When a pair of Australian DJs went viral by prank calling the London hospital treating Kate Middleton last December, they were lionized at home and vilified in the U.K. Then the nurse who answered the phone committed suicide amid the outrage, raising questions about mental health, privacy, and the very definition of a joke. What responsibility do pranksters have to their victims?
Speaking with the Queen of England on the telephone, even for a moment, is, by any measure, an out-of-the-ordinary experience. But Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse at King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London, didn’t mention her brief conservation with Her Majesty to her husband Benedict Barboza on Tuesday, Dec. 4, last year.
Barboza and their children — Junal, 17, and Lisha, 14 — lived 118 miles away in Bristol. Along with the hospital’s reputation of caring for upper-class British citizens came a higher income than Saldanha previously earned at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, which in turn allowed the family to live in comfort while they paid their mortgage. Saldanha’s life consisted of staying at nurses’ quarters during the week and savoring weekends at home.
The nurse spoke to her family again on Wednesday and made cryptic reference to the fact that they should watch the news on television. But she didn’t call at all on Thursday. Concerned, Barboza called the hospital soon after 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, and asked a colleague to check on his wife. What they discovered in her room was a lifeless body with cut wrists, hung by a scarf tied to a wardrobe.
Three suicide notes were found: two at the scene, one among Saldanha’s belongings. The first note was addressed to her employers, and reportedly contained criticism of hospital staff. The second asked that she be buried in her hometown of Shirva, Udupi, India.
The final handwritten note read: “I hold the Radio Australians Mel Greig and Michael Christian responsible for this act. Please make them pay my mortgage. I am sorry. Jacintha.”
The hospital had been quiet that early Tuesday morning. That one of the most famous women in the world, the Duchess of Cambridge, was resting upstairs, recovering from acute morning sickness was not unusual; the hospital had been treating royalty since 1899. Elizabeth, the queen mother, underwent treatment here many times: In November 1982, a fish bone was extracted from her throat during surgery. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, was hospitalized here for five nights with a bladder infection in June 2012. There was no reason for the skeleton staff on the night shift to expect anything out of the ordinary.
On the other side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, two radio announcers at 2Day FM were recording a bit for their nightly program. Michael “MC” Christian, 25, had only that week begun hosting the summer edition of the Hot 30 Countdown program, broadcast nationally through Southern Cross Austereo’s Today Network each weeknight from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., alongside 30-year-old Mel Greig. The show mixed pop hits with softball celebrity interviews and gossip items and, as such, attracted some of the country’s biggest advertisers. It also launched the careers of a few now-famous Australian radio personalities such as “Ugly Phil” O’Neil, Kyle Sandilands, and “Jackie O” Henderson.
“Here’s the thing,” Christian said at the beginning of the segment. “We’ve been handed a phone number. We’ve been told that this phone number is the hospital where Kate Middleton is currently staying. We thought we’d give it a call. We don’t want to cause any trouble, we don’t want to stress her out. But I reckon we could maybe get her on the radio tonight.”
“Look, I don’t know,” Greig faux-cautioned. “I mean, everybody would be trying this.”
“Well, this is why I’ve thought of a plan,” Christian replied. “We can’t just ring up and go, ‘Hi, it’s MC and Mel from the Summer 30, can we chat to Kate?’ Hang up. Not gonna happen. You are going to be the queen…”
“This is awesome!” whispered Greig, a former Amazing Race Australia contestant. She affected an upper-class British accent. “Hello, I’m the queen.”
“I’m going to be Prince Charles.” Christian gestured through the glass to his producers, Emily Mills, 26, and Ben Hamley, 21. “Ben and Em, you’re involved in this as well. We thought that maybe you could be the royal corgis, if you’re OK with that?”
The pair made enthusiastic barking sounds. “Sure, we’ll pop on in, in a sec,” replied Mills.
“This is fun!” Greig said. “I mean…” She readopted the posh British accent. “…this is fun.”
Christian gave his best attempt at imitating a British man nearly 40 years his senior. “Hello. Prince Charles over here, mummy!”
“Oh, you’re Prince Charles,” Greig-as-queen said. “I like your ears.”
Shortly after 5 a.m., a telephone rang at the hospital’s front desk. Answering the phone wasn’t really Saldanha’s job, but since the reception switchboard wasn’t staffed overnight, she must have felt obliged to pick up after three rings.
“Hello, good morning, King Edward the Seventh Hospital,” she said.
A haughty, straining British accent replied, “Yes, hello, I’d like to speak to my granddaughter, Kate.”
Saldanha recognized the voice immediately, though if she was taken aback by this request, she didn’t show it. “Oh, yes, just hold on, ma’am,” she said.
Gentle strings and a tinkling piano played while the pair held the line.
“Are they putting us through?” asked Christian, dropping the Charles facade.
“Yes!” Greig replied. They both laughed.
Christian lowered his voice. “If this has worked, it’s the easiest prank call we have ever made.”
To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed. On a personal note, I’m honoured that this story resulted in my first mention on both Longform.org and Longreads.com, the web’s two leading aggregators of longform journalism.
While on-site, I interviewed ATP founder Barry Hogan [pictured right] for a Rolling Stone story. [I also reviewed Dirty Three playing 'Horse Stories' to around 100 people, for Mess+Noise.] Late on the Sunday night of the 10 Years event – after sacrificing my barrier spot for The Mars Volta – we sat down in the production office to discuss the festival’s history and his motivations for creating what has become an internationally successful event.
Andrew: Barry, broadly speaking, what do you think has contributed to ATP’s success as a festival?
Barry: When ATP started 10 years ago, there weren’t any alternative festivals. It was only big corporate festivals and I think a lot of people who are into bands like Low, Will Oldham, and so on, the only place you could see them was at Reading Festival and that sort of thing, and they’d be kind of sandwiched in with piles of shit like Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and fuckin’ Chumbawumba. It just felt like you paid whatever it was at the time, £80-90 to go for the day, but you’d have to wait all day to see something [worthwhile].
I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could design something where you could have constant bands, all day long, you’re wanting to go and see things, like killing yourself that you’re missing something because something else is on that the same time,” and just do it in a more intimate environment. Glastonbury, for example, was one of the reasons why we wanted to hold it here in the [Butlins] holiday camp, because of the conditions there. I think the toilets in Guantanamo Bay are probably healthier than there. Glastonbury is an abomination. It’s like the way it’s designed is for too many people in too small a space, and I thought, “this isn’t fun”. But here, people have got their own apartments, their own space. Going back to your question; what’s contributed to it, is we’ve designed it so we want to treat people like we want to be treated, and we want people to be into really good music, have a good time, enjoy themselves, and feel like they got value for money.
I feel that because we’ve been true to the concept of keeping it sponsorship-free, and also keeping the idea of the curator and being sort of focused on that, I think that’s definitely one of the reasons why it’s remained as strong as it has over the years. We’ve just got a loyal fan base that continually comes back. It’s good.
Is it difficult to stay true to the concept, to keep focused?
It is if the curator doesn’t go mental with trying to suggest stupid bands. The thing is; it’s hard; it gets harder as you go on, to kind of get curators to make you kind of fresh each time. I think because it’s a different curator each time, in a way, it’s a different person’s interpretation of a mixtape. If you get similar artists doing it, then you’re going to get the same sort of bands. We’re always striving to look for new and different ways to present it, to get different curators. It does get harder as you go on, but we’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to present some great things over the last 10 years.
Did you expect to reach your 10th birthday?
No. I’ve been waiting for the call to get a real job for quite a while now. When we did Bowlie Weekender with Belle & Sebastian [in 1999], they called it the first annual Bowlie Weekender and the idea was to do it year in, and year out. I don’t know why but they felt they wanted to keep the event unique and I said with their blessing, could I continue it and rename it, All Tomorrow’s Parties. I never thought it would go this long.
