What doesn’t break you, makes you: a view from inside the BBC Sound of… circus

December 5, 2011

So your band features on the BBC Sound of 2012 longlist (artists pictured, above). Exciting, isn’t it? But with the Sound of… now in its tenth year, even the most casual of observers recognises that a place on the annual snapshot of industry hopes doesn’t guarantee success in the long term – or even during the year in question. Plenty have arrived with the biggest of campaigns ready to ignite; and many have faded into the shadows of obscurity.

However, it’s important to understand that disappointment in terms of a band’s performance over the course of a set period is, typically, a very subjective measurement. What might be seen as a poor return on an elevated profile, or a dizzying level of blogosphere buzz, could actually represent a better result than was otherwise forecast, prior to inclusion in lists like the BBC Sound of… one. I say this from a position of experience.

In late 2010, Esben and the Witch appeared on the BBC Sound of 2011 longlist. I have co-managed Esben since 2009 alongside my very good friend Bradley Kulisic (a true professional when it comes to this management malarkey, unlike myself – I tend to bumble along rather blindly). The band’s appearance on this most high-profile of tip lists was something of a surprise, to say the least. Downbeat, glowering, goth-y electro-indie band, alongside Jessie J and James Blake and the rest? Right… makes loads of sense.

But, then, the band’s timing was right: a debut album was scheduled for early in 2011, and the great (multi-award-nominated) video for Marching Song had been a favourite of blogs on both sides of the Atlantic. The Sound of… happens at a fixed point every year, so savvy label/PR sorts can, to an extent, engineer their acts’ presence via careful coercing of the panel of pundits (these individuals are listed every year). But we’d not canvassed for votes.

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Esben and the Witch – Marching Song

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(I hadn’t, certainly. And no, I didn’t nominate the band myself – that’s against the rules. It was amusing, albeit not very, reading some suggestions that my Album Reviews work for the BBC had made their inclusion inevitable – this could not be further from the truth. I take what I do for the BBC very seriously and would not compromise the integrity of either the Album Reviews service or the Sound of… by muddying the water between very separate interests.)

We hadn’t pinned any hopes to the Sound of…, knowledgeable that the band’s album was about as likely to bother the upper reaches of the chart as a 19-disc box set of Throbbing Gristle rarities. We were (are) on an indie label, Matador, which shares certain resources with other labels in the Beggars Group, so there was never the personnel in place to actively push for a Sound of… berth. Which I think means, and this is lovely, that Esben made their way onto the Sound of 2011 because People Genuinely Liked Them. Thanks, guys.

Of course, they were far too esoteric to be in with a chance of making the final shortlist of five artists, revealed every January. I didn’t mind, and expected this to be the case. I was, though, disappointed at the time by the lack of ‘ownership’ claimed by the BBC, in the wake of the Sound of…, once the album campaign was underway. The band seemed to get lost in the wide cracks between Radio 1 and 6 Music, with neither committing to the cause. But, then, a radio-friendly record Violet Cries is not.

Now, reading over hindsight pieces on the Sound of 2011, penned with one eye on this year’s list, I see that Esben and the Witch are frequently said to have had a bad 2011. Music Week, brilliantly, hadn’t registered that the band had even released an album when they wrote about Jessie J’s debut collection outselling the rest of the Sound of 2011 list put together.

But Esben have not had a bad 2011. Not at all. They enjoyed a second US tour, this time in a headline capacity; the band played in Japan for the first time; they travelled all over Europe, attracting great press from the continent; and Violet Cries sold to a very respectable level indeed on the back of some cracking coverage. The album drew an 8/10 from NME, a 9/10 from DrownedinSound.com – a couple of particularly negative reviews dragged down its Meta-style average, but said write-ups made one valid point likely to be addressed second time around: while hugely atmospheric, the record perhaps lacked enough hooks to keep the less-focused listener interested.

Anyway, the band goes into 2012 and the writing of their next album having enjoyed a rewarding 2011 – a year that saw them achieve more than ever before, frequently on their own terms. To the outsider, looking in, they’ve not ‘done a Florence’, enjoyed the mainstream attention directed the way of Warpaint, nor followed The xx into television sync ubiquity; but, from an insider’s perspective, these crossover successes were never truly on the cards. The Sound of 2011 skewed some expectations outside of the camp; but those within it never got carried away.

The band maintained focus throughout – they never saw the Sound of 2011 as a ticket to whatever corner of the big time never actually awaited, or a solution to those pesky how-to-pay-the-rent? posers. They knuckled down. They took it in their stride. Just another bit of press, thank you very much, and on we go. And now they’re better than they were at the beginning of 2011. The Hexagons EP of last month was evidence, like any was needed, that the band’s sound was never set in stone. What comes next, I don’t know yet. I can’t wait to hear it though.

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Esben and the Witch – Hexagons II

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Which goes to prove: what doesn’t break you can be the making of you. The BBC Sound of 2012 highlights a selection of talented artists that, right now, are heard to be great hopes for the forthcoming year. (Certainly, they are popular picks for late 2011/early 2012.) But the Sound of… alone will not turn ambitions, dreams and talent into pound signs, into an upgraded tour bus or a slightly higher standard of hotel room. The general public still decides – the people who buy records and gig tickets. Because us lot, those of us who vote for these things? We don’t pay for anything.

And if your band ‘does an Esben’ in 2012, and doesn’t go stratospheric in the black-and-white eyes of some observers: so what? Come back brighter in 2013 and teach us seasonal tastemakers that truly singular passions can’t ever be quantified by record sales or radio plays.

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BBC Sound of 2012 homepage
BBC Sound of 2011 homepage
Violet Cries reviewed on BBC Music


Forgotten Noughties #7: Adam Gnade, Run Hide Retreat Surrender

May 11, 2011

Adam Gnade - Run Hide Retreat Surrender

Adam Gnade
Run Hide Retreat Surrender

Loud + Clear, 2005

Sometimes I can’t write, my fingers frozen by what’s unfolding in my ears, even several spins down the line. That happened here: I struggled to review this record. I did find interviewing its San Diego-born maker easy, though – you can read the piece on Drowned in Sound HERE. Adam’s music – “talking songs”: spoken-word explorations of the heart and all its bruises, set to folk imbued with worn-down soul, wearing spit-shined shoes and drinking from whatever bottle the hand can grasp the quickest and tightest; disaffected, malformed, inspirational – really had no precedent in my head. Of course it did in The Wider World. But let’s not go there when we can sink, instead, into a record that to this day can leave me just a little shaken up. I should be grateful, I suppose. At least I can move now – apt, as Run Hide Retreat Surrender (commas, optional) is a collection inspired by movement, by travel, and all the experiences that one can encounter in the vast unknown of the USA.

Adam Gnade – Dance to the War

Adam Gnade – Shout the Battle Cry for Freedom