With the recent release of Daft Punk's palm-sweatingly anticipated new album Random Access Memories, I started to think about the correlation between hype and success. What makes a buzz, how has the internet changed how albums are introduced to the waiting world, and where is the line between clever PR and desperate overthinking?
Every scrap of Random Access Memories that we've had digitally thrown at us has been ferociously devoured, leaving Daft Punk devotees briefly sated but soon sitting on their hands, rocking back and forth in dire need of their next fix, and sparking worldwide music forum debates: why has this album got everyone so hot under the collar, why was their last record critically shrugged at, and have this enigmatic French duo in fact saved music from itself twice, or just dressed up like robots and got lucky?
They are an act that made it big in the 90s and that didn't really offend anyone. Dance music fans liked the intricacy and intelligence of what they were hearing, but so did your average Joe and Joanne, who simply fancied throwing some shapes to a catchy tune on a Saturday night. Apart from a lukewarm reaction to Human After All back in 2005, they've managed to experiment and choose the path less trodden without losing fans or industry respect, and extremely successful Daft Punk-a-likes have been comfortably bobbing in the mainstream for years and years now. So by taking lots of time away, by making a dance album in the least electronic way possible with hundreds of session musicians and costly studio time, and by being simultaneously typically reticent but regularly spooning out chunks of the new record to increasingly excitable fans, they have achieved legendary status. Like them and their music or not, they have us fascinated and intrigued.
The idea of tracks, or indeed whole albums, being leaked online used to be quite interesting, but it's not anymore. It's not anymore because it happens all the time, to the point where bands and record labels are leaking albums themselves to get a head start. Radiohead's In Rainbows 'pay what you think it's worth' idea was at least an interesting and involving one, but still a stunt pulled in an attempt to beat the leakers. And the relative impossibility of a clean album release these days, along with the quantity of online speculation and rumour-mongering, is contributing to artists and their PRs feeling the need to 'announce' themselves, to brew their own hype, to create the sense of occasion that queuing up outside Our Price used to have.
This is all fine, even if a big part of me mourns the simpler days of saving up and buying a new album from a shop, ripping the cover sleeve apart to devour the lyrics, putting it on when you get home and lying next to the CD player on the floor for hours letting it all sink in. I know it's not trendy and I sound very stuffy and anti-digital era, but there was a magic in the album-buying process a few years ago that clicking on a SoundCloud link whilst sitting at your computer doesn't have. Still, all credit to those out to create a sense of occasion by tantalising their fans with bits and bobs up to the full album release; it is the world we live in.
But then it goes too far. The xx were so keen to recreate the viral success of their first album that in 2012 they shared their second, Coexist, with a single fan, and then tracked its journey around the world in some big Microsoft-sponsored visualisation. This sort of PR move seems like a confused mix of panic at the thought of not being able to replicate their first album's success, and arrogance at assuming that it's worth this carefully constructed sort of birth into our collective consciousness. An act as internationally well-established as Daft Punk, with their triple platinum albums, Grammy wins and 20 years' experience, draw the line at the odd tidbit teaser in the lead-up to their latest record; to put such an extensive amount of effort into the logistics and statistics behind an album release is to undercut and smother its content.
And that's the bottom line: how good is the music? An album's popularity should be about its quality, not about how it spread from Bombay to Adelaide in under thirty seconds and what a nice graph that makes for. Plenty of buildup around a record release should absolutely be part of the process, but let's remember to get excited about the actual record and not about the fact of its appearance. If that's all we focus on, we'll forget about it after its release date, and an artist's months or years of creative slog will be trivialised into a series of passing stunts.