Over the last fifteen years, the relationship between artist and audience has changed immeasurably. Direct engagement with fans, particularly for artists without major label backing, can help forge a loyalty so strong they’ll still be around long after the hype train has moved on.
Some artists keep their names fresh in people’s minds through a fertile social media presence. However if your passion is making music, this extroverted marketing may be an unnatural and unnecessary distraction. It’s arguable that broadcasting the minutiae of their lives can remove the mystique, reminding people that they are human after all. Those artists who are particularly prolific also run the risk of immortalising statements they may later regret. Intoxicated tweets, depressed rants, the internet remembers.
Before Azealia Banks deleted her social media presence completely, her frequent controversies meant multiple journalists would track every post in the hope of being the first to write about the next scandal. They knew that when the mob mentality is mobilised, backed by the ease and swiftness of reaction that the internet allows, a well-timed story can result in masses of traffic directed to their sites. Pitchforks replaced with keyboards, shouting replaced with caps lock, it’s a click-counter’s dream. The guilty party at the centerpiece is treated as a moral scapegoat which though sometimes justified, is almost always disproportionate.
Things weren’t always this way. Cast your mind back to 5 March 2001 when a self-proclaimed 'nu-gaze' band named My Vitriol released their debut album Finelines. Dido sat at the top of the UK albums charts, Tony Blair was campaigning for re-election as prime minister, and jokes about the overdue follow-up to 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses were already cliché. It was a musically transient time of excitement and unpredictability. Britpop had become passé while nu-metal bands were topping the singles charts. Amongst all of this an unexpectedly bold debut album emerged from a young British rock band that didn’t quite fit into those trends. Drawing more influence from bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine than Spineshank and Mudvayne, My Vitriol had arrived.
Their rise was sudden and followed the path many aspiring musicians can only dream of. Their debut EP Delusions Of Grandeur was recorded over just two days before it got into the hands of Steve Lamacq, who played it on his unsigned show. They didn’t even have a full band at the time, recruiting two others as the hype escalated in order to be able to play live. A short time later Finelines was met with gushing acclaim as critics hailed it as uncharacteristically accomplished for a first album. Chino Moreno of Deftones was quoted as calling them the 'best band in the world', praise from Caesar indeed. They were on Top Of The Pops, and playing major festivals like Glastonbury and Reading. Their single ‘Always: Your Way’ broke into the UK top 40. Their trajectory was enviably cliché, not quite escalating them to a household name, but building the sorts of foundations that could set them up for an exciting future.
Infectious Records milked the album for all its worth releasing a total of six singles. In 2002 Finelines was re-released with a bonus CD titled Between The Lines comprised of B-sides and offcuts. In an age where physical formats still ruled, this was frustrating to a fan base who would have to buy the whole thing again in order to get all of the new tracks.
Unbeknownst to many, the pressures of producing a follow-up combined with how little the band really knew each other was causing some major strains behind the scenes and in October 2002 they announced a hiatus from touring which ended up lasting for three years.
Perhaps to alleviate rumours of splitting up, they talked up the progress of the second album in interviews and newsletters suggesting its release was imminent, and that cutting out touring allowed them to focus on it properly. In 2003, the band announced that all songs were written and that producer Colin Richardson was recording with the band with a view to release in 2004. There were song titles, more interviews, and everything to suggest it was time to get excited again.
Nu-gaze had continued to grow in their absence, as bands like M83 and The Radio Dept. became more popular, breathing new life into the genre. The pieces were lining up to suggest the band’s return could be perfectly timed for a full blown shoegaze resurgence. However as 2004 clocked over to 2005, there was no surprise from Santa. It was as deflating as a hail storm at a bouncy castle expo.
Though the second album remained elusive, in January 2005 the band broke their live hiatus with a show at the O2 Academy Islington. A recording of the gig was self-released as the 2006 live album Cast In Amber. They played tracks new and old, including some whose demos featured on their MySpace page with the tongue-in-cheek album title Chinese Democracy. It was to be one of the last shows with the Finelines line-up, as bassist Carolyn Bannister left the band shortly after and was later replaced by Area 54’s Laura Salmon.
It wasn’t until March 2007 that any new material arrived with the single ‘This Time’ receiving a limited run of 1000 copies under the pseudonym A Secret Society. Four months later, they released an EP titled A Pyrrhic Victory. In the time since they last released original material, Muse had risen from the status of odd little rock band to pompous stadium fillers, nu-rave had taken over as the new chic 'nu', and Gordon Brown was demonstrating how to lead a country without charisma. These new tracks sounded heavier than what had come before, but were otherwise unmistakably My Vitriol. Combined it may have only been three new songs, a cover, and a remix, but it was enough to give those still keeping track some hope.
