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Brisbane’s Live Tempo Escalates
A rebranded Brisbane venue seeks to provide emerging live artists with opportunities to build their fanbase from the grassroots up.
Situated at the corner of Brunswick and McLachlan streets in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is The Tempo Hotel, the newly-rebranded venue better known to locals as Dooley’s or, in recent years, Bar 388. Last month it was purchased by hotel operator – and avowed live music fan – Steve Hammond, who also owns another high profile property in the Queensland capital: Chalk in Woolloongabba, and previously, The Regatta in Toowong.
In 2008, Chalk became the new home of acoustic showcase fRETfEST, which was established in 1997 by Alan Buchan. Based on the strength of that relationship and Buchan’s unwavering passion for providing young musicians with the chance to strut their stuff onstage, Hammond offered the fRETfEST founder the chance to curate ‘Escalate’, a weekly platform for emerging bands and artists to play in a public venue before both Brisbane’s live music fans, and industry tastemakers with an interest in scoping out local talent.
Held on Tuesday afternoons from 3pm onwards, Buchan’s role as ‘Escalate’ musical curator and general artist go-between is to inform young Brisbane musos about the opportunity: a big stage, a hefty PA, professional sound and lighting, and cheap food and drinks. Though the bands who play ‘Escalate’ won’t be paid at this stage, Buchan points out that the venue is a block from the heart of The Valley, where public opportunities for performing artists are often stifled by accessibility and venue policies.
The new event is a platform upon which to build an audience, in addition to the bar’s existing live entertainment on other nights of the week. At the event’s pre-launch last Tuesday, Buchan told The Music Network: “If we discover enough bands through this avenue, then we’ll look to expand this onto other nights.” In line with the curator’s goals of connecting young Brisbane performers regardless of their style of playing, ‘Escalate’ is not genre-specific: in his words, everyone from “metal to Irish folk” is invited to play.
“With ‘Escalate’, we simply want to provide the opportunity for good bands to play,” Buchan suggests. “If you’re bringing your mates, if you’re easy to work with, and you’ve got a great sound – we’ll include you. Ultimately, what we’re aiming to do is provide more opportunities the most reliable bands with the best sound and attitude.”
Tempo owner Steve Hammond had music on his mind when purchasing the venue. “I thought, ‘where can young bands these days get a start these days?” he says. “[They] can’t get a spot on a Friday or Saturday because that’s the Valley venues’ best times, when the public want to come in. I went to Alan Buchan and asked how we could get this off the ground, and here we are. This is the pre-launch event; we haven’t hit [‘Escalate’] with much advertising just yet, but we’ll get it right. It’s all ‘suck and see’ at the moment.”
Beginning at 3pm Tuesday and allocating up to 90 minutes per act, ‘Escalate’ is aimed at showcasing ‘entry level bands’; as defined by Buchan, “those who haven’t got a record deal yet”. The event is inclusive for bands of all ages; both covers and original are favoured, though the curator states a preference for original acts.
While the whole initiative is still very much “in start-up mode”, as Buchan puts it, Hammond hints at a longview for the new initiative which should be attractive to local acts: “Every month we’d like to pick a couple of the best bands from ‘Escalate’ and stick them into a paid weekend support slot.”
Beyond fRETfEST, Buchan is a stage manager at the annual Woodford Folk Festival, which now allocates a few hours per year to the curator’s hottest fRETfEST picks. He understands that the music industry is built upon relationships and communication. “My role with ‘Escalate’ is to connect young bands with Steve and his facility here, to open the doors for them to come in and play.”
As the first performer at ‘Escalate’ prepares to take the stage, Buchan concludes: “It’s exciting to be part of a grassroots movement that supports original live music. I’m looking forward to escalating Brisbane’s best new bands, and giving them the opportunity to take their music and their experience to the next level.”
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?
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.”
Here’s a story that appeared in The Music Network in October 2009. The published article was reduced from 1200 to 650 words; my original Q+A in its entirety is below.
Andrew McMillen gets to know Jason Bentley [pictured below left], Music Director of influential Santa Monica, California-based public radio station KCRW, ahead of his appearance at Perth’s One Movement For Music as panellist and DJ.
Jason Bentley is a man of many talents. He’s equally at home supervising music for film – as evidenced by The Matrix trilogy – or serving in an A&R capacity, which he has done for both Madonna’s Maverick label as well as his own Quango Music Group. Most notably, he’s been KCRW’s Music Director since November 2008.
Jason, what does the role of KCRW Music Director mean to you?
It’s a dream job for me, since I’ve really grown up at KCRW. I started as a phone volunteer in the front office the summer after high school, more than 20 years ago. But apart from my own personal journey, the position holds a key tastemaker profile that has been developed by the three Music Directors before me. KCRW has a rarefied position in the world of arts and culture in the US, and so there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that.
The two separate aspects of the job are hosting/producing the morning show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, on a daily basis, and then managing the music department. The latter includes coordinating on-air staff and our music initiatives in the community.
Have you found that KCRW’s role within the music community has changed since you took on the role?