I think we’ve been fortunate that it is still strong and people still want to go to it, but I think we spend so much time laboring over things like artwork design, the programs to present, and the lineup and where bands play. We’re conscious of what the fans want, as well. We’re trying to make people happy so that they keep coming back. So far, I think we’re doing a good job.
I saw in an interview you said, “The way forward for festivals is to keep it boutique.”
Yeah, totally. You get some festivals like Bestival and they have the audacity to call themselves boutique when they started at 10,000 [capacity]. That’s not boutique for starters, and also I don’t understand why Rob Da Bank puts “Curated by” on each event. If it’s the same person doing it, surely, isn’t he the festival booker and that’s his job? You don’t need to wear a badge and put it on the top of the poster.
You’re talking about British festivals here, which I’m not too familiar with…
Oh, sorry – okay. Talking about boutique festivals, there’s one here called Bestival. It’s run by a [BBC] Radio 1 DJ called Rob Da Bank. The thing is, a lot of these festivals start at 3,000-4,000 capacity and then they start expanding. Because it’s only one event, they get bigger and bigger. Most of them have gone from 5,000 up to 45,000 or 50,000. It loses its intimacy and it loses track of where it started and why it started.
I think with us, it’s that we are keeping it sort of personal to people. It’s not overcrowded and you can walk around between stages and see lots of really great bands. I’d rather do more ATPs and keep it small, than do one big one and do it once a year because I just feel like it will lose its charm.
So the events here at Butlins are capped?
Yeah, the place only holds just over 6,000 so we sell 5,500 and the rest is made up of guests and production. It’s capped because that’s the legal capacity.
I see. As I mentioned earlier, I also went to the Mount Buller event [the first Australian ATP event, curated by Nick Cave (pictured left) & The Bad Seeds].
That was really great. There was some view up there, wasn’t it?
Yeah. And I went to the Riverstage one in Brisbane, which is where I live, as well as one of the Brisbane Powerhouse shows.
Okay. Those were good events, Buller especially. In hindsight I think I would love to have just done Buller. Those other events that we did… They were All Tomorrow’s Parties in the mindset but they weren’t like the All Tomorrow’s Parties because it wasn’t like a residential thing where people stayed, hanging out like they did at Buller. They were good, but I think it was a bit misrepresented in a way.
Now that you mention it, it’s quite odd that you did those Sydney and Brisbane events because like you mentioned, there was no accommodation. Do you put on many of those here in Britain?
No, to be honest; we’ve talked about doing a sister event called ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, which is the b-side to The Velvet Undergrounds single ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. The idea is that it’s like a sister event to ATP. It has the concept of the curator and stuff, but it doesn’t have the holiday camp. The idea of it is that it’s not trying to compete with ATP, it’s kind of designed for people to see great music but at a lower price because they don’t have to pay for their accommodation. There are a lot of people that would love to come to this but can’t necessarily afford it. It’s not that we’re too expensive; we’re providing value for money, but it’s a rising cost because Butlins is not a cheap place to hire.
I can imagine. As well as the festival aspect of ATP, it’s also a label. Again, what factors do you think have contributed to the success of ATP as a brand?
Someone said to me the other day, “oh, Fuck Buttons must be doing really well because the festival is doing well”. It’s not like that. There are a lot of records that we put out, and they’re releases that don’t necessarily sell a great deal. They’re great records, but the festival helps in the way that we can showcase the bands as another outlet for people to discover them. But bands like Fuck Buttons have done really well because they’ve made great records. Whether it’s on ATP or another label, I don’t think it makes any difference.
We’ve got a brand, not in the sense of Coca Cola or McDonalds, but I think a kind of brand of quality. I wanted it to be where you used to buy Sub Pop singles and you didn’t know some of the bands but you bought them because – I’m not saying you, here – but when Sub Pop was in its Nirvana and Mudhoney heyday – not that it doesn’t put great records out now – but there was a period when Sub Pop was releasing something you’d buy it because it’s like “Fuck, it’s on Sub Pop.”
Or Def Jam [Recordings] There were all those great early hip hop records like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. You knew that Def Jam and Sub Pop put out great things so you kind of bought into that. I feel like ATP is getting a bit like that in a way that people are sort of willing to take a chance because they know we’re not going to put out Coldplay or Miley Cyrus records.
You like ripping on Coldplay.
There are worse bands than Coldplay. [laughs] They’ve got a couple of good songs. I don’t think they’re for me.
Neither me. An aspect of the festival that I really liked, and I’m sure you do too, is the discovery aspect. As you say, it’s associated with quality. You walk into a room and at least respect a band, if not find it really damn good and want to go and buy all their shit.
Yeah. The reason we say it’s like a mix tape is you know, if you’ve got a friend and – I don’t know if you’ve ever had friends who give you mixtapes – but you put it on and you’re like, “Jesus, what’s this? This is great.” You have to look up the track list and you go, “This is amazing” but because you’re here at the festival and you’ve bought your ticket for the weekend, you can go in and out of rooms; there’s going to be something on you’ve never heard of, or you’ve been curious to know what it’s about.
It forces you to go and check stuff out, and it opens you up to loads of stuff. I think bands like Deerhoof, their success in Europe has benefited from playing at ATP. They said this themselves; they’ve been playing at an event and people have never heard of them before just a few years ago, and then they’ll see them and go, “My God, they’re great.” They’ll want to keep going back and seeing them. They’ve discovered it in that mixtape fashion, where it’s like a pleasant surprise.
I saw in an interview that you mentioned Kevin Shields [of My Bloody Valentine, pictured right] is fond of ATP because you kind of sidestep the whole music industry game.
Kevin’s been very supportive of us, and I think it would be fair to say we’ve done things in a different way. It’s good having a curator because it means we have to pick the bands the curator wants instead of agents, magazines, and labels all going, “You must put this band on because they’re the hot new thing”. It bypasses all that and we’ve just done things on our own terms.
To have a festival with no sponsorship, there is another promoter who asked me about doing an event in a holiday camp, and he said, “How the fuck do you do it without sponsorship?” We know how to do it because we’ve fine-tuned it over the years. We know how much it costs, how much we spend on bands, and it does make money but probably not the sort of money that some of the people out there think it does. Anything we have done goes back into the business.
I just feel like I want to keep doing this sort of thing until we lose interest in it. When we do lose interest, I think that’s the time to stop and end it on a high rather than fizzle out. The music industry is changing constantly, and I think it would be fair to say we never really played the games that a lot of people do. I’m not into that, so we just do our own thing, really. I guess we have sidestepped a lot of it, which is good.
You began as a promoter at Dingwalls [in Camden], and you got tired of having to play the game. Did you find it difficult to step outside of that and say, “Fuck it, I’ll do my own thing”?
Yeah, it was really hard because in those days, if a band like Tortoise came along, it was once every 6 months or something and it was a real big deal. Nowadays, if you open up Time Out in London or anything else, it’s like there are 100 bands on par with Tortoise that are playing constantly. There wasn’t really an outlet for that type of music I wanted to work with.
I found it was really hard because you would take punts on shows and the attendance would be down. You’d lose money and then it would be ages before another band that was worth doing comes through. It was difficult and also, it was tempting to try and go outside of that and start playing the game, but we rode out the rough times and kept it true to the original thing.
I’m supposing a big part of that is having the connections you made through ATP, such as Sonic Youth and the credibility that having guys like that playing in your festival lends you as a promoter.
That’s definitely helped, but the thing with us is that the roster of bands that we do outside of the festival are all bands that we actually like. I’ve been offered some bands that are huge and I’m like “I can’t do that.” I got begged to do Snow Patrol in 2003, and I remember their agent at the time was like, “I really want you to do it. They’re going to be great. They’re going to be massive.” I was like, “There is no way they’re going to be massive,” but the thing is; I didn’t know they changed their sound from sounding like Sebadoh to Coldplay. I think it’s good that we haven’t sold out in that way.
