A look at R.E.M.’s attempt to reach someone

your eyes are burning holes through me

In the 21st century, reaching everyone is irrelevant. There is no everyone anymore, not in a world in which an individual’s media bubble is entirely self-selected. Today, I only hear what I want to hear, see what I want to see. In the 21st century, there is only someone – niche audiences, target markets, fans.

So what do you do if you’ve spent a decade reaching no one?

R.E.M. and I go back a long ways – pretty much to the point where I started getting into music in the mid-late 90s. I distinctly remember Automatic for the People and Eponymous featuring prominently in my record collection’s early years. I have no idea what about the band caught my ear. Perhaps it was something of a pirate’s quest. Here’s one of the biggest bands in the world, with songs that everyone knows, but with a back catalogue rich with treasures to be unearthed.

By around 2001 or so, I owned the complete R.E.M. back catalogue on CD – from Murmur through to Reveal. To up the uberfan factor, my editions of their IRS records are the European edition, each with a slew of b-sides, remixes and live tracks. I own a copy of Road Movie, their 1995 concert film. Yes, R.E.M. are one of those few bands who have earned enough capital in my books that I would follow them to the ends of the earth, creatively.

And so I have. You see, by the time I started listening to the band, drummer Bill Berry was about to leave the group, tiring of the rock and roll game. I shrugged it off – “what difference does the drummer make?” – and my dismissal felt redeemed when their first album as a three-piece, the electronic-driven Up, didn’t turn out so bad (I still thing it’s the most unfairly maligned record in the band’s catalogue).

But then came Reveal, a record whose glossy, keyboard-driven sheen masked the artistic emptiness within. I liked the record on first listen, hoping to give the boys some credit, but it aged horribly in the weeks to come. And after a shameless best-of cash in – yes, I still bought it, it had b-sides – came the worst of all: Around the Sun.

Now R.E.M. have made mediocre records before; both Monster and Reveal fit that bill easily. But those could be dismissed as sonic experiments that went awry, worthwhile detours on the band’s journey. Not Around the Sun, a record so boring that it could put the most hyperactive children to sleep. It wasn’t just a bad record – it was a record that had absolutely no reason to exist.

(True story: while writing this post, I tried to listen to the album again and give it another shot. I didn’t make it through five songs.)

In recent interviews, the band has blamed their last three records on communications breakdowns; that without Berry, they were aimless and divided as a three-piece in the studio. But, if I may throw another explanation into the mix, I think it also has to do with the fact that the band weren’t really making records for anyone at all. They weren’t making music for themselves – the dismal boredom shines through their last couple of records – and they sure weren’t making music for mass appeal. They were a band in a holding pattern and needed a way out.

It’s against this backdrop that R.E.M. releases its fourteenth record, Accelerate. I’ll be posting my review of the record tomorrow, but I want to talk about how the band have approached promoting the album, because I think it’s the first time in a long time that the band has figured out the principle I outlined at the start of this post:

Reach someone.

In this case, that someone was me.

Well, okay, not just me, but all the jaded, cynical fans whose goodwill had been exhausted in the 12 years since New Adventures in Hi-Fi (their last truly great record). Whoever masterminded the band’s marketing strategy smartly realized that the era of digital narrowcasting is perfect for reconnecting a band with its lovelorn fans who just want to believe in them again.

So let’s go through the tactics:

1) Have the band give the first listen of its single, “Supernatural Superserious” not to a record station, but to indie zeitgeist website Pitchfork.

2) Hire Vincent Moon, director of La Blogotheque’s fantastic “Take Away Shows” (where indie bands do unplugged live performances in unique settings), to not only direct the song’s video, but to put together a series of 90 vignettes on the band’s website. Hell, while at it, why not just do a series of Take Away Shows too?

3) Give a sneak preview of the album to Matthew Perpetua (he of Fluxblog and the R.E.M. song blog Pop Songs ‘08) for advance review on Stereogum. (Edit – as Matthew says below in the comments, he wasn’t approached by the R.E.M. folks about this, but by Stereogum…still, having one of the more notable R.E.M. bloggers review the record on one of the Internet’s biggest music blogs sure fits well into this larger pattern).

4) Release the new album a week in advance on iLike, so that thousands of people can listen to the disc on their Facebook profile.

5) Do a cute little viral video where Michael Stipe “outs” his bandmates as straight.

6) Announce a tour with Modest Mouse and The National.

7) …make a kickass record. But that’s for tomorrow’s talk…for today, check out the band’s Take Away Show videos over at Stereogum.

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2 responses to “A look at R.E.M.’s attempt to reach someone

  1. It should be known that R.E.M. and their people had nothing to do with me doing that review for Stereogum — I’m just friends with those guys and worked with them on the Automatic project — which came out of them liking the Pop Songs blog — and they asked me if I’d be up for the “premature evaluation.” Of course, I wasn’t going to turn down that opportunity.

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