As the years rolled by, the band continued to play live though there were a concerning number of shows being cancelled or postponed. Media trends were shifting from physical to digital formats. Talk of the second album was becoming taboo again. By 2010 it was as though they had stopped mentioning it altogether. A few lacklustre covers aside, even the die-hards were losing hope that the mythical second album would ever see the light of day. The band were more vocal about trivialities like their back catalogue transitioning to Spotify than with any promise of new material. You had to assume by this point that they’d be more likely to bundle on some sort of nostalgia tour or split up than actually get it finished.
March 5 2011 marked the ten-year anniversary of the release of Finelines. David Cameron was making a pig’s ear of Britain, Lady Gaga topped the albums charts and Facebook had usurped Myspace as the most popular social network. The anniversary passed without fanfare.
In late 2012 they announced yet another comeback gig, this time at London’s KOKO in May 2013. Seth Taylor was no longer in the band and Laura Salmon had been replaced with Ringo Starr’s granddaughter Tatia Starkey. A few weeks later, a cryptic teaser video was posted online revealing a new album would be released in 2014. The following month they backed this up with a campaign on PledgeMusic titled “My Vitriol: New Album” in order to crowdfund its recording. The boy began to cry wolf again.
Despite having the deadline meeting reputation of an Olympic building contractor, it took only eight days for the campaign to reach 100% of its target amount. As this wasn’t a pre-order pledge, at this stage some of the funds would have become available to the band. Even with everything that had happened, there were still a multitude of people willing to invest in the band’s future.
Old habits die hard though, and before long they had gone quiet again. In late March 2014 they announced that the album release would not meet the deadline promised as part of the pledge. They also revealed that this pledge was not for a second album proper, but rather a pledge exclusive album of offcuts, outtakes and covers titled The Secret Sessions. They even replaced the teaser video to reflect the new title. This came as a surprise to many, but the band were indignant that they had never clarified exactly what this album would contain. Any complaint put the blame squarely at the pledger, blaming them for their interpretation of the term “new album”.
Many did not respond well to this news, the idea of signing up to some offcuts being significantly less appealing to the fabled Finelines sequel. The updates began to read like the transcript of a troublesome schoolchild giving excuses for their homework being late. Like an addict who can’t break the habit, they continued to publically commit to specific deadlines with statements like “There’s a small chance we may need a week or so more”, in June 2014 and “We’re gearing up for release”, in July 2014.
We’ve all been there, giving excuses for something that’s overdue. Bills, homework, job deliverables. Whether there’s a valid reason or not, it’s a stressful situation to be in if others are depending on you. Some use setting a public deadline as a tool for self-motivation. People regularly announce to the world that they’re going to run a marathon, despite having no experience of having done so. If they don’t make it, everyone they know will know they’ve failed. The financial gain aside, the Pledge campaign and fixed deadlines gave the band something very real to aim for. During the 2000s they were fooling no-one but themselves. Now it was their own fan base funding them and their continued failures to deliver were turning ugly.
Commenters expressed their annoyance on social media, making jokes at the band’s expense or taking umbrage at the perceived lack of remorse or acknowledgement of anything being wrong. Many were upset at what they perceived to be unjustified delays, false advertising and defensive attitude. Then these negative comments began disappearing. A casual browser looking at the pages would think that everything was just fine. All that remained were a handful of comments acting like this was all completely normal. They had built their own Pyongyang.
One fan who’d had comments deleted from Facebook received a message in their inbox from the band saying little more than “Noticed your messages”. Mysterious new accounts began to emerge on various platforms defending the band with such loyalty that if they really did exist, they were at best delusional. It suggested a defensive compartmentalising of followers into friends and foe. It was an insight into their idea of how engagement on social media is meant to work. They didn’t want discussion, they wanted cheerleaders. Then in December 2014 came the announcement of a hard disk drive failure. There was no mention of backups.
Band leader Som Wardner was diagnosed with vertigo sickness from the stress of it all and admitted to hospital shortly after. He talked of cutting back to working twelve hours a day maximum in order to reduce the risk of a relapse. Though many were sceptical, it was a sober reminder that at the centre of all of this were real people. People who back in 2001 would never have wanted this to be the way things panned out, and who are constantly faced with the reminders of their failed deliveries, squandered potential, and disappointed fans. The whole spectacle had introduced a new audience of rubberneckers looking for a new punchline for their My Bloody Valentine and Guns N’ Roses jokes.
