This paper compares the rise of Vampire Weekend, a New York based band, with the rise of Fall Out Boy, a Chicago-based band. Both bands enjoyed meteoric ascendancy in the trade press and in the affections of music consumers. Both bands worked hard, not only on their music, but also on their image.
In February, 2006, Vampire Weekend played their first show at a student-run battle of the bands competition. Out of the four bands competing, Vampire Weekend received a lowly third place. This loss was short-lived, however. Rolling Stone magazine selected the band’s song Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa as one of the 100 best songs of 2007. The following January, the band was shot for the cover of Spin magazine. Although this is a quick rise to fame, it is not unprecedented. What is notable is that Vampire Weekend achieved this level of hype before releasing their debut album.
Vampire Weekend’s poor performance at their first competition was predictable. The band booked the show before they had ever practiced together. Instead of rehearsing, the band spent this time discussing their name and approach. The name Vampire Weekend comes from the title of a movie the band’s singer, Ezra Koenig, had made years earlier. In the movie, Mr. Koenig played a character named Walcott who traveled to Cape Cod in order to save the country from vampires.5 Some of the band’s first songs were based on Walcott and Cape Cod as well. The allusions to this upscale vacation spot are not merely incidental. Vampire Weekend’s entire image revolves around such upper class subjects.
The band’s four members, Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson, and Chris Baio, met while attending Columbia University. Their Ivy League education has been mentioned in nearly every review of their music: from a review of a CD-R they burned to the blog Stereogum in April 2007 to Rolling Stone’s review of their full length album in February of 2008. Reference to Ezra Koenig’s status as a fourth generation Ivy Leaguer has also been repeated in various magazines and blogs. The reason that the press has dwelled on Vampire Weekend’s privileged background is that the band uses it as a hook. Ezra Koenig publicized his family’s Ivy League history on his blog long before Spin printed it in their cover story about Vampire Weekend.
Vampire Weekend created this theme in a “band manifesto” before they played their first show. Many of the rules in the manifesto laid out the band’s sound: no trip-hop beats, no distorted guitars, influences ranging from the Smiths to the late South African Singer, Brenda Fassie.13 The manifesto also, however, established the band’s image, including a rule banning members from wearing t-shirts during their performances.13 Following the band’s upper-class theme, Ezra Koenig prefers to wear cable knit sweaters and boat shoes on stage.13 Spin described the manifesto as a sign that the band is “highly conscious of their mythmaking.”13 If their music is thought of as a product, this conscious decision to create an image was its branding.
Vampire Weekend’s consciously crafted image extends beyond what the band wears on stage. The band played its early shows at the houses of Columbia University literary societies. Band member Rostam Batmanglij stated, “I feel like those shows were the best because they were-- it was kind of our vision for our band.” These literary society shows fit Vampire Weekend’s image so well that they used a photo of a chandelier hanging above one of these performances for the cover of their album. The upper class imagery continues on to one of the band’s videos, in which Vampire Weekend plays the song Mansard Roof on the deck of their sailboat. Most of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics fit into the band’s preppy theme as well. Their debut album contains references to nautical history, the Oxford comma, Cape Cod, Bennetton, Hyannisport, and different types of teas.
Some of the band’s lyrics do not fit precisely into this stereotypical preppy mold, however. Lyrics regarding kefir, a keffiyah, Dharamsala, Darjeeling tea, Old San Juan, and the Falklands War carry connotations of cultural appropriation and colonialism.18 Vampire Weekend’s musical style is a form of cultural appropriation as well, although Ezra Koenig insists that it is irrelevant whether their afro-pop sound is authentic. In a Spin interview, Koenig stated: "Every once in a while, we've seen some things where people try to bring colonialism or appropriation into [talking about our band] in a negative way -- but that debate has already happened. We're in a context that's coming after instances of people actually stealing from each other."
The band has described its sound, “Upper West Side Soweto,” as an amalgamation of one of the richest sections of Manhattan and one of the poorest sections of Johannesburg. Both music blogs and the mainstream press often compare Vampire Weekend’s music to Paul Simon’s Graceland album, because of their similar uses of clean guitars and an upbeat afro-pop sound. Vampire Weekend’s songs A-Punk and Boston, however, sound closer to ska punk than anything off of Graceland. Vampire Weekend differentiate their sound further from Graceland with their heavy use of strings and a synthetic Mellotron, as opposed to Paul Simon’s chants and slap bass. The Mellotron in particular, an instrument best known from the Beatle’s song Strawberry Fields, makes it feel like Vampire Weekend’s music would be more appropriately played in a Wes Anderson movie than at a concert in Zimbabwe. This is not a derision of Vampire Weekend’s music; it is an interesting and refreshing change from the post-punk based sound that has been at the forefront of the New York indie scene for most of the decade. Their new sound has also been well received critically, with Pitchfork rating their album an 8.8 out of ten and Rolling Stone giving it 3.5 stars.
