Distant Early Warning
How the Internet Has Changed The Singles Market

The internet has changed everything.

I know, I know. Thanks, Captain Obvious. Any more brilliant insights for us?

But hear me out. I’m an old-fashioned guy, who does an old-fashioned thing at least once a week – I make a trip to the record store. And I buy CDs, those plastic discs that come in plastic cases with artwork and stuff, because I like having a physical object – music has no context for me without it. So you might say I’ve been resistant to the download revolution, only using iTunes when I have to, and never (well, almost never) downloading music for free.

And yet, the internet has still utterly changed how my musical obsession works. Here’s how it used to go: I’d walk into the music store on Tuesdays and browse, with only a vague idea of what albums would be released that week. I’d buy what I wanted from one store, then pop around to a couple of others to see if they stocked anything the first one didn’t. Very occasionally, I’d get to see an industry mag like Ice, and would furiously copy down album titles and release dates, but that was as close as I came to knowing what would be out when.

Working for a music magazine in the late ‘90s changed some of that – I got promos, and release lists, but still, the majority of my research was done on the phone or through the mail. But since then, my entire process has changed, and I don’t know if it’s for the better. I know more in advance now about my anticipated albums than I ever thought I would, but some of the fun and mystery is gone.

Anyway, here’s how it works now: I’ll scour some of the better sites for release information, visit the home pages of a few of the labels and bands that I know don’t report their releases to the portal sites, and compile a list. I know, usually up to five months in advance, when an album is set for release, what’s on it, what it sounds like, and how long it is. None of that information influences my decision to buy a record, you understand – it just informs my anticipation.

The art of the single release has completely changed as well. Used to be, a music junkie like myself would have to glue himself to the radio for hours to hear new songs. You could call in to the DJ and request new tunes, but you were still at their mercy. You could go buy the single (on 45rpm vinyl or cassette, natch), but you had no other way of hearing what your favorite band was up to before the album hit stores.

Not so anymore – most bands release songs months in advance of their albums, online for free. Some bands even put whole new albums up on their Myspace sites weeks before their release, citing the theory that if the music is good, giving it away won’t hamper sales. The world wide web has allowed lower-profile musicians like Jonathan Coulton to build fanbases by essentially giving free samples, and letting fans spread it around the net at will. In the old days, Coulton wouldn’t have had a chance without a label contract. Now, he’s an internet sensation.

This is all obvious, I know, but I still marvel at how this technology has altered the way I approach new music. 10 years ago, there was no such thing as an e-card, a promotional device record labels use to give a taste of a new album. And now, they’re everywhere, and they bring with them full songs – whole meals instead of little snacks.

Case in point: here is the e-card for Fountains of Wayne’s new album, Traffic and Weather, scheduled for release on April 3. That’s seven weeks away, and yet, the e-card offers an uncut stream of the first single, “Someone to Love.” And already, the song has reaffirmed my faith in the Fountaineers, and moved Traffic to near the top of my list of most anticipated records of 2007. Which is what a good e-card, and a good single, should do.

Of course, I was already excited, since FoW’s last album, the great Welcome Interstate Managers, made #3 on my 2003 top 10 list. Some people refer to Fountains as a guilty pleasure, but I just think of them as a witty, wonderful pop band. Their songs are unfailingly catchy and hummable, it’s true, but while many of them are silly (“Halley’s Waitress,” the hit “Stacy’s Mom”), many others sum up the sadness and ennui of modern life with grace (“Valley Winter Song,” “Hackensack”).

“Someone to Love” is, amazingly, both. It chugs along on a marvelous pop groove, and its chorus is little more than “a-ah, a-ah ahh” and the title phrase over and over, and it sparkles like the silly pop song it undoubtedly is. (The first 10 times I heard it, I felt compelled to sing along with every word. That impulse has passed somewhat, but I still can’t help myself from joining in on “magazine, aimed at teens.” Don’t know why.) The lyrics are littered with pop cultural references (Coldplay, The King of Queens), and the whole thing seems to be delivered with a smirk.

But look deeper, and you’ll see that FoW mainstays Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood have crafted a perfect parable of modern life. “Someone to Love” is the story of Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie, two young, single New Yorkers who can’t seem to find that special someone. They’re both professionals – Shapiro is a lawyer in the food industry, McKenzie a photo tech for a teen magazine – and their lives are simultaneously full and empty. And it’s obvious to everyone listening through verses one and two that they belong together, which makes the sucker punch in verse three (which I won’t ruin here) even funnier and sadder.

This is what FoW does best. In 100 years, when our turn-of-the-century civilization is long buried, researchers need look no further than Fountains of Wayne albums to find out what metropolitan life in the early ‘00s was really like. “Someone to Love” is a great song, and a good sign for Traffic and Weather. The track list holds other potential delights, with titles like “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” and (snicker) “Revolving Dora,” and given how good the first single is, I’m expecting a superb record here.

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Of course, the more obscure you are, the more important internet promotion is. Some people consider Fountains of Wayne obscure, but hell, they’re on a major label, and they have two Grammy nominations under their belts. Plus, they play music that’s easy to promote – catchy, radio-ready pop. The net is helpful to a band like FoW, but not crucial.

That’s not the case with Joy Electric, Ronnie Martin’s one-man show on Tooth and Nail Records. For more than a decade, Martin has been making beautifully bizarre electronic pop, using nothing but vintage analog synthesizers. His material requires a total immersion, because it sounds like nothing else around – these are not techno-dance tunes, they’re fully fleshed-out pop songs (and often pop-punk songs, and just as often prog-rock songs) played on burbling synthesizers, and sung in Martin’s breathy whisper of a voice.

