But what actually makes buzz band? What makes one band's popularity explode "overnight"? It's a trick question; a band does not explode in popularity over night. Reaching the tipping point usually takes years. I have compiled a case study of what turns a band a buzz band to give us greater insight into the process. This story is a rather well documented example of the power of word-of-mouth when it comes to music. This case study borrows heavily from the work of MetaCritic Forum poster The Fall of Troy, to whom this post owes a great debt.
Toronto based Rural Alberta Advantage are blowing up, seemingly out of nowhere. Previously known to only a select few, the band's popularity has snowballed this spring and summer, culminating in a stunningly positive review in Pitchfork today. Hometowns, their debut album, is considered by many to be the best album of 2009 and the band has attracted an usually dedicated and loyal fanbase through their album and through their energetic live show. This is how that fanbase pulled the RAA from indie obscurity to indie mainstream in one year.
The Rural Alberta Advantage, consisting of Paul Banwatt, Amy Cole and Nils Edenloff, formed in 2005. Paul and Nils met each other through Amy Cole and the band formed around an open mic night hosted by Paul and Nils in Toronto. They played their first show on January 30th, 2005. By the end of the year they had played 11 shows (10 in Toronto, one in Cambridge, ON) and recorded a demo.
2006 saw the band record and self-release the Rural Alberta Advantage EP and play 33 more show, all in Canada and the overwhelming majority in Toronto (although they also played their first shows in Montréal and Ottawa).
In 2007 saw the band play 30 more shows, but this time they played as many outside of Toronto as they did in.
2008 is the vital year for the RAA. They spent 6 months self-recording their debut album, Hometowns, which featured songs from their EP as well as new songs. Every song but one (Frank AB, which was written in the studio) was from their live show. They sold the album themselves through the internet (it was not available in any store). The band played 29 more shows with the majority of them outside of Toronto.
I will let The Fall Of Troy from the MetaCritic Music Forums take it from here:
On February 19, 2008, a review of Hometowns appeared on Herohill.com, a site that defines itself as "a music review site from the Great White North". This review refers to the RAA as "probably the best unsigned band in Canada." Herohill summed up Hometowns as follows:
"On the surface, you are hit with the trio's Neutral Milk Hotel pop and Nils Edenloff's detailed narratives of his Alberta roots. While it seems almost necessary to toss in a Sufjan reference when you talk about the subject matter, the final product couldn't be farther from one of the indie rock poster boy's releases. Instead of calculated, over thought, lush compositions, RAA prefers energetic, spontaneous, spare arrangements with just enough shocks and surprises to keep you guessing. And the power the trio delivers is astonishing."
In early summer of this year, one of our members, nmeiborg was poking around Herohill when he discovered the RAA. On June 24, nmeiborg posted the following in the "Best Records of 2008" thread after listening to Hometowns:
Pretty impressed with a couple albums recently:
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
Indie folk-rock that reminds me a bit of Neutral Milk Hotel
The War on Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues
Indie-rock with hints of Springsteen, Eno, Sonic Youth and early U2
This short post caused ripples that created a stir on Metacritic which has ended in a ground-swell of support for this unsigned band. Since then 7 people have put the RAA in their top 20: mneiborg (#2), RavingLunatic (#2), twinsdad (#4), L.R. Willaim Spencer (#7), Liberal Kid (#10), ajar (unnumbered, but at the top of the list), and CoCoCo (putting RAA in the "GoodGoodGood" category). Several others have mentioned it as an album they are still digesting. Not bad for an unsigned band.
RavingLunatic saw nmeiborg's post, and picked up the album. Since then, RL has been an ardent supporter of the band. On October 5, RL made the following post in the "Best Records of 2008" thread:
Dudes, I recently re-listened to that Rural Alberta Advantage album, Hometowns, and it is freaking killer. I'm tempted to call it the best indie-rock album since The Meadowlands. These songs are passionate, catchy, and fresh. At times it recalls Neutral Milk Hotel, but they are different in many ways as well. Rural Alberta Advantage is now in a ferocious battle with Tallest Man On Earth for my #1 spot. If you are a fan of indie-rock and haven't heard this, you need to.
