Tim Burgess is on Twitter a lot, even when there’s not a global pandemic that’s keeping him and everyone else indoors. The lead vocalist of British alt band the Charlatans spends an inordinate amount of time on the social platform, tweeting dozens of times a day on just about everything — promoting his new solo album, daily updates on his life at home, and of course, what music he’s been listening to.
Recently, though, the musician’s Twitter has been transformed into a calendar and promotional tool for Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, an album version of a virtual book club. The concept is simple: Every night, usually at 10:00 p.m. GMT, a different artist or band member recruited by Burgess live-tweets one of their albums, and fans at home can all press “play” simultaneously and follow along.
Burgess originally intended the listening party as a one-off event for the Charlatans’ album Some Friendly, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “But it occurred to me that it would be really inclusive to invite people I know from other bands to host more of them, to share their firsthand insight on their own work,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Since kicking off the series with Some Friendly on March 23rd, Burgess has brought on members of Franz Ferdinand, Blur, New Order, the Flaming Lips, Ride, Oasis, Sleaford Mods, Cocteau Twins, the Chemical Brothers, Pulp, Prefab Sprout, and more to participate; future listening parties on the schedule include Mark Ronson, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Billy Bragg, and Wolf Alice.
“It’s a way for [the bands] to go through their memories and for the fans to enjoy them.” —Tim Burgess
At a time when most artists are using their quarantine time to record at-home performances or host Instagram Live talkshows, Burgess has developed a way to connect to fans that’s surprisingly analog — or as analog as it could be on a massive social media platform. (It’s up to fans to decide how they want to listen to each album — vinyl, CD, streaming, cassette tape, sketchy Limewire download — as long as they’re all listening at the same time.)
Likewise, the text-heavy live-tweeting format means that hosts of each session can be as off-the-cuff or as detailed as they want while reminiscing about their own work — Liam Gallagher, unsurprisingly, didn’t even show up to the Definitely Maybe listening — and can interact with fans however they like. Blur’s David Rowntree, who hosted the listening party for Parklife, shared numerous photos and newspaper clippings of the band during that era, with extensive commentary attached.
THE DEBT COLLECTOR
This one features Damons cheesy organ that he’d bought in an auction. It was Lot 105, which became a very important number for Blur Here’s some more pics of us in the studio. #timstwitterlisteningparty pic.twitter.com/Mlll9oen1d
— David Rowntree (@DaveRowntree) March 25, 2020
“He did an incredible job,” Burgess says. “It’s a way for [the bands] to go through their memories, and for the fans to enjoy them, probably seeing them for the first time.”
Other hosts, like Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, have taken to sitting back with a beer and watching the fan commentary roll in, via the #timstwitterlisteningparty hashtag. Kapranos and his bandmates, Bob Hardy and Paul Thomson, did their best to answer the overwhelming flood of questions they received during the 38 minutes of their debut album’s runtime alongside offering recollections on each song.
“I think it was the first time I had listened to it all the way through since we mastered it 15 years ago,” Kapranos recalls. “It was cool seeing what people’s reactions were, and also different generations of reactions — people who would’ve been seven years old who are listening to it now, and people who are reminiscing like, ‘This brings me back to being in school when this record came out’ … It reminds you of how you listened to music at that time in your life.”
Beyond that, Kapranos says, the curated aspect of the lineup allows for a similar thrill of music discovery — à la Spotify playlists — but with an organic, human touch. “You can be like, ‘I don’t know that particular record so well, but I’m going to sit and listen to it tonight — everything else has been pretty cool, so let’s give this one a go,’” he says. “And there’s something about the idea of a shared experience and doing something simultaneously with other people that’s such a joyous thing, and something we’re missing out on a little.” He likens the experience to attending a concert with your friends, where part of the fun is discussing the band before, during, and after the show.
Kapranos was the first person Burgess reached out to about the listening parties, and has been avidly involved ever since; he’s tweeted along for fun to Burgess’ Charlatans recaps, and even co-hosted the party for the Cribs’ Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, which he produced, on April 7th. By virtue of Burgess reaching out personally to his friends, the majority of participating bands, at least at first, were a part of this same music scene and era: Nineties or early 2000s British bands that straddled the line between Brit-pop, post-punk, and shoegaze. Newer bands in the lineup, like Dublin’s Fontaine D.C. and South London’s Shame, tend to fall into that same tradition of British alternative rock — though as the listening parties have gone on, electronic acts like the Avalanches and Hercules and Love Affair have also signed up.
Jason Williamson, frontman of the Nottingham electro-punk duo Sleaford Mods, says that every act shares a fandom that still prioritizes record collecting and listening to full albums. “We’re not exactly a young pop band that would probably be better served doing a live performance,” he says. “We’re more of a collectors’ band.” As such, Williamson is taking full advantage of that — he’s on the schedule to host a total of seven listening parties (and counting) down the line.
Simon Raymonde, a former member of Cocteau Twins and current head of the indie label Bella Union, had just signed Burgess to the label and was in the midst of helping him promote his solo album when “this whole weird nonsense” began. Raymonde agreed to sign on to a listening-party slot, and was taken aback by fan response to the series within the first week and a half.
“No money has been spent on an ad campaign for it, or a social media campaign,” he says. “It’s literally just taken off.”
What I particularly love about @thecribs is kind of summed up in this song.
The rawness juxtaposed against the romanticism.
And what a bloody melody!#timstwitterlisteningparty
— Αλεξ Καπράνος (@alkapranos) April 7, 2020
Raymonde calls the listening parties “a godsend” for the newer bands on his label who are participating, like Lanterns on the Lake, who released their latest album, Spook the Herd, in February. Unable to go on tour or make the usual media rounds, the band promoted the LP by live-tweeting it as part of Burgess’ series. Even for classic albums, the listening parties have boosted their numbers: Rough Trade’s store in London sold 83 copies of the Charlatans’ Tellin’ Stories the day after Burgess live-tweeted the record.
“If you’re in between singles on radio, and you’re supposed to be on tour right now, it’s a really deflating feeling, getting that email saying, ‘We put the shows off till October,’ when you’ve spent the last two months practicing, getting your merchant, getting yourself mentally prepared to go away,” Raymonde says. “This does not replace it at all, but at least it keeps that interest going.”
“No money has been spent on an ad campaign for it, or a social media campaign. It’s literally just taken off.” —Simon Raymonde
The benefits of live-tweeting the album versus performing it for a livestream are numerous, especially for music groups. Separated band members who are attempting to perform one song together via Zoom call have had to resort to unconventional methods to ensure everyone is in sync, and that process gets rid of some of the enjoyable spontaneity you’d find at a concert. On the flipside, getting to see artists performing acoustic sets at home in their natural habitat can be its own form of amusement, and the listening parties, much like Reddit AMAs, provide a similar window — when else will you get the opportunity to see your favorite artists talk so extensively, and casually, about their past work?
In that sense, listening parties could be a way forward for a wider range of bands with no other options in promoting new music, requiring minimal effort and virtually zero budget. Raymonde suspects that, depending on how long self-quarantine lasts, larger labels may soon seek to formalize the process for their own acts.
“I fear that once people see what’s happening with Tim’s thing, maybe something more formal or branded comes along,” he says, “where something is being pushed to us, rather than it all being about a genuine appreciation of music. ‘Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties’ — ’listening’ is the most important word in that sentence. Because it is all about listening to the record and reacting to it in real time. It isn’t just to chat with your favorite musician.”