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Going Viral

MySpace breakout Owl City blows up--what of it?

. . . All this over a dude who plays music as Owl City.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/27/2010

Owl City

Rams Head Live Jan. 29.

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At this point, poking fun at Owl City is kinda like poking fun at the dudes on Jersey Shore. Not only is it way too easy--a band delivers a third-grade version of the Postal Service to large-scale success--but the chorus of jeers is already out there. A quick skim: "hack electronica," from Pitchfork; "trite garbage," Phoenix New Times; "soulless," Washington City Paper. Actually, qualify an "Owl City" Google search with terms such as "crap," "garbage," and/or "vapid" and the results could keep an interested reader busy all day--which is, yes, better than actually listening to it.

Of course, most breakout emo-pop from dudes with feathery hair is just as bad; Owl City just touched a sensitive spot in the indie pantheon. Note that most of the rubs on the band come from indie music's blog hivemind, while print mags, music criticism's current populist home, kinda just don't care all that much. The point is that this band being shitty is just not all that interesting. The question of "Why Owl City?," however, almost makes the whole dim-witted affair worth it.

So, why did fame select this dude, one Adam Young, formerly of his parents' basement in suburban Minnesota? And, more importantly, what does it mean that Young was selected by fame itself and not selected for fame by the record industry? The answer has everything to do with whether or not there even is a record industry in the future.

The cultural theory that directly relates the size of a fanbase to the crappiness of its taste generally holds water, excepting a lot of R&B, but it's also been historically rather easy to blame the dictatorships of major record labels and corporate radio stations. The aughts and all the attendant technology, however, have either made star-making more interesting/democratic or the entertainment industry's authoritarianism has become conveniently obfuscated. And Owl City, so fresh-faced and innocent--so Minnesotan--makes for a hell of a test case.

Currently, the pop music promotional apparatus is a plasma that music makers and fans await settling into something more stable and predictable--so, at the very least, they don't get smacked in the back of the heads by another unknown kid in a basement nicking a popular indie band. Meanwhile, the major-label industry is waiting even more eagerly for that promotional apparatus to settle because, well, the industry's future likely depends on it.

Someone, somewhere is kicking themselves for not being the A&R rep pushing Owl City and his breakout single at the very beginning: Young broke out unsigned and unheard of. The 23-year-old has since signed to Universal, but even just a year since the start of his meteoric ascendancy, that puts the label in a game of catch-up: Young already spent 12 months unmolded and unregulated. Marketing is about control.

In fact, Universal kept its deal with Young secret for some time to maintain the internet-guy-done-good narrative, according to The New York Times. While marketing something as "indie" isn't exactly revolutionary--Kings of Leon, for example--outright hiding something feels more than just a novel strategy at marketing a band. It feels like covering up something shameful.

See, in the old way, you would have heard of/heard Owl City because of Universal (or whatever label), in tandem with radio stations or, increasingly, television placement. Here, Universal, and music fans, found Owl City at the same time thanks to the not-quite-dead MySpace--which is actually problematic for both the labels (for the above reasons) and fans. While online services artificially boosting band's MySpace plays are working fervently to bring you the next Nickelback, Owl City's MySpace break looks genuine.

That's wonderful in principle. It suggests an open channel between an artist and the listener/consumer. It also suggests that a great many people have horrible taste in music. And music consumers have no one else in that situation to blame it on: no sinister corporation, no bought-out radio station, no iTunes commercial, no Gossip Girl soundtrack.

Owl City isn't the first artist to get big on MySpace: Colbie Caillat and Ingrid Michaelson are two names tossed about, as well as Lykke Li, who actually makes good music. And there will be many, many more to come. As for what MySpace stardom means for the future, it's a jump ball. Wealthy, powerful corporations are going to be wealthy, powerful corporations--and it just so happens that MySpace is one. As is YouTube, another culture-virus ground zero. So music consumers aren't left without a mediator, merely a mediator that hasn't figured out how to exploit its power--and whether or not that exploitation should be in collusion with major record labels (which MySpace has already shown plenty of willingness to do).

The thing is, this process could go a different way, one that decimates the role of the entertainment-industry complex and opens a new and lasting pop-star channel. Indie-dom adapted naturally via the micro-press and dissemination of non-corporate music blogs, whose ascendancy has potential parallels with pop music. In a way, you can look at the current state of pop music as similar to the state of indie music at the dawn of blogs as hype machines, earlier in the decade. The question then becomes: Can a non-corporate (read: truly open) cultural mediator do the heavy lifting of making pop stars?

The answer is probably not, and we're stuck with something we already know: Being a pop star is necessarily corporate because of the machinery it takes to maintain it. Have no doubt that the open channel will not remain open--the entertainment industry is unprepared and unwilling to have that kind of randomness in the system. To make the kind of money it needs, the labels and all of the rest of it need to be in control from the very beginning.

That might be overly cynical: The last decade saw the introduction of the much-vaunted "Radiohead model," which involves directly interfacing with your fanbase in the selling of albums. It was criticized then as being only functional for artists that have already achieved a certain amount of fame on the backs of record labels. But imagine a combination of the two: viral fame on the back of an open mediator and selling records and merchandise to fans right back through that same medium. Perhaps it's not all that unreasonable to think that non-corporate social networks--the ones that don't exist yet--could carry the entire load.

If you follow the "probably not" trail all the way to the bitter end, it gets even more depressing. Through whatever medium--controlled or uncontrolled--it is still just people being marketed to, by the artist themselves or a corporation on behalf of the artist (and, thus, itself). Corporations are evil and push awful shit on us, but artists that don't know they're awful do it, too. And without labels in the middle, just watch how fast self-marketing gets ugly--just being on MySpace is the first self-marketing step--eventually building back up to the thing it replaced. The final point: Can anyone be trusted to be arbiters of pop music? Hell, maybe it will wind up being the music press.

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