In 2015 pledgers were reminded multiple times to ensure their addresses were up to date as the release was imminent. The band took pot-shots at those who were annoyed with comments like “Hopefully the restless minority will bear in mind it's very easy to criticise etc. but much harder to create.” In the time the pledge campaign had continued to run, Future Of The Left had launched and completed two separate album campaigns as independent artists.
By the end of 2015, the band began to blame the delays on “pulling favours” while “waiting on some mixes”. Despite the campaign now being approximately 400% of its target, a target that PledgeMusic state should be the artist’s breakeven point, they announced that they had decided to learn how to mix the album themselves. They had been periodically giving access to tracks from the album to pledgers in the form of rough mixes and unmastered cuts since the end of 2014, but suddenly the finished product felt very far away again.
As 2016 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the band’s debut album, the excuses continued, now blaming the difficulties of getting CDs printed and music publishing agencies for the delays. They announced in April that Muse had invited them to open for their O2 arena shows, a venue with a 20,000 capacity. Muse’s breakthrough album Origin Of Symmetry came out in the same year as Finelines, and while My Vitriol had been dealing with 'Red tape, red tape, red tape', Muse had gone on to release five more albums and become one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It was a kind thing for them to do for a band who were once their contemporaries, but also a pertinent reminder of what could have been.
Despite the complaints, a spokesperson for the band claims that less than ten refunds were ever requested throughout the entire campaign; throughout it, every pledger was welcome to get a refund for their £8 at any point. Everyone was keen to see the project complete, but no-one would dispute that it’s better to spend the time getting it right than to rush something to appease the masses. With the antagonism that had arisen, it was easy to forget that there are two sides to this story. It’s easy to criticise about the corners cut after exceeding 500% of their target, but at best they would have earned £15,000 from it all. It sounds like a lot of money, but over multiple people and the years they’d taken? That’s hardly a living.
On September 2nd 2016 a new release date was announced for September 31st. The fact that September only has 30 days seemed to have escaped their attention, the mistake proving that sometimes real life is the greatest comedy of all. It may have been an intentional joke but by this point no-one was laughing.
September came and went, then a post for the video to ‘Rest Your Tired Head’ from October 1st received 25,000 likes on Facebook. Its popularity completely eclipsed the 18 and 38 for the posts immediately before and after, with only 10 of those likes translating to “hearts”. Rather than admit to using nefarious services such as click farms, in a reply to a comment about the ludicrousness of it the band claimed it was because “This post was shared more than the others”. It had been shared 12 times.
Which brings us to the present day. Fifteen-and-a-half years since the release of Finelines. It's now late October 2016, the country is still working out what Brexit means, Azealia Banks is in trouble with Russell Crowe, and The Secret Sessions remain unreleased.
It’s hard to believe that in the fifteen years since Finelines, this story has taken the path that it has. Yet despite it all, people still care. It’s hard to say what anyone’s true motivations are in all of this anymore. Morbid fascination? A belief that the new material will be worth the wait? Why would the band put themselves through all of this? What else have they been doing all of this time? Have they considered deleting their own social media presence? So many questions, none of which will be answered when this offcuts collection eventually does arrive.
It’s as though there’s a stubborn competitiveness with all of those involved to see this through no matter what. Perhaps there’s a part of the band that on some level enjoys the status quo, not giving critics an opportunity to criticise something that’s been blown out of all proportion. If and when it does eventually arrive, critics will likely revel in the prolonged back story above critiquing the final recording. Maybe that’s why they chose to release offcuts rather than a proper second album, being able to deflect any criticism as excessive, sidestepping the expectations of a genuine follow-up and absorbing the negatives of the current narrative.
With the time it’s taken to get this far, it’s hard to imagine a full follow-up to Finelines ever getting completed. However there’s a respect to be found in their tenacity, carrying on against all odds, never giving up despite it all. Even to those who don’t like the band’s music, there are a number of cautionary lessons amongst all of this.
Will their second album ever get made? Only time will tell.
For more information on the band, and to follow the saga, please visit their official website.
UPDATE: The band announced late yesterday afternoon, Wednesday 26 October - after publication - that the CD's for The Secret Sessions were printed, signed, and ready for distribution. They also posted the following on their official Facebook page.