Vampire Weekend’s music alone, however, does not explain why they were photographed for cover of Spin before releasing their debut album. The band’s music and the intriguing image they created are only parts of what led to their rise in popularity. Another factor was their approach to self-promotion. Like many bands, Vampire Weekend created a Myspace page and recorded a demo CD-R early in their career. Their approach to distributing the demo and mp3s, however, differed from most other artists. Singer Ezra Koenig asserted that the band did not send their demo to record labels because “these people don’t want listen to some random thing they don’t have context for.”28 Instead, Vampire Weekend aggressively distributed their demo and mp3s to blogs.28
The band was mentioned first in the African music blog Benn Loxo Du Taccu on August 18th, 2006, after Koenig sent the site an mp3 of Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. The site posted the song to share with its readers but did not review it or discuss Vampire Weekend at length.29 On January 10th, 2007, the blog Ear Farm did a full post on the band and made both Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Oxford Comma available. The site’s review of the band was positive, calling Vampire Weekend the “group of African music making white boys in all of New York.” More importantly, Ear Farm has an Alexa traffic rank of 240,545, whereas earlier blogs that mentioned the band were not popular enough to be ranked. Vampire Weekend’s popularity achieved critical mass after it was mentioned on April 13th, 2007, in the blog Stereogum, a popular blog that has become an indie music tastemaker. The band had sent their demo to the blog’s writer Amrit Singh, and it paid off with a review that described their songs as “indie-pop gems of a different cut.” This post also made the songs Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Oxford Comma available to download. This likely resulted in the largest audience the band had received thus far, considering Stereogum’s impressive Alexa traffic rank of 10,326. Chris Thomson, Vampire Weekend’s drummer, acknowledged that “there was kind of a tipping point in April of 2007. Suddenly at our shows there’d be more non-friends than friends.”
By June of 2007 Vampire Weekend was touring fulltime and at each stop on the tour the shows were packed by fans who heard the band’s songs on various blogs. By the time Vampire Weekend’s tour ended in July, they were signed to the record label XL. Even getting signed to XL was the result of a blogger. The blogger behind Good Weather for Airstrikes saw Vampire Weekend perform at Columbia, and he wrote a positive review of their music. Later, the blogger was approached by XL A&R rep Imran Ahmed, and the two discussed the band. Imran Ahmed called them the best new band he had heard all year and signed them to the label. The success of the band’s promotional approach was solidified. Blogs generated more than enough hype for the band, and as Spin noted “so-called ‘old media’ -- labels, MTV, The New York Times, even national magazines -- were quickly forced to respond to the buzz.”
Another band that followed a slightly unorthodox path to popularity is the pop-punk group Fall Out Boy. Like Vampire Weekend, Fall Out Boy’s success is partially due to the band’s image. However, Vampire Weekend publicly feigns not caring about their image, whereas Fall Out Boy flaunts the fact that their image is a key part of their marketing strategy. To some extent, Fall Out Boy considers their image more important than their music, because of the scene that fans have created around it. The most outspoken member of Fall Out Boy, bassist Pete Wentz, stated that the “most important thing is the brand, and the shift in pop culture we’re making.”
Fall Out Boy formed in 2001 in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois. The members of the band knew each other from previously playing in various local straight-edge metalcore bands, including the relatively popular band Arma Angelus. Notably, Drummer Andy Hurley and Bassist Pete Wentz played together in the band Racetraitor, a metalcore group known for its extreme political views and an album entitled Burn the Idol of the White Messiah. The members of Fall Out Boy grew disillusioned with the metalcore scene and decided that their nascent band would have a pop-punk sound instead. The band released a three song demo, the lyrics of which were a notable shift from Racetraitor’s. Instead of overdramatic political statements, the lyrics on Fall Out Boy’s demo contained overdramatic references to lost love and teen angst. Examples of lyrics from the demo include “your smile reminds me of switchblades and infidelity. Last night I saw my world explode” and “I dried my eyes, now I crust them with sleep. I’ll crust them over. She begged me: don't hate me.”
Fall Out Boy released their first LP in May 2002. The release was on the Uprising label and was split with the band Project Rocket. Fall Out Boy released a second LP on the Uprising label in January of 2003, named Evening Out with Your Girl. A month later, the band performed at South by Southwest, which attracted further attention. By the end of April, Fall Out Boy became the first band to sell 1 million downloads on PureVolume.com, and larger labels started a bidding war to sign the band. Fall Out Boy signed on with the label Fueled by Ramen to release the album Take this to Your Grave in May, 2003. The band produced a video for the song “Grand Theft Autumn/Where is Your Boy,” which helped the band gain popularity when the video received minor airplay on MTVU. The album and video were funded in part by an advance the band received from Island Records that gave label a right of first refusal on the next Fall Out Boy album. By the end of 2003 the band officially signed with Island Records.