I think our role has been consistent in serving the community. We’re listener-supported, so it’s about delivering compelling radio and looking to grow that support base. I am hoping that the work we do in the music department and overall at the station can grow our audience, both to our terrestrial radio audience in Southern California, and online to a global listenership.
As Music Director, you must get a lot of bands approaching you. Speaking broadly, how do you prefer that bands go about doing this?
Ideally, a band will just focus on their art, and I’ll ultimately find them. Because I’m a DJ in the sense of someone who seeks exciting new music, you can be sure that if a band is doing the right things and creating their own buzz, then I’ll pick up on that. I’m truly passionate about what I do, and I’m never very interested in things that are being pushed on me. It’s a turn-off.
Which are you more likely to pay attention to: a band who’re backed by a large marketing budget, or a band who becomes known in indie and niche communities?
It always starts with the music first, no matter if it’s an indie or major label. The music has to be great. If I hear something that I think will work for us, I’ll start with some airplay and get a sense of how it sounds. I’ll pay some attention to listener feedback, via phone inquiries and online chatter. Once we have a bit of airplay established for an artist, I do look for other elements to kick in, whether that’s buzz online, touring, CD sales, remixes, and so on.
But essentially, it’s important to be able to connect the dots with other parts of the market. If I start to feel like I’m the only one supporting a band, then it’s only a matter of time before I will move away from that record. This is one of the dangers of getting music too early, because I may be playing a record six months before anything else is lined up for the artist. Having said that, some bands want to use the early support from KCRW to actually get a record deal or touring opportunities. Early airplay may not be a bad thing in those cases.
Are you a fan of any Australian bands that you’d like to mention? How did you discover these bands?
Two examples: I was recently pointed to The Middle East by their US manager, who I have known for years. He sent me a couple of songs and a video in an email. I thought the music was great, and I played them on the air the next morning.
Also, The Boat People had performed in-studio at KCRW prior to my tenure as Music Director, and they had already been green-lit to play our KCRW SXSW music festival showcase, so once I was in the MD position I checked them out and thought they were terrific. Their show at SXSW was really solid and they’re a great group.
How do you prefer to be approached by unfamiliar artists?
There are many ways for me to find new bands, but my favourite way is through the sense of discovery that I can trace back to being a teenager looking through vinyl stacks at local record shops. As a fan and collector, it’s the passion and personal interest that still gives me the greatest sense of reward. If you can feed my insatiable hunger for exciting new music, then you’ve got the best chance at winning me over as a supporter.
What do Australian bands need to have in place before they attempt to ‘break’ the American market?
It’s about talent, and a lot of hard work on the road. I think that right now is a very good time for independent artists, but it takes time and dedication. Don’t expect to skip any steps and become an overnight sensation; you’ve got the same chance at winning the lottery. Instead, work on building your own fanbase and surrounding yourself with talented people in various capacities. You can’t do it all on your own, so find like-minded people that have talents in complementary areas.
You’re heading to Perth next week for One Movement. How do you prefer to be approached by bands and managers in this situation?
When I attend music conferences, I inevitably come away with a massive stack of CDs, and I actually try to sift through a lot of it and convert it to digital before I even leave town so I don’t have to pack the CDs on the flight. The music is going to end up on a hard drive anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether that happens in the hotel room or in my office back home.
I can usually eliminate a certain amount of material just based on the most obvious indicators. If it looks like plastic pop drivel, it usually is just that. After all these years, and with hundreds of music pitches coming my way each week, I’m pretty good at calling it like I see it.
I do look at a variety of indicators that may be a simple as cover art – or lack thereof; band name, label, where it’s coming from, descriptions included, or if I’ve heard of the band before. The reality is that I simply cannot listen to every single submission, so there is always going to be an initial pass of weeding out things that do not seem like they’re in the realm of what we do at KCRW.
Jason Bentley is the Music Director of Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW. His signature music show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, can be streamed online 24/7.
Ahead of October’s One Movement For Music Perth debut, Andrew McMillen spoke with the manager of an Asian pop singer and the lead guitarist of a German funk-rock band to gain some perspective on the Asian and European music industries.
Hailed as Asia’s ‘Queen Of Pop’, 28-year old Tata Young [pictured right] has garnered impressive accolades throughout her career, which began as a teen superstar in the mid-1990s. Young has since sold over 14 million albums – recorded both in Thai and English – and will venture to Australia for the first time this October.
Myke Brown, Young’s manager since 2002, is quick to admit the difficulties associated with establishing an artist in a different culture: “Bringing any new act into any new market is always tough. Australia will also be a challenge, but we feel we’re very well prepared. We plan on releasing in Australia this year, probably sometime after One Movement. Tata’s October show will be a bit of a sneak-peek preview for Australian audiences.”
Of particular interest to readers of The Music Network and attendees at One Movement For Music is the West Australia-meets-East-Asia angle. As a veteran of the Asian music business, Brown is well-versed in their slow-and-steady methodology.
