Hipsters are Doing it for Themselves

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Is there anything more annoying than a ‘hipster’? Well, yes, the person(s) who uses such a term to identify a sector of the population, with an utter disregard for the suitability of such a moniker. After all a ‘hipster’ was originally a jive-talking, jazz groupie, desperate to be seen in all the right circles, following the proscribed lifestyle traits of the jazzmen and women, but with none of the skill, flair, or talent for creating wonderful music. Nowadays, lazy hacks and cultural commentators seem to bandy the word around in relation to any young person who adopts a considered, usually slightly aloof, pose toward society, regardless of whether they are actually producing anything of merit, other than just simple affectation. Chances are if you come from a privileged, American, college-educated background and profess an affection for irony and whimsy, then you’ll probably be labeled thus.

It seems that one of the quickest ways to get landed with the ‘hipster’ tag is to develop a serious following on Youtube for your homemade video content. Last year the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, much to the chagrin of a more seasoned performer, was the live appearances due to be made by a twenty-year-old ‘satirical’ songwriter from the States, called Bo Burnham. Whereas the likes of Tim Minchin had worked about a ten-year grind of comedy clubs and fleapits before breaking into the big time, young Burnham had managed to have a much greater degree of ‘instant’ celebrity foisted upon him in little over three years of Youtube videos and high-profile live shows.

A few years prior to Burnham’s emergence, Edinburgh had been taken by a similar internet-based, Youtube-hyped, media frenzy around Glaswegian comic Brian Limond, aka Limmy. In the space of about a year he’d had upward of a million hits on his website www.limmy.com and at least a 100,000 hits on many of his Youtube postings. By the end of 2006 he was making live appearances, had featured in The List’s (the Scottish equivalent of TimeOut) Hot 100 of the Year and was rumoured to be in discussion with BBC Scotland about a television show (that has since appeared in 2010 and had a second series in 2011).

Both of these comics were utilising Youtube’s attention-grabbing possibilities as a means of building up strong word-of-mouth about their video creations. In both cases there seemed a real sense that the Youtube work was intended as nothing more than a calling card for greater things and could thus be viewed as an alternate paradigm for media career-development. Rather than cutting their teeth in low-level comedy clubs, or putting together a promo reel and sending it around production companies, both Burnham and Limond were showing a belief in their work finding a wide audience, thus making them irresistible media commodities. Far from the cooler-than-thou posing and zero-work ethic popular conception of the hobbyist ‘hipster’, this was clearly two hard-working and committed, creative individuals, exploiting the best self-marketing tools at their disposal.

Perhaps taking things even further down the line of internet self-sufficiency and creative entrepreneurship has been the rapid rise of the musician couple Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. Their collaborative work under the title of Pomplamoose, a play on the French word for grapefruit – pamplemousse (yes, that’s how precious we’re about to get), has seen them covering everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Beyonce. It was a 2009 cover of the latter’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), that broke the couple into the Youtube big-time, pulling over eight million hits, as of August 2011.

Conte and Dawn’s work with Pomplamoose incorporates lots of intriguing elements of modern internet-based media productions. First of all they have a ‘gimmick’, as they are not just covering pop songs, but they are creating a new medium, of sorts, called the VideoSong. The VideoSong, as Conte defines it (Conte appearing to be very much the tech-head of the duo) is an authentic approach to video presentation, essentially what you hear is what you see, and if at some point you hear it in the mix, then it will be seen somewhere in the video. This is straight out of The White Stripes guidebook, as by placing these restraints upon themselves, they manage to make relatively innovative videos that belie the cheapness of their production, by seeming, at first, so hypnotically strange. In this respect it helps that the duo are both Californian-photogenic, with Dawn’s abstracted air of knowingness mainlining a great deal of Golden-era Hollywood close-up coyness and Conte’s high-energy mugging acting as a perfect foil.

Another trick that the duo have not missed is the idea of promotional tie-ins. From the moment they started doing the cover material as Pomplamoose, they have also been canny enough to find simple ways of promoting their own digital releases through iTunes, Tune Corps. and ReverbNation, selling over 100,000 downloads of their own material alone. By attaching sales features to their Youtube videos and drawing in subscribers to their Youtube channel they’ve been able to target an audience for their products directly, cutting out the middle-men of the ailing record industry.

Furthermore, Dawn and Conte have realised that they are themselves part of the product that people are buying into. As Pomplamoose’s videos have garnered more attention, Dawn and Conte have conducted more interviews, and have ingeniously stapled on a Vlog segment to most of their later releases, that gives the fan a tiny flavour of their lives, whilst allowing the duo to promote their latest merchandise, or tour dates.

At each stage of the duo’s expansion in popularity Conte and Dawn have shown a keen market awareness, to go alongside their infectious enthusiasm for the creative process. Dawn has also harnessed such internet-funding models as Kickstart to enable her to acquire donations from fans to help fund an album release. During 2010 Pomplamoose even branched out into advertising, providing a couple of cover versions for two car companies Hyundai and Toyota. It was their appearance in the Hyundai commercials that seemed to bring some degree of critical backlash against them, with its wall-to-wall coverage during the holiday season in the States managing to alienate a sizable viewing audience. However, the money that they’ve brought in from such work must surely be able to sustain their creative endeavours over the next few years.

