I bought a CD a few weeks ago, the first since Metallica’s St. Anger last summer. The CD was the new EP from They Might Be Giants. Weighing in at five songs, twelve-and-a-half minutes and $5.99, Indestructible Object is TMBG’s first effort since 2001’s Mink Car, which had the misfortune of being released on 9/11. This EP is a precursor to this summer’s LP release, The Spine. Three of the songs on the disc are new, one of which is a techno mix of the song used as the theme to the TLC show Trauma – Life in the ER. One of the songs is a redo of an old song of theirs (oddly enough, one from the first TMBG CD I ever bought), and the final track is a live cover of The Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”.
Now what I find most interesting about this CD is this – it’s not available for download anywhere. I mean, it is – you can buy the tracks for 99¢ each on iTunes and save a buck or so, but none of the “usual haunts” have this CD for download anywhere. I thought at first it was because the CD was so short – but Everlast puts out a one-song promotional single to radio stations and that gets leaked for download. I then thought perhaps it was because the label the CD is on (Barsuk) is small and didn’t hand out promotional copies – but this EP has been out since early April and no one who’s bought it has leaked it. I thought maybe because it’s so cheap most people figured it wasn’t worth it – but at $7 retail price (I found it on “sale”) for 12 minutes of music, it’s not exactly cheap, value-wise, and it’s just the sort of thing that people like to rebel against.
Which leads me to probably one conclusion – the geeks of the world are conspiring to keep this CD off of the Internet. That’s intriguing.
They Might Be Giants formed in 1982 and was the subject in 2002 of a documentary, Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns. That title referred to the fact that the group is essentially two people, John Linnell and John Flansburgh. They have a backing band now, “The Band of Dans” because all three members are named Dan, but they started out as a duo. They had the fortune of hitting in the early experimental days of MTV when “post modern alternative” was just starting to crack through the hair band pop videos, and R.E.M. was still seen as innovative. Their quirky videos and odd songs were catchy to many, especially college radio. Among their innovations is the still-going Dial-A-Song where a phone call to 718-387-6962 gives you an answering machine message with a random song. You can hear new stuff, works in progress, early versions of songs for the next album, etc, as well as messages from the band.
In the late 80’s, they were signed to Elektra Records and released several albums under that label, untl they were pretty much lost in corporate reshuffling and left the label in disgust. In 1999 they made headlines by releasing the first-ever Internet-only album, Long Tall Weekend, only available on eMusic and quickly becoming the most downloaded artist on the Internet – legal or otherwise. The aforementioned Mink Car marked their return to original label Restless, though I’m not sure if Barsuk will now be their home for future releases or not.
On top of all of that, TMBG is the band you’ve never heard of but you’ve probably heard their work. They did the theme song for Malcom in the Middle, the theme song from The Daily Show, several songs for a series of ABC News Specials called Brave New World, the theme song for Austin Powers 2 and many others. Their song subjects run the gamut from robot parades, to racism and dead Belgian painters. Their most famous song is a cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” from the movie They Might Be Giants (the title refers to Don Quixote fighting windmills), but they’re about as famous for the Tiny Toons-animated video for “Particle Man”, the true meaning of which baffles people to this day. And their cover of “Yeh Yeh” has graced Cadillac commercials.
Back when I started actively listening to them again in High School, it bugged me that they were such a consistently good (yet quirky) group and yet had no mainstream popularity. I always likened them to Toad the Wet Sprocket, probably because they both started around the same time and had weird names (they were also close to each other in the record aisles). Of course TtWS went on to unbridled mainstream popularity before fizzling out and breaking up about six years ago (they also had more “normal” songs) so perhaps it’s better that despite winning Grammys, TMBG has never had a #1 hit.
Which brings me back to the MP3 issue. Moby released album after album without notice. When he started letting people use his songs in commercials, his 1999 album Play sold truckloads. His 2001 follow-up, 18, didn’t do nearly as well. Though most would agree that it was due to being just a poor album (save for the strong opening track “We Are All Made Of Stars”), Moby went on record as saying that it sucks when your core audience is techies, since they don’t buy your record – they just download it.
Now to some degree what Moby said is true – most techie types will download your album, and you’ll never have 100% of them go buy it. But while a certian percentage won’t buy it because they just don’t buy music, a lot of them will go buy it if it’s any good. In the weeks preceding the 2002 release of Eminem’s The Eminem Show, it shot up to the #1 request from the Gracenote CDDB Database, meaning that more people were playing it on CD than any other album – and it wasn’t in stores yet. Like what happened with his previous CD, Interscope bumped up the release of the album and executives got on television to point out how this is the epitome of how bad piracy can be. Then the album blew away all sales records in stores.
Most people say that as a result of MP3 they buy fewer albums now, but that the ones they do buy are smarter. They download ten albums, one of them is good enough to purchase. Thet feel that they’re rewarding the artists that did good. Those are nice anecdotes, and everyone has some. The problem is the record labels don’t care – they liked the “no trying first” model. They abandoned the concept of the single, on the whole, because charging full price for an album is much more lucrative. And there’s other factors – a lot of people don’t like a lot of today’s modern music. I know I don’t. And in today’s less-than-ideal economy, paying $15 for a CD when a DVD movie is $20 doesn’t add up (though to their credit, CD prices are going down from major vendors).
But then there’s TMBG. By releasing albums as MP3 and not treating fans as prospective criminals, they created a lot of goodwill and as a result their new CD is nowhere to be found on the Internet. Metallica still hurts to this day, thanks to their Napster lawsuits and the polarizing St. Anger CD. I always noticed that the artist which would complain about MP3 is rare, and I always figured it was because most artists don’t have good contracts, so they don’t lose much money anyway. Not sure how true that is or was, but it does now seem like the artists that stayed out are reaping the benefits.