How A Buzz Band Became A Buzz Band: A Rural Alberta Advantage Case Study

In today’s fast-moving world of web 2.0, the buzz band reigns supreme.  Unheard of one day, a virtual household name the next, it seems as if there is a new buzz band every month or even week. From the Arcade Fire in 2004(perhaps the first “modern” buzz band) to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah in 2005 (the definitive example of a buzz band) to Wavves in 2009 (the perfect example of the downside of being a buzz band), we increasingly see bands rocket into popularity.  While the actual worth of many of these bands is sometimes debatable, never mind the system that hypes them endlessly until the next flavor of the month comes along, the fact remains that there has never been an easier time for a band to breakthrough to mainstream acceptance than current day.  We’ve seen it time and time again as the internet and social media increasingly facilitate word-of-mouth through online user generated content (blogs, forums, twitter, video, etc).

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.

Sources:

My interview with the Rural Alberta Advantage and Yancy Strickler, of eMusic.

The RAA’s list of shows

The MetaCritic Forum Thread about the RAA.  Includes the Fall Of Troy’s history of the band. A very interesting read.

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14 responses to “How A Buzz Band Became A Buzz Band: A Rural Alberta Advantage Case Study

  1. Pingback: Mesothelioma News - Fire at Ohio Plant Raises Asbestos Concerns

  2. That’s a great story. Love the simplicity of the whole thing, especially the fact that they didn’t need to build a (relatively) massive audience before becoming famous. Instead, it’s all about the key people who knew each other and wanted to spread the word. Malcolm Gladwell would love this

  3. i’m a musician (well, kind of – playing the drums for about 20 years now) & working in an advertising agency, so this caught my attention!

    summarized the method behind “a buzz band” is exactly the same as the model we call advertising 2.0 and that we’re using as an agency.

    1. make it interesting = do something amazing (which is good music then, not?)
    2. infiltrate – get in touch with the right people (it might just be 1 single person), and don’t push it
    3. spread the word – all about methodology, again, make it interesting for yourself, your influencers & provide them the necessary tools to spread it
    4. results – do something with all the data, contacts, reactions etc you’ve received.

    guess i’ll need to apply the model to my band; we’ll start with making it interesting to listen to ;-)

    thanx for the info, good case study

  4. The story is far from over. They are now fan-funding an exclusive 7-inch using Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2002468536/the-raa-7-project

  5. So you’re saying if you make a good album and can perform the songs from it well, you might get noticed? This only seems shocking post-2000.

    Taking a look at the other list of “buzz” bands, it also looks like it helps to write music that appeals to suburban white kids that have alot of free time, laptops, and use their parents or schools broadband.

  6. thanks for this!

  7. Pingback: The Rural Alberta Advantage “Frank, AB”

  8. Pingback: Thursday Is Links! | Best Indie Music Reviews, Interviews, and Everything Independent at Radio Exile

  9. Dig a little deeper. Toronto-based Frank Yang of well-read blog Chromewaves featured the RAA on Feb 13, 2008 (and he mentions them in other posts well before that). That post is how I heard about them and maybe that’s where Herohill.com heard about them.

    But the key to blowing up was definitely getting on eMusic Selects.

  10. hitsingularity

    Hey Adrian

    Love your blog and I’m sad to hear your giving it up.

    You are correct; I have understated the influence of Chromwaves as well of Fred Wilson of avc.com. I’m probably going to post a follow up on this piece at some point and I’ll acknowledge both to a greater extent than I did at first.

  11. Nice story!

    The basic path to achieve success hasn’t changed — create good music, get heard, get talked about. However, there are now more enabling tools, technologies, and social portals to make it happen, and less gatekeepers to prevent it.

    -Mike

  12. Yeah, I definitely don’t think (or claim that) we broke the secret on The RAA, it just happened to be our review that triggered the discussion on the eMusic forum. Frank, IHM and herohill all loved the RAA and praised them.

    The thing I like about this story – from a blogger point of view – is that it shows eventually, good music gets heard and even a small blog from Halifax can help a terrific band get a bit of buzz.

    But as most everyone else hear has mentioned, without the songs, blog hype is just hype. We have loved countless other bands, praised them and they still toil in obscurity. The RAA is where they are because they work hard and are terrific.

  13. Pingback: A Monkey Wrench in The Hype Machine: Music Marketing and Integrity « CONDEMNED TO ROCK ‘N ROLL

  14. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

    I’m Out! :)

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