- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

This column recently recommended that as part of their 21st-century survival kits, rock and pop artists should strive to become freewheeling multimedia brands.

With the major labels in decline and thus unable to float generous advances to up-and-coming talent, this is no time to sit around and craft a sonic masterpiece. Two years off the road - and under the radar - is an eternity in this environment.

Bands of modest means need to think like Hollywood actors. Keep working. If your face isn’t on the big screen, make sure it’s on a magazine cover or a prominent video-store shelf.

That’s an easy task for the camera-ready likes of the Jonas Brothers - not so much for indie-minded types who might be wary of self-promotion or highly protective of their music.

Doubtless in reaction to this sage advice, a couple of bands have leapt toward the front lines of Beatlesque multimedia innovation.

Tennessee rockers Kings of Leon, hyping the Sept. 23 release of their fourth studio LP, “Only by the Night,” are posting one home movie per day this month on their official Web site. The clips include intimate recording-studio footage and performance pieces plus some charming, deadpan interview segments.

For instance, one of the boys offers up this profound meditation on the band’s new single, “Sex on Fire”: “I think that one’s about … sex. Obviously.”

Indeed.

Then there’s Tally Hall, a fresh-faced band of color-coordinated, necktie-clad indie-popsters not long out of the University of Michigan.

Soon after college, they were signed to the tiny indie label Quack. They toured extensively behind their debut album, “Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum,” and moved back in with parents.

Then came a big break: a deal with Atlantic Records.

The band members promptly found themselves at a crossroads - exuberant about the future but with an unexpected amount of free time on their hands. The machinery of a major label, it turned out, is like a jet engine: a powerful propellant that takes a while to warm up.

“So we said, ‘What do we now?’” recalls Tally Hall guitarist Joe Hawley, 25.

“What we like to do is write music and play music, but the formal business elements haven’t fallen fully into place,” he says.

A film student who studied screenwriting at Michigan, Mr. Hawley says that rather than wait idly while Atlantic put a promotional plan in place, Tally Hall plunged into making short films for the past year and a half.

With friends and family on hand as extras, the five band members on Monday will launch “Tally Hall’s Internet Show” (“T.H.I.S.”), a series of polished, approximately two-minute set pieces predicated on hip, absurdist humor.

The series, shot on digital cameras and edited with Macintosh movie software, will be showcased front and center on the band’s Web site and cross-posted on YouTube.com and iTunes.com - a multiplatform strategy designed to generate viral, word-of-mouth traffic.

A clip I previewed, “Natural Ketchup,” finds the band mates around a cafeteria table playing a game of 20 Questions centered on the titular, corn-syrup-free condiment. Bassist Zubin Sedghi fields the queries, which escalate with hostility: “Can you get it in a normal grocery store? … Is it pulpy? … Does it need to be refrigerated?”

Then the whole thing degenerates into a food fight as a, well, ketchup-y ballad by Matchbox 20 plays on the soundtrack.

Mr. Hawley is modest about the artistic pedigree of “T.H.I.S.”

“A lot of it’s just for fun,” he says. “It’s not necessarily professional, but it’s not amateur, either.”

Modesty aside, the band has high hopes for the series. “We wanted to make a quality product rather than something that’s thrown up on the Web and then torn down. We’re trying to make something that will be meaningful. It’s a project. We definitely planned it out,” Mr. Hawley says.

“T.H.I.S.” may or may not become the next viral smash, but it seems clear that Tally Hall is blazing a trail. As Mr. Hawley says, the Web has become an abstract playground where “identity is liquid.”

As in politics, success in music will depend increasingly on artists’ ability to pierce through the clutter with biography and “narratives” - the more revealing or unusual, the better.

Rapper Diddy opining into a hand-held camera about Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin won’t cut it. Madonna comparing Sen. John McCain to murderous dictators like Adolf Hitler and Robert Mugabe was good for a news cycle, but the stunt felt tired, irritating; it felt 20th-century, in fact.

The future belongs to bands like Kings of Leon and Tally Hall and other artists who use the Web to interact with fans in a sustained way and with humor and intelligence.

To the cleverest will go the spoils.

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