How do you go about goal setting for ATP? When you began, did you imagine 5 years down the track, 10 years down the track?
No, I have to be honest with you; every time I do the next one, I’m thinking about how it has to be better than the last one. We have to finally think of a curator that no one else is going for, and I want each one to be better than the last one. Some of them are fantastic and some aren’t as good as the others and it can be a bit disappointing, but I think we’re always striving.
Someone said to me today, “Do you think you’ll get to 20 years?” I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe.” I don’t know if I can think that far ahead, but as I said to you; I want to keep doing this as long as it’s still fresh and exciting, and the minute it stops being that, that’s the time to pull the plug.
When’s the next Australian ATP event planned?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. To be honest with you; I really loved the Mt. Buller event [pictured left]. It was really special, really great. The lineup that was up there and that setting, especially that second stage where you could see all the mountains behind it, through the stage. That was amazing, but it was just the spirit of people that were up there because I think a lot of people have gone to things like Big Day Out and Homebake and that. Those things are good for what they’re designed for. They seem like a breath of fresh air for a lot of people. That’s how ATP was when it started in England 10 years ago. People were like, “Fuck, great, we can go see 20 bands all at one weekend instead of having to wait all day for someone to come on at Reading, or something like that.”
ATP Australia – would it happen again? Yeah, we’d like to think so. We’re taking a step back because we’ve just got some venue issues and stuff. Once we resolve them we’d definitely like to pursue Buller again if we could.
Everyone I spoke to at Buller was just having a great time. Everything I read about it afterwards was extremely positive. Do you ever receive bad reports about ATP?
Yeah, for example I know some people came last weekend. We had My Bloody Valentine curating. Some people thought it was great but some felt the people there, the atmosphere wasn’t like it was at this one. I think each one changes by the crowd. There seemed to be quite a lot of middle-aged men last weekend, but there are lots of young girls at this one, which is always definitely more encouraging.
We do get some people who don’t think it’s – they’re not into it, but I think ATP – it’s what you make of it as well. You can be into the media but you’ve got to go there with a right mindset. You have to go there and want to enjoy yourself and let go and jump away from your job for 3 days and just embrace all the music and film, and the art, and hanging out with friends. It can be a really great thing to go to. Someone said to me, “Would you go to it yourself if you weren’t putting it on?” I’m like, “Yeah, I probably would.”
Yeah, well I would, of course I would. I would. Sorry!
You mentioned events like Glastonbury and Reading and so forth, when comparing ATP. When was the last time you went to Reading and Glastonbury? Do you ever go to those events just to remind yourself?
I don’t compare ourselves. I use that as a reason why I started this. I went to Glastonbury in 2002. I will never go back to that thing. I just don’t understand how people could enjoy being there with too many people, too short of a space of time, and I’ve seen people – we were talking to Keith Cameron just now from Mojo. He was saying he saw someone get their head kicked in, in broad daylight there. There is a horrible vibe there, really.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to those; too busy running this. That was the only thing you could go to if you wanted to go see some of the bands. If the Pixies were over [playing shows], if you couldn’t see them in shows you went and saw them in Reading or Glastonbury and it was kind of like that was where you could see some of the rare bands you wanted to check out. It was more a case of using that as an example of where you would see that music and why we started this.
You mentioned that self control is important when booking bands, or when the curator asks to book bands. I’m taking it since the capacity is capped here, so is the budget for booking bands?
Is it difficult to manage?
If you gave me a wish list and you put AC/DC, Leonard Cohen, and Motorhead on there, then if you took one of those bands, it would just wipe out the budget. You need to kind of tailor the lineup to the size of the event. It’s always good to have a couple of big names and stuff, but I think the real beauty of ATP is having all those kind of midrange bands, the sort of ones that would fill up Center Stage and have – it’s better to have more of those midrange than all big hitters.
There have been a couple of events where we’ve had some really big names, and then it’s all been small bands, and it hasn’t felt balanced. You get lots of people at one show and then it’s kind of half empty at other ones. With the curators, I have to kind of say as much as we’d love to have Neil Young, as much as we’d love to have Bob Dylan, it’s probably unrealistic that we could afford it. We just kind of need to guide them, really. I try to give everyone as much freedom as possible. I’m just hoping no one puts Blur on their list. [laughs]
Is your favourite ATP still the Dirty Three-curated one?
Do you thank [Dirty Three frontman, pictured right] Warren Ellis often for that?
All the time. He’s just been so amazing to work with over the years, so supportive. There are other curators as well. There are so many of them I think of that was as well, but their whole take on it and the way they approached it and the actual weekend itself was just magical; it really was. I just was walking around and everyone was having the time of their life. I also thought that ATP that Nick Cave did in Mt. Buller was one of my favorite ones as well. Definitely, that was a highlight.
This one might be difficult to answer, but when you think of the average ATP fan or concertgoer, what image do you have in mind?
Someone who is into music, who probably is the sort of person that when they buy records, they want to know where the band recorded it, what studio, and stuff like that. Someone said to me, “record nerd” but I think it’s people who actually give a shit about music. They don’t buy their CDs or vinyl in supermarkets, which seems to be one of the few places you can buy music these days like that. Most of the record shops are closing.
So you’d say it’s for the more discerning music enthusiast?
Definitely. It’s for people who went to see bands that blew their mind and wanted to even start a band or get into music, where music is really special to them and they listen to it all the time, checking out new stuff and they’ve got memories of old things. I think ATP appeals to them because it crosses a lot of those things, really.
Do you try to avoid associating ATP with indie rock, in particular?
I guess I’m an indie kid at heart. I guess we’ve been described as an indie festival, but indie is a bit of a weird term these days. You get some people who are on indie labels but they have the mindset of a corporate sort of thing. We have had a lot of indie guitar stuff over the course of time, but the curators we pick, it’s the music they’re into. Each one is different.
For example, that Mike Patton one we did with The Melvins, that was pretty eclectic because it had Taraf de Haidouks and then you had White Noise and Stockhausen and those sort of things, but you also had Mastodon and The Melvins. It was very different. I guess most of the best music around is coming from indie labels. That’s why we focus on it really, but we get criticized for having too many American bands. Someone said that but I just think a lot of the bands that come right out of England aren’t very good. There are some good ones, but on the whole, I think a lot of the best stuff around has been coming out of the States for a while.
What’s your favorite ATP festival moment, ever, stepping outside of the office and just walking around, watching the bands?
I remember the first time that Lightning Bolt came and played ATP. There were a lot of people that didn’t know who they were and then when they played on the floor and the actual great thing was seeing the reaction on peoples’ faces. They were like, “What the fuck is this?” That was really good. There are so many.
I think some of the best things I’ve seen, music wise, is Sleep performed ‘Holy Mountain’ earlier this year. The Boredoms did ‘Boardrum’ in New York. That’s some of the best things I’ve ever seen at the festival but I think highlights for me are things like Slint, because ‘Spiderland’ is probably one of my favorite records of all time. Getting to see them perform that live was… I had to move a few mountains to get those guys back together.
I was saying to David Pajo today that when I met them, Slint had never been in a room together, the 4 of them, for 13 years. I’m a huge Slint fan and I said to them – we went to Britt [Walford]’s house for this meeting. I was so excited I was there and I said to them, “Can I go to the toilet?” They were like, “Yeah” and I was in there – I didn’t actually need to go to the toilet. I was in behind the toilet door going like this, “Yes!!!” just freaking out. I told David today and he’s like, “Really?” and I’m like “Yeah!” [laughs]
It meant the world to me. As I’ve said to some people, it’s like – the way [music magazine] Mojo think about The Beatles, I think about Slint. It was really special to see that and to see them perform because they were someone I always wanted to see and never thought I would because they weren’t together. That always sticks in my mind as a real special thing. I feel proud that we’ve done them, really.