No one on the planet is doing quite what Ronnie Martin is doing, which means there’s no easy marketing niche he can fall into. All he can do is record his stuff and put it out there, and hope that the people who would enjoy it somehow find it. But the internet has made that crapshoot a thousand times more fruitful – Ronnie has a website and a Myspace site, and he makes good use of both.

Here’s the interesting thing: Martin could just continue doing what he does, over and over, but he’s a much more restless artist. If you don’t like synthesizers and dismiss their sound out of hand, you probably won’t hear it, but Martin’s music has evolved and grown over 10 full-lengths and half a dozen EPs, and he keeps evolving. His last one, The Ministry of Archers, debuted a new Moog-based sound over some of the most percussive tracks of his career. And his new one, The Otherly Opus, out March 20, apparently takes that sound and strips it down, with the focus this time on layer after layer of vocals.

You can hear what I mean on the Myspace site linked above – Martin has released “Red Will Dye These Snows of Silver” there, and it’s extraordinary. Vocals have always been Martin’s weak point, but later years have found him really growing into his voice, and using effects to bolster it. “Red Will Dye” is simply loaded with countermelodies, Martin’s voice weaving in and out of itself – those powerhouse “OH-OH”s are awesome, and the free-wheeling “Whoo!” before each chorus is splendid.

My only problem with this song is that it’s too short – I want to hear more of this new direction, and pronto. Martin has called The Otherly Opus “cursed,” but if the results are all as fascinating as this song, then the painful birthing process will have been worth it. This new Joy E still sounds like nothing else I’ve heard, but it also sounds like little else in Ronnie Martin’s catalog. Listen to 1994’s Melody, and then listen to this. You’ll be surprised it’s the same guy making all the sounds, both instrumental and vocal.

Martin’s music can be strange and off-putting at first – he’s constructed his own little universe, and established his own rules for it. But once you’re in, you’ll find his work fantastically rewarding. I’ve listened to “Red Will Dye These Snows of Silver” probably 25 times now (artificially inflating Martin’s numbers on his Myspace ticker – sorry, Ronnie!), and I’m not tired of it. On the contrary, I hear new things each time I spin it, and if the new record is all this dark and intricate, I expect I’ll find it as immersive as just about everything else Joy E has done.

* * * * *

So yeah, the internet has been a good thing for Ronnie Martin, but there is no band on Earth that has used the ‘net to its fullest potential like Marillion. This British quintet was one of the first bands to create a community around their website, and their amazingly loyal fanbase has enabled them to do things most bands can only dream of. Marillion has no record label but their own, and twice now their thousands upon thousands of fans have funded expensive recording projects by pre-ordering new albums before the band lays a single note down on tape.

Their last album, the double-disc Marbles, was paid for and promoted solely on pre-orders, and the fans sent its two singles into the UK top 20, a tremendous feat for a band with no big-label marketing. It’s doubly impressive since Marbles was an uncompromising masterpiece, a record full of slowly unfolding, moody pieces that take multiple listens to fully grasp. It’s difficult to say just what Marillion sounds like – they’re equally at home composing four-minute pop gems like “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and 18-minute multi-part epics like “Ocean Cloud.” But they are one of the great British rock bands, as evidenced by their longevity, and the depth of their catalog.

Their new album, Somewhere Else, is their 14th, and it’s out on April 9 in the UK. No pre-orders this time – the band apparently made enough money on the last two albums and tours to fund this one, which is good news. As usual, information about the record is slowly leaking out in advance, and this week, the single was sent to radio stations in Europe. It’s called “See It Like a Baby,” a title I instantly hated.

But here’s how much I love this band. I read on a message board that the single was in rotation on Morow, a progressive rock radio station. So I listened, for hours on end, waiting for it. Morow’s setup is such that you can only see what song is coming up next, not what songs are slated for hours down the road, so it was a process of wading through hours of widdly keyboard solos and Dungeons and Dragons lyrics to get to what I wanted to hear.

But I finally got there. I recorded it, and I’ve listened roughly 20 times since.

And you know, I really… don’t like it.

I’m trying, but “See It Like a Baby” just doesn’t captivate me. It’s nice – it floats along on some mellow electric piano and nifty bass, but the verses meander, the chorus is repetitive, and there isn’t much else, save for a good guitar solo. A decent bridge could have put this song over, or at least lifted it to the level of “Genie,” the weakest song on Marbles. Honestly, it’s a grower, but it still strikes me as a b-side, and my excitement for the album has been, unfortunately, a bit muted.

And here’s the flip side of all this advance information the internet has made possible – what do I do with this feeling? The album is still an agonizing eight weeks away, so I can’t tell if “Baby” is representative, or if it slots into the album nicely, or what. The problem with having this much info is that I want the rest, right now. There are clips of six other songs up on the band’s Myspace page, but none are long enough to give me a full impression – the album sounds more live-band and more rocking than Marbles, but that’s all I can tell.

It’s frustrating, and it’s almost enough to make me wish I hadn’t gone hunting for the little tidbits that are out there. As much as advance singles are interesting, I’m an albums guy through and through, and I want the context, the rest of the story, before I make up my mind. But I can’t have that, so I spin “Baby” over and over, trying to like it, and imagining what the rest of Somewhere Else might sound like.

I want to like it… I want to like it…

Anyway, it will be March 20 before I know whether Joy E maintained their standard of excellence, and April 3 before I get to hear what I hope will be 13 more pop gems from Fountains of Wayne, and then April 9 (plus a week for shipping from the UK) before I find out what’s happened to Marillion. And I plan to spend those weeks between playing the three singles again and again, and cursing the internet.

And, of course, finding out everything I can about records scheduled for May, June and July.

See you in line Tuesday morning.