After becoming the No.1 sensation on YouTube can Rhodri Marsden take the charts by storm?
He cut a record in his bedroom, shot a video for a few pounds and unleashed it on the web through MySpace. Soon it was the no.1 sensation on YouTube. But would the masses download it to their iPods?
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 30 August 2007
As a teenager in the late Eighties, I believed that anyone who wanted it badly enough could be a rock 'n' roll star. Punk had shaken the world, cocksure young indie bands were giving two fingers to the music industry and John Peel's show on Radio 1 seemed to offer nightly proof that all you needed to hit the heights were a little bit of imagination, a modicum of energy and a load of self-belief. Me and my generation had the world at our feet; musically speaking, there was everything to play for.
Of course, my idealism was exceeded only by my naivety. Determined to make a career in music, I went on to play in a succession of bands of dubious artistic merit which, in the face of widespread apathy, released records on their own labels and never sold more than a couple of hundred copies. But while the DIY ethos of the punk years never lost its allure for me, putting it into practice is hard work, and it was something of a relief when, 18 months ago, I landed a job playing keyboards in a much more successful band, Scritti Politti – one of the defining DIY post-punk groups, who'd already found considerable international success.
Still, the self-belief that drove me through the 1980s and 1990s (and Scritti in the late 1970s), is thriving like never before. Across the land, kids can be seen marching purposefully to rehearsal rooms with guitars strapped to their backs, or hauling battered amplifiers out of minicabs, knowing that their MySpace pages are being viewed at every moment of every day by music fans across around the world. They've got a swagger in their step and a new-found confidence. Suddenly, £400 laptops can do the job that swanky recording studios in the Bahamas used to. The means of production and distribution have been placed into the grubby, tobacco-stained hands of school bands in a way that could barely have been imagined back in the days when Peel was still spinning the wheels of steel.
Sure, there are still those who spend fruitless months sending "demo tapes" off in padded envelopes to cocaine-addled record company employees while dreaming of a six-figure deals. But not the savvy ones. The bright sparks realised long ago that MP3 files – just like ballpoint pens and washing machines – have a manufacturing process. They don't need to wait for the music business to give them permission to make a record – they just get on and do it.
And that's why, sitting at my computer, browsing the internet, I got to thinking. Maybe it would be worth having a stab at recording, releasing and promoting a single from the relative comfort of my bedroom, in just one month. With so many bands chasing our decreasing attention span, how easy would it be to achieve some measure of success?
People assume, after reading about Sandi Thom and the Arctic Monkeys, that by simply setting up a MySpace page they can magically shoot into the charts. But if – and I know this requires some imagination – I turn out to be the next Kate Nash, it might galvanise people with more star-quality than myself into instant action. If not, well, I can continue to proudly wear my hard-earned badge of being truly independent, highly uncompromising and extremely unsuccessful. It has to be worth a try. Doesn't it?
Step one: Write some songs
The first decision of the DIY superstar: avoid arguments over " direction " and "identity" by taking charge of the musical side of things and getting a couple of songs written. Should I make a contrived attempt to appeal to the kids and risk looking like an idiot? Or just produce something heavily influenced by the kind of stuff I listen to these days, i.e. Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and The Doobie Brothers?
After a couple of days of introspective, poetic contemplation and musical doodling on my computer, this initial task is pretty much completed. One of the songs, "Those Rules You Made", tells the story of a paranoid bloke who suddenly realises he's in a relationship with someone who has extremely high standards, but he's somehow slipped under her radar. It sounds a bit like, well, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and The Doobie Brothers, and thus (at least to me) like a first-class A-side. The total cost to me so far: effectively nothing. Monkeys? Shmonkeys.
Step two: Choose a name
The typical procedure here is to ransack your brain, scrawl words on a piece of paper, go to bed, wake up the next day and discover that the best idea you had was something like "Tollund Man". But I eventually come up with something reasonably arty: The Schema. I set up a page on the social networking site MySpace, and upload the two tracks for the world to hear. I then spend £9.99 on a domain name for my own website, www.theschema.co.uk, and call my friend Dicky to tell him what I'm up to.
"Called what? The Schemer?"
"Er, no. Schema. With an 'A'."
Step three: Spread the message
There is a big area on my MySpace profile where a picture of the band should go. Reluctant to present my overweight, balding self as the saviour of rock'n'roll, I find a picture of some stick-figure silhouettes on a photo site, istockphoto.com, so I pay £2.35 for it. I e-mail it to an ex-flatmate, Simon, who has his own design business called Drinkmilk, and in return for just £25 he summons all his visual skills and tints the image pale green and selects an agreeable font for the lettering on it.
Back in the old, pre-desktop-publishing days, CD manufacturers would bamboozle you with wallet-busting quotes for processes you didn't understand, such as "origination of camera-ready artwork", and the record sleeve would always come back looking like a dog's dinner. But now it's a piece of cake. I set up my website using the same colour scheme, uploaded the image, and added a tantalising message: Coming Soon – The Schema.
