Applied Science 3.5: A Conversation with Jacob Moore of Pigeons & Planes
"There's smoke in my iris/ But I painted a sunny day on the insides of my eyelids."
(Simpler times at Governor’s Ball 2012; pictured on the right: Jacob Moore, Pigeons & Planes founder; pictured on the left: me, a fool in a t-shirt from a bagel store who decided to start a newsletter last year and then sporadically publish it without warning)
This is Applied Science, which is generally a space for me to wax poetic about the music business. This week, I’m trying something slightly different.
For this in-between-edition of Applied Science, I spoke to my good friend Jacob Moore, founder of Pigeons and Planes. Jacob has long been one of the most influential figures in my life, first as a writer and discoverer of new music, then as a guide, giving me my first opportunity to write professionally for P&P eight years ago. I wouldn’t have a career without Jacob’s faith. We bonded over a love of underground hip-hop and Fiona Apple. I learned much about integrity and artistry from him; he trusted me to help shape his vision at P&P and equally granted me autonomy to carve my own lane on the site. Simply, Jacob is one of the purest music fans I know, deep in his convictions and a constant champion of the artists he loves. While catching up a few weeks back, we shared frustrations about the uncertainty and volatility of the current musical landscape. I love discussing the questions facing our industry with Jacob; he approaches the answers with humanity and pragmatism, the perspective of a fan trying to help connect more fans with great music rather than some would-be world-eating media tycoon spouting empty inspirational aphorisms. He’s honest, straightforward, and, like all of us, still figuring it out—unlike many in entertainment, willing to admit it.
Our most recent phone call led to a slightly more manicured back and forth covering the shifting media landscape, artists development, and, naturally, Pigeons and Planes favorite Michael Cera.
ON THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE & CULT OF PERSONALITY
JON TANNERS: What do you see as the place of editorial right now in the music landscape? Take editorial however you think I mean that and then we can fine tune it from there. Where do you see the place of editorial in launching new artists and why do you think it is or isn't still important?
JACOB MOORE: I mean, I wish it was important. I don't think it is, but I feel like it's because of how the audience has been trained. Personalities—social media has taken the spot of when we just used to write up songs. That wasn't really editorial content. It was just like, “yo, check out this song.” But you do that enough times and you become the source. Now nobody cares. You could just tweet that song out. And if you've got enough followers, you're going to be the influencer. So yeah, I think the place of editorial should be: these are the sources, these are credible people who know a lot, and have access to things that we don't have access to and they're in this position for a reason. Now anybody with a cool Instagram account and connections can be way more powerful than somebody who's been doing it for a decade.
TANNERS: Right. That's the biggest shift from when we started working together to now, the transparency with which the idea of editorial moved from wanting someone to write something positive or meaningful about your work to the simple fact that your work is being posted on a platform with reach.
TANNERS: At one point or another, the reason people wanted to get on Pigeons was twofold. It was that the people writing about the music were thoughtful and were good. You imagined they were going to write something thoughtful or from a fan's perspective, and really wanted to put people on to good new music. But the other thing was if Pigeons stamped it, that said to a certain group of people—music supervisors, labels, managers: This is something that you should be paying attention to. In the last few years as things have changed with the structure of Pigeons, you've switched from strictly writing about music to also just tweeting out a song that you're a fan of, or putting songs on playlists on Spotify and Apple. I think of those things as editorial. Have you found that this change in platform has taken away power or did it feel like your power is as it once was? Is it just in a new form?
MOORE: No, it definitely feels less impactful, less powerful. I go back and forth every day about it, it's kind of funny. Two or three years ago, I don't know if you ever saw this, but we made a video that was basically just a skit and it was John (Walaszek) and Jinx [ed: former Complex personality Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins) and they were talking about Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. releasing. It starts with “we're going to do this fucking sick custom editorial piece with a website that we built from scratch and an original photo shoot and video content and the long form piece written by a really good writer,” and then they talk about it more and more and they say, “Oh, we don't have budget for that. Let's just do like a long form piece that's really nice with photos.” And then they say, “Oh the photo shoot kind of expensive. Let's just do a really thoughtful written piece.” And then, “Oh, that's too much.” And it turns into a tweet. It's just: “DAMN. is out.” And then an emoji and then Jinx says, “Oh, that's still...they say they want less,” and it turns into a thumbs up. I feel like I'm living that parody. We still do that. We tweet out a song with a link and, yeah, I feel like that is just as meaningful today as if we were to write up a blog post like we would have in 2010, but it doesn't feel the same.