The same kind of thing with My Bloody Valentine, too. You were kind of one of the forces behind them getting back together.
Yeah, they hadn’t been together for 16 years and the thing is; a lot of people have made them offers over the years, but it’s like trying to lift an old truck from a swamp, trying to get it back into motion. It was possible but it needed help. I think we were able to present them the setup they needed to do it. Kevin was really kind to trust us to do that. We did it. The shows were fantastic and it worked really well.
I just think we look at things in a different way. Some people promote like, “You’ll make this much money,” but you need to sort of show the artist what they’re going to get from it, not just the money. It’s got to be the actual performance and what benefit they get from it too. I think that’s important and that gets overlooked by some people. That’s probably why we’ve got to work with so many great artists over the years because of our attention to detail. We put care into it.
I saw them all three nights, last weekend. I’m so glad I did. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen.
Had you seen them before?
No. It was cool to see ‘You Made Me Realise‘ three times. [Notably, because the band end the song with a 15ish minute noise jam known as the 'holocaust section'. It's fucking intense.]
Did you have ear plugs in?
I don’t know how they felt about the first show they did for us as warm-up show, at the ICA. I don’t think they were too into it, but the first time seeing those tracks being played live for a long time was like, “Whoa, this is going to be a joke.” When they went into a bigger room like the Round House and had the full PA, it was like a jet plane taking off.
What’s next for ATP? How do you go about planning for the next couple of years?
I’m in the process, I’m still booking Pavement, which is next year, and [The Simpsons creator]Matt Groening in May. Then I’m pursuing two curators for Christmas next year. I can’t say who they are just yet, but once I get them in place I’ve kind of got an idea of – we’ve had at least talks and I’ve got an idea of who they would want. I think it will surprise people because if both of them come off it will be things that people won’t be expecting. Again, we want to make is special because it’s the 10th year and we want to do the year-long celebrations and stuff.
You had the ATP film for the 10th anniversary, which I saw in my chalet the other day. Any plans for a book?
There has been talk of it. We were talking about maybe doing a kind of book, incorporating the artwork and stuff. Yeah, we’ve been approached by people to do it, so you never know… “You bought the t-shirt, you watched the film, now read the book!”
I’m sure there’s a market for it. ATP fans are pretty hardcore.
They are, but the thing is they’re not stupid. I couldn’t just put on a crap lineup because then people won’t come. It needs to be quality and people actually sit on the fence saying, “I’m thinking of going to this one but if they announce a couple of more bands” and then they do, but my favorite thing is watching kids on message boards, and I’ll be looking at various things because it’s always good to see what people are up to or saying. They’re always like, “Why the fuck did they get them to curate? They’re going to pick a load of shit!” and I remember when they did that with Mars Volta and Explosions In The Sky and then the same people 6 months later were going, “This is the best lineup ever. I’m totally going.” During all this time it was like, have patience. You need to see it unravel itself and I think it’s kind of good doing that because we know what’s coming and seeing the reaction from people is good.
Do you keep an eye on the feedback and reviews from attendees afterwards?
We do, we take things on board. If someone says I had a really shit time in this venue because of something like the lights might be wrong or the PA was in the wrong place, we don’t ignore that sort of thing. We take it on board and try and make each one better than the last one, like a new and improved formula each time we do it.
There are a few people here that haven’t been here since 2007 and the Pavilion Stage, which is the big room, we didn’t have those drapes down the side, and we didn’t have the star cloth. They make a massive difference to that room. We also changed the PA in the Center Stage where you were for My Bloody Valentine. Just lighting configurations and things like that but it’s all – we use feedback and we exploit it and make put it to use in a beneficial sense so that each time someone comes back they go, “Oh, this is fixed up.”
Better and better.
Yeah, if you rest on your laurels and go, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this great thing now and got the curator in, that’s it. You’ll fucking like it or lump it” then it won’t last another 10 years. Whether I’m still doing it in 10 years is another thing but I only want to keep doing it until I lose the fire inside me that started it. There are times when it goes out, but this weekend has definitely been a great one for us, just so many bands – they’re all old curators and people who have recorded for us, but also friends. Every time you walk around it’s like, “Hey, how are you doing?” The spirit here has been really good.
You went to last weekend. I didn’t feel that same atmosphere last weekend as I did at this one. Again, it’s like a different mix tape and a different interpretation. It was quite abrasive last weekend, the music and stuff. It was all that heavy guitar stuff. It was good, and it worked really well, but I think this one seemed to be a bit more eclectic.
Thanks for your time, Barry.
This interview was conducted for a story on behalf of Rolling Stone Australia, pictured left. Read that story here.
This is the full transcript of the December 2009 conversation I had with Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon, Creative Directors of Sony Music London, in their Kensington office. I interviewed them on behalf of The Music Network; you can read the published story here.[Note: if you're viewing this in an RSS reader, the video embeds might not work. I don't know why. Click through and view it on my blog.]
Andrew: The main reason I’m aware of your work is because of the few campaigns you’ve been behind in the last year, like AC/DC, Kasabian, Editors, and Calvin Harris. Those are the ones I’m aware of, but before we go into those, I thought I’d ask you how you got into the music industry, and why.
Steve [pictured right]: The reason I got into the music industry is because I’ve always loved music. From my early twenties, what I wanted was to get into the business side of it. Then I kind of got into the whole creative thing. I went to work at an indie label after graduating from uni, called Kitchenware Records, which is based up in Newcastle. They’re sort of big old indie from the ‘80s. I had lots of success in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and then they sort of reformed the label. It was a new entity in 2003.
I went to work for them in 2004 at the exact same time they signed a band called Editors, which you know of. I got interested in their situation of not having any money to do anything with, so it was like I was given a band to work with and then I’d have to do the artwork, make a music video, do stuff online, make websites, and all that sorts of stuff with zero pounds to work with, which is quite good. I might have spent a few years just sort of honing all these skills that crossed a wide range of areas, from web programming to production and film, so it all kind of came in handy when I came to Sony about two and a half years ago, and then Phil came in. They brought us in separately but then we got put together as a creative team and that’s it.
Phil [pictured below left]: I’ve basically spent the last ten years doing half my work in the music industry and half in advertising, in sort of digital agencies. I started off doing digital work around TV and then interactive TV. Then the dot-com crash happened and there weren’t any jobs, so I came to London. I got heavily into the club scene at the time, and met some people that were running nights and things like that. I ended up getting an office in an online radio station, which is in the Truman Brewery, and basically electronic artists were coming in to do shows and DJ on the station. I just ended up getting freelance work through that and I worked for years for an outfit called Sancho Panza, who are most famous for Notting Hill Carnival, for doing a big stage at Notting Hill Carnival. They also did warehouse parties and things like that.
From there I got offered a job at a record label, Sanctuary Records, which is now part of Universal. I started doing web stuff for them and after about three years there I got kind of fed up with the record industry as it was then and went back to advertising stuff. I worked at a digital ad agency and then a larger advertising group after that.
About two years ago I decided it was a good time to go back to music. Sony came knocking so I came and met Steve and decided I could probably work with him, and that’s that. We kind of kicked it off from there, essentially.
Is Creative Director a very common role within labels? I’ve not really heard of it before.
Steve: Not particularly. We’re quite unique in what we do, with regard to the type of work that we do in the music industry, I guess. Essentially we run almost a boutique agency in-house and our clients are with various labels within the Sony umbrella. I don’t think the other labels do that.
What it means is we essentially take on various groups from the big labels in here, which are Epic, Columbia, RCA, Syco, which is Simon Cowell’s label, and then some smaller labels, as well – Jive, and Deconstruction. What we do is get a brief of a band that Sony Music want to promote this band or this artist, then we come up with the creative and sort of service them as our clients.
