If you were seeking a poster-band primer on how to navigate the amorphous landscape of today's music industry without losing your aesthetic way, you could do a lot worse than Baltimore's Beach House.
The duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally released its eponymous debut in 2006, and its fourth and best-selling full-length, Bloom, last year. But in that brief time span, tectonic changes have rocked the music industry. The expanding sovereignty of the Internet over that stretch matches the century-long drift that preceded it, from sheet music and acetates to compact discs and major label behemoths.
Beach House, which plays the Neighborhood Theatre on June 13, straddles the old and new worlds — a strategy the band says has been key to its success. Engagement with 'Net forces and new social platforms may no longer be optional, but remembering the lessons from the previous model remains just as paramount to them. For a band whose music bucks most current trends anyway — Legrand's low-boil vocals and Scally's shoegaze-tinted instrumentation recall the languid pace and sheen of an updated Mazzy Star — learning from the past to navigate the future comes naturally.
"It was still quite an innocent time in regards to bands and the Internet," Legrand says of the year 2005, when she and Scally formed Beach House. "The way we grew up and what we thought of what a band is and how a band should be, does come from a different time period. But that's served us well."
By 2006, it was clear that declining sales weren't just major label-karma from the greed-o-palooza of pointless catalog repackaging and $20-a-disc boy bands. It was also the wind-down for the era of independent labels, whose DIY aesthetic was typically fueled by opposition to that major label model. When Legrand and Scally signed to Carpark and released Beach House, for instance, an indie band could still draw residual pull from its label affiliation; today, it's the buzz-bands keeping independent labels such as Sub Pop — where Beach House's last two records have appeared — afloat. Bloom debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, selling 41,000 copies in its first week; the 21,000 vinyl copies sold in 2012 put them in the Top 10 nationally.
But as the digital P2P demimonde took down labels big and small (and mom & pop record stores, and distributors, and music magazines, and music journalists), new models took shape. The few remaining traditional elements — rock mags, alt-weeklies, college radio — were supplemented (and quickly surpassed in importance) by anything from a YouTube video, tastemaker blog mention or TV show/advertisement song placement.
Those "multi-layered platforms," Legrand concedes, are the new pathways to standing out in an overcrowded playing field. But to rely on them exclusively raises the same old art-or-commerce questions popular music has always wrestled with.
"With all the social media, there are so many things that you feel like you have to do," says Legrand, citing everything from fashion shoots to films. "But with us, we've just learned that what works best is to just use these few ones, and use them in a certain way, and not feel obliged to use them any more than we have to. Some bands find it totally cool doing all this stuff — we just find it to be a bit distracting."
Of course, you'll find Beach House on all the right blogs — they've been Pitchfork darlings since "Apple Orchard" landed on the site's Infinite Mixtape MP3 series in August 2006. But Legrand insists the band makes exposure decisions rooted firmly in the lessons of that earlier era, when holding onto your artistic vision — rather than letting the process consume it — could be an actual life-or-death proposition.
"People died because of it, not realizing where they were heading, and nobody saying where they were heading," Legrand says, citing '90s Too Much Too Fast victim, Kurt Cobain. "That's the big lesson of the '90s — as well as bands like Fugazi saying, 'No, I don't want to get that big check, fuck you. I want to do what we did — we built it ourselves and we're going to keep doing that and we don't need you to make it official.'"
So, for now, Beach House contents itself playing popular clubs and 1,000-2,000-seater venues, rather than expanding into the arenas they would likely be pushed toward if they signed to the bigger labels courting them. They're happy with Sub Pop, in part, because the venerable Seattle label gives them artistic control over their releases. Their 2010 debut for the label, Teen Dream, packaged a second disc of videos featuring different directors for each song.
Yet even as the band's fan base and blog exposure grow, Legrand and Scally think of ways to keep Beach House's music front and center. In the run-up to Bloom, Beach House wanted to scale back, rather than ratchet up, the publicity mill that precedes today's "much-anticipated" new releases.
In another throwback move, they insisted Bloom slip into the zeitgeist as a full-length listening experience, not just a collection of songs.
"We did a few specific things that we thought were of quality to filter out doing lots and lots of stuff that didn't mean that much," Legrand says, pointing to Forever Still, the band's Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii-inspired mini-film for Bloom. "That has helped us to continue focusing on the music, and I think it's only going to get more specific as we get older."
Legrand tied that aesthetic into the aging process she and Scally have undergone. Now in her early 30s, she says experiences are deeper and felt more intensely. That's reflected, she adds, in Bloom's more luscious arrangements and complex narratives.
"There's something about when you're in your 20s, it feels really great but everything that happens to you, you think is going to happen again," she says. "Whereas when you get older, you go, 'This might be the last time.' So there's a total richness about that, and for Alex and I, it almost feels like a lot of things are just beginning — that may be crazy to say after four records, but I kind of feel that way."
Valuing their experiences more has also led inevitably to wondering how time will treat their music, whatever this shape-shifting scene has in store next.
"If there is such a concept of longevity any more, it's got to be some part of holding onto that — being discerning and being patient and making sure that music or whatever medium you're doing is your passion, remains the priority, and not the other stuff.
"Because of how quickly things become assimilated now, and how normal things get pretty quickly, to break those patterns is more challenging now than it's ever been in music or in any art form. How do you snap out of that monotony and realize 'I'm just part of the system,' and how do you feel fresh again for yourself? That's something every artist has to assess."