Scritti Politti had listed all the costs associated with making their records on the back cover of their first three releases. Maybe I have a similar duty to list all my expenses, too. So I set up a blog on my new website, with a rolling list of the costs incurred so far. The current total: £37.34. Easy? Yep. Cheap? Certainly.
Step four: Get the product out there
Truthfully, my hopes for the success of my single aren't high. But I find a website calledwww.hitsongscience.com which mathematically analyses songs for hit potential. The results for "Those Rules You Made" make interesting reading: it scores 7.07 out of 10. Which, apparently, puts me in the company of such luminaries as Kasabian, Shakira and Elton John.
Chart status seems almost a formality now – but I need get my single into the online stores, and particularly Apple's iTunes store, which currently sells around 80 per cent of all music bought online. But how?
Relevant information on Apple's website is scarce to non-existent, and if you search on Google for "getting on iTunes", you end up at third-party sites that deal with Apple on your behalf in return for a percentage cut of receipts. The demand for these services seems enormous; musicians' forums are awash with stories of how, with some sites, your music sits in a backlog of unprocessed material, and how it takes over four months to reach the online stores. But a bit of digging uncovers a smaller Glasgow-based operation, emubands.com, that promises to get my two-track single on to over 170 internet outlets – including iTunes – within four weeks, and all for a flat fee of £24.95. This seems too good to be true. I've had awful experiences of the parallel world of CD distribution: you manufacture as few CDs as the factory will allow (the minimum run is usually 500) and the distributor, after haranguing you to somehow set up a UK tour and contrive to be reviewed in the NME, might then take 50 of them on sale or return, if you're lucky. After a couple of months, they generally return all of them to you in the same box you'd delivered them in. Bands all over the country have hundreds if not thousands of their own CDs stored under beds or propping up the TV, filling every conceivable space with a grim reminder of the unmarketability of their music. MP3s, however, occupy no physical space. You don't have to guess how many you're going to sell before you start; every download just magics another copy out of the digital ether.
Ally Gray, the proprietor of emubands.com, explains his business model. "Traditionally, bands had to beg for distribution and had to somehow prove themselves. But we're open to absolutely everyone, and we just charge a flat fee for liaising with the stores, getting the tunes online and doing the accounts. We pass on 100 per cent of our receipts from the stores straight to the bands – which works out at between 40p and 50p per downloaded track."
After e-mailing the sound files over to Ally, I get back a confirmation of the release date: 20 August – right on my self-imposed 30-day deadline. This achievement, however, quickly gives way to a grim truth. My MySpace page has been up now for over a week, and its handful of visitors are all, in fact, me sneaking a peek at the page to see if anyone has visited. MySpace and its like are nothing but shop windows, and on the internet, no one comes walking past by accident. It's time to start the horrible process of publicity.
Step five: Make friends and influence people
As with any creative effort, the first people you turn to are your friends. I ransack my e-mail address book and get going; some 500 messages are sent out, urging them to visit MySpace and have a listen. The response is muted, and I get the feeling that the majority of people haven't bothered. Meanwhile, on MySpace itself, I'm sending messages and adding people as "friends" with gay abandon, but repeatedly hitting the same brick walls. For one thing, people are so sick of bands adding them as friends in a frenzy of self-publicity that MySpace has introduced an option that allows them to automatically deny all band friend requests.
I try to add current bands whose sound I think bears a reasonable similarity to mine – such as London's The Feeling, and French band Phoenix. Phoenix block my request, and while The Feeling accept, they have 82,000 friends already. The likelihood of me being invited round to their bass player's house for a dinner party are pretty slim.I speak to Charlotte Clark, online promotion specialist at PR firm Way To Blue, for advice. She is frank about the amount of work involved in self-promotion. "If you're going to make any impact via MySpace, you have to make it your life. If you're a five-piece band, you've each got to be on there for an hour a day, sending birthday messages to people, building relationships with other bands – it's really time-consuming."
So what chance for me – a new, bedroom-based act with no profile and only the internet at my disposal? Charlotte laughs. "Well, I firmly believe that no band has ever broken via the internet, and certainly not just through MySpace. Yes, the internet is essential for promoting new acts, but it needs to be combined with other media to make it work."
So, where does that leave me? At this stage, I have two weeks before my single release date to build up a colossal pool of online chums that, according to Charlotte, normally takes around 18 months to acquire. I have 200 friends. My page has had 900 views. But 800 of those people might have hated the song, and of the 100 who like it, perhaps only 10 will click through to iTunes and buy it. No, if I'm going to flog a few hundred MP3s, I had to reach tens of thousands of people. And fast.
Step six: Make more friends and influence people
In desperation, I create profiles for The Schema on every social networking site I can possibly find that welcomes upcoming bands with open arms, including Bebo.com, Tagworld.com and purevolume.com. Over at Garageband.com, I reluctantly pay $19.99 to enter the song into some kind of contest, in which bands earn themselves reviews of their own work by reviewing other material and rating it for melody, production values and lyrical flair.
It feels like a grim evening class in musicianship; I am informed that my song is "lacking intensity", although one review does praise the excellent, er, female vocalist. The cheek. But will this translate into sales? Do I really want to appeal to a clique of fellow bedroom artistes? Not really.