“Asians have a different approach to business. They’ll tend to want to get to know your origins, your past, and your future goals. From an Asian perspective, once you intimately know that person, you trust them, and only then – over a period of years – are you ready to do business. Western minds tend to want to meet you and cut a deal on the same day!”
A final word from Myke Brown on which skills and personality traits are required to succeed as an artist manager: “An extreme amount of understanding and patience. In Asia, you hop over one country and you’re in a completely different language. If you’re a band manager, you have to be able to communicate on not only language, but cultural levels. You must respect all cultures. It’s a monumental task for a lot of people. For those who understand, it’s about moving slowly and not barking out orders. They move through it like water.”
From Asian pop to German funk-rock: following a successful jaunt to MUSEXPO Los Angeles in June, Sorgente [pictured below left] are another act making their Australian debut at One Movement. Lead guitarist Jakob Biazza elaborates on the interest that the American industry showed the six-piece in LA.
“It was our first industry showcase outside of Germany. We played The Viper Room in front of mostly business people, but since we made a lot of contacts in LA, we had about 50 or 60 fans in front of the stage as well. It’s always an amazing chance to play outside of Europe. We took a camera man from LA to film the whole trip, and we’re editing a 90-minute documentary about the whole trip.”
Outcomes from their first industry showcase debut? “We’ll probably release our first album, Let Me In, in the States. We made a lot of friends there, a lot of people who want to help us with shows in the Santa Monica and LA area. Of course, we got invited to Australia, which is totally weird; from playing in LA, to getting an invitation to another continent. We’re pretty close to a world tour!” Biazza laughs.
The guitarist is adamant that the band remain independent, after splitting from their first label due to some undisclosed “really bad experiences”. As for the advantages of DYI, Biazza is optimistic: “Who we want to work with, who does what for the band, album artwork; all of those decisions stay with us. We can decide what we’re going to do, when we’re going to do it, and how we’re going to do it.”
Music videos that achieve so-called ‘viral’ spread via word-of-mouth referrals are one of the biggest components of the social web – over half of the most-viewed YouTube videos of all time are music-related. In recent weeks, the ‘JK Wedding Video‘ showed that the inclusion of a particular song can boost sales significantly, as in the case of Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’. Years ago, Australian band The Sick Puppies found the same thing when their song was included in Juan Mann’s 2006 clip ‘Free Hugs Campaign‘, which is still the #1 viewed video of all time.
Andrew McMillen investigates two tales of recent Australian viral video success: one a signed act, one unsigned.
Abbey Road, London, early one February morning. Dozens of vehicles are bound for dozens of destinations, but not before the daily crowd of tourists continually hold up traffic to re-enact that famous image from The Beatles’ final studio album. Footage is alternately fast-forwarded and slowed to normal speed as group after group step over the crossing’s well-trodden white lines, while Blame Ringo’s wistful indie pop provides the soundtrack to a mesmerising display of human imitation and reminiscence.
Released in February 2009, Brisbane’s Blame Ringo [pictured right] found a worldwide audience with their hastily-filmed video for ‘Garble Arch’; subtitled ‘A Day In The Life Of Abbey Road’. Though starring none of the band members and – aside from the name – thematically distant from The Beatles’ work, nearly 400,000 pairs of eyes and ears across the world have absorbed the band’s creation. At what cost?
“The budget was $100, which covered the express post and mates-rates wages,” reveals Blame Ringo singer/guitarist Pete Kilroy. “A mate of ours was staying near Abbey Road, so I asked him to record people crossing for a couple of hours. He express posted the tapes, and since I’m a film editor by trade, I just edited it myself.”
When asked why he thinks the video became such a hit, Kilroy explains that they tapped into an indelible element of The Beatles’ folklore. “The love for The Beatles can’t be matched, and on a world scale, probably will never be matched. Besides that, when you watch the video, you think, “Look at all these tools. Who do they think they are?”, but your next thought is, “Man, I wish I was there doing that!” It sort of shows human nature.”
Six months on, are the Brisbane four-piece still feeling the effects of the video? Kilroy is optimistic: “The video really opened some doors, as it got us album distribution. It made people interested, whereas with any kind of traditional advertising, it’s hard to get people to buy your record, to see your show; to give you their time. Creating something that people can identify with – while acting as an advertisement for our music – fast-forwarded our career around 6-12 months. But there’s no point dwelling in the past. The video will sit on YouTube and keep ticking over for years and years. We get fan mail from across the world, and that’s really cool because you’d never reach those people otherwise.”
What advice would Kilroy give other bands attempting to follow that kind of viral video trajectory? “I was a film student and all they ever told us was that it’s the idea that counts. Look at ‘Garble Arch’; we’re not even in the film clip. It’s not about us. To release a good clip, it’s about the quality of the idea and creating a concept that people will want to see. It’s important to simply offer something different and unique.”
From a story of serendipitous viral success to an adventurous, label-funded production: Dew Process signees Bluejuice [pictured left] released their ‘Broken Leg’ video on July 16. The six-minute extended version of the clip finds the band’s two vocalists portraying embittered former jump-rope champions in a mockumentary format, before the parody gives way to a choreographed World Skipping Championship Final battle between the five band members (‘Team Bluejuice’) and a children’s dance troupe (‘Shimmer Extreme’).
