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How Bad Can It Be? Emerging Artists and the P.R. Pityfuck

I think I mentioned last week some of the interesting messages I get via the Popdose mailing list. A lot of what comes through is from public relations flacks; artist reps and label folks get in touch with Popdose EiC Jeff Giles, and Jeff sends the best of ’em along to the rest of us on the staff. Here’s one that came through a few weeks ago

From: [name withheld]
Date: Thu, May 7, 2009 at 11:09 PM
Subject: Please, please, please listen to this singer! It’s good Karma!
To: jefito@ popdose.com

Hey Jeff,

I have a favor to ask you. Please, please, please give [redacted]‘s music a listen. I am begging you. Yes, that’s right… I am begging you.

She is really an amazing and unique singer/songwriter and we need to get her some press. I am hoping you can just take a few minutes and listen to some songs off her new CD [title redacted]. It’s good karma and I know you’ll love her as much as we do!!

Now, at first blush that’s kind of cute — a whimsical, unconventional way to promote an artist-client. But you know what else is cute? Monkeys, especially when they think they’re people. You know what, though? Monkeys are kind of whiffy. You don’t notice the smell at first, because they’re so gosh-darn charming, but then it starts to creep into your consciousness, your olfactory landscape and it just won’t quit, and eventually it blots everything else out of your awareness, and you can’t even laugh at the animal’s antics anymore because all you can think is how now amount of dry-cleaning is going to get that ripe ape-scent out of Mr. Jocko’s little vest and cap, and the only thing for those clothes will be to burn them.

The e-mail above has a slight odor to it, too — the mingled smell of condescension and desperation. The moral bullying is bad enough (listening to Artist A will make you a better person! Don’t you want to be a better person?), but there’s a passive-aggressive undertone that quickly becomes off-putting.

In most cases, when you get an embarrassing squib like this, there’s no point in taking it public or naming names. After all, it may not be the artist’s fault. Incompetent representation can happen to anybody, especially given that pop music, of all worlds, is one where amateurs — literally, the ones doing it for love — overwhelmingly run the show. You can overlook that, if the music’s any good. But this one, this one…

You know, I try to give everything I review here the benefit of the doubt. There’s a reason why the title of the column is phrased as a question. I’m open to like the music I hear, the films I see. And I try to like it. But sometimes, the baggage just gets in the way. And that’s what’s happening here.

The lady’s name is Atoosa Grey. Straight outta New York. The new record is called When the Cardinals Come, and it’s acoustical writer-songsinger kind of stuff. Pleasant. Not a lot of rough edges. Let those songs run in the background as you read on. You could imagine hearing these on the radio, right?

So let me ask you this: Why are they literally begging people to listen?

Something is wrong here. Let’s go back to the press materials:

Atoosa Grey began her career in New York City’s East Village as part of the Anti-folk scene with the likes of Regina Spektor, Nellie McKay, and Kimya Dawson, playing every Monday night at the Anti-hoot at Sidewalk Café.

This is the first paragraph of the official bio, and already Atoosa is losing me. Tying oneself to a particular movement or “scene” is an alienating tactic, frankly, to people-who are not already devotees of that scene — e.g., the vast majority of record-buyers. And listing Atoosa’s more-famous peers implicitly invites unfavorable blowback. I’ve heard of them; what you’re doing is making me wonder why I haven’t heard of her.

Since then, Atoosa has released two albums and developed a dedicated fanbase in Manhattan, performing regularly at prominent NYC venues including The Living Room, Makor, and Rockwood Music Hall.

This is singularly grating. Are those “prominent NYC venues” impressing you? They’re meant to, I guess; but somehow they’re not telling me what I need to know, i.e, anything at all about Atoosa Grey’s experience and reputation as a live performer. “Performing regularly” could mean “listed tenth on a twelve-band bill,” for all we know. How many shows a year does Atoosa play? How big are the crowds? Is she headlining? Are any of them outside the hothouse confines of her favorite clubs, perhaps even — gasp! — outside the New York metro area?

Lach, acclaimed songwriter & founder of Anti-folk, notes: “Her melodic and rhythmic ideas blend with her warm, caressing voice inviting you into a secret garden of earthy delights.”

Anti-folk founder has rapturous praise for anti-folk scenester. In other news, president of Mishka fan club proclaims Mishka’s super-deliciousness undiminished by time.

Her music is a little bit folk, country, rock, pop, & sometimes uniquely Atoosa with her signature dark and haunting piano lines.

A little bit of Memphis and Nashville, with a little bit of Motown in her soul.

A classically trained pianist and self-taught guitar player, she was never interested in music academia, afraid that knowing too much “would take away the magic and make it a science.”

