Ed Droste, a singer in the indie rock band Grizzly Bear, laughs—perhaps nervously—at the prospect: Most of the listening world now assumes that his account on the suddenly ubiquitous online social networking Twitter is powerful enough to help other bands sell music. He's not sure if he's comfortable with that.
"My Twitter, I don't think of it as widely read. I don't know how to react," he says. "We all know people spread information via Twitter and blogs and Web sites and message boards, but having been in a band for five years, I know it comes down to time: You tour and you release more things and you do it again. It was never an overnight thing for us. So I don't know how much people pay attention to [my Twitter]."
Another Brooklyn band, Bear in Heaven, has been playing for six years, and to much less fanfare than Grizzly Bear, which recently collaborated with Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan singer Michael McDonald and earned props (and a concert visit) from rapper Jay-Z.
On Sept. 14, Droste tweeted about the new Bear in Heaven song "Lovesick Teenagers," from their forthcoming second album, Beast Rest Forth Mouth. "Amazing new song by 'Bear in Heaven' *free download* ENJOY!" Droste wrote to his 13,000 online followers, providing a link to Grizzly Bear's blog, where he was hosting an MP3 of the song. Suddenly, the music press started paying a new sort of attention to Bear in Heaven: a Village Voice feature, attention from online giants Pitchfork and Stereogum, a new track hosted by the Web site RCRD LBL.
"That week was crazy," says Bear in Heaven guitarist Adam Wills. A month earlier, the band's bassist and keyboardist, Sadek Bazaraa, had passed a copy of the record to Droste, an old friend. "We've been a band for, more or less, six years, and in that week there was more attention to us than in those cumulative six years."
But the buzz extended beyond the media, says Wills. Suddenly, close friends who'd largely ignored Bear in Heaven would talk about the band or a blog that had mentioned them. Several European booking agents offered extended trips overseas. MySpace friend requests poured in from listeners around the world, and people re-tweeted Droste's endorsement for all of their followers to see.
"Music fans are interested in the idea of a guy who just says, 'This song is awesome,'" says Jon Polk, who works as a publicist for Team Clermont, the Athens, Ga., agency that represents Bear in Heaven. Team Clermont recently hired a new employee who spends a bulk of her time monitoring social network buzz about their clients. "There's not criticism in that, but there is power and passion as it relates to the song."
Indeed, Twitter serves as an EEG for the listener, monitoring tastes somewhere between the headphones and the cortical pleasure centers. Plenty of online services chronicle what someone is hearing: Last.fm, for instance, creates charts from the music people are running through their iTunes. Users can even broadcast the song they're listening to through automated status updates on instant messenger services and on Facebook. And, of course, online outlets for music recommendations are legion—MP3 blogs, message boards, online magazines.
But Twitter allows only thoughts that come in bursts of 140 characters or less, so Twitter posts are less mediated reactions than full reviews or blog posts. That is, when people strongly react to a piece of music, they simply say so. In essence, the Twitter paradigm reverts to the antiquated record-store clerk model, where you discover new music because you trust the person behind the counter who loves something you've yet to hear.
"It comes across more as a legitimate recommendation and less something that has been put together by people whose jobs rely on this sort of thing," says Polk.
The struggle, of course, remains funneling all of that online chatter about artists and records into actual music sales. Or, as Little Brother's Phonte Coleman rapped in 2006, "The way I almost broke down and, got a 9 to 5/ Cause I had more press than the Soundscans."
Adam Heathcott releases Bear in Heaven's music on Hometapes, the Portland, Ore., label he and his wife, Sara Padgett Heathcott, run. Since Droste's tweet, the band's back catalog sales, as well as a 12" single featuring "Wholehearted Mess" and a remix, have been strong if not overwhelming, says Heathcott. The album won't be released for another two weeks, but the band is preparing to embark on a short fall tour. Heathcott thinks this recent wave of attention might increase the size of their crowds outside of Brooklyn. Hopefully, it's all part of a mushrooming interest for Bear in Heaven.
"We're very much into word-of-mouth advertising, and that's essentially what social networks are," Heathcott says. "That's why we pay attention to what people are saying about our bands."
Other labels have seen Twitter endorsements directly affect sales. In January, former Raleigh resident Justin Vernon, who records music as Bon Iver, issued Blood Bank, the follow-up EP to his popular breakthrough, 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago. One week after release, Lance Armstrong, the record-setting cyclist and cancer research advocate, tweeted to his 2 million followers, quite simply, "Just downloaded the new Bon Iver EP." Sales through Amazon quickly outstripped expectations, says Lucy Robinson, Vernon's publicist.
"I know that the record got a lot of attention because of that tweet," says Robinson. Later in the year, another of her artists, John Vanderslice, announced a special preorder offer through his Twitter account. The orders began rolling in. "If we were not convinced of the marketing power of Twitter before that, we were after."
Jagjaguwar and its two sister labels, Dead Oceans and Secretly Canadian, have been among the slowest of labels with young, indie rock-oriented audiences to adapt to Twitter. All three labels have accounts, but only two of them are active. And while many similar labels use Twitter to interact with fans and to extend special offers and insights, the family of labels mostly uses the online service as an extension of its press releases. They're hoping to change that soon, says Robinson's co-worker, Abe Morris.
"We're a little slow to the take, and in the back of my head, I've had some residual guilt about not being more on top of it," he says. "I don't know if it's going to be eclipsing traditional ways of [talking about records], but I definitely do think it can have a very significant impact. It's headed that way."
Bear in Heaven plays Local 506 Wednesday, Oct. 7, with Veelee. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are $8-$10.