This year has been very good to the Kansas City band Antennas Up.
“I’d definitely say it has been our most successful year so far,” said Kyle Akers, lead singer and bassist.
And here’s why: In May, the band released “The Awkward Phase,” its second full-length record and one filled with bright, catchy, radio-ready electro-pop dance tunes. About the same time, the band launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to help promote the album on radio. That campaign helped the album stay on the college radio charts for 10 weeks, rising as high as No. 88.
In July, “Break Me Down,” a track from the band’s first album, “Antennas Up,” appeared in an episode of the A&E network’s “The Glades.” In October, Antennas Up performed at an official showcase at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, a festival for taste-makers in the industry. Then, in November, the song “Pretenders,” a track on “Awkward,” was played during episodes of two shows: “Underemployed” on MTV and “Gossip Girl” on the CW network.
Amid all that, the band played a college showcase and more than 50 club dates, including four in New York, where it is cultivating a following.
There was a time in the music industry when that kind of momentum could attract attention and money from a large or independent record label and an opening spot on a tour with a national or regional band. But in 2012, the industry is profoundly different from 10 to 15 years ago. These days, bands like Antennas Up are required to do more grassroots work, to generate money and cultivate fans on their own and prove they’re revved-up and ready to hit the ground running before a label comes calling.
So instead of waiting to become the “next big thing,” bands like Antennas Up are calculating the big “what’s next?” There are many answers to that question. Picking the right ones can be as much a roll of the dice as a well-founded, strategic calculation. If the music landscape these days is populated with opportunity and options, it is also littered with ideas and endeavors that have failed or run out of steam.
Antennas Up became a band in 2008, when Akers, guitarist Bo McCall, drummer Ryan Whitehouse and lead vocalist Lonnie Coleman recorded “Antennas Up.” As that record was about to be released in 2009, Coleman left the band. Akers became the lead singer, and the band became a trio, temporarily.
“When Lonnie quit,” McCall said, “we were at a real crossroads. Those songs were written with his voice in mind. But we felt like we’d made a good record, so we released it.”
It was good enough to get the band a gig opening for Girl Talk at a college showcase at Purdue University in April 2010. But some reinvention was in order. Not long after that show, longtime friend Jon Ulasien joined the band as a vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player.
Later that year, the four retreated to Chickadee Lodge in Bethel, Maine, to work on “The Awkward Phase,” which would represent a change in sound.
“We wanted to get away from the funkiness of the first record and go more electronic,” Akers said.
“We all have different tastes in music,” Ulasien said. “We needed to figure out how to work together and meet in the middle. It led to some dynamic changes.”
The result was a collection of 10 bubbly and melodic pop/rock/soul dance songs that recall everyone from Phoenix and a few ’80s synth-pop bands (Spandau Ballet) to Hall and Oates. Live, the translation is a bit rawer but just as groovy and invigorating. Akers is an ideal frontman for this kind of band: a guy with a bright disposition and happy feet who appears to be having as much fun as anyone in the room.
It all comes together as an attractive package: a good-looking band with a first-class recording and appealing live show.
The question then became how to sell and promote the music and get people to the live shows. In August 2011, the band hired as its manager Dain Estes of the Vinefield Agency in Denver. Estes has a history in the Kansas City music scene, as a member of the band the Shaking Tree.
Antennas Up also enlisted Josh Kessler of the licensing agency DMS in New York to get its music placed anywhere: on TV shows or in films and commercials.
Estes acknowledged that there is no textbook strategy these days. “It’s like throwing darts at a board,” he said. “You have to keep trying different things. Obviously you want licensing opportunities and things like that, but one thing that’s really going to help this band is to get back out on the road.”
But not without a strategy. Estes said the band has enlisted a college booking agency because (a) those shows typically pay well and (b) those audiences typically respond favorably to the band’s music. The dart-board strategy doesn’t necessarily apply to hitting the road, he said.
“When gas is almost $4 a gallon, you can’t just go out and do any club shows like bands did five to 10 years ago,” he said. “That isn’t working anymore. You have to be smart.”
The strategy for 2013, he said, includes hitting the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in March to get in front of more industry people and setting up a tour opening for a national band.
“That’s the next step,” he said. “They’ve done everything else.”
Antennas Up has company in its quest to keep its momentum going and its success accelerating.
Among the company: Ha Ha Tonka, a Springfield band that has spent the past eight years becoming incrementally more popular in places like Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis. It recently spent several weeks on its first European tour, where it played to crowds as small as 30 people to more than 150.
“We’ve become good friends with them,” Akers said. “We share a lot of our experiences with each other, and they give us advice when we ask for it.”
Some of that advice is practical and falls in line with what Estes said, such as don’t hit the road randomly. Cultivate what works.
“As far as touring goes, it’s better to tackle markets you know you can get into easily,” said Lennon Bone, Ha Ha Tonka’s drummer. “It makes more sense to be smart financially and not spend a (lot) of money going out to California unless you know you have a good reason to be there.