Phil: We sort of created the advertising creative time type model inside of the record label, which is kind of unique. There really isn’t anyone else doing that. The reason we can do it is because we’ve spent years gaining these skills of design, programming, video production, music skills in Steve’s case as well. We don’t do tons and tons of that stuff, hands on, but if we have to we can. When we’re commissioning the work we know what to go and get. It makes it easier for us to run a complex project because we’ve done it all in the past and we know how to do it, essentially.
Steve: A lot of that stuff gets really complex at times. It’s quite weird; the sort of stuff we do is often experimental. You’re kind of always sitting on the edge; “is this going to work or not? Am I going to waste loads of money?”
Phil: We’re always sticking our necks out, I guess, and one of the reasons we can do that is because what we do is very cost effective. It’s not as expensive as traditional advertising so it means we can do things that reach more people without spending as much money. That gives us a little bit of freedom to experiment and do more exciting things. To be honest, it generally goes fairly well, but if you do make mistakes it’s not the end of the world because you’re only talking about relatively small amounts of money.
Steve: Yeah, we haven’t had any that haven’t worked out, yet.
Phil: We presented all our work at a creative review conference, last week. A lot of questions we had from the audience were all about “This seems very risky. How could I sell this to the client if I was at an agency?” On the one hand our answer was you need the experience to be able to pull stuff like this off. If you don’t have the experience it will go wrong. The other thing is a lot of the stuff we do is designed to be shared. We don’t buy media. We don’t pay for advertising space, and in a way, as long as you’re doing something with good intentions, the worst thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to languish in the corner of the Internet somewhere and no one is going to see it. It’s not like putting a really inappropriate advertising campaign across London on billboards or whatever. It’s a totally different proposition. That allows us to take a few more risks, I guess.
Steve: Going back to your question about our job title; I guess it depends on what you term as Creative Director. I think that’s slightly misleading. That’s what our titles are, and it’s in the context of what we do. I guess other labels have got creative directors, but probably do different things to us. I think what other labels – I’m not aware of any other labels who’ve got a creative team, in-house, who do this sort of work that Phil and I do. There are other creative directors in this building who look after different things, like artwork, or styling, and stuff like that. That’s just a title. It’s more about what we do, really.
I mentioned the four campaigns of yours that I’m aware of: Kasabian, AC/DC, Editors, and Calvin Harris. I’m interested in how you run these as online marketing campaigns. Say, for example Kasabian ['Football Hero' video embedded below]; could you talk me through how that idea started and how it came across through the production?
Steve: We work closely with a consumer insight team here. I guess part of what is loosely termed “briefing process” is that the consumer insight team, every time there is an artist with an album coming out, they do a lot of market research on that artist, on the audiences for that artist, and we have this thing called the ‘Segment Bible’, which is the UK music market split into 28 segments of consumer, based on age, interests, everything from what brands they buy, where they hang out, how much money they spend. It’s very in depth actually, so when we take on an act to do the online campaign for, we get told who the applicable segments are, and we get the opportunity to speak to people within that segment. They come in and we can talk to them. With Kasabian it was kind of – we already sort of know about Kasabian quite well because it’s their third album and –
Phil: But there were some pretty obvious things coming out. With Kasabian, we were looking at – we have this thing called an artist DNA, which is a document that sums up everything to do with the audiences for that audience, what matters to them about the band, and so there were really strong themes coming out of that to deal with football, gaming, and the way they hung out with them, what they actually did, what they’re into.
Steve: It’s interesting, that audience actually cares more about football and gaming than they do about music. Music is sort of a secondary thing in their lives.
Phil: It was kind of sensible to try and reach them through those channels so we basically said let’s come up with a piece of content that –
Steve: Kind of seems really obvious but I guess it wasn’t like a eureka moment but it was like – Kasabian is sort of synonymous with football, especially here in the UK.
Phil: If their music is used on the titles of the iTV football program and stuff like that and they’ve been on the Sony Bravia ad with Kaka, the Brazilian and AC Milan footballer. And also, the band are fans of football. They’re fans of Leicester City.
Steve: They are big football fans. We kind of started off on this idea of doing something with football and then I guess that kind of progressed. We were thinking about loads of different ideas and kind of progressed into gaming.
Phil: I guess quite a lot of that stuff involves music as well, so that kind of came around to trying to build a giant game of essentially a Guitar Hero type game that people could play with footballs. That was the pipe dream, and from then on it was trying to make it a reality. It was quite a lengthy process in the end!
Steve: I think that we were sitting downstairs there, when we finally got exactly what we wanted to do. Especially, we knew we wanted to get some really cool, freestyle footballers to do it as well. We don’t know any, so then we had the whole process of finding out how we could build it, who we could get to play it, where we could build it, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Again, we always work with fairly tight budgets and that was the case with this, as well. It had to be doable for a reasonably modest sum of money so that was a challenge as well. We used the hardware, and the software was all open source and it was pretty low cost, all that stuff. There was a very big production on the day but it was only for a day. The R&D process was relatively inexpensive. Then it was a case of building it and seeing how it would go, essentially, and spending a whole day building, and filming it.
Throughout the whole process is there the risk that the thing wouldn’t work or the footballers weren’t good enough to make it work?
Phil: Absolutely, yeah.
Steve: I think so, but –
Phil: We kind of knew that it would be okay.
Steve: Just the experience, you minimize all the risks, so –
Phil: The hardware, the actual game we built wasn’t technically complicated.
Steve: No, it was one of the least technical things that we’ve done, really.
Phil: That was okay. We knew that was going to be alright so it really came down to would the footballers have enough time to practice, because it was something that wasn’t going to be easy to play.
Steve: And, just the logistics of them playing it, balls bouncing everywhere, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: And the camera gear, as well, to be honest; there was a lot of expensive gear on the shoot and the balls were just flying everywhere. I was sure we were just going to smash everything.
Steve: Yeah, it was like – you can see in the film, there are the five footballers and each one of them has got a ball boy who is feeding them balls. Then, behind them are literally about 20 people shielding all of the cameras –
Phil: And jumping in front of the balls, saving something.
Steve: The cameras, and the monitors, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Yeah, the directors and monitors did get hit in the screen at one point, and it didn’t break. Luckily!
Steve: The thing is, and this is kind of what all our work is about; it’s an experiment and we’re not aiming to do things that are going to be perfect. What we want to do is to tell a story about how we did it, what we’re trying to do, and gear that towards an audience that is interested in that. No one is ever going to believe it if we made this –
Phil: It would be easy to fake –
Steve: … came in and faked it, and all the footballers play and get 100% and everyone is really happy. That’s not believable. To us, what we try and do is to create stories that people want to talk about. I think one of the main things that came out of the Kasabian one was most people said, “I’d love to have a go on that. It looks really difficult. It’s obviously difficult but how much fun is that.”
Phil: It’s like during the shoot, every time we’d stop the take and the footballers went off to have a drink or whatever, the whole crew was playing the game and we were creating just as much carnage ourselves as they were.
Steve: Most people we’ve spoke to since are like, “Where is it?” [laughs] We had to take it down, which was a shame.
Phil: As Steve says, it’s all about telling the story of what we’re doing. It’s not – we’re all about taking on ambitious experiments, trying to make them work, and documenting the process, and telling people about it. The way that works is it becomes an interesting story for people. They pass it on to their friends and it travels around naturally like that.
Steve: More importantly it becomes an interesting story for the type of people who we have an insight that they sort of might like that particular artist. Then it’s targeted marketing, essentially.
Phil: But it’s not that we’re pushing a message at people. We’re letting them spread it. It’s up to them. We’re not even expecting people to do it. It’s just if we create a piece of content that is good enough and interesting enough to those people, then they’ll naturally spread it around. That’s how your message gets out.
The way you describe it to me now, you knew that Kasabian fans were into football and gaming. It seems obvious that it was going to be a winner. I looked at it this morning. It was up to 800,000 views.