Though the viewer is led to believe that the performance took place before thousands of screaming skipping fans, vocalist Stav Yiannoukas – who plays the fictional character, Spiridon ‘Mr Invisible’ Savvas – reveals that it was filmed at Sydney’s Metro Theatre. Post-production wizardry blended the empty theatre with stock footage of a stadium crowd.
“The actual day of shooting was reasonably torturous, having trained for six weeks. Being filmed for 12 hours while skipping constantly is incredibly exhausting.”
Hang on – six weeks’ skipping training? That’s dedication to a music video!
Yiannoukas confirms: “Three hours a day, three days a week. It was absolutely necessary; we had to commit to the idea. And we also had to get an understanding of how good – or ultimately, how bad – we were going to be at skipping.”
The band’s dedication has paid off: besides creating a clip that’s both hilarious and memorable, the band have since amassed a combined 55,000 views for the video and its bonus mockumentary off-shoots, in addition to a mid-August triple j award nomination for Australian Music Video Of The Year. Dew Process’ Marketing Manager, Graham Ashton, elaborates on the success.
“‘Broken Leg’ was different from a lot of our other projects. While we normally work on finessing longer campaigns, we decided to go all-out for a big hit single, and that’s certainly looking like it’s going to happen. So far, it’s sold around 5,000 copies without traditional marketing. It’s all been based on a word-of-mouth online campaign in the lead-up to the song’s release. I won’t disclose the campaign budget, but you’d be surprised at how little it was.”
Ashton admits that it’s difficult to measure the returns on online marketing campaigns. “Its success can be put down to word-of-mouth, more than anything. Both externally, within the punters’ world, but internally within the music industry. We did a tastemaker mail-out at the time of launch, and the response was fantastic. Another way of measuring its effect is the email database the band has since built, based on the opportunities surrounding this video and the campaign website.”
Based on the strong responses to the band’s three Sam Bennetts-directed clips – 2007′s ‘Vitriol’ (150,000 views), 2008′s ‘The Reductionist’ (38,000 views) and ‘Broken Leg’ (55,000 combined views) – it’s fair to state that the band are adept at combining an excellent sense of self-deprecating humour with a penchant for creating memorable music videos. When asked how the band plan to top their finest visual achievement thus far, Yiannoukas is cautious: “It’s a difficult task. I think we’ll rip it away from the mockumentary format, as it’s important for us to keep challenging ourselves, and to reinforce that we’re more than that one-dimensional approach. The idea itself is ‘to be confirmed!’”
Andrew McMillen is an Australian freelance music writer.
In the final piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. After speaking to passionate Australian artists like Hungry Kids Of Hungary, Urthboy and Eleventh He Reaches London last week, Andrew verbally prods two innovative Brisbane-based acts who have turned the album-release expectation on its head.
Were this album-centric article series an actual album, we’d have since bypassed the hit singles, the forgettable middle filler, and the surprising experimental freak-outs. This’d be track twelve; the last gasp that’s strategically-placed to reward the attentive hard-core of fans. Luckily, reader, track twelve is this metaphorical album’s hidden gem: it describes two Queensland acts who’re subverting the traditional cycle in favour of a flexibility that benefits both artist and fan. Press play and get comfortable, won’t you?
Brisbane natives Drawn From Bees [pictured right] are riding a healthy buzz following their recent national tour and more than a few nods of approval from Triple J. The art-rock four-piece have self-imposed an interesting alternative release strategy: a new record every six months. Explains bassist Stew Riddle: “Over a few drinks after our first rehearsal last year, we decided to use the fact that we’re a band of four songwriters to our advantage, and aim for a prolific introduction to the band. We felt that it would be interesting to break from the new-band cycle of ‘release an EP, tour for 6-12 months, release another EP’, and instead try to put something out every six months.” But the Bees are in a unique situation that encourages frequent releases; Riddle admits: “Dan, our singer, is also a producer, so we can afford to record very cheaply. If we had to hire studio and producer time, it might be a very different story.”
Two EPs into their two-year experiment, Riddle contemplates the band’s feeling toward the album format: “I tend not to think about what we’re doing in terms of working towards an album, as to me, the length is largely irrelevant. I feel that each record needs to make a statement, and to be a snapshot of where the band is at that particular time. Our third release is looking to be an 8 or 9 track record that has a more melancholy flavour. Is it an album or an EP? We don’t know, so we’ll just call it a record and let other people decide!”
When asked where he thinks the album format belongs in the future of music, Riddle is sceptical. “It’s a hard one to judge. It seems that while the physical single is dead, the digital single is now king. No one buys albums anymore, but if you look on my friends’ mp3 player, they tend to collect not just full records, but full catalogues of acts that they love. I think that the album will live on. Certainly, at least in the sense of releasing bodies of music that make various statements at different points in an act’s career. Does it mean that the length of an album will remain between 30 and 70 minutes? Maybe not. Musicians aren’t constrained by the format anymore; vinyl and plastic don’t dictate the length.” With a fourth release due around Christmas to bring the four-EP commitment to a close, what’s next for Drawn From Bees? “We’ll probably do an album. Or a greatest hits box collection, who knows?” laughs Riddle.
