By John Crossingham
I want to talk about Viet Cong. Lately, I’m not the only one.
Not the Viet Cong, mind you, but Calgary band Viet Cong, whose brand new self-titled album is buzzing in indie-rock circles right now.
Except I don’t really want to talk about their album either. What I want to talk about is Viet Cong and their story, and what it means to be an independent musician in 2015.
But first, let’s talk about the internet quickly.
How to be a band in 2015
You don’t need anyone to tell you about the power that the internet wields over the music industry. Whether you view it as a death-dealing plague or an egalitarian force of liberation, we are well past the tipping point in our relationship with the web. There’s simply no going back. And as its presence has morphed into an assured dominance, with it has arrived a number of rough best practices for pretty much every new band to follow.
1. Get your band a Facebook page. Post on it often. Get people to ‘like’ you.
2. Start a Twitter account. Tweet regularly. Use hashtags. Build followers.
3. As soon as you have some demos/early recordings, set up a page with something like Bandcamp or Soundcloud to circulate those songs. Post songs as regularly as possible, especially to Soundcloud.
4. And though it can take a little more time to make happen, try to shoot a video for a song and get it on YouTube. Concert footage, lyric videos—just get it up there.
Much as with MySpace in its early 2000s halcyon days, these are the ways most artists engage with their audiences digitally. In other words, you’d be hard pressed to find many bands that don’t use these four things as a key part of their public face. They’re so ubiquitous that they’re as rudimentary as choosing a band name, writing songs, or practicing.
Do you like me?
Type “Viet Cong band” into Facebook and you’ll be whisked away to a page. It will have likes and a picture of the Viet Cong LP. But it’s not actually their page. The band still hasn’t bothered to make one. Containing their Wikipedia entry and a standard Facebook disclaimer—“This Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users are interested in”—this phantom page is really just a receptacle for the ‘likes’ that people on Facebook have given to the band. And all without the band’s solicitation. (That said, even this ghost page’s presence is growing fast: at the time of the first draft of this piece, it had 2,309 likes; by final layout, that number hit 3,577.)
Twitter? Viet Cong do have an account, except despite being a band for three years, it was only started last November. As of January 16, they’ve tweeted four times.
They also have an official Soundcloud page. It carries just one song that is over a year old.
Bandcamp? Yep. They have one of those. In fact, they released their entire debut EP on there for free for a while. That is, of course, after they released it on a physical format—a cassette.
While there’s no denying that Viet Cong aren’t the prototypical indie band in terms of how they use the internet’s tools to engage with an audience, the pitch isn’t that they’re webphobic. What is fascinating, however, is how much of this band’s story—one that finds them on the precipice of a potential breakout year—looks like that of a band from 1995, not 2015.
Band records own album in basement.
Band self-releases a cassette.
Band tours a bunch. (As in a lot)
Band lets others do the talking for them.
Let’s look closer at the most un-internet thing about that list: The cassette.
Back to spool
People outside the music industry love to wax philosophical about the resurgence of the vinyl LP in the last decade. But the real story is how unsurprising this happening was tno anyone who follows music closely. After all, labels never stopped printing LPs completely, and the format was always a consistent—if niche—feature in independent record stores and mail orders. The LP—with its large-scale artwork and warm, distinct sonic qualities—had a character that generated and sustained interest among serious audiophiles, including those who were far too young for the infatuation to be a simple case of nostalgia.
It’s doubtful, however, that you could find as many people who predicted the same thing about cassettes. Though this format never truly died, it reached sales levels so incredibly low (around 34,000 total copies in the U.S. for 2009) that it was effectively dead.
More cumbersome to navigate than either CDs or LPs, and full of hiss and warp, cassettes sounded kind of bad. And though cassettes boast portability and a resistance to getting tossed around, they do so in a fashion that pales next to a digital file.
But they’re cheap to make. You can hold them in your hand and sell them at a gig. And, in the best underground tradition, they’re super kitschy and collectible.
In the waning years of the aughts, underground labels, like California punk-rock imprint Burger Records, gradually began to make the cassette a significant part of their releases—if not their leading physical format, period. Artists on larger indies started to buy in as well, including Dirty Projectors, Deerhunter, and Mountain Goats, releasing music on cassette alongside the established CD/LP/MP3 triad.
By 2013, the ground swell was enough to even warrant Cassette Store Day, a continental sister event to Record Store Day boasting hundreds of cassette-only releases from indie artists.
During the same year, Viet Cong not only released their debut EP on a cassette, they even called it Cassette. This limited run tour-only release was manufactured by the band itself. As drummer Mike Wallace amusingly said to Diffuser.fm, “We tried to dub them ourselves, which is probably why half of them didn’t even turn out.”
