The Curious Case of an Anonymous Artist

What motivates musicians to hide their identity?

By Nick Fulton


Several weeks ago I received an email from a band I’d worked with in the past. They wanted some advice on how to promote their new music online, anonymously, in the alternative hip-hop space. They’d started calling themselves Drag Step and described it as a “super-super-secret hip-hop side-project… Banksy-style.”

Attempting to remain anonymous obviously isn't a new concept — streaming and music sharing sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp are filled with unidentifiable bedroom producers. In my early days as a music journalist I would regularly find covert bands on MySpace with little or no information, other than a location and a combination of three descriptive genres, often categorized as something cryptic like “concrete/tropical/jungle.”

I’m not talking ‘Crazy Frog’ (the computerized Swedish frog), but musicians that deliberately chose to keep their identity secret. Reasons for remaining out-of-sight can vary, but eventually there can be consequences, including questions around sincerity and authenticity. Teenagers don’t put pictures of faceless rockstars on their bedroom walls; music is usually much bigger than the music itself — it’s a series of subcultures each with their own unique characters.

Authenticity requires a certain level of transparency, but where do we draw the line? If artists hide their identities to avoid criticism, should we treat them differently?

Let’s take a step back and look at some other notable anonymous projects (which are not anonymous anymore)…


Burial

London electronic artist Burial achieved great success long before his identity was known. In 2008 he revealed his true identity in a prudent MySpace post, saying, “I wanted to be unknown because I just want it to be all about the tunes. Over the last year the unknown thing became an issue so I’m not into it anymore. My name’s Will Bevan, I’m from South London.”

While Bevan never spoke of specific challenges he faced while being anonymous, the authenticity of Burial was regularly challenged.

Burial (left) and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden

In his two years of anonymity he released several hit records, the second of which was nominated for Britain’s esteemed Mercury Prize. During that time, speculation swirled about his identity, linking the music to Fat Boy Slim’s Norman Cook, Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. Major newspapers and press outlets in the U.K. seemed to love the idea of an anonymous, ‘semi-famous’ artist, while others dealt with the nuisance of fighting off unfounded rumors.

For Bevan, the speculation and hype eventually paid off, and his reputation remained positive. He went on to collaborate with Massive Attack and Four Tet, and is widely considered one of the most important British electronic artists of the twenty-first century. While it’s difficult to measure if the mystery and intrigue played a major role in his success, it undoubtedly helped increase his exposure.


Zhu

The 2015 Grammy Awards featured a nominee named Zhu — a faceless house music producer who, in 2014, produced one of the biggest dance-floor hits of the year. Up until his Grammy nomination he’d managed to remain publicly anonymous, despite racking up an impressive 10 million+ plays on YouTube for his single “Faded.” Like Burial, Zhu’s music is of the electronic variety, deficient of more obvious human elements that exist in vocal-heavy genres like hip-hop. It could explain why crowds didn't aggressively pursue his identity.

Zhu recently visited the Los Angles Times and allowed himself to be photographed. The Times subsequently published his full name (Steven Zhu); his age (25) and his birthplace (San Francisco). It also revealed his explanation for remaining anonymous — he wanted people to focus on the music. That they did.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra

In 2010, a track titled ‘Ffunny Ffriends’ by an artist named Unknown Mortal Orchestra appeared on Bandcamp. With its psych-rock swagger and bubble-gum sensibility, it immediately sent the indie music world into overdrive. Speculation and rumors spread quickly, but no one had any real information about the artists involved. After several weeks, the online hype bubbled over and Ruban Nielson stepped forward to claim the project.

The frenzy of unverified rumors had created a massive buzz online, where research can often lead people down digital rabbit holes. At the time, Nielson wasn’t a well-known figure in the U.S., but his previous band, The Mint Chicks, had just swept the New Zealand Music Awards. Analysis and guess work was conducted and presented in a brilliant article on New Zealand website The Corner, gallantly naming Nielson as the mysterious artist behind UMO, now based in Portland, Oregon.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson (center)

Remaining anonymous while maintaining a sustainable career seems difficult to accomplish long-term. With everyone's lives co-existing online, is it even a reasonable expectation to have? Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s anonymity worked brilliantly as a marketing stunt, while Burial and Zhu simply avoided unwanted attention. All worked for very different reasons, but all of the artists eventually revealed their true identities.


