Artillery Row

Remix revolution

How fan-led innovation is transforming music

There’s a bloke you haven’t heard of called Billy Cobb. Or, if you have, you’re keeping oddly quiet. This man isn’t just one of the most interesting and innovative musicians currently making popular music — he’s a one-man demonstration of how to take on the moribund modern music scene, left permanently damaged by the dramatic decline of live gigs and physical sales. With no funding base, no record deal or sponsorship, Cobb has released a dozen albums and a score of EPs. Yet despite having written many hundreds of songs since 2015, which have been heard tens of millions of times, he only played his first gig this January. 

Located somewhere in Pennsylvania, and somewhere in his mid-twenties, Cobb keeps a strikingly low-profile existence. Interviews are hard to come by, and he reveals precious little about his personal life in his many home videos to camera. These are all filmed in the house where he records all his music: with no studio, session musicians or producer, Cobb plays all the instruments himself. All backing vocals — including the occasional falsetto — are his own. This domestic DIY spirit is nothing new, of course, but the result is neither the typical garage-echo bombast or navel-gazing lo-fi of the home demo. Those expecting elements of Daniel Johnston will find a very different vibe indeed.

So what is going on? How is it possible to be simultaneously so prolific and so low-profile — to have millions of listeners but no public presence? The answer comes via Cobb’s main base, YouTube, where he has a quarter of a million subscribers. A look at his most popular videos reveals that all isn’t quite as it seems, however. The channel’s most popular video is straightforwardly bizarre. Apparently there was a film, and then a spin-off series, about some cartoon kid called Jimmy Neutron; this lad had a fat geekish pal called Carl Wheezer. For some reason Cobb has sung in Wheezer-inspired falsetto the ballad “Slow Dancing in the Dark” by the Japanese-American singer Joji. The video description embraces the absurdity: “Funny video haha pls subscribe so I can get a fancy silver plaque and feel like I achieved something.” Well, to date 6.2 million folk — more than the population of Singapore — have come to listen.

Other gimmicks have found a following. Over 4 million people have viewed Cobb’s cover of Radiohead’s Creep, where each line is capped by how Google search autocompletes Thom Yorke’s original lyrics — however much it screws the scansion. The same trick has also done the rounds for Nirvana, The Killers, My Chemical Romance and even American Football. Whether this be art or advertising, it certainly finds an audience. In addition, a slew of covers of SpongeBob SquarePants songs bring in myriad views; even his attempt to make the worst song possible has caught on.

Similarly successful have been his cover versions. Gifted with an immense musical range, Cobb possesses an uncanny ability to imitate: part magpie, part chameleon, he scuttles back and forth across every conceivable genre of popular music. Millions have flocked to hear his ramped-up rock covers of Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Bill Withers, Kate Bush, Abba, Britney Spears, Shakira, Lady Gaga, OutKast and Rihanna, as well as subtler reimaginations of The Beatles and the Backstreet Boys.

Far from being cynical clickbait honeytraps, all these tongue-in-cheek videos are crafted with a refreshing mix of ironic nihilism and unabashed joy. There’s a current of semi-faux nostalgia for the Noughties (Cobb’s formative decade) permeating the whole venture. As his laconic YouTube byline says, “I like to experiment making rock music. Just like every other music artist, I try to get noticed.” The hope is that, in browsing the semi-parodic musical chaos, listeners will stumble upon his own music. As a glance at the comments for all his own releases reveals, those who do are bowled over.

Cobb’s own music, sung on his own terms, still deserves a far wider audience. The album on his general disillusion reading Media Studies at Temple University (Strokes of Incarceration, 2020) is first rate, as is his EP on heartbreak Who Shall its Folds Divide? (2020). The self-titled Bear album is riddled with earworms, and there is plenty to admire in his more experimental Karma vs The Invisible Man (2022). 

