Modest Mouse recently performed quite the interesting experiment on us all, leading up to the March 17th release of their new album Stranger to Ourselves. They decided to see if a new way of promoting their new album would work, a way that would seem counter intuitive to many. It was also quite the gamble. Was it successful? Could other bands decide to copy them in the future? What does it say about the changing landscape of the music industry? Let’s take a look at the story…
Fans had been waiting 8 years for a new Modest Mouse album. And during that time the band had been steadily teasing us. In 2013, Modest Mouse cancelled a European tour to write a new album. 2014 came, they actually did end up touring, but there was no new album.
Since last December, Modest Mouse has seemingly twisted our arms – dropping a few singles here and there. That method worked. Everyone from the fans to the press outlets are covering the unveilings. Even Time Magazine is getting in on the action.
So one can’t help but wonder, “is it all one big game to build excitement for a new album in today’s Tweet addled world?” There isn’t a clear cut strategy for producing sales or an exorbitant amount of listens on Spotity. Today marketing an album no longer consists of buying a few radio ads in key markets, doing some press conferences at record stores, taking out some pages in music magazines. None of those strategies are as impactful as they once were, especially for the younger listeners among us.
Generating excitement in today’s world is a difficult feat when even the biggest bands are competing with amateur musicians who possess nearly the same technological capabilities. Modest Mouse took some steps outside of the norm and perhaps found a new way to build up the anticipation. Or maybe it’s a strategy that can only work with a band with a loyal following who have not released an album in eight years. Who exactly knows? It isn’t all black and white…
First, in the beginning of December, Modest Mouse posted the cryptic Instagram photo:
No commentary. No press release. Just a picture of a 45 rpm vinyl reading, “‘Side A’ ‘Lampshades on Fire’”. A subtle tease. Taking advantage of today’s tools to build excitement. Soon enough, the next day a rep from Epic Records, their label, confirmed a new album would come out in March 2015. Finally! A definitive answer… a full album was indeed on its way.
Since hardly anyone sells a substantial number of records now, dismissing a handful of exceptions, album releases are not met with as much fanfare as they once were. Or at least fanfare that actually leads to notable record sales. People storming record stores is only a relic of record executives’ collective memory.
Musicians operating in today’s world must seek out new methods to intrigue people into taking the time to sit back and hear their work. To really listen to it. Digest it. Remember it. Absorb it. Not just listening to the first single and adding it to some playlist, or checking out their Pandora station, or giving the most popular songs from the album a spin on Spotify.
Today, musicians releasing full-length albums must look for ways to get people to seek out their music themselves – so that they want to listen to each and every track on their own. Saturation exists for the music consumers. Being overlooked is easy. Anyone with access to Internet can basically listen to the entirety of all music ever recorded. But despite being able to access most music, fewer and fewer people tend to listen to full albums. The singles reign dominate in the post iTunes era. Are album releases really as big of a deal anymore? I don’t know…
Yes, the true & ardent fans will always find the new music. And they will then tell their friends. But expanding beyond your core audience is another story, especially for a smaller band just starting out. Building buzz online in our increasingly distracted world becomes essentially an exercise in digital marketing. Corporations with millions of dollars in marketing budgets grapple with the same reality.
Sure, a band like Modest Mouse holds the credentials for music outlets to cover their every move. Yet it’s still no simple task to build ongoing momentum until the album drops. Though Isaac Brock may have found a new way to accomplish this, only time can tell.
Several days after the cryptic Instagram post – the first single came out on December 15th. The track was the aforementioned “Lampshades on Fire.” They’ve been known to play it live for the past couple of years. A let down? Debatable. Technically, it’s not a brand new song.
Sure. You could find a terrible, low quality YouTube recording of the track. Perhaps, a few good ones exist. I never looked. The thought never crossed my mind. Yes, I love Modest Mouse. Do I study them like its research for PhD thesis? No. Nor do most fans of theirs – I assume. Sure there is interstate-8.com, except most days of mine are not spent seeking out each latest little update on Modest Mouse.
Despite the live version of “Lampshades on Fire” being known to many of their fans already, the song surely did rouse up the press as well as those fans who had not yet heard it. It was a pure Modest Mouse single – reminiscent of their more popular songs on Good News for People Who Love Bad News. And that’s no insult. As a band who hasn’t released a new full-length album since 2007, you’d want to put out a song a larger net of people would appreciate in the hopes of reeling them in further when the LP does finally drops.
