Saturday, April 2, 2016

Protomartyr and the Problem of Promotion

I know, I already posted my "final" SXSW post. But there's one further thing I wanted to discuss, and it's been on my mind since well before the festival. Specifically, it relates to Protomartyr, a rising band from Detroit typically labeled post-punk. (Post-punk in the 21st century is already a complicated matter, but I'll save that discussion for another time.) I was interested in seeing this band, but I didn't end up getting a chance. It wasn't a high priority for me and I didn't worry about it. Later, when I was looking through my notes that I'd prepared before the festival, I came across a link I'd saved to the artist page for Protomartyr on the SXSW website. Here's the link, and here's the full text of their promotional blurb:

Protomartyr – the illustrious, virtuosic supergroup formed by singing legend Joe Casey, guitar god Greg Ahee, and the renowned rhythm section of bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard – approached the initial stages of recording their new album, The Agent Intellect, with supreme confidence and a firm sense of intention.

They, of course, had good reasons to feel cocky: There were the high-octane, hook-o-rama singles, "Oh Yeah," "Sexy Little Thing" and "My Kinda Girl." Then there were the riveting live shows, starting with a sold-out-within-seconds "Road Test" run of clubs and ending a year later with a sold-out-within-seconds world tour of large halls. The not-so-little engine that could definitely did…time after time.

Beyond the obvious, however, something more important happened during Protomartyr's rise to the top of the rock: They became a band. A real band. "We went from being a weekend fun-time thing to making a record and touring the world," says Joe Casey. "Our learning curve was fast – even for us. But we went out every night to kick ass and prove that we weren't resting on our laurels. We earned everything we got, and along the way, we established a trust in one another that happens very rarely in bands. To me, it's magical."

It was that very trust factor that allowed Greg Ahee to approach Casey during the demoing stage of the new album and express this wish: "I want to hear you sing differently," he told the vocalist. "You have light and shades to your voice that have never been on record. I want to hear you do new things." Casey accepted Ahee's words as a challenge, and then he threw down the gauntlet: "Fine. But you've got to bring it too, Greg. I want to hear you play guitar like you never have. We shook hands on that."

When I first read that, I could hardly believe how obnoxious it was. It gave me a strong distaste for the band, but I'd already listened to some of their music, and since listening to music is always more important than reading about it, I trusted my gut and completely ignored the horrible promo. But something also told me that this didn't seem quite right. First of all, I never would have described Joe Casey as a "singing legend". In fact, his vocals are distinctly unremarkable and monotonous. They aren't bad, but certainly Casey's lyrics are more notable than the quality of his voice. Secondly, the song titles mentioned were unfamiliar to me and seemed out of place with the image I had of the band: rock music, to be sure, but dark, pessimistic, brooding, and angular. (Post-punk, in a word.)

It did occur to me that the promo might be a complete fiction, or just blatant sarcasm. After all, I still get a laugh every time I think about Delicate Steve and the fake bio that Chuck Klosterman wrote for the band without hearing his music. Although writing false material about a real subject is dangerous, everybody knows that band promos and bios are usually absurd, unreliable, and exaggerated. The people who write them are desperate for attention for the band, and the people who read them can't afford to take them seriously. I have no idea if there are actual reference points or descriptions that effectively sell music to anyone, although I'm sure millions of dollars have been spent researching this topic. But since most of these texts have little to do with any band's actual music, and (as has been often said before) writing about music is like dancing about architecture, accuracy is rarely an important attribute of written music promotion. So who could get hurt by writing incorrect information?

At any rate, I didn't know enough about Protomartyr to be sure their write-up was fictional or intentionally humorous, and I didn't care enough (or was too busy) to look into the matter. Once I did take the time, the truth was readily apparent. In fact, the promo now seems so obviously ridiculous that I'm surprised I took it seriously for any length of time. A quick search of the internet for any of the quoted text will lead you to an immediate conclusion: Protomartyr took the first four paragraphs of the web bio of Chickenfoot (yes, that's Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani's current band) and replaced all the names with their own.

The amount of work it took me to realize this was a joke was mere minutes, and yet I'd bet the majority of those who read it either accepted it as legitimate or had doubts but didn't bother to check it out. Now that I know the whole story, I think it's hilarious. The point has been made firmly: Protomartyr has a keen sense of humor, cultural awareness, and musical taste, and Chickenfoot is a band I should avoid at all costs. I suppose in the tiresome game of trying to win dedicated fans versus convincing the uncaring masses to buy any amount of product, this is one way to distinguish both yourself and your fans. It does seem like they risk quite a bit of alienation, but on the other hand, their promo blurb is the only one I remember of the hundreds that I read.

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