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No Expectations 029: Strange Weather
What’s the deal with Picture Parlour, the U.K.’s “most talked about band” that no one's heard of?
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Here’s a new song from Slaughter Beach, Dog featuring Erin Rae. It’s great.
A quick note about the mailbag email
A couple of months ago, I made an email specifically for mailbag questions to the newsletter (Noexpectationsnewsletter@gmail.com). But over the past few weeks, I’ve had to politely tell some publicists to refrain from sending pitches there. I made this email in the first place because I get somewhere around 200-300 emails a day, mostly pitches, at my personal email address, and I want a designated place for this blog’s readers to send over questions, complaints, and tips. Most of the PR folks who added the mailbag email to their lists already know this because they also send their press requests to my regular email. If you’re looking to pitch me on something, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll answer any question at email@example.com even if it’s not fodder for the newsletter. It can be anything from “I’m new to music journalism, where should I start?” or “What did you think of this album?” to “My partner and I are in Chicago for this show: where should we grab dinner?” Everything is fair game at that address except for “Can you write about my client?” Most of the questions I get at the email don’t make it on the blog but the ones that do tend to be some of the most well-liked posts in No Expectations’ short history. I appreciate everyone who’s sent a thoughtful note and encourage more folks to write.
This Is How It Works
Picture Parlour is a U.K. alt-rock quartet that made the cover of NME on Tuesday, the same day they released their debut song. The English music publication broadcasted the story on Twitter by claiming that they’re “one of Britain's most talked-about new acts” and posted a photo of the band—all attractive young people—looking like Scooby-Doo and the Gang. Now I know what you’re thinking and it’s probably some variation of “Who?” but because of this surprise cover story, they are now unquestionably one of the most talked-about new U.K. acts—just for the wrong reasons. Because the group played its first gig just six months ago and only boasts 31 monthly listeners on Spotify as of this writing, people were pissed and accused them of being industry plants, nepo babies, and undeserving of the press.
These controversies bubble up every few months, especially in the U.K. It most recently happened with recent breakouts like The Last Dinner Party and more prominently with Wet Leg in 2021-2022. These groups all predominantly feature women who write slickly produced and attitude-filled rock songs, and all seemingly came out of nowhere with major press campaigns and marquee slots opening for huge artists. As most musicians and fans know, opportunities like this don’t usually happen this fast. You need to pay your dues, gig around, fine-tune your craft, and be visible in your local communities sometimes for years before you even get a manager, a booking agent, or make money on tour. So, when groups like Picture Parlour suddenly become a thing, there must be nefarious forces at work here. What do the band members’ parents do? Are their names blue on Wikipedia? Who is funding this?
In Picture Parlour’s case, they got lucky. After one of their first gigs at Windmill Brixton in South London, they got a social media shoutout from Courtney Love and signed with the same management company as Wet Leg. Now, I don’t know what any of the band members’ parents do nor is it any of my business. Sure, it sucks that the people with familial wealth get afforded more opportunities but my take on rich kid musicians is that it’s probably better for the world if the silver spoon-fed make bland rock tunes than become CEO at BlackRock or whatever. Art will never be a perfect meritocracy and it’s not like I’m going to stop listening to Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons because they were born wealthy. Well-liked artists always get a pass here but the unremarkable ones don’t. I have no interest in means testing indie rock and I don’t have time or the patience to care more than that.
The accompanying laudatory profile doesn’t do them any favors. The writer seems more concerned with christening them as The Next Big Thing over going in-depth on What The Music Sounds Like, even going so far as to include a self-congratulatory quote from the lead singer about how excited they are to grace the cover of NME. The piece brings up how they have no available music as of Tuesday and draws attention to a cell phone-shot live video posted on YouTube that only has a couple thousand views, writing that it “gave the band a significant boost of exposure.” The quotes from Picture Parlour, while self-assured, often come across the wrong way. “It’s so funny to me when industry [execs] come to gigs to see if the ‘hype’ around us is real,” said frontwoman Katherine Parlour. “It is real. Come and watch us play, and you’ll find out. I’m very confident in our ability as a band, because the one thing we’ve got is sincerity.”
The debut single “Norwegian Wood” is unremarkable given the rapturous hype. Named after the Murakami novel—not the Beatles song where the book gets its title—the track is an anthemic synth rock with Parlour singing in the chorus, “It hurts to show but it's not easy knowing what I know / When I'm down, I'm so down / If I expressed myself then you wouldn't stick around me.” It’s perfectly serviceable: not terrible, definitely not The Thing That Will Save Rock Music. Produced by Steph Marziano who has collaborated with artists like Bartees Strange, Hayley Williams, The National, and Mumford and Sons and mixed by Alan Moulder, the song sounds massive and it’s more than suitable for their upcoming gig opening up for Bruce Springsteen. It’s not surprising there’s industry excitement around them even if it’s not mindblowing music yet.
This is what happens when the music industry prematurely christens an artist as The Next Big Thing. Eager and ambitious young bands are so easily cannibalized by the hype cycle and its backlash. You play a few great local gigs attended by industry, you sign with a hotshot manager who wants to immediately strike gold again, and you say yes to every opportunity because that’s what you’re supposed to do as a totally green act. You strike while the iron is hot and buzz is building. But it is important to remember that when the industry sees dollar signs, they can lose sight of timing and optics, and your reputation can easily become collateral damage. There is such a thing as “too much, too soon” when it comes to hype. A band is not a “word-of-mouth sensation” when it’s just a few music industry execs and agents trying to engineer the next big thing.