Phil: That’s been out for about a month now, so I think it’s still growing quicker than the AC/DC one did. [The Excel-based 'Rock N Roll Train' AC/DC video embedded below.]
Steve: That’s because it’s not the same segment as AC/DC. We sort of have an idea of population numbers of people in those segments.
Phil: There’s about 5 million, isn’t there?
Steve: 1.5 million in the UK. Then obviously our stuff sort of spreads around the world, as well. You can kind of get a good idea of whether you’re hitting the right people or not, and the amount of people in each territory that are hitting, and you get a good percentage on that from what you’ve spent to do it against how effective it’s been.
Beyond the view count, what are the metrics you use to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns?
Steve: We look at – I guess you could say a lot of people write stuff about what we do, and blog about it, and that’s one of the aims – to get people to share.
Phil: It’s less about the view count, to be honest – actually, those view counts, on average 70% of those views come from embedded videos and articles, and blogs and things. It’s much more about securing coverage in the right channels, that we know that the targeted audience reads. If ‘Football Hero’ pops up in the tech channels, the gaming channels, and sports channels, it could be newspapers, blogs, or whatever, then we know that we’ve done the job.
Steve: That one – most of the stuff that we’ve done often spreads out into traditional press, TV, and stuff like that as well.
Which is the ultimate, in many ways, wouldn’t it be? Obviously, your work is online based, but making that leap across is quite the achievement.
Steve: It’s quite interesting the way that you see it. It all transcends through various audience groups. When you read a newspaper, you’re kind of always reading yesterday’s news online. It’s like you pick up today’s newspaper and apart from the breaking stories, you could have read about all this stuff yesterday on Twitter, or blogs or stuff like that. It is interesting when you see – we don’t really press release what we do so it’s nice when you see a journalist has obviously seen it, and picked it up, and then written about it in the newspaper. It’s kind of cool.
Phil: Yeah, that’s kind of that natural spread. That’s what we kind of aim for. What we try and do is to earn our own media so that’s really the magic – getting in the right media and in the right place. If we did, then fine, that’s the job done sort of thing.
Steve: We believe that you shouldn’t have to pay for media, especially not online, because banner ads are really ineffective, and companies still spend a lot of money putting these banner ads on various sites.
Phil: Yeah, they’re utterly ineffective. I think it’s fair enough; if you want to advertise outdoors, for whatever reason, then you’re going to have to pay to get billboards. It’s as simple as that. But, if you want to advertise online, then it makes much more sense to me to try and earn your own media, in the editorial of sites, and stuff, rather than trying to buy ad space where no-one’s looking. And in order to do that, there’s no shortcut to it. You have to create content that people care about, essentially.
And as well as the content, the relationships with those people who write the content, I assume.
Phil: Oh, not necessarily. You’d be surprised.
Steve: I don’t think that’s as important because even the way that we sort of go about launching a campaign, we kind of experiment with a lot. Pretty much, our launch plan is to send it to a couple of blogs and –
Phil: Yeah, so in a particular area there might be a fanatical blog about something to do with electronics, or football, or something like that. Then we’ll send it to one of them and say, “We’ve made this thing. Do you like it? Do you want to cover it?”
Steve: One thing that we’ve sort of found is that generally bloggers and journalists want to kind of write their own content. They want to write their opinion on things and I think when you press release stuff, and you sort of bombard them with the copy, you tend to get a fairly uniform story but there’s not going to be much passion in it.
Phil: There is not much variety, so you get the same story everywhere. What we try and do is don’t even press release.
Steve: We just let people pick up on it because I guess if it’s good, people will do that. If it’s compelling, people want to share it. That just happens.
Phil: They’ll come to you with questions if they have questions, and you can answer them.
Steve: But you get people who write in about it for real, and you get people saying, “I’ve just seen this in Wired and here’s my opinion on it.” I guess people will talk.
I saw AC/DC on Wired last year. I saw Editors on Creative Review['Editors Hack Google Street View' video embedded below], and I’m not sure where I found the other two.
So you guys didn’t really coordinate those placements?
Phil: Well, Creative Review, we’ll tell them what we’re up to. They don’t have to cover it, but we’ll tell them.
Steve: We’ve got a bit of a relationship with Creative Review, just in terms of we speak at some of their conferences and stuff like that.
Phil: Which is like a London digital industry, digital advertising conference run by Creative Review. Inevitably, you end up making some contacts, so next time we go back to – do you know Make Magazine, which is like a – we’ve got a great contact at Make, a real nice guy who’s interested in the technical side of what we do. We’ll tell him about what projects we’re doing and he’ll go, “Oh, I like this one, and I’ll write about this one,” or whatever. He’ll ask us some questions.
Steve: Yeah, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s more like conversation, only it’s the work that we’re up to at the minute. I think that it also depends on the type of project that you do because Creative Review, I guess will cover our stuff; it’s more of an industry thing. It sort of – because the projects vary quite a bit, you’re looking at different target audiences for it. We might not always have stuff that Make are going to cover, or Wired or people like that. It’s more about allowing self discovery in the channels of that audience.
Phil: When it came to Kasabian, we didn’t really know anyone in the gaming channels at all, but we didn’t have to worry about it – or football, but we didn’t need to worry about that. It just came up in all the major gaming sites, major football sites. It’s much more about making good content. You need to get it out there, at the same time. Once it’s out there, small waves –
Steve: I guess our theory is that if it’s good, and it’s compelling for people to share, it will do it anyway. If it doesn’t, then your content’s not good.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because it’s such a different way of thinking from the old way of spending on billboards, like you said earlier.
Steve: It’s like Phil said; instead of being a push model, it’s a pull model. Yeah, you’re exactly right; it’s completely different from just putting things in front of everyone’s faces. It’s allowing –
…the right faces, ones who will be interested in it, because it appears in those channels.
Phil: Yeah, so instead of pushing a message out and paying for media for it to be there, you are putting a piece of content out and hoping it will pull people to it, and that people will share it around. It’s totally about making the content compelling and tailoring it to the right audience. It would be difficult to be doing that without the targeting information.
Steve: We sort of talk about this a lot and talk about this with other people; I guess a lot of it is sort of digital creative agencies or creative agencies doing this type of content – I know a lot of people who do some really great work, and it’s really cool ideas, but I guess what we do which a lot of people don’t do is really think about who we’re targeting, rather than just having a cool idea. It’s having a cool idea for the right audience because it might be, sometimes, that we have to sell something to a bunch of 35-year old women, and it’s really easy to make assumptions and make mistakes when you’re making something that you think’s going to appeal to them. So having all this insight and artist DNA and stuff like that helps find something that you’ve got a good idea that they will be interested. They won’t feel like they’re being advertised to.
Phil: You’ve got to get out there and put yourself into their head essentially, and think, “Alright, if I was this type of person, what would I…” The actual people in the insight department will go as far to do this. They’ll spend a week in the life of a particular segment; they’ll consume the right media, go to the right things, so they’ll try to experience that person’s world so they understand it better.
A lot of people say, “That’s not very cool, targeting stuff, and consumer insight,” but what you’re doing is instead of filling the world with advertising which is generic, not aimed at anyone, and annoying for vast quantities of people, instead you’re trying to make something a certain type of person will be interested in. It will reach them naturally, through their friends, and the rest of them through channels they’ve been seeing, and the rest of the people just might see it. In a way, I would argue that type of advertising is more sensitive to end users than the current model of push advertising.
Steve: Yeah, and it’s interesting that it’s not really about numbers, either. It’s about quality of engagement and the people that you’re engaging.
Phil: Some of the segments have a very small active population so what we call the fanatical segments, which are really enthusiastic about music, and there’s not many of them. There might be 50,000 in the country.
Steve: If that’s who you’re aiming for, if that’s who you’re aiming a particular creative ad, in order to get something back out of it, then it’s not really about numbers; it’s about engaging those particular people.
