Whether on the air, on the road or online, NPR has become the newest center of gravity for breaking music.
It's a Tuesday night at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and a packed crowd is about to hear the latest track from Django Django. But the British psych-pop quartet is nowhere to be found -- instead, the room-full of music fans has gathered to rate the track on a scale of 1 to 10, becoming a real-time focus group for the hosts of NPR's "All Songs Considered." ¶ As the jangly, tambourine- and hand clap-driven rhythms of Django Django's "Default" fill the room, the listeners, largely 20-something and bespectacled, respond favorably, lifting 8s and 9s into the air. ¶ "It's like fist-pumping for a paler persuasion," one says, in Pitchfork-perfect parlance. ¶ "I can't think of a single song that isn't improved by hand claps," another adds.
¶ The Bell House gig is the latest in the first, six-city "All Songs Considered" listening tour, which wraps Sept. 13 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Washington, D.C. But it's also the latest in a series of initiatives that has given NPR Music programming more of a visual, accessible presence. Individual public-radio stations like KCRW Los Angeles, KEXP Seattle, KCMP Minneapolis and many more have often been the first places to play acts like Norah Jones, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver and Of Monsters & Men, among countless others, but the NPR Music banner is bringing all that content to a more national audience.
Whether it's live concert streams from venues like New York's Le Poisson Rouge and Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell, exclusive streaming coverage of major festivals like South by Southwest and Newport Jazz or securing highly anticipated releases for its "First Listen" series (everything from Bruce Springsteen to Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti), NPR Music is taking a more active role in moving the needle for new releases and live acts-particularly the type of indie rock for which blogs used to be the leading authority.
In May, Sub Pop publicist Frank Nieto chose NPR Music over Pitchfork to premiere the first stream of Beach House's "Bloom" LP. "It legitimized them as an artist," he says. Helped by that extra exposure, the band scored a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 and its largest-ever sales week (41,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan). "A 'First Listen' album stream helps fuel the campaign at the regional level as well as secondary outlets," Nieto adds. "When you see an item on 'First Listen,' it makes outlets say, 'I have to go listen to this.' It gives them the impetus to cover it."
Managers and publicists at both indie and major labels say the power of an NPR Music feature coupled with NPR News coverage on programs like "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and "Fresh Air" can really affect a release, especially when compared with music-only sites.
Kevin Duneman, director of artist development for Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans and Secretly Canadian, says NPR coverage is "almost irreplaceable" in terms of its wide reach and real-time impact on digital sales charts after major features air. "It's pretty much the first thing on my marketing report every week and it's the first thing we talk about when we sit down with Amazon, iTunes or indie retailers," he says. "Publicists and radio coordinators spend a lot of time trying to convince NPR to run something. But at the end of the day, NPR is so good at curating its own content, it feels untouchable. When you actually land something you'll get that desired retail impact."
In part, it's a matter of scale. In June, NPR.org was visited by 3.4 million unique visitors, according to comScore, a major advantage over music sites like PasteMagazine.com (888,000), Pitchfork (780,000), NME.com (707,000) and Stereogum (523,000). NPR Music content reaches an average of 3 million viewers on a monthly basis across online and mobile platforms, according to the company's internal audience data. (Its mobile app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.)
"I think of them as apples and oranges a little bit," Duneman says of NPR Music's appeal compared with that of music blogs. "With Pitchfork, you get a feature and it's generally up and gone by the end of the day, sometimes even in an hour. But with NPR or the New York Times, you'll take up valuable space for a whole week sometimes."
"What's exciting about NPR is they can really stay partners as the campaign progresses," says Jake Friedman, co-owner at We Are Free Management, whose acts Beach House, Lower Dens, Dirty Projectors and Wild Nothing have all been featured on various NPR platforms this summer. "When I think of a tastemaking website, they want access to things first and to make their mark at the top of the cycle. NPR you can grow with -- they have different songs you can premiere, or you can come in and do a Tiny Desk Concert and, at some points, stream a concert later into your cycle."
The combined power of music and news is heavily favored by Lisa Sonkin, Columbia VP of triple A and public radio promotion, who partnered with NPR on multiplatform content surrounding new releases from Springsteen and Jack White earlier this year.
"It's an incredible way to reach not only the core music fans, but the link to the NPR News network also helps engage a harder-to-reach potential music buyer," Sonkin says. "This buyer trusts the NPR brand and they turn their education about the artist and the music into action -- hopefully becoming a new fan." As further proof, in July, Columbia act Passion Pit's "Gossamer" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 the week after its "First Listen" episode aired, with career-high sales of 37,000 in its first week.
