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Black Sky Thinking

Jai Paul: A Scam To Feed The Internet Sausage Machine
Alex Macpherson , April 19th, 2013 05:54

It wasn't just the fact that Jai Paul's music is "cobblers" that got Alex MacPherson's goat. Here he explains why the album/non-album farce is representative of the click-at-me desperation of the blogosphere

So, which major label musician pulled off the best PR stunt last weekend? Justin Bieber, who triggered a tsunami of tutting on Twitter and beyond with a tone-deaf comment in the Anne Frank House guestbook? (Tone-deaf or trolling? Same outcome, ultimately.) Or was it Jai Paul, the XL-signed producer whose career to date consisted of little more than a couple of shonky demos and a carefully cultivated aura of mystique, apparently uploading his debut album to Bandcamp out of nowhere?

A day later, Paul denied the legitimacy of the release, though in deliberately ambiguous terms that would make a politician proud. (Only three days later did XL specify that the upload had been illegal.) Cue, amusingly, synchronised music journalist back-pedalling; cue, unfortunately, some deciding to channel their energies into "detective work" ("emailing PRs") as though this a story that required hourly rolling updates.

Whatever the truth, the winner, undoubtedly, is Paul. Sunday's non-album non-release saw him catapulted up to Bieber's level as his name trended on Twitter; the denial, issued not immediately but after a decent amount of time had elapsed, ensured that he remained a talking point. The entire farrago reinforced Paul's brand twice over - initially, as the kind of mysterious free spirit so outside of the music industry's strictures that he would just upload his album without announcement; and then, as the chatter refused to die down, as a Big Deal in the music industry.

Helpfully, too, the emphasis that the Bandcamp tracks were not Paul's real album - the implication being that they were unfinished or discarded demos - averted the obvious criticism: that the music was a load of old cobblers. Not just the lack of mastering, which should probably have tipped more people off from the start, but the lack of ideas - which, to be fair, has been a constant across Jai Paul's work, legit and otherwise. Like 2010's 'BTSTU' and 2012's 'Jasmine' demo, the Bandcamp set consisted of incoherent, purposeless and entirely uninteresting Garageband pokes and prods, rather as if a two-year-old was attempting to recreate the work of Sa-Ra Creative Partners on Daddy's broken iPad. Not so much a bewitching patchwork of samples as a My First Textiles home kit gone horribly wrong, it traded entirely on positioning: a KCi & JoJo sample here, a Jennifer Paige cover there, look! His taste is just like ours, with his admiration of '90s pop and R&B! What a fascinating musical magpie of the internet generation! Aren't we all fascinating musical magpies in 2013! How zeitgeisty, how very…now! Let's give him a round of applause for being so similar to us!

Someone who really loved 'Crush' would not have done that to it, though.

Jai Paul is a scam. Not in the sense of not existing - though a friend's theory that he is a phantom office in-joke at XL, with his tracks coming courtesy of interns who ran out of actual work, isn't implausible - but in the sense that his reputation rests not on substantial musical output, but entirely on layers upon layers of hype. He's reclusive and doesn't talk to journalists much, which means he's mysterious, which makes him… a better musician? (It means he makes for better copy for pageclick-desperate hacks, and appeals to some hoary old rockist clichés about artists in the process.) He's on XL, which every music journalist in the UK has an automatic boner for because the idea of an ethically-run label that's ultra-selective about its roster is such a perfectly idealistic story that nothing, not even the boring music much of said roster actually make, is allowed to intrude. (XL Recordings is a helluva drug.)

Paul is the perfect artist for a time when breathlessly reporting every step of a promotional campaign is prioritised over - or conflated with - actually assessing the art. Sure, most sites technically keep their news and reviews sections separate - but in the grand scheme of promo, this matters not a jot. The Paris Hiltonesque maxim that all that matters is that people are talking about you, not what they're actually saying, holds true across the board: in a crowded musical marketplace, repeated neutral mentions of an artist from a trusted source may not be an explicit recommendation, but they're more valuable than an averagely complimentary three-star review. It's particularly the case when music sites go to great lengths to build their own brand and delineate their aesthetic, whereby bringing any new artist under the umbrella of news coverage is a tacit cosign, a "one of us" seal of approval that piques readers' interest far more than any actual engagement with the music. (Even more telling than the artists who get this cosign are the talented artists in the same ballpark who don't - who tend to be the ones without influential PRs, canny positioning or contacts.) The reviews of Jai Paul's non-album are rendered irrelevant: the effective review was the disproportionate coverage of it in the first place.

Desperation to be first with the next big thing has long been a plague in arts journalism; what we're seeing is merely an exacerbation of it in the internet age, when speed and being perceived to be "on it" are given priority over measured critique or fact-checking, and when the very business model of music journalism seems wobblier by the day. It's tiresome, but - unless you have any big ideas to reverse an inexorable trend - c'est la vie. But make no mistake: this débâcle makes Jai Paul little more than the Justin Bieber for people who care about calling music "very now" and who can spell zeitgeist.

Except with much, much worse music.