So this thought requires a few more characters than 140, so I’m taking to the blog. I would invite you, gentle reader, casual listener, enthusiast, to for a moment lend me a sympathetic ear.
To be frank: it bums me out from time to time that you just cannot play a new unrecorded song at a show…
This is a great question, too great to be answered using Tumblr’s piddling 140 character response system, and also because it seems that, rather than actually responding to Colin’s query, people are just saying “You’re right Colin, I love you and your music, etc etc,” which, while seemingly a positive response to the band/singer-songwriter, doesn’t really, you know, answer or debate his question. So I will respond with my knowledge of bootlegs.
Specifically, I will address two separate instances where fan interaction of a band’s new works has altered the end product of the band’s material. Sorta.
Weezer, way back in 2000 (and before), began to release its demos of songs which would eventually become “The Green Album” and Maladroit, specifically. Their purpose was clear: to allow the fans to listen to the material before it was released and to comment on it. While this wasn’t really figured out by the Green Album (fans were listening and commenting, but Rivers didn’t use it), when Maladroit came about, Weezer set out to take the fans’ comments and use them to make an album. Hell, they even used a forum fan’s title for the album.
Now, we can argue for a while at how successful Maladroit was, how much of an artistic impact it had on the band or its fans, but the fact is that Weezer was entering a new landscape, one also being (unknowingly) entered by Radiohead and other bands: the interaction between the band and its fans was getting stronger. It was getting closer. Napster, for better or worse, was allowing more people the ability to listen to new music, old music, any music. The future of recorded media was in question. And, unfortunately, this is still going on.
So. Was it right for Weezer to enlist their fans for help? They did have an enormous fan base, full of long time appreciators who “knew” the direction Weezer was supposed to take (this, of course, is a tricky thing to say, because it’s true and not true at the same time). Was it done strictly for money, for revenue, or was it because Weezer wanted to make the best album for its fans?
Now I’ll speak of a different, more direct subject: The Decemberists, and the song “O Valencia!”
I first heard this song when Colin sang it at his solo shows in, what, 2005? Something like that. I heard it through bootlegs because I was not able to attend any of the solo shows, because Boise sucks in that regard. But I heard the song and loved it. There was something about the simplicity of the chord structure and the way Colin punctuated the guitar with the vocals.
To be kind of nerdy, there was one specific part that I really enjoyed: in the verse “and the shot/it hit hard,” Colin did a thing with the guitar, a staccato thing? I think? where he would sing “and the shot” and the guitar would go DUH NUH NUH NUH, “it hit hard,” DUH NUH NUH NUH (I think this was a Seattle Zoo recording, if I can remember; I’d post a link to it but I can’t seem to find it). Anyway, it was great, it reminded me of the part in “I Fought the Law” when they sing, “robbin’ people with a six gun” and the drums go BAP BAP BAP BAP BAP BAP because it’s six times and, yeah. It just adds something unexpected, maybe a bit cliche, but entertaining.
(Interesting side note about “I Fought the Law” — that original line is “robbing people with a zip gun,” not a six gun. Six gun stuck around because it makes sense, but so does zip gun. Look it up!)
So anyway, long story short, The Crane Wife came out and I heard “O Valencia!” and I was a little disappointed. The simplicity was gone. Now here was a full band. Funk was doing a melody thing. Nate was playing bass. There were drums. And saddest of all, to me, there was no DUH NUH NUH NUH, which, surely, I thought, could be done by an entire band, in such a way that it would sound amazing! But alas, it was gone.
Of course, there were a lot of factors leading into this: full band vs solo, theme and style of sound, etc. Maybe the studio version is what Colin wanted all along. All I know is what I heard, and while I grew to love the studio version of the song, I still wish I could hear a version where they incorporate Colin’s solo ideas into it.
What is my point regarding all of this? Well, first, it’s that fans like to listen to as many versions of a song as possible. Real fans, I mean. Long time fans. We’re talking Phishheads and Deadheads here. People who have entire catalogues of live shows on their external hard drives (or maybe, still on cassette tapes). Why people want to listen to shitty bootlegs of live shows is beyond me, but they do. And I’m sure in those bootlegs are lots of new songs being rolled out. But back then it was more like, “Oh, here’s when they first played this song, back in 1984” or whatever, rather than now, which is, “Here is a new song by Colin Meloy, we are releasing it now, two hours after the performance, so that you may extrapolate from it as much as possible.”
I blame 24 hour news media for this style of thinking, this incessant need to get things immediately and to disseminate them to everyone possible. It’s the internet, too, but really it’s the news media saying that everything needs to be sent to everyone else that’s really riling it up.
But anyway, my other point is that it cannot be stopped, unless you trust your fan base. I was at a Mountain Goats show here in Portland last year in which John Darnielle said he was going to play a new song about Portland. The crowd went wild, and immediately came the fleshy branches of arms raised, holding their fruits of Blackberries and Flip HD cameras. John knew this was coming. He’s no dummy. So he asked, politely and with much humility, that no one record the song, or at the very least, to not release it to everyone. And I’m checking YouTube right now, attempting every search string I can, but I can’t find the video. The fact is, his fans respected his request. Even on the Mountain Goats forum, fans were asking what that song was, where they could hear it, etc, and those who had been at the show kept saying, “John said not to release it, so we’re not.”
That’s kind of magical in this day and age.
Now can Colin Meloy do that? I doubt it. His fan base is different than the Mountain Goats. One, it is larger. Two, it is full of screaming fangirls (how this came about I will never know). Three, they will not listen to him. Sure, they’ll listen to him tell them to sit on the ground, or do a dance, or call-and-respond, but if he said, “We are going to play a new song right now and we don’t want it released to the internets,” I really believe they would not listen. Why should they? It’s the internet, everyone’s taking it for granted. New music should and will be published, right?
I don’t know the answer to that question.
So Colin, if you’re actually reading this (and if you’ve gotten this far), my suggestion to you is to release your songs in secret, to your friends, either in small venues or maybe just in your house. Have a get together where you and other musician buddies just shoot the shit and play new songs you’re working on. At this point in your career, you have a solid fanbase who will buy anything you put out. Hell, they bought Hazards of Love, right? And that was kind of a risky album to release, considering your back catalogue. I would try asking your fans to not disseminate new songs, honestly I would — I would like to see the results. But people think you’re too good to just shelf your stuff. They want other people to see it. And I guess that’s the blessing and curse of being in your position. Congratulations!