Marketer’s Rule of Thumb: Narrow Your Focus

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My latest album, Den of Maniacs, has been out for almost two months now. Response has been slow (fewer reviews so far than any other album of mine by far), but mostly positive. One comment that I’ve gotten consistently, and which I think probably accounts for the slower than usual response, is that the album seems to be a collection of non sequiturs, going almost jarringly from one style of music to another. On top of that, the music itself is often complicated and requires multiple listens to digest (I have some thoughts on music that has to “grow” on you, which perhaps I’ll write about at another time). Everyone agrees that all of my work sounds like me – my personal vision, or whatever you want to call it, is inherent in the music per se – however, a wide stylistic breadth has made it difficult to find a marketing niche through which to move product and gain a large fanbase.

All of this points towards something I started giving serious thought to during the Den of Maniacs recording process: I really should narrow my focus more on my albums (if not in general, though that’s not going to happen!). I would like to gain a bigger fanbase, be able to tour, be able to build a better studio, hire more musicians, and, of course, sell more tickets/music. Reviews like the following (from the Phantom Tollbooth) underscore the benefits of a narrower, and perhaps simpler approach, at least in some of my work (I’ve also been getting even more urging than usual from industry types to keep my style but simplify the music so they can work with me):

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Once again, we get the slightly askew brilliance of Dan Wallace on Den of Maniacs, a project sure to delight some and to confuse others…

The fourth outing by Dan Wallace, Den of Maniacs, reinforces the artist’s steadfast dedication to his particular vision – his Culture of Self, if you will (to borrow the phrase from a previous album). Possessing all of the tools needed for crossover success -– the ability to write songs with hooks, a flexible vocal range, and all of the required rock and roll musical chops – Wallace instead walks a musical road less traveled, and a bizarrely picturesque road it is.

In somewhat of a surprise move, Wallace starts the album off with one of the most immediately accessible tracks he’s ever done –- the hard-rock (mock-rock?) “Look at Me,” which asks, “hey you there look at me / tell me, tell me, help me – tell me what you see / am i the same man i used to be? different, changed, or in between? / am i soft now or too extreme? / tell me tell me help me tell me what you see…” The song seems to give the average rock & roll consumer what he wants to hear on a surface level while at the same time asking why he wants to hear it – Wallace shows us, for the moment, a rock star persona with thundering drums, pounding bass and fiery guitar solos, all supporting questions posed in his Ray Collins style falsetto vocal, as if to illustrate the fact that all might not be exactly as it seems.

The rock star facade falls away with the second track, where we begin to hear more typically adventurous music with the sweetly macabre sounding “Go Away,” a rock carnival waltz featuring some complex guitar work under wonderfully-arranged vocal melody and back-up harmony interplay.

Wallace has a distinctive sound, primarily featuring a variety of keyboard effects, his wonderful guitar playing, compositions that are irresistibly melodic and full of surprising twists and turns, and his immediately identifiable vocals. A multi-instrumentalist, Wallace essentially plays everything you hear on the album, with a brief assist from George Lawler on drums (“Look at Me,” and “Go Away”) and Emanuel Ban on violin (“ Vante Left Them Human” and “Fell”).

To say that this music is unusual would be an understatement. “Spiders in Heaven” starts out sounding like Django and The Hot Club of France in Dante’s Inferno, “Fell (For two Musicians and a Computer)” ends up with a Sufjan Stevens-like crescendo, and the wonderfully complex “I Want to Be (Ensemble Version)” is, in parts, reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat. Keeping those comparisons in mind, the fact that Wallace occasionally seems to channel Brian Wilson (perhaps a _demented_ Brian Wilson – or is that redundant?) is quite interesting (one track actually starts with the words, “God only knows…”).

Lyrically, Wallace is fairly obscure, but always compelling, writing in a poetic form more often than creating a linear narrative – from “Fever,” the last song on the CD:

what’s one more dusty faith clutched closer in the maze

whose walls are portrait lined?

it’s not fine, it’s a fever spreading like tar

it’s a fever dripping down from above …

Always interesting, sometimes challenging, undeniably memorable, Den of Maniacs shows Dan Wallace in a slightly more accessible mode, but still as intriguing as ever. You don’t have to be a maniac to like this, but it helps.

