August 28, 2008
CYHSY: The Rise of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; Hard Work and College Friends in the Music Industry Can Really Help
Reporting for NPR, Jacob Ganz referred to the “perfect storm of Internet hype, e-commerce, and rabid fan response” to describe the fast rise of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. But perfect storms are meteorological coincidences, whereas rock bands on the rise – even unsigned, “independent” ones – are the product of human actions. Thus, Internet hype, e-commerce and a rabid fan response require posting MP3s and getting them to the right bloggers, connections with online distributors, and booking the right shows. A band’s success today might not include a label but it will require managers, publicists, and, of course, distribution, all of which was available to CYHSY from the beginning.
|Photo by Davey Wilson|
The truly unique feat of CYHSY was that an unsigned band sold about 100,000 copies of its first release within a year without a label. Today it has sold about 300,000 copies including domestic and international sales; surely the envy of thousands of local bands. Many onlookers believed that the 9.0 rating on PitchforkMedia.com (Pitchfork) was the reason for their success. But it was the road to Pitchfork and its aftermath that reveals the band’s rise to be a product of talent and hard work, but not without help from people in the music business.
In late 2005, when I first heard about the CYHSY explosion, I cynically asked myself: “Is there a music industry person operating behind the scenes”? There were two, both friends of the band from Connecticut College. Dave Godowsky was in the publicity department at Rounder Records, and then Nick Stern was Director of Publicity for Atlantic Records. Some big label industry experience was behind the rise of a band touted as the poster child of the “independent” and DIY music business.
Nick Stern, manager of CYHSY, takes little credit for the band’s success. His role, he says, was essentially giving “advice to good friends from college;” asserting that the band exemplifies the DIY ethos. Moreover, Stern is adamant that “No one can do anything without a great fucking record.” Stern also notes that most bands have managers. But anyone who has a friend in a great band will tell you that most bands starting out don’t have managers or close friends in the business. Furthermore, many in today’s new music business understand that managers and publicists are more important than labels.
The Pitchfork article came a year and half after the band’s formation in late 2003, during which time CYHSY worked hard to develop a small following and made what many believed to be an excellent album. Lead singer and songwriter Alec Ounsworth mentions in interviews that Pitchfork’s rating was only one part of their initial success. He is correct in that the band developed a following by playing local shows and recording great songs.
Godowsky managed CYHSY for its first year and a half before Stern took the reins about six weeks before Pitchfork’s rating. (While Stern does not recall the exact dates, articles from that time show him becoming the new manger in May 2005.) It’s worth noting that Godowsky was new to the music industry as well, and not a well-connected veteran by any measure. But he was active, and I believe skillful, in what he described as “getting the music to the right people…playing the right clubs…being in touch with bloggers and journalists.” Like Stern, Godowsky asserts that the music sold itself because it resonated with the fans. He also recollects their caution to not interfere with the band’s development and says “knowing what not to do was more important than knowing what to do.”
Throughout 2005, CYHSY was playing local NYC venues including Pianos, Sin-e, and Mercury Lounge. Its June 7th, 2005 CD release show was at the Delancey, a local venue. Through June their shows ranged between 30-100 people, but they played the “right” small-medium-sized venues and developed a committed local following. As a publicist at Rounder, Godowsky was in a good position to help CYHSY book top local shows and promote them. Only then did Pitchfork come along.
Pitchfork might be known for independently discovering great bands early on, but in this case they were following other blogs. Tracks from their first CD were first released on the band’s website. On June 7th they were reviewed very favorably by the blog SaidTheGramophone.com. Then on June 11th Pitchfork’s founder Ryan Schreiber reviewed one track and commented on their quick rise, followed by a strong review on June 15th in the Gothamist, followed by a June 20th review on Sterogum.com. The hype grew when on June 21st the Gothamist reported that David Byrne was at a Gothamist-produced show featuring CYHSY. Finally, the knockout punch came on June 22nd – a 9.0 review on Pitchfork. And the CD orders started to pour in.
Without a label, the band members themselves were burdened with the administrative tasks of taking orders, and packaging and shipping CDs. But this was not logistically sustainable. Stern’s solutions were to 1) work with an online retail and distribution company, InSound.com and 2) broker a distribution deal with Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which is owned by Warner Music Group. This latter arrangement was unique and a real coup in that ADA usually only makes distribution deals with labels, not bands.
Finally, and ironically, CYHSY did sign to a label. With Stern’s help, they signed to UK-based Wichita Recordings in October 2005 to release their record in Europe. CYHSY’s second, less successful release, Some Loud Thunder was recorded with Wichita. According to Stern, the band is no longer with Wichita.
It’s impossible to quantify the contribution of Godowsky and Stern to the rise of CYHSY. What we do know is more important. A quirky new band consisting of skillful musicians playing eclectic instrumentations, with a lovably whiny vocalist with really good songs made a superb record, and teamed up with some college friends with publicity and label experience to show that a major, medium, or even tiny “indie” label is not needed to seriously launch a band. And in no small measure, Stern’s mantra rings true, “No one can do anything without a great fucking record.”
by Gabriel Levitt