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Monsters of Folk: Making hits without the hype

Even in this age of iTunes and Rock band video games, the supergroup has found an audience and an album hit.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 2009

Monsters of Folk foursome (l. to r.) Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, M. Ward, and Jim James cashed in on word of mouth.

Jennifer Tzar

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The Traveling Wilburys, the late 1980s supergroup that featured Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne of ELO, set the blueprint for chummy band projects whose sum often happened to be as good, if not better, than their equal parts.

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While it's an old concept that might seem passé in this age of iTunes and Rock Band video games, Monsters of Folk are giving it new life. The four-member group – which features solo songwriter-performer M. Ward, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes – represents the kind of project that often falls through the cracks these days because nothing about it – the music or the marketing – conforms to what is considered necessary to sell records.

And yet, because all four members are not household names, the project is also a reflection of artistic resilience. The group's self-titled album, released in September, and a North American tour, with dates through mid-November, are endeavors that together reflect an old-fashioned approach to making music that is more homespun and more about the total experience than selling a hit single. At the same time, their album hit No. 15 on the Billboard charts and No. 3 on Top Independent Albums.

Beginning in the early half of this decade, all four members quietly built audiences without the benefit of a hit song or video or even major commercial placement in television or film. Instead, audiences organically found their way to My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes, and Ward's music through entire albums, which became essential listening for anyone interested in folk-based songwriting. They also toured relentlessly, which helped them transition from playing small clubs to large theaters and headlining slots at major summer festivals.

For young fans who hadn't grown up with the classic Woodstock-generation artists, these new bands provided a connection, by making albums with cohesive beginnings, middles, and ends. All three also were at the forefront of releasing special vinyl editions of their music to generate enthusiasm among fans who had never experienced the tangible side of music, something that was lost once major labels ushered in CDs and then digital files.

To Ward, technology has become a double-edged sword. Despite the fact that "people are becoming aware of music in millions of kinds of ways" today, not all of them are as powerful as "the most old-fashioned way" – word of mouth. "I still believe the best way for people to hear music is with someone telling them, 'Hey, this is good,'" he says.

Because of the unlimited media platforms currently available, Ward says there is too much distraction now and not enough of the community spirit that used to be found at local hangouts such as record shops. "Sometimes it's a little bit too easy for people today," he says. "I, for one, miss the anticipation I used to get to see if this record store I was walking into would have the record I was looking for."

According to Nielsen SoundScan, album sales have dropped 45 percent since 2000. Today, about two-thirds of all music sales are made at big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which stock limited titles, control pricing, and often shut out independent artists in favor of major-label hitmakers.