Say Hi, the musical project of Seattle multi-instrumentalist Eric Elbogen, has come to an end after 15 years of mostly positive critical reception and middling commercial success. While Elbogen's relatively small yet steadfast fan base may be crestfallen, other readers may be asking, "Say who?" That dichotomy summarizes the predicament of today's independent musician.
These days, even the artists who record for solvent labels and who've racked up a fair amount of media attention and licensing deals struggle to make a living—or even a partial living. While the glut of music gushing forth from manifold online and meat-space outlets allows for anyone with electricity to have a platform, it also conspires against anyone but the best-looking, best-bankrolled acts from attracting an audience.
Over the last eight years, Say Hi—formerly Say Hi to Your Mom—has been operating at a modest scale of achievement for Seattle indie label Barsuk. During that time, Elbogen has licensed several songs for movies and television shows, including the ebullient "Back Before We Were Brittle," a portion of which became the theme for the USA Network sitcom Playing House. He also placed "One, Two... One" in a Cadillac ad.
Listening to Say Hi's 10 albums—all of which are on Bandcamp—will convince you Elbogen is a meticulous craftsman who blends conventional rock instrumentation with electronics in melodically infectious, texturally interesting ways. As a lyricist, he's at once eccentric and everynerd relatable, obsessively interested in romantic quandaries and vampires, among other things.
Scanning through his catalog, you may wonder why "Lover's Lane (Smitten with Doom)" off Bleeders Digest didn't touch the charts, with its chorus of "I'm in love love again!" ascending with as much bubbly gusto as 2010s indie rock can muster. Similarly, "Laundry" from Discosadness has one of those lilting, joyously melancholy tunes and quasi-"Sweet Jane" guitar riffs that hit the bull's-eye for so many fans of poised, lo-fi indie rock.
"Hooplas Involving Circus Tricks" off Numbers & Mumbles rides pell-mell motorik beats, resonantly purring keyboards, and surging guitars for a low-key fist-pumper. "Poor Pete Is a Bit Self Conscious" from Ferocious Mopes summons a rousing head of power-popping steam to cohere into an anthem for introverts. Elbogen also has a weirder side, as the odd, abstract synth reverie "Pintsized Midnight Moonbeam Workers" off Discosadness proves. He's also put interesting twists on classic tunes by the Beatles and Violent Femmes.
To put an exclamation point on his retiring the Say Hi name, Elbogen launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to reissue his first four albums—Discosadness, Numbers & Mumbles, Ferocious Mopes, and Impeccable Blahs—on vinyl for the first time. To his shock, his fans met the $12,000 goal in four hours. (As I write this, the total stands at $31,695, with 14 days to go.) "I took a lot of time off from playing shows and engaging with the internet. And when you do that, you sort of start to assume that no one cares or remembers you," Elbogen says in an e-mail interview.
While he'd been planning Say Hi's closure for a while, Elbogen thought it would be tough to finance those reissues. But his fans not only rewarded him with money but also with effusive comments online. "It has been a very special experience for me, and just such a nice way to wrap things up."
Elbogen observes that Say Hi had to go because he's been working on new material that's "aesthetically and philosophically" novel to him—different enough to make it seem strange to continue under that handle.
Barsuk owner Josh Rosenfeld says this about Say Hi's folding: "It's a sad thing to see what's been a real institution in my life coming to an end. My sense is he's one of those guys who's going to keep making cool stuff. That will temper the sadness."
Rosenfeld enthuses that Say Hi has been important to Barsuk from both business and aesthetic standpoints. "He has a really identifiable and unique voice. His approach to making music and his attention to sonic detail... he's definitely an auteur."
Musing on the differences of independent musicianhood between now and when he emerged 15 years ago, Elbogen says: "The intimacy that once took place in small venues, college-radio DJ rooms, and at record-shop in-stores has since been replaced by Twitters, Instagrams, Snapchats, and Facebook comments, and I am excited to reallocate the time and energy spent participating in the old rigmarole. It's thrilling to understand that you can have a personal connection with someone immediately these days, that it doesn't have to be separated by six months of lead time, an eight-hour drive, and the time between when the venue doors open and when they let you do your set. It's exciting to know that I can spend that time writing more songs, coming up with bad pun jokes, or making ugly, random Photoshop concoctions and still connect with people in more meaningful ways. Watching this shift happen and coming to these conclusions has me eager to try those new philosophies with a blank slate."
All of which doesn't mean Elbogen isn't fond of the old music-biz ways and Seattle's vaunted musical infrastructure, including KEXP, several local record stores, newspapers, and blogs. But, he laments, "It unfortunately doesn't happen like that in most other cities."
Though it's baffling why Say Hi never achieved the sort of commercial success other artists of his ilk have, he suffers no angst over the situation. Unlike many in his position, Elbogen can focus most of his year exclusively on making music. Sure, he'd love to play the late-night TV shows and large festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo and tour the world. On the other hand, Say Hi has opened for Death Cab for Cutie and has headlined Neumos and the Bowery Ballroom.
"I wrestle with the idea of what success is," he says. "I've surpassed every goal I had when I started this band and supported myself financially in doing so. I think the band could have been more commercially successful if I had figured out a way to play nice with other musicians, both on records and especially on the road. Of course, there's the obvious possibility, too, that those more-successful bands are more attractive, look cooler, or just write better songs than I do!"
Elbogen confesses his last two records haven't sold well, mirroring an industry-wide trend that spares only about .01 percent of artists. Streaming has been earning him more money lately, though not enough to live on. Say Hi has been able to thrive for as long as it has through film and TV sync licenses. "Music supervisors, advertisement firm creatives, and the people who give them their budgets are the modern-day version of classic patrons of the arts," Elbogen quips. "It's a weird thing to say, because the mixing of commerce and art was taboo for so long. I even got some hate e-mail back when the first licenses started to happen."
Although Barsuk owner Rosenfeld is a pragmatic businessman, he's leery of dwelling overmuch on popularity and sales. He admits in the last decade it's been harder to sell records than in the decade previous. Nevertheless, he says there's an audience for Say Hi "who really gets what he does and loves it. We work with a lot of artists who fall into that category: They've been working a long time and have never had that giant hit that's made them a household name. In general, it feels to me that the best music, to borrow a phrase from Spinal Tap, has 'more selective appeal.' To people interested in the business side of things, that may come across as a defensive posture, which is how it's rolled out in that movie. But for the vast majority of creative people interested in a certain balance of art and commerce, selective appeal is the goal."