This is where the RAA picks up a little steam. Seeing this post, I checked the RAA out on their myspace page. I instantly fall in love with the band. But, I'm too honest to illegally download the album and too cheap to pay $12 plus shipping and handling from their website. So, I posted a message on the message boards at eMusic directed to Yancey Strickler, one of the editors at eMusic. In my message, I asked if I could recommend an unsigned band for the eMusic Selects program. Every couple of months, eMusic signs up unsigned artists to promote and digitally distribute their albums. The program has been going on for less than a year, but so far eMusic signed up Breathe Owl Breathe to distribute its Ghost Glacier EP and at least one artist – High Places – has received a record deal after being an eMusic Select artist. Yancey was impressed with the RAA, and said that he would contact the band.
So, as The Fall Of Troy says, he posted a message on the eMusic message boards, directed to Yancy Stickler. Yancy saw the message, checked out the band, and was promptly blown away. That same day he contacted the Rural Alberta Advantage and within a few days they were signed to eMusic Selects. The RAA were now exposed to eMusic's 400,000+ subscriber base, in addition to having eMusic's marketing and promotions team working for them. The band joined with eMusic in Norvember or December of 2008 and within a few short months they were the all time top selling eMusic Selects band.
As of today, the RAA have played 35 shows in 2009, including their first shows in the United States (a three show mini-tour to NYC in February). This mini-tour was followed up by three performances at the music industry showcase SXSW in Austin, TX in March. At SXSW the RAA played in a special showcase that eMusic set up for the band, opening for indie rock fan and critical favorites Grizzly Bear at the beautiful Central Presbyterian Church. Knowing that the idea of Grizzly Bear in a gorgeous venue such as that church would attract many music fans and members of the media alike, the event was set up to promote the RAA. The band nailed their set with an energetic and heartwarming performance; they completely won over the crowd and their set was often cited as one of the highlights of SXSW.
Post-SXSW the band played a few shows around the United States in April and May, including visits to NYC in early April and late May. On May 1th the band signed to indie mega-label Saddle Creek, home to bands such as Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, Cursive, and Tokyo Police Club. Saddle Creek re-released Hometowns today, July 7th, the same day that Pitchfork gave the band an overwhelmingly positive review. A quick scan of Google News revels widespread attention being paid to the band from both indie music blogs and mainstream print media.
So in summary, how did the Rural Alberta Advantage become an "overnight sensation"?
- First and most importantly, the RAA wrote and perfected an amazing group of songs and learned how to perform these songs in a very engaging manner
- They played frequently, averaging about 30 shows a year.
- They built up a fan base in their hometown (no pun intended) and then built off that fan base as they expanded outward, playing shows further and further from home.
- They recorded music early in their career and got it out there on the internet so people could find them.
- They got one positive early review.
- One influential person saw that review and passed along its message to a receptive group of music lovers.
- That group of music lovers shared a mutual love for the album, encouraging one another to listen.
- From that group emerged one person (The Fall Of Troy) who knew of somebody in a position to help the band (Yancy Strickler) and then tipped off that person.
- That person, upon hearing the quality of the songs, used his power to put the support of an organization behind the band (eMusic).
- That organization used its power to support the band (by making Hometowns an editors choice, by setting up a SXSW showcase and inviting media, etc).
- One of the promotions that the organization set up (SXSW) led to the band signing with an influential record label.
- That record label re-released the album, resulting in a furry of media attention and positive reviews.
- The Rural Alberta Advantage became an "overnight" sensation.
It's that simple; there is only three parts to it. Do something amazing. Have the right person or people see it or hear it. Let the word-of-mouth trickle through the internet.
My interview with the Rural Alberta Advantage and Yancy Strickler, of eMusic.
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