Friday, June 17, 2011

Rise of the comic book album

When a band is established and widely respected, fans will spend hours parsing lyrics that were written in a minute. But if you're a complete unknown, no one will spend a second bothering to understand a line that took you days to write. When it comes to discovering and judging new bands, most of us are only willing to give a single perfunctory listen at best, all the while asking ourselves just one question: "Do I dig it, here and now?" This isn't a judgment of anyone's priorities; I do it as well. Time is precious, after all, and there are just too many other bands out there waiting in line to be heard.

But in any case, this means that when you're just starting out as a band, you're at a huge disadvantage if you aim to create music laden with deeper meaning that's evident only after repeated listens. Time and effort are finite resources, after all, and while you're busy investing them in things you won't be given any credit for as an unknown band, plenty of other bands are happy to focus solely on those features that are immediately visible at the surface. In the end, they're the ones who have the best chance to become viral sensations on Fluxblog and Stereogum, not you. In fact, you're really not part of the competition at all.

I learned this the hard way after getting zero critical reception from my forays into doublespeaker rhyme on Yearling's Bobtail. So for this next album, I vowed to drastically simplify my songwriting, and I think I've been pretty successful for the most part. Still, I found myself writing lines like, "As a clamp for cords ties the slack in her gown." Rosalind Franklin had ovarian cancer, you see, yet ironically, she was placed in the hospital's obstetrics wing. So, you know, umbilical cord clamp, emaciated body in maternity gown... In theory, a listener paying full attention would make these connections by the end of the song. However, like I said, when you're an unknown band, such thoughtful listeners don't actually exist for you in reality.

And that's how I came up with the idea for this comic book album. With pictures arranged in sequence, the meaning behind my songs can be readily understood upon first listen, while the music itself remains perfectly uncompromised. At the same time, the sheer presence of a competently drawn, full-colour comic book might help to signal the album's seriousness to record labels and music critics in ways that all the bluster of an accompanying one-sheet never will. Of course, this isn't just a marketing ploy, but an artistic endeavour in its own right as well. And thank heavens for that, since I am the nobody I am today at least partly because I find unabashed attempts at self-promotion so unpalatable.

I don't plan to make any more comic book albums beyond this first one, though. Don't get me wrong, it's fun, it's challenging, it makes me a more well-rounded individual, but man... drawing panel after panel is really, really time-consuming! Plus, beyond artistic satisfaction, I really only have one purpose for it in mind, and that is to get my foot in the door. So if my little experiment succeeds, then there won't be any impetus left to keep doing it, since there are so many other uncharted paths to explore. And should I really want another comic book album to my name, I'll just storyboard it and use my newfound leverage to hire an illustrator.

Anyway, if I can set a precedent by getting the indie rock community's attention as an unknown band with this comic book album, I foresee two things happening. First, the playing field will be just a little more level for music that's less conducive to live performance. Good live bands have always held the natural advantage and always will, of course, but that advantage has become untenably lopsided in recent years due to changes in how music is distributed and promoted. Setting music to sequential art won't counter the imbalance for every innovative songwriter out there, but it could help a few.

And second, the notion of how unknown bands pay their dues might finally be expanded to include the time-consuming effort that goes into writing thoughtful and innovative songs. In the world of indie rock, respect is earned by winning over a new crowd every night, not by sitting alone hunched over a desk for hours. But no one in the world of comic books feels this way. And this isn't a minor issue. How much we credit a band with having paid their dues enormously affects how charitably we approach their music and how much we're driven to impress it upon others. So those few of us dedicated to songcraft at the expense of opportunities for performance have a vested interest in allying ourselves with those of a like temperament in different fields. It's always good to have strength in numbers, and those like us in the world of comics are especially many.

No comments:

Post a Comment