatives from Launch, Rhapsody, Napster and iTunes about selling the disc. Warners also allowed the band to stream the entire album from its Web site.
For $10 at iTunes, you got the album but also a bonus track, a sampler of other new Warners bands and a limited-edition CD-R designed by the band. The album was made available at the beginning of February and, since then, has sold more than 2,000 copies via the Internet.
"We really felt like if people could buy the digital album, they would spread the word-of-mouth to bring people into record stores when it was finally released," Bechtel says. "And one of the unique things about this was it wasn't about just one song that you could download. We marketed it as a great album and a great band. In the past we've had aggressive Internet campaigns for a lot of our young artists. We were just able to try this because it was the right band at the right time, and it's been really successful, so we're going to adopt it for other artists."
The early release of the album also had another side effect: It got the band noticed in publications that would normally ignore new, unknown bands. The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone's Web site and MTV ran stories about the disc's digital availability. Then, in its Sunday Styles section, The New York Times ran a piece about the band as part of its weekly "A Night Out With" column. A week later, Entertainment Weekly ran a story in which a writer went drinking with the band; the next month, the magazine made Now Here Is Nowhere its lead record review and bestowed upon it a rave A-. The band is also touted in the magazine's "Must List" issue.
Several pieces came out of the band's performances at South by Southwest, where Secret Machines played three shows, to which publicist Brian Bumberry always brought music writers and magazine editors. And good press begets good press: Those early reviews and stories, as well as other flattering pieces in Esquire and Blender, got other rock journalists interested, if only because no critic likes to be left behind while his peers champion The Next Big Thing.
"I've been in the business long enough to think about their influences and think about which writers said they love those artists," Bumberry says, explaining how he knew which editors and writers to pitch. "With this, my gut told me who would like this record, and luckily my gut was right...But then I get a call from Sheryl Zelikson, one of the music bookers for Letterman, and the phone call went like this: 'Brian, this is Sheryl. The Secret Machines? I want them. I put the record on and was blown away. When can we have them?' Honestly, the response to this record has been immediate."
But don't expect a significant bump from the band's appearance this week on The Late Show With David Letterman; late-night TV shows do not usually impact sales. But this is only the beginning, after all. England and Germany await in June and July, followed by European and Japanese festivals, another U.S. tour and one in Australia by year's end. And there will be another album next summer, which means 20 songs likely will be written between now and Christmas. The band now enters what Bumberry calls the "watch and see" period: Will sales catch up to the press attention? Will radio begin adding "Nowhere Again," which the band will perform on Letterman?
To the band, that is not important. Not now. Not yet.
"I've always expected and demanded the best from myself and things around me, and it's never really worked out," Brandon says. "If we're fortunate enough to sell enough records or play big enough shows that we're actually stupid rich, then maybe you can say we're successful. But right now we're still fighting. There's no time to soak in the success, because there hasn't really been any success yet as far as we're concerned. We had all these theories and ideas about music that were developed during our collective experience in Dallas. The band Secret Machines is the culmination of all of those things for the three of us, and it's not going to be over till we fully see all of those things realized. It's easy to bitch about music: Aw, this is so shitty, but it sells millions of copies, and millions of people love it. You always think, 'I can do better.' Now, there is no excuse. "
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