Translation: “I have no chops and I have no interest in getting better.” Now, this is an argument I hear a lot, and I don’t really want to get into it now. Let me say only this: wrong, WRONG, WRONG.

It goes on like this, for a couple of paragraphs that I simply cannot bear to quote, with clang! every sentence constantly clang! interrupted by a clang! constant stream of clang! parenthetical name-drops, culminating in this one-two jaw-dropper:

Driven by her passion for music, poetry, and painting, Atoosa moved to New York City to study literature at NYU. She went on to study painting at Parson’s School of Design, and finally, received her Masters at Hunter College in English Literature. She draws inspiration from all these sources, which weave their way throughout her songs. Some of her favorite songwriters and poets include Lucinda Williams, Stevie Nicks, Patty Griffin, Ryan Adams, The Magnetic Fields, Emmylou Harris, Carole King, Rumi and Mary Oliver.

Most recently, Atoosa’s music has been winning the attention of filmmakers and has been featured on soundtracks of numerous independent films. Her song “Yours” won the prestigious Insight Award for “Best Original Song” at the 2006 New York Independent Film Festival. She has toured nationally and performed at such festivals as CMJ, NYC Anti-folk, Sono Arts, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Nashville New Music Conference and the Great Waters Music Festival.


And I realize, My God, this isn’t an artist bio: it’s a résumé. She’s applying for the job of pop star, and hoping we’ll hire her based on her qualifications — that is to say, her impeccable taste, her degrees, her many prestigious awards, and her associations with the Right People. But that’s not the way it works, not for any job (well, maybe in academia) but surely not in pop music. Pop is a product in itself, as well as a means of presentation. The selling of yourself and your songs — that’s part of the product, perhaps the most important part. Now, if Atoosa Grey is playing eighty shows a year at student unions and coffeehouses up and down the Eastern seaboard, selling out 250-seaters, racking up good notices in the out-of-town newspapers — that’s the kind of thing I’d like to know about.

Also, if the above turns out to be true, I will eat my fucking hat.

Do you know those 33 1/3 books, from Continuum Press? It’s a series of monographs, each examining a pop album from a unique, highly personal standpoint. There are some fascinating reads in the series. Now, every couple of years, the series editors run an open call for submissions on their blog, and all these hipster dudes who’ve never written anything longer than a grocery list get all excited, and the pitches — mostly for books about either Metal Machine Music or the one Slint record — come pouring in. Then the series editor announces the shortlist, and every time, the sniping begins as all the hipsters whose proposals got dinged start ripping on the proposals that made it to the second stage: How could you pick Album X? Nobody’s going to be listening to that in ten year’s time! Why does this band warrant serious appraisal when they’re so bloody lousy? The sheer sense of entitlement on display is kind of hilarious, but also kind of heartbreaking. These people seem to think that if they pick the “right” album, the actual quality of their pitch doesn’t matter. They feel they should be rewarded simply for their taste. For their associations.

So I’m looking at and listening to Atoosa Grey, and discover that’s she’s been in the business for ten years. Ten years. She put out her first CD in 1999, at the dawn of the Internet age. And now she’s got a website with a fancy Flash interface and approximately zero useful information. There’s a page for listing upcoming shows, but no upcoming shows listed. There’s a page for a blog, but no blog. There’s a page for press, but no press — no canned bio and photo for hacks like me, and no archived reviews. I’m trying to wrap my head around that. Ten years of playing and recording, and she’s got no archived reviews. Her pull-quotes are all from personal associates — there’s not a single review line.

Ten years is a long time to do a thing without getting anything out of it, and that seems to be dawning on Atoosa — or at least on her P.R. people. Ten years in the business, with songs like hers, and a voice like hers, and all Atoosa’s got to show for it is a handful of awards. You start to wonder why. You hate to accuse anybody of laziness; but the P.R. pityfuck at work here doesn’t do much to disabuse you of the notion. Begging people to listen because “it’s good karma” is a desperation play — a Hail Mary with the clock ticking. Ten years of sitting back and waiting for the acclaim to roll in hasn’t worked out, but I’m afraid the new poor-poor-pitiful-me strategy isn’t much of an improvement. Pop is a blue-collar job; you’ve got to earn your pay, just like anywhere else. Atoosa Grey has got to get out there and break a sweat, maybe even break a nail. There are ten years of lost opportunities to make up for; the least she could do is play a few shows, and maybe update her website.

The rest of you; buy the record, if you like it enough. If not, you could always, I dunno, adopt a dog from your local animal shelter or something. Now that’s good karma; good enough, maybe, to make up for reading this hateful column in the first place.

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