TANNERS: Right. Well you preempted one of my questions. So when we started working together—it was May, 2012—Pigeons and Planes was basically you full time at Complex for about a year at that point and a network of freelancers.
TANNERS: We started building out a team structure once I had been on for three months or so. In that first year, things were driven by specific growth and audience metrics. In the second year, 2013, the metrics changed. They got more intense. By 2014 they were even more specific and ambitious. And then after 2014 everything started to shift. That was when the media landscape changed a lot. The three words that no writer ever wanted to hear “pivot to video” came into the lexicon. And at some point along the way Verizon Hearst acquires Complex [ED NOTE: Verizon Hearst purchased Complex in 2016 for a deal purportedly in the $250-300m range]. How have you navigated, as very few others have, the evolution from bedroom blog to outpost within a corporate media super structure?
MOORE: I think I always had the one advantage of not caring about writing. I learned to enjoy it and love it, but I didn't get into this to be a music journalist. So when things started to shift, it wasn't like “I'm not going to make videos.” Making videos was fun. The purpose of Pigeons and Planes to me was always to share music. I didn't care that much if it was through a tweet or through a long form article or a video. The only reason I wrote about things is because at that point it made it matter more. You know? I realized I could put a lot of time and thought into articulating why something is important, getting access to the artists, and doing the interviews. That made things connect more with people.
I think people don't look for that context anymore. They're used to just hearing a song in a playlist and liking it or seeing a quick video and hearing a song in the background or seeing a meme. Those are ways that the audience connects now. My goal is to share the music I like and to try to curate a really good collection of new artists. I think that was one of the main reasons I saw a lot of writers get frustrated. I know the “pivot to video” thing pissed people off. I didn't care. It was fun. That was one of my favorite periods of Pigeons and Planes when we were just in the studio with Jinx making a video a day and trying to get the same things across.
TANNERS: Why do you think it pissed people off so much knowing that, and maybe this is just me taking a little bit of an irreverent tack, but...I respect people that come from a strict journalistic school and I obviously am inspired by people that take writing very seriously. But the landscape had already changed at that point. And if you were writing or working for a company like Complex or any of the kind of affiliates or similar sites—Vice, Noisey. You haven't signed up to be a journalist, it's not necessarily going to write for the New York Times and then wondering why you're being told, you know, “Hey now you need to make videos.” I know it's frustrating no matter where you are, but I guess I just thought of Complex not only as a print magazine, but as a media company. It never seemed to me to be that much of a strange evolution to go into making videos, but maybe that's an unusual perspective.
MOORE: Yeah, I think it is. I mean I think a lot of people thought, “this isn't what I signed up for. I signed up to write about music and that's what I'm good at and I know nothing about video production and all of a sudden they were producing videos.”
MOORE: I always struggled with that thought too, because I do think it's important to have smart writers who have something to offer that some kid with a cool Instagram account can't offer. It's supply and demand. Whatever the audience is looking for, you have to be realistic about it. People aren't going to read your 3000 word profile on some new artist. They'll look at a funny video with the music, with the song playing, and if that has the same effect to me, it's fine.
TANNERS: It just reminds me of every random thing that I ever wrote that you basically just let me write because I begged long and hard enough. That's the joke of the last thing that I really kind of consistently did for the site, 5 On It. The idea of a weekly 3000 word rap column about unknown artists is like, yeah...just make a playlist, dude, just tweet a bunch of links to songs. You know? [ED NOTE: Few things in the world gave me more joy than writing 5 On It and I don’t mean to diminish discovery platforms for new artists, but I’m also not delusional about how many people were actually reading 5 On It]
MOORE: The thing that I feel I missed the boat and failed on that I wish I would have done is built more of a personality for myself and put myself out there. I feel like that's the other part where people would read you and would listen to you more and would watch you more if you put yourself out there. And we've seen a lot of kids do that really well. Adam22 isn't an expert, he just got plugged in with the right people and put himself out there. Now people follow him because they feel like they know him.