What does Drag Step hope to achieve by remaining anonymous? Their minimal output so far is a cryptic press photo (shown above) and two songs uploaded to SoundCloud accompanied by videos on YouTube.

I talked with them using one of modern technology’s easiest forms of anonymous communication: Gmail chat.

Cuepoint: What is your reason for keeping your identity unknown?

Drag Step: Essentially, to protect ourselves from personal criticism. Not that this project will go viral and be huge or anything, but even just from our immediate circle of friends. The reason it could be potentially subject to criticism is because of the genre of music we are pursuing. It’s a genre which is synonymous with the concept of ‘authenticity.’ We are not ‘authentic.’

What makes you think that you’re not authentic?

Well, the fact that I use a different accent for this project. Some people consider that inauthentic (or even disrespectful). In many genres (choral music, for example), changing one’s accent is expected. But in hip-hop, some people consider this cultural appropriation, which is not what we intended. We respect the history and culture of hip-hop very deeply.

I find it interesting that you draw a line between choral music and hip-hop. Perhaps it’s not an accent thing, it’s a stylistic thing.

For us it is stylistic. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as being genuine when you are making art. It’s all a performance. But other people may see things differently — and that’s why we are choosing to be anonymous for now!

You mentioned protecting yourself from criticism. Do you think remaining anonymous will protect you or will it just change the type of criticism you receive?

The criticism will be less personal. Again — not that we’re expecting this project to be huge (although that would be nice) but criticism of the music alone sounds reasonable and healthy. Also, we are not just remaining anonymous, we are, to an extent, inventing characters — so any criticism delivered is kind of not for us, but for the fictional duo.

You’ve released a photo which only moderately obscures your identity. In a way, you’ve given an identity to a project that’s half fictional, half reality. The project is hidden from those who personally know you, but to those who don’t, the project is just a faceless work of art.

That’s true. I’m protecting us from (almost inevitable) failure, but also allowing for the remote chance of possible success.

Are you worried about failure? What does failure look like in this case, considering that you’ve said you’re not expecting the project to go viral?

I’m not really worried about failure in its traditional application to a record release — i.e. it being ignored. That happens to the vast majority of music released. I am, however, worried about failure in the sense that this release has the potential to be laughed at by a large number of people.

You’ve released music before, openly, revealing your full identity. How was that different?

Because we knew there was no (or not much) real potential for personal criticism with that genre. But there are plenty of notable examples (Iggy Azalea being a more recent case) of people being attacked for their cultural inauthenticity.

Once you release music that is deemed inauthentic, do you think it’s possible to reclaim authenticity via another means?

I think it’s possible — if it’s made clear that you are creating something out of admiration and respect for a culture (as opposed to appropriation). I think there are notable examples of artists who have done this well — the Rolling Stones and their admiration/support for blues artists such as Muddy Waters, for example.

Very interesting point. I recently listened to a Podcast on NPR where Mark Ronson talked about sampling in hip-hop versus appropriation in rock music. He spoke about certain people deeming sampling inauthentic while celebrating rock music — which borrows heavily from traditional blues music — as a superior, more authentic art form.

I agree. Music is a complex web of cultural borrowing and mixing. I mean, the banjo is considered a very white/hillbilly instrument, but it’s actually (almost certainly) adapted from a West African precursor instrument.

Hypothetically, if Drag Step takes off and people embrace it, will you reveal your real identity or are you committed to the idea of being anonymous characters?

That would really depend on the ratio of praise to criticism. Plenty of musicians sell a lot of records but are still considered by “tastemakers” (i.e. people whose opinions we respect) poor quality. I think we would reveal our identity if we got the sense that we were liked by people we admire.


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