Part of the problem is in how the story was packaged. NME, god bless ‘em, has been putting an emerging artist on the cover each week since May in acts like d4vd, Geese, and Blondshell. While many of those artists have already received light criticism for possibly having rich parents or industry connections, these stories didn’t get the backlash that Picture Parlour did. I’m sure some of it is from sexism but a good chunk of it is genuinely not liking the music and thinking the profile was too breathlessly hyperbolic to accurately capture a band at such an early point in their career. There is careerism throughout the music industry but fans don’t want to see it done so transparently. I don’t think Picture Parlour did anything wrong besides feeding into the hype. I honestly feel for them waking up to all the negative tweets and Instagram comments on what was supposed to be a momentous day releasing their first song ever.
There should be a music journalism ecosystem where a band with a small following can get a cover story. When I was at RedEye, I put artists like Meat Wave on the cover in 2015 and at VICE, I did Noisey Next profiles on acts like Moontype, NNAMDÏ, and Katy Kirby. In this newsletter, I try to highlight musicians who have under 1000 monthly Spotify listeners as much as I can. But writers also have a responsibility when covering more underground acts to not get ahead of themselves. Something isn’t world-changing just because you write that it is. It’s a testament to how homogenous music media is right now that the knee-jerk thought about a new artist getting a huge platform is that there must be something nefarious at play here. I don’t want the same 5-10 acts getting the majority of the press but I also want a smarter approach to covering green acts.
The four people in Picture Parlour will likely be fine after the negative reaction to the NME profile. They’re probably going to sign a lucrative deal with a major, get a solid opening slot on a big tour, and have a platform despite this hiccup. When you have a team and resources, you are afforded a safety net that acts at a similar point in their careers don’t have. Taking steps in your career that seem like smart business decisions can catapult you to becoming the center of attention but sometimes the limelight is harsh. This is how it works.
I was on the podcast You Wanted a Hit! to talk about Fastball’s “The Way”
My friend Mike Smith hosts a really fun podcast called You Wanted a Hit! with Theo Beidler where one of the hosts picks a radio hit to talk about while the other host and the guest have no idea what it is. Think The Dollop but about oddball singles and one-hit wonders. I guested this week and Theo chose Fastball’s 1998 hit “The Way,” a song I had definitely heard before but knew nothing about the band. It’s a comedy podcast so don’t expect much insight from me but I had a ton of fun riffing on the ‘90s with these two. My apologies to Fastball, who I’m sure are nice people.
What I listened to:
Gig report: Minor Moon and Bats at Judson and Moore (6/17)
Minor Moon are one of my favorite Chicago bands, especially live. Fronted by Sam Cantor, they’re the type of group that feels so seamlessly locked in that their brand of noodling and propulsive country rock is mind-melting. I brought a bud who had never heard them before to their Judson and Moore set last weekend and he couldn’t believe how tight they sounded. After the gig, Cantor complained that he felt the gig was too loose. They have another record in the tank. You should see them live as soon as possible before you’re late to the party. Nashville’s Bats opened. Loved the pedal steel in the set and I’m stoked to dive into their catalog.
What I watched:
This is without question one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen and it makes me hate the Weeknd’s music more than I already do. In no good universe should this cornball be the #1 artist on Spotify. Don’t care if it’s a schtick. It just sucks.
What I read:
Recently, a number of my younger coworkers expressed shock that I was able to complete a master’s degree while I held a full-time job. It was easy: I worked at a literary agency during the day, I got off work at 5 p.m., and I studied at night. The key was that this was just after the turn of the millennium. “But what would you do when you had work emails?” these coworkers asked. “I didn’t get work emails,” I said. “I barely had the internet in my apartment.” The very idea that, once work hours were over, no one could get hold of you—via email, text, Slack, whatever—is completely alien to contemporary young people, who never let their cellphones leave their hands. Yes, it’s because they’re addicted, but it’s also because we’re all expected by bosses, co-workers, and friends to be online and available pretty much every time of day. Especially since the pandemic and the growth of remote work, job responsibilities seem to be ever-expanding to fill all available time. One survey suggests that U.S. workers were logged into their employers’ networks 11 hours a day in 2021, as opposed to 8 hours a day before the pandemic. A survey of U.K. workers found a majority said they wished their employers would restrict work communication to work hours only.
Could things really have been so different just a few short decades ago? Was the last era before smartphones the last time anyone had any fun? Can a modern young person ever understand what it was like to simply watch whatever happened to be on television? To explain what life was like in the days of yore, I interviewed a number of people who are (roughly) my age about what it was like being (about) 27 in (around) 2002. These are their stories.
The No Expectations Weekly Chicago Show Calendar
Thursday, June 22: Water From Your Eyes, Floatie, Options at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Thursday, June 22: Sarah Sherman at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Friday, June 23: Fran, Ethers, Brent Penny at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Friday, June 23: Otnes, Manassah at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Saturday, June 24: Jimmy Whispers, Sports Boyfriend, Warm Human at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Sunday, June 25: Duster, Greg Freeman, Free Range, Joey Nebulous at Logan Arts Festival.
Monday, June 26: Wednesday, Squirrel Flower, Tenci at Metro. Tickets.
Tuesday, June 27: Greg Freeman, Hemlock, Case Oats at Sleeping Village. Tickets.