Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
I like the idea of withdrawing from the standard logic which has dictated the music industry through the years…There’s a lot to be said for security for certain people. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s much more interesting and exciting to not know what could happen.
story by Don Bartlett
photo by Mattias Elgemark
In the brave new world of modern music, days are the new months. New bands burn through their life cycle in a fraction of the time of eras past, creating a strange and chiefly disingenuous climate in which bands can rise to prominence and peak before even releasing an album. Perhaps no band understands this new era more than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, one of the most hyped bands of recent years which is already experiencing a backlash — even without a record label pushing their product and even before their first national tour. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled, self-released debut dropped in late summer 2005 and spread like wildfire throughout the indie community on the strength of its catchy and refreshingly endearing sound. By the time of New York City’s CMJ Music Marathon in early October, they had been anointed the second coming of Christ long enough that the trend-monkeys were already scoffing at the notion of seeing such a “mainstream” band. This sort of cred-sniping has been around as long as music itself, but could a band really be born and eaten by their young in just 60 days time?
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah arrived on the scene just as the music industry was approaching a critical mass of sorts. The structures that held the business together had been crumbling for the past few years while new ones were quietly being constructed. In the traditional model, musicians needed labels for three primary reasons. First of all, they would bankroll the recording process, something that was prohibitively expensive for most bands. Secondly, labels provided money for promotion…magazine ads, giveaways, websites, and other luxuries a band could never afford. Lastly, record labels had ties to major distribution networks, so that when a band from Brooklyn breaks big, the guy in L.A. can find their record in his local store. Taken together, these factors made a label a virtual necessity for a band to achieve any level of success.
By the time CYHSY showed up, the landscape looked vastly different. The advance of PC-based home recording meant that a band could record their own material in the basement for a few grand. Traditional marketing channels continued their march towards obsolescence, replaced by inexpensive DIY options like myspace.com, e-mail, and music blogs. There was a new breed of music media that based their coverage on merit, rather than how much advertising revenue a label pumped into a magazine. It was becoming harder and harder for a label to justify the large chunk they were taking out of a band’s sales. Yet the one nut that no one had cracked was getting around the labels’ powers of distribution. CYHSY frontman Alec Ounsworth and band thought they’d give it a shot.
As it happened, the burgeoning hipster backlash at CMJ didn’t have legs. At show time there were not one, but two enormous lines spewing out of New York’s Mercury Lounge in opposite directions down the block. They didn’t exactly blow the doors off in a live setting that night, but the record remained one of the freshest sounding debuts in years, and fans and critics alike were crowding onto the bandwagon. Their quirky brand of pop draws endless comparisons to The Talking Heads that are hard to argue with, but the album is much too direct and melodic to take that comparison quite literally. Ounsworth’s vocals display a brash, almost nasal tone that you’d despise if it didn’t sound so goddamn good. (If only they had restrained themselves from including the title track which leads off the record. Think of a rural circus on all the wrong drugs, and you’re close. The legions of music fans who like their iPod on shuffle should file a class action against any band that dares to include such a track. Blissfully, it is the only real misstep on a record that is filled with gems.) It was clear very quickly that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah had a winner on their hands, and the music industry knew it. Suddenly a band that was still making trips to the post office to ship their CDs was being courted by the industry’s biggest names.
With a deep confidence in their record and perhaps a touch of innocent naiveté, Ounsworth and his bandmates politely declined the offers and stuck to the DIY path that had gotten them this far. In a move that may well turn out to be the blueprint for future generations, the band signed directly with a major distribution company, functionally breaking the last stranglehold of major labels. In a recent interview with Chicago Innerview, Ounsworth demurred when asked if that was his plan all along.
“I don’t think the idea was fully formed at the time. I did have a vague position that I may want to approach things in a particular way, but was idealistic…kind of a fantasy. It was fueled by an idea of maintaining a certain degree of independence…I think that I was lucky enough that one thing led to another,” he continues. “We recorded the album and released the album as something that you can either take it or leave it, and that’s the way it should be. That’s really the bottom line. I mean, what are we talking about when we’re talking music, when we’re talking about an album? We’re talking about what intrigues us on a level that has nothing to do with anything but the album itself. We didn’t give it up to people and what they think. And that’s all there is to it. It was important to do that.”
Ounsworth claims a degree of ambivalence when asked about the implications of his move on the industry as a whole. He is tentative to speak for anyone other than himself, but it’s clear that he understands the concepts at stake. “I don’t quite understand the industry, and I try not to,” the singer explains. “But to do the distribution deal…I like the idea of withdrawing from the standard logic which has dictated the music industry through the years. Right now, it seems pretty obvious that there needs to be some sort of withdrawal and I think that’s the only way anybody should conduct themselves.”
The singer readily admits to being tempted by the offers being thrown at the band. Thick wads of currency have a way of making people’s principles a bit shaky, especially musicians who have been practicing their craft in poverty and obscurity for years. In the end, though, Ounsworth had the balls to put his money where his mouth was. Every band talks smack about labels…until one of them finally comes calling. Suddenly they can’t find a pen fast enough to sign away their next five records. CYHSY believed in their music and felt that once they signed, that it would no longer be completely theirs.
“There’s a lot to be said for security for certain people. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s much more interesting and exciting to not know what could happen. I mean sure, yeah, there were some offers that kind of suggested that we needed that. Then you think, ‘wait, what does that mean exactly?’ You’re set on that level, but are you really set? As far as I’m concerned success means actually living from moment to moment, working from moment to moment, not looking down the line and saying ‘I’m set for x amount of years’.”
In the end, Ounsworth may end up being indie rock’s own little version of Oprah. Now I’m none too pleased to be writing about the woman who brought us legions of squealing sycophants intoxicated with pashminas and Dr. Phil, but she taught everyone a thing or two about having the balls to turn down the early payday. Goddamn, I’m even more uncomfortable talking about Oprah’s balls, but I think you get the point. If Ounsworth keeps writing songs like these, he’ll be “set for x amount of years” and then some, and he’ll do it because he had the confidence and determination to create his music the way he wanted it…within his own brave new world.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah :: with The Brunettes :: Metro :: April 3.