What does the new song from the band's new album is due out in May tell us about its future on a label that for the last decade has been Universal's home for non-jazz Adult Contemporary artists? What does that tell us about careers in pop music?
The NPR Tiny Desk Contest win has paid off for Tank and the Bangas. It’s a platform that doesn’t guarantee success, but it says something that the YouTube video of their Tiny Desk Concert/victory lap is easily the most viewed of those by the winners of NPR Music’s national unsigned artist talent search. Theirs has been seen 7.3 million times, more than three times the number of views for 2016’s winner Gaelynn Lea (2 million times) and 2015’s winner Fantastic Negrito (1.8 million times). Last year’s winner, Naia Izumi, has only been seen 286,000 times so far, but the video hasn’t been up for a full year yet.
Tank and the Bangas have made the win work for them, though. It helps that by 2017, NPR had enough experience with the contest to effectively cross-promote itself and the band, and NPR’s digital operation integrated its content and promotions more effectively. It also helps that the band wasn’t waiting around for an NPR-like fairy to bestow an audience upon them, nor has it done so since it won. Tank and the Bangas tour regularly just as they used to, and in a recent Facebook post, opener on this tour Alfred Banks reports that they’re selling out venues with a thousand-plus capacity. The difference now is that the win has opened some doors and garnered attention that they might not have received otherwise.
I’d like to say that there is a qualitative reason why the band is poised to parlay the win into something bigger, but I’m not sure that’s true. The winners so far have all been artists that are technically accomplished, and Tank and the Bangas are no less idiosyncratic than Lea and Izumi, both of which live at the artsy end of the indie rock spectrum, which, truth be told, is where NPR Music lives as well. Tank and the Bangas’ roots are more urban, but listen to “Ants” from their upcoming Green Balloon and it lives up to my live review of the band from last summer, when I wrote that the many shifts in voice and genre and mode of attack within a song make them the band for the smartphone moment, “the equivalent of carrying on conversations on Twitter and Snapchat while reading a blog post and following a Reddit thread—experiences that sound ADD-like but feel perfectly natural for the person thumbing out thoughts on the phone.”
Fantastic Negrito has also done well for himself. He has become a festival staple, filling the contemporary blues/R&B/rock hybrid slot, and it’s easy to imagine Tank and the Bangas following a similar path. Their booking agency, High Road, is a well-respected company with established, critically acclaimed artists including Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Yo La Tengo, and Lucinda Williams. High Road’s artists don’t all walk the Americana side of the street artists and they aren’t all equally established—High Road books Phoebe Bridgers, Foxygen, Houndmouth, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats—but even the other New Orleanians on the roster, Alexis and the Samurai and Maggie Koerner, are noted for being good musicians with evident roots.
Green Balloon will come out on Verve Forecast, which occupies a similar space to High Road as a record label. In 2004, it became Universal Records’ home for non-jazz Adult Contemporary music, and its roster includes such artists as T Bone Burnett, Diana Krall, and Ledisi. That’s prestigious company, but it doesn’t bode well for Tank and the Bangas getting their music to their peers. But Verve Forecast is undergoing a youth movement, and the label has also signed New Orleans’ Sweet Crude, Nairobi-born singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara, 20-year-old Californian singer/songwriter Madison Cunningham, and the London-based psychedelic jazz/funk band The Comet is Coming, among others.
That makes the signing to Verve Forecast a mixed bag. They’re on a label with a history of quality, and on it, they enjoy the reach and potential corporate muscle that comes with being under the Universal umbrella. If people don’t get their music, it won’t be because they couldn’t find it. But it is a cause for concern that Verve Forecast has had so little experience trying to get music by young people to other young people. Trombone Shorty’s first four albums were recorded for Verve, and the first seemed like the youngest. The second for Verve, For True, seemed designed to win over the pre-sold Jazz Fest market of aging baby boomers by surrounding Shorty with musical guests old enough to be his uncles and aunts—Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes, Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock, and Ledisi. On his third for the label, Say This to That, he worked with producer Raphael Saadiq, whose long suit is retro R&B. He helped Shorty solidify his songwriting and become a better singer, but wrapping Shorty up in the ’70s wasn’t a way to get his music in the hands of a hip-hop audience.
Obviously, Verve Forecast may not be to blame for these choices. It’s very possible that Shorty and his management team have worked to align him along the good singing/good playing axis of contemporary music, and since he’s been able to work with and perform with some of the biggest artists of our time and play the White House a number of times, who’s to say he’s doing it wrong? But it seems like a better way to get his “superfunkrock” update of New Orleans funk to power a party is to put it in a form that his contemporaries party to. How a Shorty song exists today without a remix is beyond me.
And if Tank and the Bangas want to follow a Shorty-like career path, they could do a lot worse. The big money is in hits, but there’s a musical middle class living to be made as a band with capable musicians and a distinctive vision that reps life in New Orleans. They don’t fly the flag the same ways, but Tank and the Bangas and Trombone Shorty synthesize an arts upbringing in New Orleans. They offer contemporary statements grounded in the same desire to reach their people that could be heard in the century of music made in New Orleans before them.
NPR is part of that middle class living. When I interviewed Shorty’s managers in 2011 after he released his Verve Forecast debut, Backatown, we talked about Shorty playing Letterman, Leno and other late night television shows to promote it. When I asked which was most valuable, they pointed to an NPR appearance because NPR audiences still bought music. Odds are, that remains the case in the streaming era.
NPR audiences are also getting younger. In 2010, the median listener age was 55, but by 2016, the 22-45 demographic was a source of growth across its platforms. That audience was up 26 percent for NPR broadcasts, and since it represents 44 percent of the podcast audience, it’s clearly a part of the number that made NPR the number one publisher of podcasts that year. It’s unlikely that NPR is seriously speaking to the audience that drives hits in the top 10, but as many hitmakers have learned, that audience eventually moves on the newest cool act while NPR audiences stay with the station and can age with the artists they discovered there.
The place of NPR and Verve Forecast in Tank and the Bangas’ future is mildly disconcerting because it would be a shame if the band doesn’t reach the people who would best appreciate and understand where it’s coming from. Shows at venues other than Jazz Fest say that in New Orleans anyway, that’s not a problem. Tank and the Bangas’ story—reminds us that the changes in the music business have changed not just the way music is consumed and the relationships we have with it, and the same is true for the people who make it. Careers were once lottery tickets and there was something endearing about a band taking an improbable shot at trying to become stars. Now, practical decisions with an eye on longevity seem heroic as well.