The music industry may be going through dramatic changes, but one element of music that still remains essential is the communal exhilaration of people gathered in a room grooving to a song. Whether it's inspired by the performance of a large multi-piece band or a DJ playing digital files, the transcendental energy of a crowd responding to music remains the main motivation for many musicians to express themselves.
When keyboardist/singer Matt Johnson and drummer Kim Schifino first started making music in Brooklyn, New York, it was just another avenue of creative expression for the duo. The two met at art school - Johnson studied film while Schifino studied illustration - and worked on art installations and film projects before they decided to start working on music and making recordings together as the dance punk duo Matt & Kim in 2004. While their roles in Matt & Kim initially weren't very rigidly defined, they adopted their specific instrumental roles when they determined that a keyboard and drums arrangement would allow them to play their music live.
"We played our first show in the basement of an art gallery in Queens," Matt recalls. "All I remember is that we were terrified. Kim and I were going, 'We can't do this. Let's just not do it.' We ended up playing after all. There were maybe 15 people there, and it was mostly our friends or people we knew. I don't know if we actually did all that well or if the audience was just being really kind to us, but it was very encouraging. Then people kept asking us to play."
The year 2004 was a challenging time to start a band or music project. Many major record labels were dissolving and being absorbed by a handful of conglomerations, and most independent labels struggled to survive if they were lucky enough not to go completely out of business. Like most aspiring artists and bands at the time, Matt and Kim promoted the band and built a following through social media like MySpace.
"We mainly relied on MySpace to spread our music," says Kim. "A lot of our contacts came from our friends' bands who had promoted themselves through MySpace and had gone out on tour. If we were on tour and we knew we'd be passing through someplace like Kalamazoo, Michigan, we'd ask our friends if they knew any contacts there who could book a gig for us."
"MySpace was huge at that time," Matt recalls. "We were touring before we ever released our first album. We had recorded five songs for a demo that we made in our practice space, and the first thing we did was put them up on MySpace. Kim booked all of our shows and tours mainly through contacts we made on MySpace. We played places like art galleries, loft spaces, warehouses, or in people's living rooms."
Kim interjects: "We didn't play in a traditional venue until the band had been together about two years."
"The first time we played in San Diego we played in someone's living room," Matt continues. "There were 30 people there, and they were singing along to our songs and dancing. People had spread the word about us, so the people who showed up already knew all of our songs."
Eventually Matt & Kim outgrew the limitations of MySpace and they sought a more traditional means of distributing their music by releasing records. Instead of signing a deal with a major record company or established indie label, they decided to partner with IHEARTCOMIX Events, which was just starting to release records.
"Our friends at IHEARTCOMIX wanted to put out albums," says Matt. "They had never done that before when we signed with them, but we were both excited about doing it. After we released our first album a lot of big doors opened wherever we went. When it came time to make our second album we knew that we needed a label with bigger reach than IHEARTCOMIX so we started looking for a different partner that would meet those needs."
This time around Matt & Kim met with people from the major and independent labels they previously shunned, but an experience at a nearly deserted major record company office convinced them that maybe that wasn't the best choice after all.
"I remember being in the elevator on the way to the top of this high rise office building in Manhattan," Matt recalls. "I was thinking that we're going to visit a big major record label and it's going to be exciting, but when we got to the office there was no one at the reception desk. It was deserted. I expected to see tumbleweeds rolling through the hallway. It was very depressing."
Instead they took a similar unorthodox approach as the one they took when releasing their self-titled debut and hooked up with Fader Media Network, which included The Fader magazine and the Fader Label. Fader had already released albums by artists like Birdmonster and Saul Williams, but more importantly they offered other avenues of promotion like Fader TV, Fader Films, a magazine, and a high-traffic website.
"We had a friend who was one of the owners of Fader," Matt explains. "Maybe selling records wasn't his job, but when we visited his office sit was full of people and activity. There were maybe a hundred people working there, from people in offices to interns sitting on the floor working on laptops. It seemed exciting and like things were happening. They work with so many music marketing companies that it seemed like a good fit. No matter what Matt & Kim wanted to do, there was someone there who could help us with it. If we wanted to publish a book of photos or make a TV show, someone there could help us. Fader was a multimedia company that could help us do whatever we wanted. They're part of the family. People are surprised when we tell them we love our record label. It's like no one ever loves their record label anymore."
Matt & Kim have released two albums on the Fader Label - Grand and Sidewalks - the former featuring the song "Daylight," which became the duo's big breakthrough when it was featured in a commercial for Bacardi rum. "That commercial allowed so many more people to hear our songs," says Kim. "It's very similar to being on radio. When people are watching TV they may not expect to discover a new song, but if it's catchy people will Google the information to find out what the song is and who wrote it. That commercial definitely opened up a lot of doors for us."
Matt adds: "At first I was worried that it might hurt the band's reputation. It definitely helped us out financially. I thought maybe no one would see the commercial so it wouldn't make a difference. It didn't occur to me that so many people would find out about our band because of a commercial. It was crazy."
Matt & Kim recorded "Daylight" in the bedroom of the house in Vermont where Johnson spent his childhood, which may explain the song's almost innocent, playful attitude. "We just figured that song out as we went along," says Matt. Kim elaborates: "We write a lot of songs when we're practicing and just messing around. We'll hear something we like and record it. We have a file of beats that Matt will go through until he figures out what he wants. Then he'll write a really sick melody on top of it. The lyrics usually come last."
"Writing lyrics is a joint effort between the two of us," says Matt. "In most bands, one person - usually the singer - will write the lyrics, but Kim and I write all of the lyrics together. Our approach is very different than what most bands do. Kim writes drum parts very differently than someone who comes from a traditional drum background who might have studied playing drums in school. Those drummers usually have a difficult time realizing that a simple, big, loud beat is going to be the best beat for a song. They think they need to use all of the drums they have in front of them and show people how good and special they are on the drums.
"What Kim does is so big and loud that people really connect with it," he continues. "We have this theory that the simplest solution is always the best solution. Trying to pull back is almost always the hardest thing to do, but since Kim doesn't come from a traditional drum background she can pull back more easily than most drummers would. The drum beat for Queen's ‘We Will Rock You' is the best possible drum beat for that song, but I can't imagine someone with four years of music education admitting to themselves that it's the best. Yet simple, loud, powerful beats like that are the ones that most people remember."
Kim agrees. "When we're recording we'll put down a lot of tracks and different parts. After we've done that, we'll ask what can we take away from the song that will still allow it to be great? A lot of people like to pile all kinds of things onto a song, but then it becomes something you can't follow or it's not catchy anymore. It's just cluttered."
Keep it simple is likely the advice that Matt & Kim would primarily recommend to anyone looking to break into songwriting. However, they also think it's important to make music that people can truly enjoy without having to think too much about it as well as make music that truly affects people in meaningful ways.
"We started during a time in New York when musicians were mainly concerned about being cool," says Matt. "They'd stand there on stage staring at their feet, and the audience would just stand around and worry what other people thought of them. But there were also a few bands that we'd go to see that were exciting and fun, and everyone was there just to have a good time. That's what inspired us. We were playing parties where people brought their own beer and just wanted to have a good time. That shaped the kind of band we became, because our attitude about life was that it should be fun and we should enjoy ourselves.
"But I also think that music should not only be about going out and getting wild," he concludes. "It's also important to make music that really means something to people. We've had people come up to us and say that they were going through a tough time and that listening to our music really helped them get through the day. That makes you realize that what you're doing could be even bigger than what's just right in front of you."