Next in the marketing game came “Coyotes” on January 19th, which continued in heightening the surprise. A video also came out with the song. No, not a lyric video like so many bands put out these days. This video features as expected, a coyote, riding the Portland subway. The inspiration, interestingly, came from a real life event.
It was another subtle yet major drop by Modest Mouse. No big announcement. I was just casually looking at Pitchfork, distracting myself from work and there’s a headline reading, “Modest Mouse Release Adorable ‘Coyotes’ Video.” As the hours rolled by, you couldn’t look at Facebook or Twitter without seeing an article about this song and video.
But the deliberate thought involved in the release is evident if you stop and think about it for a second. A lyric video takes some time to make. Except, “Coyotes” is a full-scale production. A living coyote actually rides the Portland subway. Contacting an animal trainer and receiving the necessary permits from the city is no simple feat. I can’t imagine standard paperwork exists for filming on the subway with dangerous animals. You can’t wake up one day and decide to film it. It was clear that Modest Mouse prepared for this moment. And they needed to be ready if people were to pay attention. It took deliberate effort to build up this excitement. To break through the clutter of today’s Tweet filled, Facebook status gluttony and 24 hour news cycle, even bands like Modest Mouse recognize they must do more than what was the norm.
“Coyotes” is a gentle song where you listen to it and fade away from the moment. Isaac Brock sings in a soft voice with light guitar picking. Compared to “Lampshades on Fire” where the energy comes out in the first chords, “Coyotes” shows the other side of Modest Mouse. In the song, Brock questions human’s treatment of the environment when he sings, “Coyotes tip toe in the snow after dark/ at home with the ghosts in the national parks/ Mankind behavin’ like some serial killers.”
You can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the two songs. Before the album even came out, you knew the new album would probably span their full spectrum of capabilities. The snowball effect of building excitement was definitely working. As of February 18th, over 723,000 people listened to “Coyotes” on YouTube, while “Lampshades on Fire” has been played over 1.5 million times.
Then to the detriment of everyone waiting for the March 3rd release of Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse announced on February 3rd the album wouldn’t come out until March 17th. Only a few weeks later, still another disappointment. When I first read the news, I couldn’t help but think, “Was this a marketing stunt? A way to continue to build the hype or did they need to continue mixing the songs”. It didn’t matter. The world could wait another two weeks despite waiting 8 years since their last album.
Perhaps the pushback of the release date occurred for actual logistical reasons. Official details have not been made public. Maybe the average listener didn’t care or won’t even know. It could be a fanciful idea in my head where I’m following their every move too close. Attempting to uncover clues as if it’s a conspiracy like the assassination of Kennedy.
As a compensation, Brock released another song along with the album’s entire track list. “The Best Room” will be the second to last track on the album and the song reminds me of “The View” or “Tiny City Made of Ashes.” An in-your-face-opening filled with jammed-packed lyrics, a slow breakdown mid-way through the song, then a build up towards the end where it stops abruptly and leaves you asking for more.
After the announcement of the push backed release date, I wasn’t expecting any more tracks to come out. With about six weeks left, I figured Modest Mouse would just let us swim around in anxious anticipation. But no, they continued the experiment…
On Monday February 16th, Modest Mouse posted on Reddit saying, “Hey reddit, Modest Mouse here. Want to hear our latest song that will be released at midnight, then tell us what you think about it?” An interesting way to make an announcement, though reflective of the times. Not everyone on reddit is a music nerd, but there are still plenty of people who would appreciate the track. Granted it did manage to confuse the redditors of whether or not is was an AMA (Ask Me Anything).
“The Ground Walk, with a Time Box,” clocks in at 6 minutes, but when listening to the song, it feels like a minute. It starts playing. Suddenly. The song ends. You want more. You go back. And listen to the rest of the song from Strangers to Ourselves. The jangly guitars, horns and deep bass line fool you into thinking it’s an energetic song. But as the Music Times pointed out, “In the Reddit AMA, a Modest Mouse fan, u/CatBotisCatBot pointed out the sadness of the lyrics and indicated Strangers to Ourselves probably wouldn’t be the happiest album, something Brock was quick to confirm: “Bingo,” he wrote about the hypothesis. You can’t help but love this song. If you don’t, well I assume you are not the normal. It was a great choice for both the Modest Mouse fan and the average listener.