Alongside the obvious influence of Bright Eyes, there are threads in Cobb’s music of more recent acts such as Joie De Vivre, niiice, and Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate). Although notionally trapped in the “bedroom pop” frame, his output covers not just the staples of alternative rock, folk, emo and power pop. His more electronic synth wave material is suggestive of Atom and His Package; his most introspective songs echo Mount Eerie; his medley of Japanese anime ballads seems effortless. He has even moved into experimental thrash-hop, reminiscent of the ever-uncategorisable Death Grips. Six months later, he released a full-blown sea-shanty pirate opera, S.S. Krill

This musical equivalent of fan fiction in turn unleashed an even bigger project

What does Cobb’s eclectic independence tell us about the rudderless world of mainstream music, unsure whether to chase fans or algorithms? Strangely enough, we get an answer by turning not to Wheezer, but Weezer, the geek-rock four-piece whose music encapsulated so much of the mid-90s. Their hugely successful Blue Album of 1994 dominated the airwaves, its lead track even becoming embedded as an easter egg in the release of Windows 95. Such sudden success is a double-edged sword, however, and the more raw and experimental follow-up Pinkerton (1996) baffled many fans and frustrated a typically unromantic record label. Disconsolate, the front man Rivers Cuomo headed off to Harvard and kept his head down for half a decade. In 2001 Weezer re-emerged with a cheerier-than-thou pop sound, which instantly divided fans: many loved the unashamed waves of pop rock; but many, who had come to see Pinkerton as a classic, longed for more of that emotional edge. The last two decades have been the sad story of Weezer trying to find a sound that hits the jackpot — pleasing the fanbase whilst sounding appealingly poppy — but that circle, of course, can never be squared.

As a longstanding fan, Cobb has skin in this game. His own homage to Weezer began with eyebrow-raising labours of love, such as playing the whole of the Blue Album and Pinkerton on the Melodica — the mouth-pump keyboard. He also painstakingly revivified the offcuts of Cuomo’s unfinished space musical (!) Songs from the Black Hole. This musical equivalent of fan fiction in turn unleashed an even bigger project. 

Weezer’s notoriously unpredictable output is something even the band acknowledges — as, for instance, in this unironically rubbish song. What should the principled Weezer fan do if the band cannot step up, or back, and deliver? The answer is to take the matter into your own hands, flip the syllables to “Zerwee and make the sort of music they should be. Called by some a homage, by others a caricature, Cobb’s first Zerwee EP crafted new Weezer-esque songs in pitch-perfect Blue Album guise. This ingenious cocktail of emulation and originality has thrived, with well over 2 million streams on Spotify. The second Zerwee instalment, now modelled on Pinkerton, is yet more brilliant.

Of course, some are turned off by this level of musical cosplay. As someone raised in the rough-and-ready microcosm of Reddit forums, however, Cobb is prepared to throw punches. Take, for instance, his satire of how debates about the best music play out online. As he would readily admit, he dabbles in the “shitpost”, firing out to fans pithy opinions which are guaranteed to rile the core base. The sad decline of his favourite band Green Day is encapsulated within a minute of music. His matter-of-fact rankings of albums by the bands that mean most to him — Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Radiohead, Weezer and his own discography are revealingly popular.

There is a punk spirit to the Cobb project. I don’t mean in sound (which is sometimes true) or in politics (which is much rarer). I mean in not playing the game of the industry: no label, no radioplay, no touring, no budget, no constraints. As such, Cobb has complete freedom to invent and reinvent his sound as and when he likes. His release schedule is non-existent, save for the staple of a Halloween-themed EP every October. Even the off-the-wall video artwork is his own.

With the internet providing such an impossibly diffuse atmosphere for music, there is no centrally promulgated sound to chart the evolving Zeitgeist. Free to ride the digital waves of Spotify and YouTube, young people are getting into music as an individual, rather than collective, experience. Somehow, amidst all this noise and uncertainty, Cobb has crafted his own space and devoted following. He has even forged something tangible: in July 2020, Needlejuice (of Tennessee) bought the rights for physical distribution of Zerwee and a couple of other Cobb records on vinyl, CD or tape. For the meantime, and hopefully a long time yet, all of Cobb’s own music is freely available, ready for you to make of it what you will. 

Sad to say, the music industry in its current guise would only hinder Cobb and his fellow travellers. The live music scene was struggling before the pandemic hit, and it is now in a yet worse state. As fewer venues host bands, fewer are willing and able to go gigging. As major artists’ incomes have been hit by record sales falling off a cliff, their income streams have moved towards stadium touring — events of a scale and kind that are beyond the reach of any band outside the mainstream. The result is that ever fewer bands occupy the difficult mid-range between niche following and global superstars. Cobb has made his first tentative steps onto the stage — it will be an interesting test case to see who is prepared to leave their bedroom and come join him.

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