Phil: So on the fanatics, we’ll look for smaller numbers, but engaging them for a longer period of time. The Editors project, that’s aimed at a fanatical segment, and that’s looking at smaller numbers. Something like 100,000.
Steve: But you’re looking at stupidly high engagement rates.
Phil: Yeah, like over 3 minutes per person, and an average of 4 tracks each across the application. That’s the opposite way of doing it. Some of the segments are, “Right, let’s go for a big audience, with low engagement.”
Steve: I guess it depends on the objectives of what you’re trying to do, and it really has to support the wider market and campaign for the ad, as well.
Phil: There will be other activity going on, posters and things like that, and events. Ideally, our activity will create a sort of buzz in the news at the same time as all that auxillary stuff is going around. Next time somebody’s buying some music, they’ll have it in their head that they’ve enjoyed this bit of content with that music in it.
You’ve had a few successes with these kinds of campaigns now. How do you think the label management view these kinds of campaigns? Are they starting to see more value, giving you guys a bigger budget to work with for these kinds of projects?
Steve: Kind of, I think it’s like anything; the music industry is very similar to the advertising industry as well. It sort of takes a long time to turn things around to new models, and to change the behaviors of old, in terms of something huge like advertising. Really, it’s about the way that people consume media, which is changing. Any big company that starts looking at new areas like that, it’s a bit like turning a super tanker. I guess it’s slowly but surely – we’ve kind of started rolling these campaigns out. We don’t spend enormous amounts of money, at all. In fact, anything but – it’s really modest sums, especially for the advertising world. It would be like pocket change.
I guess the labels and the company in general sort of do attach value to what we do because we’re kind of proving we don’t need to do media spend, that we get really good engagement rates, and that we’re making interesting content that people are interested in, that isn’t just a Kasabian album out now. I guess budgets are going up a bit, but then –
Phil: I think we may be seeing that over the last two years, they’ve gradually given us more freedom and more autonomy to do what we do. It isn’t directly giving us more money for our projects but they’ve made it gradually easier for us to do.
Steve: I think that’s like a trust. I think sometimes an artist or artist manager might kind of see on paper what we’ve proposed to do and kind of go, “Ew, that’s different,” and they’re very sensitive to how artists are perceived by the public and things like that. I guess when we do stuff they feel like they’re taking a bit of risk, as well, but I guess the more we do this stuff, the more people see that it actually works and we sort of do the artist good. I guess more freedom comes from having that trust.
Phil: I’d say that’s been the major change to the artists. It’s not like we’ve suddenly got tons of money to spend, but we do definitely have more freedom now and definitely have more trust from the managers and artists and people like that. That kind of comes back into the work, so that we can do better work next time around.
Steve: The other thing about budgets is sometimes having endless budgets stifles your creativity. I think it’s nice to be able to execute stuff within the budgets that we do, and execute it well. Often, it means that we are very hands on, but I guess that being hands on means we also sort of keep an element of control and ownership over what we do so we get it the way we want it. We don’t just have an idea, then pass it to someone else and say, “Go and make that.”
Phil: Under some extreme circumstances, we’ve actually been cleaning the floor after the shoot. If it has to be done, we’ll do it.
Steve: Exactly, and I think that’s good too, because you think, “What’s the best that I can achieve for this amount of money that I’ve got to spend, when I can’t actually just go in and pay for lots of people to go do it?”
Phil: It’s a bit like you’ll spend what you’re given, generally, so someone gives you fifty grand, you’ll spend fifty grand, but that doesn’t mean the work is going to be any better than if they’d given you twenty.
Steve: I guess one of the things, as well, is that because we’re kind like an internal agency, we’re not trying to make money out of anyone. We’re actually just spending what we need to spend to do the project. It might be sometimes that actually what we need to spend is half of the budget that we’ve been given, and in that case – brilliant. Often, it’s not. Often, we’re sort of sitting on the very edge of what we’ve got to spend because it’s often not very much, but –
Phil: Yeah, in theory, if we didn’t need the whole thing, we wouldn’t spend it, but in practice you’re talking about such small budgets that we do spend it all.
Steve: We’re working on a new project at the minute. It’s quite difficult. One of the guys that helped on the Calvin Harris project. ['Humanthesizer' video embedded below.]
Which other labels or teams in the industry are you aware of who do similar stuff to you guys? Do you think you’re unique?
Phil: There isn’t anybody doing what we do.
Steve: In the advertising industry, for sure.
Phil: There are some campaigns, like you might have seen the Oasis campaign –
Phil: Yeah, and that’s BBH in New York, an ad agency.
Steve: There are a lot of ad agencies that we really like the work of, and that we see doing really good work.
Phil: That’s who we see our peers as other people in the advertising industry, rather than –
Steve: Rather than the music industry. What we do is advertising for the music industry. That’s why we’ve got interesting projects to work with. We’re not trying to sell dog food. It kind of makes your job quite fun.
Phil: Less soul-destroying.
It does sound like a pretty awesome job, to get to be creative with artists’ work.
Steve: It is really cool, actually. We have a lot of fun.
Phil: Can’t complain.
Steve: We have loads of fun doing what we do. It sort of is cool to be able to have really creative ideas and then be able to execute them for products that you’re actually quite passionate about or even if not passionate about, just sort of is more interesting than something which people generally find mundane. I’m not hugely into commercial pop music, but when you’re doing something for a really commercial pop act, and you see the people that you’re engaging, they’re really passionate about it so it kind of makes what you do feel worthwhile, rather than sort of –
Phil: Trying to sell people something they don’t need.
Steve: Yeah, try to sell a product that people don’t have – don’t care about at all. It’s completely different and it does make the job sort of really worthwhile and really good fun to do.
Phil: I guess the other side of it is we’re always seeing R&D on new ideas, new technologies, and new things that we might develop and we have the freedom to be able to do that alongside our normal work, so that’s really good fun. We’re always tinkering with something, making something new, or trying to investigate how to do something.
That’s what I really enjoy, just getting my teeth into something that looks impossible and trying to make it happen. We’ll be trolling through the Internet, looking at writing programs, and drawing things, and trying to work out if we can make something work. It’s another fun side of it, what’s coming next, what are we going to do next.
I’ll leave it there. I’m out of questions. Could I grab a photo of you two as you are now?
Here’s a story for Rolling Stone that I wrote while in England for the 10th anniversary of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which was headlined by The Mars Volta, Explosions In The Sky, Modest Mouse, Battles and like a hundred other awesome bands.
I was there for the Nightmare Before Xmas festival curated by My Bloody Valentine the weekend before, too, and throughout the week for the In Between Days nightly shows. The entire experience was brilliant, but seeing Dirty Three play their album Horse Stories to around a hundred people on a Tuesday night was just something else.
This story includes an interview with ATP founder Barry Hogan. Check back for the full transcript of our conversation in a couple of days. Click the image to the right to take a closer look; article text is included below.
All Tomorrow’s Parties Turns Ten
“The ultimate mixtape” as Thurston Moore described it, celebrates a decade.
Indoor stages. Hour-long sets. Secure, comfortable accommodation. Rock trivia. Performers who favour watching bands with the crowd, instead of hanging backstage. An overwhelmingly positive, respectful community vibe.
These factors might not have figured into your last experience at a major Australian festival, but it’s reality for those who attend All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP), which celebrated its tenth birthday in mid-December 2009.
Built upon a core ethos of respecting the concertgoer, All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festivals are held in unique locales across a weekend. Bands are asked to choose the acts they’d like to see, which has resulted in artists like My Bloody Valentine, The Flaming Lips and Dirty Three curating for the pleasure of their open-minded fans. Like a balanced mixtape from a worldly friend, you’re likely to find a handful of bands you’ve never heard, but who you’ll soon love.
