Tapes 'n Tapes. Beirut. TV on the Radio. Cold War Kids. Lupe Fiasco. Lily Allen. Birdmonster. Grizzly Bear. Sufjan Stevens. The Knife. Clipse. Destroyer. The Hold Steady. Joanna Newsom.
These were, by a certain measure, the most important new musicians of 2006. Heard half of them? If you're a casual or even moderately engaged pop fan, possibly not; your ears are busy with commercial radio, ring tones and music television. If you're involved in the music industry, you know the names and might have heard some music. But if you're one of those people creating that rare and ever-present commodity, "buzz," you not only know these artists - you might have touted one as "the only band that matters."
In 1979, the Clash's record label, Epic, coined that phrase to describe England's brainiest punks to American record buyers. Similar excitement has greeted the greats of pop, including the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. When these stars touched down, the world hummed with excitement. The buzz felt real.
Today, it's hard to know when buzz is more than just noise. In an age of accelerated connection, the buzz around every art form has intensified, but nowhere as much as in music. The growing ease of music making and distribution resulted in 60,000 releases (that's in the U.S. alone) last year. Downloadable music multiplies that number. And pop's historical embrace of novelty and amateurism means that few heavy gates stop the flow.
The only criterion for buzz today often seems like buzz itself. "To me, 'buzz' was always about, something really great is happening, don't you want to check it out?" said Jay Babcock, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Arthur. "That's different than what I hear now, which is, this is going to be big, don't you want to check it out? That kind of industry-think has degraded the experience."
Babcock calls what's happening "buzz overload," but the feeling might better be dubbed "buzz vertigo": a balance disorder that makes it hard to proceed confidently through pop's ever-expanding archipelago of Web sites, blogs, magazines, podcasts and other outlets.
Professional rainmakers flood the mailboxes - now inboxes - of media folks, hoping something sticks. The honchos at record labels still claim that the music comes first, though sometimes they call it "the brand." Artists still crave coverage in major media outlets but sometimes feel better served by tiny user groups and Web sites. Fans still show loyalty to what they like. And a handful of obsessives still dominate the public conversation, though now their words extend beyond the ink of alternative weeklies and fanzines to reach worldwide.
What is in flux is that imaginary portal where an artist makes the leap into public consciousness. There, where perception and reality don't quite match, time and space themselves are being messed with. In some cases, the very ground where music once emerged has been abandoned.
"You don't have to go to a record store or go out on a Tuesday night to see an opening band to get in on things," said Scott Plagenhoef, managing editor of Chicago-based Pitchforkmedia.com, the indie-rock-leaning site that's often cited as a source of today's groundswells. "And we're not part of the music industry. The industry knows a couple of months in advance what print magazines will put on the cover. I don't think anybody knows what we're making our lead review the next day."
Digital media marketing firms focus on serving the Web. Bloggers need content and often enjoy the recognition. "Bands such as Birdmonster, Cold War Kids and Sound Team are relentlessly marketed to bloggers, just this never-ending stream of e-mails from flacks," wrote New York-based writer Matthew Perpetua, who pioneered the MP3 blog with his Fluxblog, in an e-mail. "It's depressing that all you need to catch on among the newer MP3 blogs is to barrage them with PR e-mails."
Old vices of the buzz business - skilled seduction and possibly even bribery - may be penetrating the supposedly free space of the Web.
"Some bloggers genuinely write about what interests them, because they're crate-diggers," said Glenn Peoples, who runs the music business blog Coolfer.com from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "But bloggers don't always mention the extent to which they are comped and courted."
Andy Slater, president of Capitol Records, a label that has signed several "blog buzz" artists, including OK Go and Lily Allen, said he doesn't think much has changed in 30 years. "Somebody you think is cool is telling you something's cool," he said, "and you're going somewhere to check it out."
The best strategy for breaking a musician, said Slater, is to make sure the offering is solid. "Lily has all of the elements of a star," he said. "She's smart, she's talented, she has a great voice. She has a mission statement that's clear: She is saying something for women under 25."
Local scenes still matter, but instant access across all boundaries leaves little time for a reputation to percolate. "Labels turn into research companies that sign independent acts who look like they're blowing up in certain areas," said Ethiopia Habtemariam, vice president for publishing for Universal Records. "But by the time they sign these acts, it's over."
Habtemariam, whose clients include producer Polow Da Don and R&B; darling Ciara, criticizes record labels for not developing the artists they sign. In truth, many buzz acts aren't novices; half on the list that begins this article are on their second, third or fourth album. Even an MTV sensation such as Ciara, Habtemariam says, must pay dues. "Ciara toured with her last album for two years," Habtemariam said. "She was Gwen Stefani's opening act, then went out with 50 Cent and Lil Jon, and then with Bow Wow and Omarion. She was able to tour in different arenas. And now, her fan base really is that wide." Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.