In fact, "First Listen" grew out of an idea initially suggested by Columbia. In 2008, Sonkin approached NPR Music director/executive producer Anya Grundmann and senior product manager Amy Schriefer to explore ways they could stream Bob Dylan's "Tell Tale Signs", part of its Dylan "bootleg" series.
"We said, 'Hey, that sounds like a good idea, but can we hear if first?'" Grundmann recalls. "It gave you all the feeling of when you go to a listening party and everybody would talk about it at once. We had such a lively conversation in our comments, it felt like such a natural experience of playing new music on the air."
Now, "First Listen" has developed into a weekly series that combines big names (Fiona Apple, Norah Jones) with indie stalwarts (Yeasayer, Hot Chip) and the occasional off-the-beaten-path choice (jazz artist Henry Threadgill's band Zooid, folk artist Sean Rowe). It's some of those more out-there choices that speak to how much the NPR audience relies on the curatorial tastes of NPR Music's 18 staffers and large network of DJs and on-air personalities. "The fact that we're putting all this out there and not putting things up with judgment is because we really love this," Schriefer says.
NPR's audience is also more musically inclined than most. A 2011 GfK MRI Doublebase study found that 59% of all NPR listeners listen to music as a leisure activity (31% more than the average radio listener). They're also 239% more likely to attend classical music concerts, 72% more likely to play a musical instrument, 67% more likely to attend rock concerts and 36% more likely to purchase music compared with the average American.
It helps that NPR has become a haven for well-known rock critics and music journalists both on-air and online (Ann Powers, Will Hermes and Robert Christgau among them).
"NPR Music and 'First Listen' have become for me in my 40s what [indie record store] Albums on the Hill in Boulder, Colo., was for me in my 20s," says Ambrosia Healy, a publicist at indie-rock PR firm the Fun Star, which helped land Apple's "The Idler Wheel..." and the first full-length from Alabama Shakes, "Boys and Girls", on "First Listen" this year. "It's a source I trust telling me about -- and giving me the opportunity to hear in its entirety -- music that I might like and want to purchase. The NPR community's music word-of-mouth is one which I find to be incredibly valuable and extremely powerful."
Sometimes that word-of-mouth manifests itself in different ways for the hosts themselves. "All Songs Considered" co-host Bob Boilen attended his first Celebrate Brooklyn concert last summer to catch the season-closing performance of Sufjan Stevens, having been told for years that he needed to check out a show at the Bandshell. The experience prompted Boilen to later declare on his show's blog that the concert was his favorite in nearly 40 years -- when he saw Pink Floyd perform an early version of what ultimately became "The Dark Side of the Moon" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Boilen's fandom soon led to talks of a proper pact with Celebrate Brooklyn promoter BRIC Media Arts to make NPR Music a streaming partner of select concerts. (Local NPR stations WNYC and WBGO had already been involved for years.)
"The festival has been around a long time, and we've worked hard on raising the profile locally, but to have a national profile among other festival presenters is very important for us," Celebrate Brooklyn executive producer Jack Walsh says. "We have a long history of partnering with stations here in New York, but this gives us a way to make those relationships more resonant and more strategic."
Having more of a visual approach to NPR programming has been a long time coming for Boilen, a 19-year veteran of "All Things Considered" and co-host of "All Songs Considered," which he created in 2000. For as much as NPR still appeals to a certain kind of old-school listener (and indeed, it's remained a go-to for the latest classical and jazz releases), streams from other venues like 9:30 Club in D.C. and Philadelphia's World Cafe have helped add a much-needed hip factor.
Meanwhile, taking "All Songs Considered" on the road has exposed Boilen and co-host Robin Hilton to all sorts of deep discussions about different people's approaches to new music. At the Bell House event, songs are introduced completely anonymously to evoke an unbiased response. "It's like if I gave you wine and tell you it's an expensive wine, you're going to taste it and your brain's going to say, 'Whoa,'" Boilen says from the stage.
Guest critics Will Hermes of Rolling Stone and Maura Johnston of the Village Voice both confide to the room their inability to hear lyrics the first time they listen to a song. "I hear lyrics better when I have music on in the background. It's almost like overhearing people's conversations that way," Johnston says.
"I never hear lyrics first. Even a cappella music -- first I hear the timbre before I pay attention to what they're singing," Hermes says.
Such discussions likely wouldn't have happened had NPR Music not played an active role in NPR's digital expansion into podcasts and live streams in 2007 -- years before Clear Channel created iHeartRadio as a national brand for its local stations online.
"In terms of our online audience, they're definitely younger than the core NPR demographic, often in their early 20s," Grundmann says. "We've seen anecdotal evidence of people coming to NPR Music and then hanging out with our news programs. So we're kind of a gateway drug."