From a regular-release ideal to a staggered album: meet Brisbane indie rock band 26[pictured below left], who’re midway through an ambitious project to release a twelve-track album in three-song installments every three months. After releasing two albums in the standard manner since their 2005 debut The King Must Die, singer/guitarist Nick O’Donnell explains the genesis of the concept dubbed 26×365: “We don’t sell all that many hard copies anymore, so we decided to release the next album in small portions. We were finding that people were buying singular songs rather than the whole albums off of iTunes.”
Each of the four parts to 26×365 is priced at $3.39. O’Donnell continues: “We thought maybe we could package a couple of songs together at a lower price point and you could get people buying them because they think they’re getting a bargain, as they’re getting three songs for the price of two. By April next year we’ll have the twelve songs that you can buy as a whole product, but our true fans can get the songs every three months. This allows us to introduce the songs gradually into our live set; in terms of the record, it’s like our fans are coming along for the ride.”
With the new release, the band are aiming to reduce the comparative tedium that they’ve experienced with past releases. “It’s not like the situation where the band records the whole album and they’re already already kind of over the songs; you know, you’ve already been playing the songs for a year or so. As an artist, you get to the end of the album process and the songs aren’t fresh for you, but they are for the public. So you’re pretending that they’re new to you, but they’re not.”
The band’s website further addresses the reasoning behind the project. Perhaps unwittingly, 26 have put their heads together and specified a bold manifesto for independent artists the world over. 26 state:
Unless you’re Coldplay, Metallica or Andre Rieu, the one thing a band must do is maintain momentum. Peoples’ attention span is becoming shorter and shorter, so we want to be attracting CONSISTENT attention.
The 26×365 release process will allow:
New material to the audience, but not so quickly that it will lose its impact.
Offer a time-based point of interest for the band
Allow the audience to see how we are progressing as a band
New content for an entire year, including pictures, videos, blogs, and give aways
New gig material for an entire year and having it ready for consumption on iTunes. No waiting for the whole album to be released.
The purpose of this article series is not to eulogise the demise of the album, or to bemoan the recording industry’s omissions. Instead, it’s to highlight that right now is a better time than ever to consider the ideal manner in which to distribute music to an artist’s fanbase. For independent artists, a direct artist-fan (one-to-one) connection may be the most appropriate business avenue. For bigger artists – the aforementioned Coldplays and Andre Rieus – a one-to-many, traditional distribution method may still be the ideal outcome. The keyword in this discussion is choice. Not only do customers now have the ability to choose how they consume music with more freedom than ever before; now, artists are privy to a wealth of release strategies, business models, digital distributors, while still retaining the option to engage in traditional physical product manufacturing and distribution.
“A lot of purists tend to complain now that an album’s artwork is gone. I think it’s really great, because what has gone is all the shit surrounding the music. You can still get the music itself, so you’re getting the purest version of the art, because it’s just the music. It’s nothing else.” – Nick O’Donnell, 26.
In the fourth piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew quits hypothesising, and instead speaks to those responsible for history’s loved and loathed albums: musicians!
In the last three weeks, we’ve indulged in much reminiscing and theorising on the value of the album format in an era of unparalleled consumer choice. “The track has been disengaged from the album!” “Artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming!” “It’s easier to choose to part with around a dollar for a song you’ll love, rather than $15-20 for an unfamiliar collection!” You’re familiar with these arguments, professed from this writer’s listener/critic position. But, er – what about the artists themselves? The ones who make music? Where do they think the album belongs in 2009?
Brisbane’s Hungry Kids Of Hungary [pictured right] write hook-heavy songs that’re informed by a studious observation of the pop legends of generations past. Their two EPs have attracted radio attention, festival slots and, most recently, a Q Song award nomination. Are they treading down the pop-proven album release path? “We sure are!” replies singer/keyboardist Kane Mazlin. “We’re currently demoing and writing songs for a debut album. Like most independent bands, it’s a matter of balancing time and finance as to when we will record and release, but we’re certainly hoping to be in a studio within three months. I think it’s just a natural progression for us to put our ideas down on a long player. It will give us more scope to present ourselves more accurately, which is something we’ve only been able to touch on when creating EPs.”
No surprise, then, that the Hungry Kids are album purists. Drummer Ryan Strathie explains: “Artists put a lot into creating an album as an entire piece – a single song is only one part of the album puzzle. I think it’s crucial for an album to be experienced in full, artwork and all. For me, its just not the same without the whole package.” Strathie cautions, however: “Artists – big or small – need to take responsibility for the quality they put out. If you can’t put out 10 great songs, then don’t do an album! It’s obvious that people will still buy a record if it’s any good; too many artists maximise on a single song or a hit and put out an entire album, even if it’s not good enough.” He concludes: “People aren’t stupid, they have been burnt!”