ATP’s UK home is the 6,000-capacity Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. The 10 Years Of ATP line-up included an array of ATP friends, associates and past curators, including The Mars Volta, Explosions In The Sky and Modest Mouse. Between bands, founder Barry Hogan reflected on how ATP has evolved from a weekend festival to a label and a community of passionate music fans in its own right.
According to Hogan, the average ATP concertgoer is “the sort of person who, when they buy records, want to know the name of the producer and the studio where it was recorded. Not exactly record nerds, but people who actually give a shit about music. They don’t buy CDs in supermarkets, which seems to be one of the few places you can buy music these days.”
The artist-chosen festival line-ups allows Hogan and his team to sidestep hype and work on their own terms. “It’s good having a curator,” Hogan says, “because it means we’re working within their tastes and desires, instead of agents, magazines, and labels all going, “You must put this band on because they’re the hot new thing.”
Hogan worked on the Belle and Sebastian-curated Bowlie Weekender in 1999. ATP – named after a 1966 Velvet Underground song – is based on Bowlie’s artist-as-curator concept. The festival ventured to Australia in January 2009, featuring a centrepiece weekend event at the off-season Mount Buller Ski Resort; day shows in Brisbane and Sydney followed. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were the inaugural Australian curators.
Hogan’s offshoot ATP Recordings label has released music by dozens of indie artists, like British electronic/noise duo Fuck Buttons and Australian rock act The Drones. “We put out a lot of records that don’t necessarily sell a great deal, but ATP fans are generally willing to take a chance with our artists because they know we’re not going to put out Coldplay or Miley Cyrus records.”
Memorable moments for the ATP founder? “I remember the first time that (Rhode Island experimental noise duo) Lightning Bolt played. Most people didn’t know their music or that they played on the floor; the great thing was seeing the reaction on peoples’ faces: “What the fuck is this?!”. And I’ll never forget the day Sonic Youth confirmed to headline our first event, curated by Mogwai. The minute they came on board, sales soared, and we never looked back.”
Trendsetters: Sony Music London’s Creative Directors
They’re each experienced within the music and advertising industries, but it’s largely the time spent in the latter that colours their development of a major label’s creative sector as both industry award-winner and music fan-favourite.
What sets them apart is that you won’t find their work on billboards or posters, which is unorthodox for a pair of music marketers. No, you’re more likely to come across the work of Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon – Creative Directors at Sony Music London – when a friend posts one of their video projects on your Facebook wall with an approving comment.
Top four in their recent portfolio, which can be easily found on YouTube:
The world’s first Microsoft Excel music video, which was created to let cubicle-confined hard rock fans watch the latest AC/DC clip from behind corporate firewalls.
A web short featuring the ‘humanthesizer‘, wherein body-painted, bikini-clad models debuted the first human synth to the Calvin Harris track ‘Ready For The Weekend’.
A Google Street View ‘hack’ promoting rock band Editors, where fans could use the software application to visit the British landmarks that inspired the creation of their latest album, while it played in the background.
And most recently, a giant game of Guitar Hero set to a Kasabian song, which is played by kicking soccer balls against a warehouse wall.
I met with Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon in Sony’s Kensington office to discuss their unique approach to web-based music marketing, and to understand how they took the Kasabian project from concept to execution, to nearly 850,000 YouTube views in a month.
In their own words
As Milbourne describes it, he and Clandillon essentially run a boutique advertising agency in-house. Their clients are signed to various labels under the Sony umbrella. And to their knowledge, there’s not really anyone else who operates within the music industry who operate as they do.
Milbourne continues: “The reason we can do what we do is because we’ve spent years gaining skills in design, programming, and video production. The sort of stuff we do is often experimental; we’re usually sitting on-edge; ‘Is this going to work or not? Am I going to waste loads of money?’”
Though they’re often sticking their necks out, the pair are able to operate cost-effectively. Their method isn’t as expensive as traditional advertising, so they’re able to work on projects that reach more people without spending as much money.
Clandillon [pictured left] explains: “We’re awarded the freedom to experiment and do more exciting things. It generally goes fairly well, but if you do make mistakes it’s not the end of the world because you’re only talking about relatively small amounts of money. But we haven’t had any that haven’t worked out, yet.”
When they presented their music industry work at Creative Review’s Click London conference in November, the audience asked questions like: “This seems very risky. How could I sell this to the client if I was at an ad agency?”
Their response was simple: a strong reputation built upon experience and dedication. As Milbourne says, “If you don’t have the experience, it can easily go wrong.”
Their approach mostly significantly differs from traditional music marketing because they don’t buy media. Instead, their innovative videos tend to become social objects, which are shared rapidly between individuals en masse, thus demonstrating the nature of viral internet content.
Clandillon elaborates: “Our work is designed to be shared. We don’t pay for advertising space, and in a way, as long as you’re doing something with good intentions, the worst thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to languish in the corner of the internet and no one is going to see it. It’s not like putting a really inappropriate advertising campaign across London on billboards. It’s a totally different proposition, which allows us to take a few more risks.”
Case study: ‘Football Hero’
Risk-taking, indeed: on paper, their ‘Football Hero’ short film was Clandillon and Milbourne’s most outlandish yet. Uploaded in October 2009, it was devised as an experiment to create a Guitar Hero-type game played by footballs. The game was constructed in a West London warehouse, before a talented team of young freestyle footballers were drafted in to play it. The project was created to promote the Kasabian single ‘Underdog’, and was carried out in collaboration with UK sports brand Umbro. [The video is embedded below.]
Clandillon explains: “The game was powered by the open-source Guitar Hero clone, Frets On Fire, and we used two projectors to create a three story-high image on the side of the warehouse wall. The coloured buttons on the typical guitar controller were replaced by five huge pressure sensitive pads, which were carefully positioned on the wall in order to line up with the game’s descending notes.”
Why Kasabian, though? He continues: “Whenever we’re about to promote a band, we refer to in-depth artist insight that sums up everything to do with the fanbase for that artist; essentially, what matters to the band’s fans. With Kasabian, there were really strong football and gaming themes coming out.”
According to Milbourne [pictured right], Kasabian’s fanbase audience seemed to care more about football and gaming than they do about music. Music is a secondary thing in their lives. As a result, in the video’s final cut, the story of the footballers and their quest to finish ‘playing’ the song is given prominence over the song itself.
“We knew we wanted to get some really cool freestyle footballers to do it as well,” he continues. “We didn’t know any, so as well as the whole process of finding out how we could build it and who we could use, we had to find out who we could get to play it…”
When asked about working on tight budgets, Clandillon elucidates: “The hardware didn’t cost much, and the software was all open source. There was a big production for the video, but it was only for a day. The R&D process was relatively inexpensive. Then it was a case of building it and seeing how it would go. We spent a whole day building the game, and filming it being played. We’re all about taking on ambitious experiments, trying to make them work, documenting the process, and telling people about it.”
Above all, the aim is for the ‘Football Hero’ project was to create an interesting story for people, who’re then compelled to pass it on to their friends. The pair explain that the goal is always to attract the attention of the type of people who might like that particular artist. Essentially, it’s targeted marketing, but under the guise of an entertaining video.
Having had a few popular successes with these kinds of web video campaigns, how do the two feel Sony’s management view these kinds of campaigns?
Milbourne [pictured right] is philosophical. “The music and advertising industries are similar in that it takes a long time to turn things around to new models, and to change the behaviors of old. The biggest shift right now is in the way that people consume media. Any big company that starts looking at new areas like that, it’s a bit like turning a super tanker. In our case, it’s slowly but surely. The labels we work with, and Sony Music in general do attach value to what we do, because we’re continually proving we don’t need to do media spend, that we get really good engagement rates, and that we’re making content that people are interested in, as opposed to the standard album release.”
Clandillon concludes: “Over last two years, they’ve gradually given us more freedom and more autonomy to do what we do. We’ve got more trust from the managers and artists; that all comes back into the projects, so that we can do better work, next time around.”