“We’re in the kind of spot where we can hit Chicago knowing we can stop in places along the way, like Columbia and St. Louis. The same with Minneapolis.”
In 2007, Ha Ha Tonka signed with the independent record label Bloodshot Records in Chicago, a move that instantly gave the band brand status. Bloodshot has been around for almost 19 years, establishing itself as a marquee home for alternative country and roots-rock bands. Some of its bands and alumni are well-known: Neko Case, Ryan Adams, the Mekons, Alejandro Escovedo.
Ha Ha Tonka fits in because its sound is a blend of country, bluegrass, folk and indie-rock, a sound that draws comparisons to bands like Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes.
“(Bloodshot) has a very devout underground fan base that checks out every record and band it releases,” Bone said. “So you have almost an instant following.”
Like Antennas Up, Ha Ha Tonka uses other media to deliver its music to new ears. In March 2011, it was included in an episode of “No Reservations,” the Travel Channel food show starring Anthony Bourdain. The band is seen playing music, shooting some target practice, grilling meat and drinking beer with Bourdain. The episode aired later than originally planned, Bone said, which ended up being a bonus.
“It came on a week into a big tour,” Bone said. “A lot of people ended up coming out to our shows because they’d seen it.”
Ha Ha Tonka also has part of its song “Jesusita” in the theme song to the MTV show “Catfish.” “They have a collage of, like, 10 different songs,” Bone said. “Ours is third or fourth. It’s only like 8 seconds but it’s there.”
Song placement has become a quick and sometimes lucrative way for a band or performer to get well-known or wealthy quickly. British songwriter Alex Clare got a huge boost when Microsoft used his single “Too Close” in an ad for Explorer. The song has been “tagged” more than 4 million times worldwide by viewers using the song-identification application Shazam.
Clare told a Los Angeles radio station: “Nowadays, you have to do as much as you can to promote your music and the more various types of media you have. Before you just had radio, but now you can expose yourself on totally different grounds. It’s great.”
Akers said that after the two “Pretenders” placements, Antennas Up saw some movement within its social media. “We’ve gotten more than 50 ‘likes’ on Facebook in the past week,” he said, “and YouTube plays of the song went from 80 to more than 1,500.”
One fan on YouTube commented, “ ‘Gossip Girl!’ ” Another wrote: “OMG the show Underemployed brought me here.”
More than generating sales of albums or songs or “likes” on Facebook, such placements give bands like Antennas Up a sense of legitimacy. Bill Rusch is owner of Lease a Local, an independent music marketing and promotion company based in Kansas City. His firm is working with the Kansas City Latin-rock band Making Movies, which recently had a song placed in the MTV reality show “Teen Mom.”
“It’s a good resume-builder,” he said. “If you can tell other placement companies or people who choose music that you’ve had three songs on TV shows or a commercial or a movie, it helps to build the credibility of the band. It also scores points with booking agents.
“And it gives you something to tell your fan base on Facebook or Twitter. Then your fans get pumped up and tell their friends to watch the show. It’s something more exciting than just promoting your next club show.”
If there are cautionary tales to be told about all of this, Kristen May has one to tell. May was the lead singer for the Kansas City pop band Vedera, which signed with Epic Records in 2007. It released the album “Stages” two years later and promoted its music hard before and after the release.
Vedera headlined clubs and toured big venues opening for the Fray. It placed songs on the WB network show “One Tree Hill” and the MTV semi-reality show “The Hills.” In October 2009, concurrent with the release of “Stages,” the band performed live on “The Hills.” That week, the album reached No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers charts. In May 2010, Vedera performed on the talk show “Ellen,” hosted by Ellen DeGeneres.
All of that exposure stimulated interest and sales of albums and singles, she said. But the momentum didn’t last. In November 2011 the band announced it was going on an extended hiatus. May has since launched a solo career. In November she was chosen to replace Lacey Sturm in Flyleaf, a hard-rock band from Texas.
May said Vedera did about all it could to succeed, but after seven years, the band needed a break. Sometimes even the best strategies don’t work, she said.
“I think we did all we could do,” she said. “But we signed with Epic during a time of turmoil. They had three different presidents while we were there. And there was so much change going on in the industry back then. Timing can be such an issue.
“What we learned is you can’t rely on the corporate structure to do things for you. It works for the Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas. But for others, what works is touring all over the place, writing a bunch of songs, getting placements, doing Kickstarters and playing house shows. That’s more inspiring to me. And as long as you’re doing that and you don’t lose that feeling of inspiration, you can move your music for many years.”
Akers said Antennas Up would like to find the right label and get more songs placed in appropriate places. But if 2013 is going to be even better than 2012, he said, the next step is pretty basic: Hit the road and let the music find the right ears and get some new material out there.
“We put a lot of time and energy into the record,” he said. “We’re really proud of it. It’s what we need as a baseline. A good record, good videos, a good website and social media can put you way ahead of the game. But then you have to sell it live.”