|Max Kakacek lead guitarist for Smith Westerns|
Smith Westerns @ The Casbah
It is a little discussed but true statement that looks matter in the world of Indie/DIY music. According to the ideology of both genres, looks shouldn't matter, since these are forms that putatively speak for the loser and the outsider, but if you talk to someone who is knowledgeable about the reasons for success or failure of a specific Indie/DIY artist, physical attractiveness will ALWAYS play a role in the analysis, particularly prior to an Artist establishing an Audience and sales history. Ugly bands have it harder, and being physically unattractive is commonly given AS A REASON that particular band doesn't do well. I'm not saying this because I embrace it, I'm saying it because it's true: If you want to make it in the world of indie/DIY it helps, a LOT to be "Hot." And if you aren't hot, you need to be ridiculously talented and incredibly driven or hook up with hot people.
Prior to discussing Smith Westerns, it might be useful to make the distinction between DIY and the larger Indie genre of music. There is plenty of non Indie DIY projects (Punk, Hardcore, EDM) and there are plenty of non DIY indie projects...Smith Westerns, but there is still a huge overlap, and most if not all Indie acts emerge from the DIY world of music. Smith Westerns, with three and half million last fm plays, perhaps had a pre-history as a DIY/indie project, but in 2013 they are clearly out of the realm of DIY and into the lower levels of the "Major Label" game. The most non DIY aspects of Smith Westerns are first, their Management- C3 Presents- one of the largest indie concert promoters in the country. (1) Second, it's their label situation. In 2009, Smith Westerns released their first LP on Hozac- very DIY. (2) In 2011, they released their second LP on Fat Possum, DIY enough. (3) In 2013, they released their third LP on Mom & Pop- the biggest fake indie on the planet, and the moral equivalent of signing a major label deal. (4)
So you can see the trajectory from DIY to the wider world of Indie. When you see Smith Westerns in the flesh, it is hard not to think about the role that physical attractiveness has played in their rise. Smith Westerns are certainly what you would call a "Hot" band, from the perspective of a very broad segment of the Audience for popular music. This level of physical attractiveness is something that is essentially a foregone conclusion at the major label level, but pitched in the context of the Casbah, it is startling. Typically, the Casbah audience is going to be heavily tipped towards men, but last night the women exceeded the men. That is significant for an indie band, and a forecaster of demographic success.
Because their management is also the largest indie concert promoter in the US, Smith Westerns play plenty of festivals in great time slots that put them in front of tens of thousands of listeners, but that is essentially management directed sleight of hand. If you look at their underlying statistics: 3.6 million last fm plays and 47 thousand facebook likes- you've got a band that is less popular then the Dum Dum Girls, let alone a Best Coast or Wavves. Playing in front of a not sold out but close to it Casbah show, it was clear what people see in Smith Westerns, and it's also clear that they play a style of music that is just as conventional and appealing to a broad, general Audience as any 70s AOR radio staple.
In terms of what works for them it is a combination of two factors: the lead singer is attractive and talented, and theirlead guitarist is a bit of wizard. Max Kakcek is the name of the lead guitarist, and the best part of the live show was watching him play the leads and fills that give Smith Westerns their characteristic sounds. Dude must have an incredible record collection, and he may have his moments where he wants to play in a more vituosic styles, but up close the little leads and fills looked pretty impressive on the frets. Like, I was watching him play and ignoring the rest of the band.
Additionally the rest of the band is easy on the eyes and has been to "effortlessly cool guy junior rock star training academy." They appear to be going for some kind of variation on the appeal of Vampire Weekend. Last Fm has them grouped with Mikal Cronin, Girls, Surfer Blood, Wavves, Foxygen and Beach Fossils, but I think the target for them is Vampire Weekend. I don't know if the songs are distinctive enough. But still, they are so young and have already made it so far I wouldn't bet against them at this point.
Personally, and I think I'm just going to put this out there- I think these bigger indie bands who are signing with Mom & Pop are making a long term mistake, because they are going to end up losing control of all those records and maybe not making a whole ton of money out of it because I bet Mom & Pop uses major label accountants. I guess the bottom line is that Mom & Pop is a major label, for better or worse. And it's obvious if you are major label level manager managing an indie band, Mom & Pop is THE place to land. Every indie band that has signed up with Mom & Pop has had a manager in the mix. To my knowledge, Mom & Pop has not developed a single artist, but rather has cherry picked from Artists who have already had sales success on mid level indies.
This is just my opinion and I'm aware that there are plenty of good reasons to be on a major label if you are an indie Artist, I'm just not convinced it is the best thing long term.