From young upcomers to an established act: Perth’s Eleventh He Reaches London [pictured below left] have forged a respectable name for themselves at the intersection of the nation’s hard-rock, metal and hardcore communities. Their 2005 debut album The Good Fight For Harmony preceded 2009′s Hollow Be My Name, for which the five-piece received a $13,000 recording grant from the Western Australian Department Of Culture And Arts. Drummer Mark Donaldson rationalises the decision to release music in this manner: “We never really gave any thought to releasing an EP or singles, because we believe that you can get more enjoyment out of our band across an album. We wanted to release something that was quite cohesive, and had some continuity, with a good hour-long running time.”
“I’m still a huge fan of putting on an album and listening to it all the way through. It’s very rare to experience an album that you can listen to from start to finish, and not get bored. It’s very rare to experience that, and it’s one of the things you look forward to in life, as a music fan – that next band that you’ll become completely obsessed with.” When questioned about the free MP3 downloads offered on the band’s Last.FM profile, Donaldson continues: “It’s still good for people to be able to download a song in reasonable quality, just in case they are thinking about downloading the full album. Because we’ve basically arrived at the situation where you can download a song for free, get a feel for the quality of it, and then decide whether you want to waste your bandwidth on it!”
We laugh at the madness of trying to explain the rationing of 60-100 megabytes to a music fan fifteen years ago. But how does he feel about fans of the band who purport to love their music, but who’ve never bought anything from the band? “There’s no ill feelings toward those who don’t pay. What I don’t like is when people download the album, love it, but then don’t attend a show when we’re near them. That really cheeses me off, because touring is such a massive effort. You look forward to sharing the music with the audience, and that’s what playing live is all about. Being able to share your love of your songs with others.”
As co-founder of the Elefant Traks label and a renowned hip-hop artist in his own right, Sydney’s Urthboy[pictured below right]understands the record business better than most. Born Tim Levinson, his third album Spitshine is due in August 2009. He reasons: “I love the idea of the album because it allows an artist to make a little book, rather than a short chapter. I completely respect that people receive music in their preferred form, but as an artist I think the whole LP is worth holding onto. The album allows the artist to stretch out a bit, and from that perspective you’re able to tell a better story.”
It’s a valid comment, given that hip-hop song structures are perhaps more reliant on narrative than their rock counterparts. When asked about digital distribution’s effect on the album format, Levinson concedes: “It’s slowly changing people’s attitudes and expectations toward consumption of music. We’re in a transition period where albums retain a huge significance – but some signs suggest it’s disappearing. Stranger things have happened and trends don’t always result in their predicted outcome, though.”
Levinson’s position at the helm of Elefant Traks informs his optimistic wisdom. When asked whether Elefant Traks have adopted alternative release strategies to album delivery, he responds: “We’ve discussed it a lot; I want to keep open-minded about it. One of our key methods of promotion is bundling as many activities into the one ad spend. Usually this is simple: the album and the tour. We’re a record label, but we’re also a default management company – we spend money to invest in the artist who hopefully invests in themselves, and in turn helps us sell their records. Touring is not lucrative across the board – that’s an industry myth – but it forms part of the overall picture. The point I’m getting at, is that not every artist can simply put out a few songs regularly, sling ‘em to radio, excite the public’s imagination and wait for the money to roll in. There are significant costs associated with any release, whether EP or album. The public may like the freedom of picking and choosing but I don’t believe they’ve fallen out of love with the album yet. Singles aren’t for everybody, but our music industry is; there’s no use writing eulogies at this point in time.”
It’s worth reinforcing that the purpose of this column series is not to eulogise the album as a whole. Rather, it’s to highlight that digital distribution has allowed listeners to choose how they consume music, and musicians to choose how to deliver their creations to listeners. Next week, we’ll meet some artists who’re rejecting the album-release expectation in favour of innovation, and look to a bright future where musical expression isn’t necessarily confined to 10-12 tracks.
In the third piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew ruminates on the death of a pop icon, worldwide grief counselling through iTunes’ figurative cash register, and recent digital sales trends.
One of the joys of writing on a short schedule is the agility with which weekly publications such as The Music Network can relate to current occurrences. After tracing the history of recorded music in the last two weeks – from technological advances, to the reduced reliance on singular album entities in favour of a more liquid, portable state – a significant event in musical history occurred. Thursday, June 25 2009 found Michael Jackson dead, aged 50.
The grieving process translated into an outpouring of public reminiscence, which resulted in astounding sales figures for Jackson’s back catalogue. According to Billboard.com, US sales figures put the singer’s album sales for the week ending June 28 at 422,000, of which 225,000 were digital sales. A staggering 2.3 million individual song downloads found Jackson far and away the first act to sell more than a million downloads in a week. Within Australian shores, the disparity between albums and singles was curiously less noticeable: Jackson’s album and single sales were placed at 62,015 and 107,821, respectively, according to Undercover.com.au, while in another strange, archaic turn, only one out of every five Michael Jackson albums sold in Australia last week were digitally downloaded.