Although Fall Out Boy was signed to Island Records, in May, 2004, the band released an acoustic EP on Fueled by Ramen entitled My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue. The EP marked Fall Out Boy’s growing popularity, as it managed to rise to number 153 on the Billboard 200. The band also landed a spot on the Vans Warped Tour that August. Nonetheless, even with their successes Fall Out Boy remained largely unnoticed by the mainstream music press. In 2005, however, Fall Out Boy became a recognized pop phenomenon. The band released their major label debut, From Under the Cork Tree, in May of 2005. The album was highly anticipated by fans, and it became the number one Tower online pre-sale title of all time. It immediately shot up to number nine on the Billboard 200. Rolling Stone gave the album a positive review, finally providing Fall Out Boy with mainstream press. The band’s popularity was reinforced by a repeated showing on MTV’s TRL and an MTV2 award at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards.
Fall Out Boy’s popular success continued through 2006. The band won more awards, including Favorite International Group at the MuchMusic Video Awards, and Best Rock Group and Best Single at the Teen Choice Awards. Fall Out Boy was also nominated for a Grammy in 2006 for Best New Artist. The album From Under the Cork Tree remained on the Billboard 200 until October 2006, a total of 72 weeks on the chart.
The band released their second major label album, Infinity on High, in February 2007. The album opened at number one on the Billboard 200, but it dropped off the chart after 52 weeks. It received three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, higher than the magazine awarded From Under the Cork Tree. The review noted, however, how decisive Fall Out Boy had become, particularly the band’s bassist, Pete Wentz. Two months later Rolling Stone put Fall Out Boy on its cover, with Pete Wentz in the center and shirtless.
As recognition of Fall Out Boy’s music grew, Pete Wentz became the driving force behind building the band’s image. Pete Wentz saw Fall Out Boy’s popularity as an opportunity to impact pop culture by creating a brand that encompassed the band’s music, appearance, and merchandise. Wentz’s attempt at branding was inspired by hip-hop, particularly Jay-Z and old Def Jam. “They created this entire counterculture,” said Wentz. “You buy the record, then this comes along with it. You fell so in love with this idea that you ate, slept and breathed it.”
In 2004, Wentz founded Clandestine Industries in order to design and sell his own merchandise. Working from his parent’s basement, Wentz’s merchandise reinforced Fall Out Boy’s pop version of teen angst. The first product Wentz created was a self-published forty-three page illustrated book based on his nightmares. Wentz sold 10,000 copies of the book through sales at Fall Out Boy shows. Wentz believed the books popularity was due to fans wanting to understand the scene he was creating, and the book was “another piece of the puzzle.”
More inside information was revealed to fans through Wentz’s consistent entries on his personal blog and a series of videos created by Wentz and the band. The first videos were released with the album My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue and consisted of benign footage of the band back stage and in the studio. In 2005, Pete Wentz released another video through Clandestine named Release the Bats. This video consisted mostly of lighter Jackass-style antics, such as drinking urine, shooting paintball guns, and blowing up fireworks. Release the Bats is interesting, in that it reveals Pete Wentz’s appetite for attracting attention. Throughout his career with Fall Out Boy, he has had a failed suicide attempt, naked photos released on the internet, and a marriage to pop star Ashley Simpson. Because of Wentz’s history of constant promotion and attention seeking, critics questioned whether these events were natural occurrences or planned publicity.
In late 2004, Wentz began selling t-shirts through Clandestine’s website. The clothing he sold became immensely popular amongst his fans, bringing in $500,000 dollars in its first year. Wentz purposefully marketed the clothing in small runs, allowing the demand for the clothes to outweigh supply. The small batches of each design caused the clothing to carry an air of exclusivity. This exclusivity causes fans to feel closer to the band, like members of an insiders’ club. Also, on the advice of Jay-Z, Wentz only sold his clothing in select stores as opposed to every retailer that approached him. This move kept the brand from being diluted, allowing Wentz to market Clandestine as a designer label. In 2006, Wentz added to his brand’s buzz by showing a new line of clothing during New York’s Fashion Week. In 2007, Clandestine became a strong enough brand to partner with DKNY, marking Wentz’s move into the world of mainstream fashion.