TANNERS: But I feel that was part of the reason that Pigeons was successful. It wasn't just the idea of Pigeons you were synonymous with, it was your identity to begin with. I think that there are two things that you're talking about. There's voice and identity, right? Adam22 created a persona and so did Akademiks, Anthony Fantano, Narduwar—these are people that created brands that are rooted in persona.
TANNERS: One of the reasons that as a college student interning at a record label I gravitated towards Pigeons was that it felt like it was run by someone who loved what they were writing about. It wasn't just: “yo, here's a link that I may or may not have gotten from like a major label publicist.” It felt truer: “here’s a song, you’ve never heard of it, you're going to like it because we like it.” Seven times out of 10 in the glory years, that was true. Do you feel like you didn't do a good enough job codifying your voice or is it more the persona aspect?
MOORE: I think I had a voice and a tone, and Pigeons and Planes has always had that. I mean I just didn't put myself out there. I refuse to do on camera stuff. I was very slow to social media. I still don't put that much thought into my personal social media. I should have been doing that for a decade, you know? It was just very unnatural for me. I have social anxiety, I am a weird person. I just couldn't. I knew that those things were important and I pushed them off for so long that now I feel like I missed the boat there a little bit.
I’ve talked to other people about Pigeons and Planes and what we could do to refresh, start something new. It's hard to do without a host or a personality behind it. Nobody watches Pigeons and Planes videos or reads Pigeons and Planes posts just because it's Pigeons and Planes. Maybe a hundred music industry people do that, but the rest of the people do it because they're interested in what the topic is or they're looking for something from someone they trust and I feel like I never really established that strongly enough.
ON ARTIST DEVELOPMENT
TANNERS: I've been thinking a lot recently about artistic development as a function of experimentation and iteration, risk-taking as a kind of a repetitive act. From the Pigeons era or specifically from the last few years, what are some of the artists development arcs that you've watched most closely and that have been either the most inspiring or interesting to you, the ones that you've learned from and that you think artists could take instructive lessons from?
MOORE: This was the tail end, but I feel like Lil Wayne is one of the most fascinating. The whole mixtape Wayne era was fascinating to me...There's so many, it's hard. All of them are interesting for different reasons. Kid Cudi. I feel like Drake was fascinating to see. I remember that first mixtape and the feeling I had, what I thought of him and to see what he is now, it's fascinating.
TANNERS: The Wayne thing is interesting to me because he and Drake similarly evolved in public. Obviously, a lot of their creative evolution happened in private. Wayne just rapping and rapping and rapping and rapping, releasing shit and not giving a fuck what the response was. Just dumping shit out. I always think of that scene in The Carter where he's in his hotel room recording; so many moments in that documentary became emblematic of the idea that he only listens to his own music and is really only competing with previous versions of himself. Such a fascinating thing to me. It's something that I've been writing about, this idea of creative isolation. He was aware of some trends, but even when you listen to his new music now, you can tell he isn't really paying attention to anything that's going on. When you listen to his interviews and he doesn't know about Kanye’s Sunday Service, you see a guy who only cares about being the best rapper. He’s figured out that in order to be the best rapper it isn't about paying attention to what this person is doing, paying attention to what that person's doing, he’s just concerned with being great at rapping.
Tyler, the Creator is someone I think of more recently, Tierra Whack [ED NOTE: featured very early in 5 On It!] is someone that I’m really fascinated with. The way that she went from being a battle rapper to this polymathic creative weirdo, writing the catchiest songs in one minute chunks. I’ve been thinking about Brockhampton and how they evolved from this diffuse internet collective that no one really understood to now having a top 40 radio hit.