– Bert Saraco

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It’s a nice review, to be sure (I always appreciate the thought and detail Saraco puts into his reviews, and he’s always been supportive of my albums), though I can’t help but wonder where I might be able to take my work (and career) were I to remove the confusion element, at least for an album or two. Time will tell, as my plan is to focus my next few albums stylistically, as well as to include some simpler songs. To be clear, I don’t plan on doing anything that doesn’t excite me at an emotional level. Quite the contrary, I’ve done four albums of a certain kind of material (and have a fifth already composed), and am ready to venture into new territory, perhaps as a result of reducing and thoroughly exploring specific facets of my musical personality within the context of a cohesively sequenced album. Or not hahah. Who friggin knows how this stuff works?

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Dan Jacob Wallace

5 Comments

  1. Interesting post, Dan. We’ve talked a lot about this topic over the years. It’s funny that the industry almost requires metaphorical handcuffs to be taken seriously. I think their ability to easily categorize you makes it easier for them from a packaging / elevator pitch standpoint. Wildy imaginative, inventive and innovative are oddly not good descriptors I guess. But, who really wants that, right? :- )

    I keep thinking that an album of songs like Maybe, Capsule?, Go Ahead, even Vante Left Them Human – all songs I could hear on the radio, at least my radio. The point being, those are fantastic songs with hooks, structure and accessibility in the way that when I listen to your stuff in my car other friends comment, “Hey, that’s really catchy. Who is that?”

    Of course, I love Reattachment. But I’m not in the industry’s target demo.

    But, as a brand, the small steps toward focus and brand cohesiveness (Can a person be truly cohesive?) are important and make sense to the human mind that needs to compartmentalize pretty much everything.

    Maybe just go crazy and do a covers album…just kidding.

  2. Thanks, Coe. You know, from time to time the idea of a cover album crosses my mind. I was just thinking about it this morning, in fact. I think it’d be a lot of fun.

  3. I’d be curious to see which covers you’d choose. I can only imagine. However, I can think of a song I wish you’d cover. It was written by a mutual friend of ours.

  4. Marketing is such a strange thing. The more I do it for my work, the more fascinating it becomes. To me it’s a lot like the concept of emergence (or another example of it?)

    The concentration problem seems to work similarly in visual art. If you don’t create a bunch of pieces that look very very similar to each other, that at least have similar ideas tying them together, then your work is considered “not mature yet” by art critics. Although we are multifaceted creatures that have various things to explore or express, it’s too much for an audience to take in at once. They/we seem to need an entry point before we can experience art.

    I’ve found that it’s best to start anywhere, with everything out there at once… then take any of the reviews, venues, demographics, etc. that brought a positive outcome and organically move with them – find similar venues, audiences, or contact reviewers with similar ideas and interests… see where that goes. If people keep writing about you a certain way, or if you appeal to a certain audience, then you can just concentrate mostly on that, amplify it – without sacrificing the art (just changing the package that it’s presented in). In the end, it seems that one doesn’t even need to look for the brand or market. It just starts to crystallize on its own, if you let it. It’s such a curious thing. It’s some kind of a weird collective social pattern recognition.

    I’m so curious, Coe: With your experience, how are these things tackled and approached professionally? How does one know what kind of advertising will work for a particular product, after being introduced to it relatively briefly? It seems to take a special skill – to recognize a pattern or strong point of a product and focus on just that. Maybe being too detail-oriented is not as helpful in this case… Is it more about stepping back and seeing all of it at once? I wonder how these things are done in a shorter term, with a deadline and everything – where does one start?

    For my work the most prominent brand became art/science. I didn’t necessarily see my work as particularly science-related (not any more than most of the artwork out there). I thought that other concepts were much more prominent… But the science idea didn’t bother me either – it kind of just happened, so I went with it.

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