Regardless, Jackson’s enormous sales in the US simply couldn’t have eventuated ten years ago. Record stores inventories would’ve been exhausted across the country, and compact disc factories would’ve rushed to press more discs to meet the demand. Both of these outcomes still eventuated, but instead of experiencing weeks-long delays, music consumers have the option of instant online gratification: his 2.3 million download count resulted in six Jackson tracks appearing in the Billboard top ten.
The Jackson phenomenon highlights several points central to the discussion raised in this column series. First, consumer choices are trending away from the album as the favoured mechanism of music release. Choice is key here: it’s easier to choose to part with around a dollar for a song that you’ll love, rather than parting with $15-20 for an unfamiliar collection. If money is no object to the consumer, then time surely is: as industry analyst Bob Lefsetz phrased it in his July 5th, 2009 Lefsetz.com column, “Who’s got the time to listen to an hour of music that you’re not truly interested in when there are all these other diversions that fascinate you?”
Second, the popularity of digital music sales continues to snowball the trend away from the album as the industry’s singular organising principle. The modern music consumer can now purchase music from her home, without being subject to an array external factors while travelling to the record store. This operates in a similar manner to the ease with which she can cherry-pick her favourite songs from an online store, and ignore the rest, A simple point to make, but it’s worth reinforcing that digital distribution is the spark that set alight the consumer’s reliance on the album.
Finally, a startling counter to the arguments that copyright theft is the primary factor crippling record labels’ established business models. In the period between Jackson’s June 25 death and July 1, streaming media analysts at VisibleMeasures.com report that combined views of the “Thriller” music video totalled in excess of 28 million. Considering that his aggregate single-song sales during the same period were 2.3 million – and just 167,000 for that particular track – it’s somewhat surprising that less than 10% of his fans chose to buy his music, and instead opted to stream it for free. But to step back within the boundaries of this discussion, let’s discount Jackson’s untimely demise and instead examine recent digital sales trends.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) – comprising 1400 record companies in around 70 countries – released their annual Digital Music Report in January 2009. This report quickly became infamous within the recording industry, as media hurled themselves upon the IFPI’s estimation that, after collating studies in 16 countries over a three-year period, over 40 billion music files were illegally file-shared in 2008, which resulted in copyright theft rate of around 95%.
But to focus on the near-past so as to not bore you with figures, here’s five key points garnered from the IFPI’s report on the international digital music business in 2008:
• The digital music industry saw a sixth year of expansion in 2008, growing by an estimated 25% to US$3.7 billion in trade value
• Digital platforms now account for around 20% of recorded music sales, up from 15% in 2007
• Single track downloads, up 24% in 2008 to 1.4 billion units globally, continue to drive the online market, while digital album sales grew 36%
• Consumer demand for music is higher than ever – NPD research found that total music consumption in the US rose by one third between 2003 and 2007
• Physical sales declined from 51,866,917 to 44,438,874 (down 14%)
• Digital sales overall rose from 47,267,034 to 128,532,126 (up 171%)
• Digital album sales rose from 788,316 to 2,853,040 (up 261%)
• Digital track sales rose from 17,647,057 to 23,464,576 (up 32%)
It’s important to distinguish the disparity between album and track sales. While digital album sales experienced growth in Australia, they were still outsold nearly ten-to-one by single digital tracks. Why? In an era of musical abundance and complete portability, the consumer is spoiled for choice. We live in an age where you can experience “Thriller” for around a dollar, with a minimum of fuss – or you can stream it from YouTube, if you’d prefer. Freed from the constraints of physical products, we’re able to sample sounds before purchasing so as to reduce the rampant buyer’s remorse that we both feel while casting our eyes across our music collections.
The record industry marketplace has fundamentally changed for content creators and consumers. To pound a cliché into your head: the internet has theoretically afforded any artist the chance reach your iPod earbuds. The barriers to entering the recording industry have been lowered, and the costs of bedroom production and online distribution are trending toward zero. As a result, it’s unreasonable for artists and labels to continue propagating an album-release business model that’s so firmly rooted in the past.
But what about the present? I’m glad you asked, as part four of this five-piece puzzle will find me removing my hats marked “boring history” and “boring sales figures”. In their place, I’ll hatlessly hammer the thoughts that current musicians feel toward my incessant prodding of the album; that alleged, proverbial dead horse. Expect well-articulated rock-posturing, before part five finds us exploding in an orgy of alternative release models, innovative case studies and an unerring optimism for a recording industry who’ll eventually realise that as music fans, all we really want is our favourite artists to release great music as often as possible.
In the second piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew highlights portable playlist control as a key component in the reduced reliance placed upon the album by music consumers.
In last week’s column, I discussed the history of the album format, from the revolutionary, 45 minute-long LP through to the rising costs of compact discs. Now, take your imagination on a mental walk to your music collection. Stand before the shelves and admire your beloved classics, your blinding debuts, your middling sophomores, your utter disappointments, and the hidden atrocities that you’re embarrassed to have purchased.