Aside from Pomplamoose’s canny marketing and careful exploitation of a new on-line creative business model, they also do have some talent. The most striking thing about their videos is the quality of the photography, which adds a touch of class to their homemade approach. Although their cover versions are interesting, I wonder how effective they would be when robbed of the added visual stimuli that is, after all, part of their creative package? Whilst Dawn’s solo material meanders around in Madeleine Peyroux ‘loveliness’, Conte’s efforts actually bear some comparison to fellow bedsit luminaries such as Elliott Smith and Quasi, only with slightly smoother edges. The duo also seem to be genuine in their desire to promote a do-it-yourself aesthetic for the 21st century music scene, with Conte, in particular, spending hours of interview time talking about the various technical aspects of home-recording and music production. Clearly it has helped Conte to have musical friendships with the likes of Ben Folds, but this still should not detract from the admirable amount of genuine hard work and effort that both Dawn and himself have put into getting their music and creative ideas out there.

A more low-key, but equally fascinating example of Youtube creative promotion, comes courtesy of fellow Californian Kate Freund. Fitting the modern stereotype of ‘hipster’ far more snugly, Freund is one of those people who seems to be trying their hand at a little bit of everything, without ever really breaking out in one particular direction. Along with her partner, comicbook artist and comedian, Rob Schrab (of Scud infamy), she has worked on the long-running internet/live event Channel 101, indulging in a spot of hilarious film parodying (Le Typewriter and The Legend of the White Tiger), whilst also pursuing her own animation and modeling interests. Perhaps her most noted Youtube effort is the ‘fanvideo’ for The Magnetic Fields ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’, that has had over 300,000 hits and has been tacitly accepted by the band, in much the same way as Jon Salmon’s ‘fanvideo’ for MGMT’s ‘Kids’. Whereas, Pomplamoose have integrated many facets of advertising and promotion alongside their creative output, Freund seems to be content with simply allowing her Youtube channel to act as a business card, or flyer, for her creative output. Yet the very fact that comic work of the quality of The Legend of the White Tiger is being made so readily available, shows that the tired notion of ‘hipster’ ennui is no longer really viable in an increasingly ‘can-do/will-do’ internet-led creative media age.

Tabanda, Association Swelina & Kinetic Sculptures

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Whilst visiting the Trojmiasto earlier in the week I stumbled upon a tiny, perfect facet of Sopot’s Open Culture Spa events programme. Throughout July, August and September Sopot, like a few other Polish cities, has put together a cultural schedule to celebrate Poland’s tenure in the European Union Presidency. However, the resort city sandwiched between the industrial and commercial hubs of Gdynia and Gdansk has gone a little further with its remit and has utilised the power of social networking sites and other internet media to put together a massive outpouring of creative endeavour in the fields of music, design, technology, literature, cinema, ecology, fine art and performance.

Foremost amongst the contributions to this eclectic and wide-ranging project is a piece of installation art designed by the Tabanda design team of Malgosia Malinowska, Filip Ludka and Tomek Kempa, under the auspices of the Swelina collective of architects, artists and designers. The Swelina collective takes its name from a small estuary between Sopot and Gdynia, at which a stream flows out into the Baltic. At the far end of Aleja Franciszka Mamuszki there is a small paved area that allows for easy views of the stream as it flows down toward the sea. Here Tabanda have set about constructing a series of ‘Kinetic Sculptures’, with the express purpose of converting the energy generated from the stream’s languid flow into a distempered melody of tinkling glass, cracking wood and chiming metal.

The unusual water propellers, bottle racks, metallic pistons and various weights, pulleys and levers, make it look as if the waterway has been taken over by a band of ingenious engineer elves. Adding to the sheer magical spell the installation casts is the constantly varied ‘natural’ rhythms of the ‘music’ it generates. One large riverboat-like water-wheel turns a series of wooden rods around, under a line of suspended glass bottles, whilst intermittently knocking over a wooden clapper-joint, that moves as if simulating the painful leg exertions of a long-distance cyclist.

Tabanda claim to have developed this installation as a result of wishing to fill the valley, in which the Swelina lies, with sounds. They achieve this aim easily and with a real sense of enthusiastic experimentation. Furthermore the installation serves as a large-scale calling card for their own innovative interior designs, that focus on harnessing sustainable energy processes in their manufacture and function, whilst sacrificing nothing in aesthetic and ergonomic excellence.

I found the whole experience of Swelina’s newly musical valley gently delightful and couldn’t help but marvel at some of the intricate mechanisms Malinowska, Ludka and Kempa had created to produce the simplest of effects. The true beauty of the whole project is the way in which it draws a direct, and powerfully obvious, connection between the ‘wasted’/’unharnessed’ energy of the silent stream and the new nexus of motion and music that they have placed upon it. Thus natural energy is converted into usable energy, if only for the purposes of an amusing and diversionary spectacle. If it can be done for this little bit of frivolity, then surely if more attention was paid to such wasted natural energy sources so much more could be achieved.

Below are some links to three short films depicting parts of the installation:-

Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.1
Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.2
Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.3