Then on March 3rd, Modest Mouse gave us their final teaser. They released, “Of Course We Know,” the final track on their album along with upcoming tour dates. Typical of final tracks on Modest Mouse albums. It’s gloomy, but packs a punch. Isaac Brock gave us of taste what to expect and how it will all come crashing down in the end. Nobody was expecting one more song. Then again though, nobody expected anything Modest Mouse did this time around. On individual track release level, none of it quite makes sense. A song here. A song there. But when you stop for a second, you recognize, collectively, it adds up.
All of these tactics breaks all the rules of the music marketing playbook.. Generally most bands will maybe release two songs from an upcoming album. Hardly ever do they push back the release date – unless you are Axel Rose, and we all know how well Chinese Democracy went when it was finally released.
But for a band with such a devoted following, drawing out the excitement makes sense. It keeps everyone on their toes. Waiting for their next move. Dropping all the new tracks at once would cause a huge bang, then it would just be a flash in the pan. The fans’ anticipation would wash away quickly. In an age of constant distraction, bands must find ways to keep people engaged
With these five songs, Modest Mouse caught my attention. I already know the first thing I’m doing on March 17th. For the past three and a half months, Brock fed us portions, but never enough to satisfy the craving. If they only released one single, a couple weeks before, would everyone still be hanging on every announcement? Yes. People obsess over Modest Mouse. Yes. It’s been 8 years. But still the teasing makes you want it more. Like a girl who leads you on. You can’t help but follow the chase.
The larger question is why do bands like Modest Mouse have to pull these stunts. Can’t they release an album, people consume and they go gentle into the goodnight? No. When nearly half the songs were released prior to the actual album, is our standard definition an album even necessary anymore? Questionable. Perhaps Modest Mouse only released the best tracks (though I doubt that), then would all this buildup be a waste? Yes, it would.
Has the music industry become so fraught with crap that bands are reduced to elaborate marketing ploys? Hopefully no. What we witnessed here was an attempt to break through the clutter of our times. A way of manipulating the story thirsty press to build up their new album. A strategic move by all accounts.
Did Modest Mouse find the “new model” for generating hype for a new album? My gut tells me no. Every band needs to find a unique approach to attract their own fans, reflective of their own history and their own ethos. Mystique is a cornerstone to Modest Mouse’s being and that’s why this approach worked for them. Will other bands take this approach? Probably. In some permutation or another.
But can smaller acts pull these stunts? Probably not. Would anyone really care or pay attention? No. Modest Mouse crossed over into the wide margins of the mainstream with Good News for People Who Love Bad News, so the world still pays attention. I’m not tracing every move of Modest Mouse like Sherlock Homes, believing every Tweet sent is a riddle to solve at least I tell myself so. But I follow enough music press to be aware of the next installment in their Strangers to Ourselves story.
Now the album is available, how many people will actually go out and buy the album? No clue.. Was the juice worth the squeeze? Can’t tell you. Nobody can give a definitive answer. Will success be judged on album or ticket sales? Can’t tell you this either. When the last song “Of Course We Know” came out with the tour dates, two nights at Webster Hall sold out in an instant. I’d say that’s a good sign. But the barometer of success in today’s music industry is no longer black and white. The Billboard Charts are becoming a relic of a past few us even remember. So success is matter of how the band defines it. I hope.
All these questions now linger in my head on the day of Strangers to Ourselves is released, but only time can answer them. When we look back in a few years, the music industry will be millions of miles away from where it is today and then we can answer the above only in the context of history. Now we wait to see.
I’m not sure if this method could work for any band. All the pieces come together for Modest Mouse. Eight years since their last release. Critically acclaimed. A devoted fan base. A large audience for their music. The press hanging on their every word. It’s the perfect storm for promotion. How often does this opportunity come up for other groups? Not often. I think. Will it bode well for Modest Mouse? My gut pounds yes.
Written by Mark Sytsma
OurVinyl | Contributor