Wentz has put his entrepreneurial talents to work outside of Clandestine as well. In the fall of 2004 he started his own label named Decaydance Records. The first band he signed to the label was the group Gym Class Heroes. The groups single, Cupid’s Chokehold, reached number four on Billboard’s Pop 100. Wentz has signed ten other groups to the label, including the highly successful, Panic at the Disco. The band consisted of recent high school graduates whose songs Wentz heard online. After signing the Panic at the Disco, Wentz convinced the band to mirror parts of the image he had used for Fall Out Boy, including mild gender bending by wearing excessive makeup and kissing on stage. Panic at the Disco’s debut album peaked at number two on the Billboard 200, and the band received an award for Video of the Year at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards. Panic at the Disco have become so successful, they have become somewhat of a rival of Fall Out Boy since the two bands share most of their fans. Nevertheless, this puts Pete Wentz in the comfortable position of making money from both his own band and his band’s immediate competition.
Whether a band is seeking pop stardom like Fall Out Boy or indie recognition like Vampire Weekend, it would be beneficial to follow certain examples set by both bands. The first lesson to take from both Vampire Weekend and Fall Out Boy is that it takes focus for a band to become successful. Both bands were incredibly committed and put in the hours and hard work necessary to achieve their goals. Fall Out Boy toured extensively to create a fan base, impressively playing 270 shows in 2003 and 550 shows in a two year period. Vampire Weekend tour schedule was disciplined as well; the band pooled their money to buy a minivan and went on three tours around the country without a tour manager. The band also recorded ten songs themselves soon after they formed so they would have enough material to put on demos.
Relatively cheap recording software combined with the internet allows a band to take a do-it-yourself approach to recording and distribution. Bands should realize, however, that they are not the only ones who have access to this new technology. As the cost of entry into recording music decreases, the amount of music being recorded increases. Accordingly, listeners at home and people working at labels need to filter through this larger quantity of music, which makes it more difficult for any given band to be noticed. A band can gain an advantage in this filtering process by giving people a reason to listen. As Ezra Koening of Vampire Weekend stated, “[people at labels] don’t want to listen to some random thing they don’t have any context for.” Thus, the newest aspect of the do-it-yourself approach is creating this context.
The quickest way for a band to build context around its music is by focusing its promotional efforts towards the internet’s music community. Spin describes this virtual community as “the newly developed middle – an incestuous network of fans, bloggers, and music-biz outsiders.”80 This strategy involves aggressively targeting popular music blogs, like Vampire Weekend targeted Stereogum.80 Another member of this “middle” is KEXP, an independent public radio station that cosponsored and promoted multiple Vampire Weekend shows. Although KEXP has a real station in Seattle, a large percentage of its listeners stream the station online to different cities throughout the world. KEXP is often the first station to play up-and-coming indie bands and has become known as an indie tastemaker. The station’s website even includes advice for bands looking to get radio airplay: http://kexp.org/programming/airplay.asp.
Another method of getting recognition is by touring relentlessly to build up a loyal grass-roots fan base. A valuable lesson can be learned from Fall Out Boy in regards to this strategy: have patience. As Fall Out Boy manager Bob McLynn stated, “the best way to do it is to move slower, not skip steps and build from smaller clubs to bigger venues.” Following this advice, Fall Out Boy played venues small enough to sell out at each show. Fall Out Boy began by repeatedly playing at VFW halls, bowling alleys, and bars that were closed for all-ages shows. The band took a small step up in venue size with each tour, starting with 300-seaters, then on to 500-seaters, 1,000-seaters, 3,000-seaters, and finally arenas.84 Even though they could have filled larger venues, the band created buzz by continuously selling out the smaller shows.84 Since the band was touring regularly, they could use this buzz to fill a larger venue the next time they returned to a city, building up their popularity with each successive tour. This strategy is similar to the one Pete Wentz’s used with his Clandestine clothing line: keep supply lower than demand.
Whatever promotional strategy a band follows, it can increase the likelihood of being noticed by creating an intriguing image. Similar to Vampire Weekend, a band’s managed image should be an exaggerated version of its members’ genuine identities. If a band’s image is too contrived, listeners are likely to consider it a mere gimmick. This image should be part of the band’s brand, a conscious theme that also encompasses the band’s lyrics, artwork, and merchandise.
Most importantly, a band should not consider branding or promotion as selling out. Instead, a band should view these two aspects of marketing as ways of defining their artistic concept – much like an artist’s statement hanging in a gallery. A certain amount of zeal is required for a band to be successful, and branding and promotion are necessary to turn a band into a career. Furthermore, by retaining control over promotion and branding, a band can make money and maintain artistic integrity. Pete Wentz approached the issue with the following rhetorical question: “why do I need to have some corporation that I don’t believe in get behind me just because they could line our pockets, when we could be that corporation and we could have the ideals that we want?”
 Waddell, Ray. Billboard 118, no. 38 (Sep. 23, 2006)
 Waddell, Ray. Billboard 118, no. 38 (Sep. 23, 2006)