All of these artists, once they put out a record and it starts to grab attention, they are then forced to develop in real time. You know what I mean? The clock is on and they're then forced to live through things that might've once happened on a smaller, local stage or on a more drawn-out timescale in real time. Who are some of the artists that you think have handled that in interesting ways?
MOORE: I think it applies to every artist now. I think Billie Eilish has done a great job of going from random new blog artist to superstar with no real hiccups in my mind. It's like a steady evolution from the outside. And I'm sure there's a lot more going on behind the scenes, but I feel like that's one. It's so hard for me to think of specific examples because everyone is different and there's so many variables. I agree with what you're saying completely and I think it's a problem that artists don't have private time to develop and experiment and grow. That's not the kind of stuff that you should be doing when you're in the spotlight and you've got labels asking for certain things and pressure to write a certain type of song or work with a certain producer.
TANNERS: I feel like there is no room for artists to say “let me just figure myself out before I put myself out there to the world.” And I think that's why we're seeing so many artists with issues who blow up like Juice WRLD and Lil Peep.
MOORE: They don't have time to figure themselves out. They're just all of a sudden stars and there's no real system for how to deal with that and how to address it—how to nurture these artists. I always look back at this interview with Prince's manager where he says Prince couldn't have made it today. Prince took years doing weird stuff that nobody cared about and finding himself. He just wouldn't have gotten to the point that he was at if he was forced into the spotlight today as a young man. So yeah, I'm kind of like, I'm impressed with anyone who can do it and deal with it.
Who are artists that you think of when you think about who has dealt with that?
TANNERS: Tyler. He hit in such a splashy way, but was making aggressively uncommercial music and it just built to the place where he can perform on the Grammys. His next release has a real shot at radio, you know? And he never really changed his course for anyone. He kept doing what he wanted to do and iterating on this formula of Neptunes and Kanye-inspired music with his own personal twist of rapping about mental health, rapping about whatever anarchic things that he was on.
Somebody that I think has dealt with the notion of being a famous person in very interesting ways is Frank Ocean. He went from developing as a songwriter to the verge of being a very popular artist, then taking the idea of what it means to be a popular artist and turning it on its head. Not pursuing the easy path, not pursuing the obvious big songs. He probably could have made records with Benny Blanco and Stargate and any number of other big pop producers. And he said fuck it. I’m going to make stuff for myself, but I’ll also go do a Calvin Harris song that’s a big hit. I think that he’s figured out how to leverage this kind of mystery—not necessarily anonymity but mystery—into a really powerful brand. Very few artists can do that. I'm not sure that that's an instructive thing necessarily, but I do think it's fascinating.
MOORE: Yeah, Yung Lean is like a less mainstream version of that.
TANNERS: I think about Lizzo a lot in this context too. I feel like she's someone who was floating around for a long time. She’d put out a few albums, did a major label deal, put out some more songs, put out her third album...then suddenly she was the biggest artist in the world. She kept going and getting a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger every year. Then the right circumstances came together and blew the whole thing up.
MOORE: Do you think the history leading up to that breakthrough moment mattered at all? Or do you think if she just released that song out of nowhere and didn't have that history, it was just a hit song at the right time and she would have been fine no matter what?
TANNERS: I think that she had developed, by the time she had a hit, a strong enough personality to be able to go out into the world and milk every single stage and moment that was presented to her because she had been toiling for 10 years. You know, as I was talking about her career, the person that jumped into my mind was Anderson Paak. He's someone who, even though he hasn't had a huge hit record yet, is positioned for fame and notoriety. My wife and I saw him last June at The Forum. I've seen him perform live three times now. I saw him at Coachella. I saw him at a theater in LA, the ACE hotel theater, and I saw him at an arena in LA. I couldn't believe that he sold out The Forum. Obviously it's a hometown thing, but that symbolizes a certain level of success. But too, just the fact that he was able to put together a show that was more dynamic than anything he'd ever done. More explosive from a performance standpoint than anything that he'd ever done. It was pretty thrilling to watch. I think in that regard, if he had had a breakthrough five years earlier and had become a huge star, that show wouldn't have been the same. His ability to do things that are the mark of a superstar in the old school sensibility, the James Brown, Prince sensibility of winning fans. Not because you have this obvious major hit record, but because you're just great at what you do and you've polished and practiced your craft to the point that it's so sharp that it's second nature to you.