“Yeah,” added bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel in the same interview, “[it was] last minute [and] slightly cooler than a CD.” Viet Cong hit the road for the first time, cassettes in hand.
Of course, the point here is not necessarily that cassettes are taking over the world. Or even the underground, though critics and musicians like Byron Coley and Thurston Moore have written passionately about the unique relevance and fidelity of the music that’s being released on cassette labels.
It wasn’t long before when, on their first tour before, Viet Cong made Cassette available for free on Bandcamp; it was an idea that charmed the oblivious Calgarians after exchanging stories with fellow bands. (In 2014, the EP was finally upgraded to a 12-inch vinyl release via Brooklyn label Mexican Summer.) As guitarist Scott Munro told Chartattack in 2014, “Bandcamp got us through the United States. Without Bandcamp we’d be fucked right now.”
So the next step for the enlightened group was to fully embrace the potential of the internet and revel in its promotional power, right? Nope. Despite this little lesson, Viet Cong avoided taking even the smallest of basic marketing measures.
Take a look at this chart below—it measures web activity for Viet Cong across certain formats (although Bandcamp sales, like Spotify plays, aren’t available here). Though this will no doubt change with the release of Viet Cong, which came out in January to an avalanche of glowing reviews, two things are telling. Despite releasing music and touring since 2013, they don’t even begin to register anything here until July 2014. And the highest line on the graph? People looking the band up on Wikipedia. With nearly any other band that you can name—especially one that is on an entire community’s lips and poised to break—this top line would be pretty much anything else: Soundcloud or Rdio plays, Facebook likes, Youtube views—anything but a trip to Wikipedia.
Is it all a strategy to cultivate scarcity of information—the very antithesis of the internet? A purposefully evasive tactic to differentiate themselves in an era where so many get lost in a sea of similar-minded bands? After all, The Weeknd didn’t do so badly for himself by being as mysterious as possible in his early days. But then again, it’s easy to be coy when you’ve got friends like Drake spreading the word on your behalf.
Official vs. unofficial
Truth is, while nearly all bands have at last a modicum of self-driven internet savvy, the absence of it hardly removes you from the grid. And Viet Cong wasn’t exactly starting from absolute zero. Two members—vocalist/bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace—were in the Calgary cult fave Women. When that band infamously fell apart in 2010, they left behind two under-heard but critically praised LPs and a load of unfulfilled potential.
So even if the band themselves weren’t especially proactive in terms of spreading their gospel and getting ‘likes’, trendsetting media like Pitchfork had had enough of a taste to stay aware of future moves. They wrote an expectant “Rising” feature on the band last March, keeping close tabs on what little official Viet Cong material leaked out in the interim.
Then there’s another key perspective to understanding the above graph. Most of the way in which metrics for bands are tracked centres around following the group’s official pages: their Facebook, their Soundcloud, their Twitter, and so forth. What’s not added? Things like the YouTube channels of their labels Mexican Summer and present home, Jagjaguwar, which released a video for their debut LP’s single, “Continental Shelf,” last November.
It’s understandable why. After all, a label like Jagjaguwar is using its web resources to promote literally dozens of other acts each year (such as 2014 critical favourite War On Drugs). But nonetheless, word was getting out via these channels, too.
(As an aside, in order for these kinds of metrics to be taken seriously, this is an area wherein they need to improve. Even for artists with dominant official accounts, those channels usually represent only a portion of the traffic they elicit on the web. While challenging, this is a big reason why a buzz-generating band such as Viet Cong can appear to be a ghost across these metrics.)
And then there’s the greatest force of the internet: the public at large. Sure, Viet Cong weren’t throwing up Vine loops or preview videos of their studio process or even footage of them blowing away a rapt clutch of kids in an Ottawa basement. Maybe they just knew that others would do it for them. Live performance videos and fanzine interviews for the group are everywhere. Of course, few of them reach far over 1,000 views, if that. But collectively, they help to cultivate the excitement of a tight underground community. The eyes are everywhere.
Same as it ever was?
Barring major catastrophe, Viet Cong are going to have a great 2015. It’s certainly one of the big stories that we’ll follow this year. And from cassette releases to playful obstinance, you’d be hard pressed to pick a band currently poised to break as big that has done as little to use the internet to its advantage as Viet Cong. But like everything else these days—and in spite of the band’s laconic efforts in this area—the internet has still had a say in it. Would these guys be so lucky with the connections made via their previous band, Women? It’s highly debatable.
If there’s an end lesson to all of this, then, it’s that even as the internet appears to overwhelm all before it in the music industry, pockets of resistance still exist. You don’t need to follow best practices to a T to make an impact.
The road. A tape. A t-shirt. A band’s word of mouth can still spread in such ways.
And all around it—far more malleable than it seems—the internet adapts, observes, and makes comment.