Noise Pop's Growth Raises Industry Questions

Makonnen Sheran of ILOVEMAKONNEN (photo via FB)

By Galen Barbour

The 2016 Noise Pop Festival was a huge success. With an overall attendance exceeding 21,000 people and 90% of shows sold out, this year marks the largest turnout in the festival’s 24-year history. Over the years, Noise Pop has provided a platform for aspiring acts of the Bay Area, while also serving as an incubator for future musical stars such as The White Stripes, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, The Flaming Lips, The Shins, Fleet Foxes and Bright Eyes. This year was no different.

However, promoters of the event are not crediting the classic reasons for the festival's good turn out such as branding, talent or the weather. Rather, the event planning app “Do Stuff” along with Lyft are taking home the credit by organizing peoples interests and then helping them get there. It brings up an interesting paradox between independent artists and their inherent reliance on the internet and technology.

Welcome to an age where the physical turnout of an event depends upon the virtual organization of a pair of apps, and fame is measured in number of likes on social media rather than record sales. It begs the question, what does it mean to be an independent artist in this day in age, and how do you stay that way, if it's even possible?

Although I had limited access to the events themselves given the tight occupancy, I did take the opportunity to check out ILOVEMAKONNEN, at Ten15 and The Wild Ones at Brick and Mortar. Both shows were packed and highly anticipated by their respective fans, and the two artists were as far apart in style and spirit as you could fit under one event roster.

On one hand you have The Wild Ones. A five-piece band out of Portland, Oregon who’s electro-indie sound comes at you with clean grooves and abstract ambient synth-scapes. They're the type of group that talks to individuals of the crowd during performance and hangs out after the set to hustle t-shirts and chat about anything from their favorite beer to their newest album.

On the other hand you have ILOVEMAKONNEN, an artist who’s fame is broadly sourced to a Miley Cyrus shout out on Instagram, which helped send a quarter million likes his way and gave him exposure to bigger artists like Drake, who eventually co-signed him. Joining up ILOVEMAKONNEN with the OVO sound so beloved by Top-40 clubs across the nation that now seems to be a staple in the profile he’s taken as an artist. 

What made ILOVEMAKONNEN's show memorable wasn’t the way his clothes matched the odd choice in iconic branding that filled the video wall behind him (a matrix of scabby doll heads watching the crowd in a way that was obnoxious rather than eerie.) Or his pitch-imperfect auto tuning, or the dubbed singing. Nor was it the DJ he kept in the shadows, the 20 minute set, or the six minute selfie session. It was all of it combined that made made an impression on me, and not in the best way. Stranger still, it was all put on by Noise Pop.

To be critical, the crowd and sound seemed to be out of sync with the sea of black beanies and analog feel that Noise Pop draws to SF. It was the cheap lyrics, the lack of performance and the fact that nobody seemed to care which concerned me. Is this the beginning of the end for a legendary indie festival that’s kept its non-corporate vibe for 23 years in a city that’s been continuously incorporating itself?

Well, to be fair, with over 150 artists present at this year’s festival it stands to reason that there would be something for everyone. And, after all, ILOVEMAKONNEN is in the spring of his fame and could still be considered up and coming. Furthermore, if one looks past the garish production and generic sound to the actual body of work the man has put out, a different picture emerges. Fifteen mix tapes and two albums in five years. That’s a solid body of work no matter what your tastes are.

So that brings us to the question, what exactly is it that defines an artist as selling out? What part do labels play when all an artist work can be shared with the world from the comfort of their home studio thanks to the Internet, with little to no overhead? Well, take Makonnen as an example.

There’s no doubt that he, as an artist, had a definite musical identity (see 3d mixtape below). As well given the amount of work he had put out early his career (2011-2014), its easy to see that he had a strong creative work ethic.  But all that aside, Makonnen’s publicity didn’t grow in a steady incline but rather erupted after getting liked by Mily Cyrus (which received over 200,000 likes).  However, even more obvious is the fact that it wasn’t until Drake debuted on “Club Going Up on a Tuesday” that Makonnen rose to moderate fame. Two years after signing to Drake’s OVO label, Makonnen is seeing world tours, increased album sales and, yes, lots of love on Facebook and Instagram. 

So it stands to reason that although Makonnen (and every other artist) has his content up for review on the internet, it’s not until the endorsement of a public figure (especially with Drake’s Midas-Touch) do they get considerable exposure.

Co-signing talent into the limelight isn’t anything new in hip-hop culture. Lil Wayne, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game (to name a few obvious cases) all owe their exposure to pre-established producers/entertainers. Is there a cost for this sort of endorsement?

Its obvious to see that Dr. Dre came up hard when Eminem was dropping his name all over platinum selling albums. Now, it’s important to note that when the Slim Shady LP came out in ‘99, it was five years before Mark Zucherberg invented Facebook as a student at Harvard. As well, iTunes, Amazon Music, SoundCloud, Mixcloud and practically every other digital music platform, that we as consumers nurse off of, didn’t exist.  Those first three albums of Em’s went (3x) platinum because people were actually buying physical copies of CD’s in physical stores.

Fast forward to today, with the revenue from album and track sales non-existent. How does an artist bring home the bacon? And further more how does it effect labels?

Just take a look at Billboards Money-Makers List of 2014 to get an idea:

One Direction, Sales=4.1 M, Tour 40.7 M

Katy Perry: Sales 3.2 M, Tour=24.9M

Drake: Sales 1.7 M, Tour 7.7M

Considering these numbers, how do labels benefit from an industry that makes most its profits in the touring market? 

In the case of ILOVEMAKONNEN, and many artists like him, OVO pretty much made his success through exposure and promotion. And if you hear any of Makonnen’s tracks you will begin to notice that they all sound like Drake tracks. Effectively allowing Drake to sell Drake sounds with Makonnen acts.

Wild Ones during their tireless tour (photo via FB)

But what if you don’t sound like other artists, and refuse to alter your sound to accommodate notoriety. Well you end up like The Wild Ones. Which is to say you end up with a lot of work and no world tours. Being more specific, writing and composing all your own tracks, designing your own graphics, promoting your own pages and work that fills them, organizing your own tours and then managing those tours. And of course, working those tours to death.

Last year, The Wild Ones played a tireless 95 shows. And all with no guarantee of a world tour, no Insta-posts by Miley Cyrus and, of course, no Auto-tuning. But the up side is you get music that sounds like this.

However, with people relying more and more on their smartphones and apps to organize their day to day schedules it still remains to be seen how artists will manage to remain un-reliant on the devices of their consumer base love so much.