ON ARTISTIC EXPRESSION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
TANNERS: Which tools do you think have enhanced artists’ abilities to express themselves in the time since Pigeons and Planes started? Do you think that digital tools have enabled artists to express themselves better?
MOORE: You mean digital tools as in the sense of making the music or just presenting and sharing the music?
TANNERS: However you want to interpret that.
MOORE: I think social media is still a great tool for artists and I think a lot of artists think of it as marketing and promotion. But, to me, it is brand building and not branding in a way of “this is the thing I'm selling.” Like Tyler, the Creator: people knew what he was about based off of how he tweeted and what he decided to talk about and how he decided not to talk. Frank Ocean,
the fact that he just had this Tumblr. I think social media is a really powerful creative tool if you use it the right way.
TANNERS: What do you think artists need most when they're starting out?
MOORE: Space and time. I feel like that's like the main thing. Like there needs to be space away from the spotlight and some time to try different things and feel comfortable.
MOORE: I don't think there's any substitute for that. I think some people are more natural than others and can just come out of the gate and be totally comfortable. But they probably had some space and time before that where you didn't even see it that made that work. It's kind of what you were saying about Lizzo, I guess I never really thought about her in that way, but yeah, I feel like space and time for an artist is crucial.
TANNERS: This can be a yes or no answer. Is the list obsolete as an editorial form?
TANNERS: I don't even want to dig deeper into that.
MOORE: They're coming back. I can't wait till we bring them back.
TANNERS: Speaking of bringing lists back, are we ever going to do a redux of our 30 greatest underground hip hop albums?
MOORE: I don't even know what underground hip hop is anymore. We're at this weird point now though, I feel like I kinda know what it is again, but it doesn't make sense. It's not independent. It's doesn't matter how many fans they have, but it’s certain artists...I don't know...
TANNERS: Pink Siifu, Earl...
MOORE: I don't even...I don't know. Yeah. I'm down. Let's do it.
TANNERS: Cool. Well we'll revise it for the SoundCloud era. Probably get yelled at all over again.
ON PIGEONS & PLANES’ OBSESSION WITH MICHAEL CERA
TANNERS: What is the best Michael Cera meme that you guys have ever made?
MOORE: Favorite? I feel like Michael Cera for me has always been about the repetition. I remember sitting with [Pigeons & Planes writer, digital wizard, and author of SisQo’s stunning oral history of the “Thong Song”] John Walaszek in a bar one night and we were talking about how it's not going to be funny and people are gonna make fun of it. This was after the first couple. We reached this point where it felt old and unfunny. And then you do it again and again and again. After that, it eventually reaches this point where it's funny again. I don't even personally get excited about them anymore. It's just the fact that we have done it for so long and continue to do it. That's what makes it funny. I think my favorite though is the one where we did pictures of Beyonce and Jay Z, but Jay Z is Michael Cera. It's great. A timeless classic.
In honor of the underground hip-hop ranking that brought Jacob and I together as friends (and the first listicle we ever worked on together), I made a playlist of some of my favorite “underground” hip-hop records of all time. It isn’t meant to be comprehensive or representative; the term “underground hip-hop,” as we used it to describe the music on our list, refers to a specific period (let’s call it 1996 to 2005, though you could extend it a little on either end for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this already run-on sentence) where record labels/collectives like Rawkus, Project Blowed, Def Jux, Rhymesayers, and SoleSides (among many others) positioned themselves in contrast to the mainstream—anti-commercial in sound and aesthetic, popular among those looking for an antidote to the superficial fixations of MTV and radio-led hip-hop. The term is pretty specious—it tends to exclude the south both geographically and aesthetically, and its summary dismissal of the mainstream’s concerns is almost painfully reductive in hindsight. Still, it’s a loose period and feeling that also inspired some of my earliest digging through the depths of the internet to learn about music and formed much of my misguided teenage identity; it’s a period of warm, if occasional cringe-inducing nostalgia for me.