There’s an enormous nostalgia value attached to your record collection, whether in actual LP format or CDs. Few cultural topics are as divisive and subjective as one’s music taste. I’m certainly not writing off the value of the album in its entirety; that’d be madness. But why is it that you fondly fondle some albums, and not others? To use a cricketing metaphor: why do some releases hit you for six, while others barely make the length of the pitch?
To elaborate on the latter example: picture the average album you’d buy from a store – perhaps not in this era, since both CD shelf space and CD merchants continue to dwindle – but ten years ago. Hypothetically, the disc is likely to be front-loaded with some great songs. They’re the ones that you’re likely to have heard before you bought the album. These strategically-placed songs are the ones that either – or both – the band and record label wanted you to hear first and enjoy first.
Then you’d get to the second half of the album and, more than likely, you’d find a dramatic reduction in the quality of songwriting. As with any conversation regarding music, this is an entirely subjective topic of discussion, but there’s not a music fan reading who hasn’t experienced the phenomenon of an album’s proverbial tail failing to wag.
As I wrote last week, the recorded music industry has revolved around the album for decades. Record deals, release schedules, pricing structure, the touring cycle, the catchy lead single, album reviews; these choreographed industry institutions are all funneled toward the end goal of selling albums. Music consumers were tied to the album format as a force of habit, since it was by far the most convenient method to listen to music. In the LP era, it was easier to let an album play from beginning to end, rather than painstakingly searching for the groove that contained the beginning of your favourite tracks.
But portability heralded a substantial change in listening habits; the now-ubiquitous MP3 audio compression algorithm was a mere twinkle in German audio scientists’ eyes when Sony released the Walkman to the public in 1979. The device used cassette tapes, which allowed listeners to use headphones to play audio recordings while on the move. This led to label-released albums and singles finding a wide audience, and the proliferation of home taping from sources such as the radio, television, and your existing record collection. The ‘mixtape’ was born!
The Walkman’s successor, Sony’s Discman, was released in 1984. The CD-based player allowed a greater freedom from the comparably imprecise Walkman method of fast-forwarding and rewinding through a cassette to find your favourite tracks. But the device was still tied to the concept of the album: while songs could be played in a ‘random’ order – an important precursor to Apple’s iPod Shuffle – it could only handle a disc at a time.
That listening habit was exploded when CD burning technology allowed listeners to compile the circular equivalent of mixtapes, without the cassette-associated fuss. As the audio filetype known as MP3 became easier for the masses to acquire online, consumer attitudes to music further deviated from the past when the first digital audio players became available in the late 1990s.
Commonly known as MP3 players, these devices allowed a user to transfer CDs encoded in the MP3 audio filetype onto a portable hard drive that could play the files. For the first time, a listener could store their favourite songs in a portable format that could be ordered on-the-fly, as desired. No rewinding or fast-forwarding, no moving parts; control had been placed into the fan’s hands.
Several unremarkable forays into the digital audio player market from Rio and Compaq set the stage for Apple, whose first generation, exclusively Mac-compatible iPod debuted in October 2001. A Windows-friendly version of the device followed in 2002; frequently-released incremental iterations have boosted its worldwide sales in excess of 210 million, according to the Associated Press.
Apple’s success in the digital audio player market can be attributed to their user-friendly design and savvy marketing. Their devices satisfied a demand for portable music that’d gathered momentum since the Walkman’s debut. The twin Apple successes of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store – which will be covered in greater depth next week – are evidence that listeners prize portable playlist control, after decades of passively absorbing albums from start to end.
This newfound control is central to understanding the shift from albums as the key organising principle behind music dissemination. Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wrote on his Lefsetz Letter website in August 2006: “The track has been disengaged from the album. The label wants an album budget, producers, a full-length that they can charge in the neighborhood of ten dollars wholesale for. No matter that no radio station goes deep and neither do the fans.”
He’s hinting at the killer-versus-filler argument that’s as old as the industry itself. While there’ll always be pleasure gained by experiencing a classy, calculated collection of songs from beginning to end – see Perth post-hardcore act Eleventh He Reaches London‘s 2009 release, for example – writers like Lefsetz and myself argue that the record industry’s unending fascination with the album as the definitive musical product is misleading and erroneous.
The record industry’s perceived market expectations are the driving force behind the unending push for more albums. This wouldn’t be problematic – for artists, labels, or listeners – if real supply met perceived demand. Instead, album sales have declined worldwide, while sales of individual songs – key singles often released to radio so as to promote an album – continue to climb.
In 2009, artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming. Their creative output shouldn’t be stretched to meet the 45 minute/12 track (whichever comes first) expectation, just so that the parties involved can proudly call it an album. In an era where more music is being written, recorded and performed each day than at any other point in history, an artist shouldn’t throw together words, chords and beats just to meet an expectation built upon a decades-old concept.
The question that I put forth is simple: why continue to push acts toward the goal of the album release, instead of working with artists to determine the most appropriate method of releasing their recorded work? Next week, I’ll further investigate the divide between the recording industry’s historical expectations and current consumer habits.