I pay my friend Alf, who runs a web development company called LikeMind, to build me a Facebook application that can play "Those Rules You Made" to anyone kind enough to add it to their profile. This secures me another 100 listeners. But with 10 days to go before release, I am experiencing that familiar feeling of futility. I've sent MP3s to all the main online music sites – Drowned In Sound, Playlouder, PopJustice and a dozen others – and a clutch of online radio stations, but I am getting no positive feedback.
It is pretty much as I thought: there are just so many bands out there that another new one is almost an irritant, just another flea in the ear of the music industry. On the other hand, maybe I am just being a cheapskate. I've only spent £97.11 so far – perhaps it is time to throw a bit more money at this thing, and make a video.
Step seven: Splash the cash
Charlotte at Way To Blue has already told me that a video is key to creating promotion opportunities online – not least because of YouTube, where music promos can pick up hundreds of views in the blink of an eye. I've only ever made one video, in 1990, which involved making a friend's cat move in time to music. It was, needless to say, crap. And not only am I lacking experience and creative flair, my video equipment extends to one rather knackered Nokia mobile phone.
I appeal via e-mail and my blog on the www.schema.co.uk website, asking if anyone can help. Within a couple of hours a friend sends me the e-mail address of Alex de Campi, a graphic novelist who is also a budding video director looking to expand her portfolio. We exchange e-mails. She says that she is interested, and – incredibly – she reckons she can turn it around in just over a week. When we met up, her straight-talking, can-do attitude terrifies me; she has already come up with a complete video treatment, combining the paranoid emotions of the protagonist of the song with a meta-commentary on how difficult it is to make a video.
But how much will it cost? She promises me that, if she works for free and succeeds in pulling a huge number of favours, she can probably bring it in for under £500.
I ponder this. If I'd produced a run of CDs, it would have cost me at least that amount, if not more. Maybe this is the new reality – that a video is where any tiny budget you have needs to be spent. So, with a deep breath, I say, "Yeah, let's do it." The next few days are a blur of storyboards, props, reels of tape and endless messages on Facebook and MySpace pleading for extras to turn up on the day of filming. Alex has earmarked a location: a park near Embankment Tube station, as we'll save money on lights by filming it outdoors. The day before the shoot, I peek nervously at the weather forecast. It's really, really bad. The phone rings – it's Alex.
"Bad news," she says.
"What, the weather?" I ask.
"Worse. Westminster council wants £300 to let us film there."
All our plans for the video are arranged, and the council has me over a barre l. I'm supposed to be funding this myself, in the true spirit of DIY, and there is certainly no slush fund available. So the question is: will spending that £300 earn me the 600 MP3 sales that I'd need to cover the extra cost?
"But Alex," I whine. "I might pay them the cash, and then it might rain all day."
"Stop stressing," she barks. "You're winding me up. Let me worry about the rain. You just worry about the money."
So I bite the bullet. What else can I do?
Step eight: Make a video
We arrive at 8am with two taxis full of equipment. Alex has managed to find willing, upcoming actors on casting websites to play the various parts, including stern-looking twins, a buxom glamour model, someone from a Steps tribute band, and our lead actor – a young chap called Mark Joseph who has, apparently, been in The Matrix.
My internet-sourced extras show up looking miserable and knackered, but all they have to do is be filmed sitting in deckchairs reading newspapers – nothing too arduous. My job: to play the tune from my iPod through a tiny speaker, held up at head-height so the actors can mime along.
After a ludicrous day of hand-jiving, bottle-smashing and fending off the local vagrants, Alex is able to say: "It's a wrap" just before 4pm. We've done it, and in just eight hours – and the rain had held off.
"Now the hard work starts," says Alex – she has 48 hours to turn this into a coherent promotional video. She stays up all night on the day the single is released, tweaking the clips and adding effects so we have something to put up on YouTube. When I wake up the next morning, there is an e-mail from her: "It's up. I go die/sleep now."
Step nine: The YouTube factor
I take my first look at the video – and I'm the 16th person to watch it. Alex has done a brilliant job – it's funny, it complements the song beautifully, it's packed with friends of mine looking slightly self-conscious. I'm truly proud of it. I do another big e-mail-out and another blog entry urging people to watch it and tell their friends to do the same.
By lunchtime, it's going down well; it has received 650 views, and has become the 64th "most favourited" video in the UK that day. Then, at some point during the afternoon, the YouTube editors notice it is picking up plays, and – god bless them – they stick it on the front page.
At this point, things go ballistic. By the end of the working day, we've had 6,000 views and a string of positive comments. By the time I go to bed, we've had 25,000 views and have been officially crowned the most-watched music video in the UK that day.
By the next morning it has notched up 64,000 viewings. And then, at around 6pm on Thursday 23 August, "Those Rules You Made" becomes – and I still can't quite believe this actually happened – YouTube's most watched music video in the world over the previous 24 hours, with 67,500 views.
I receive an interview request from an Argentinian newspaper. This is success way beyond what Alex and myself could ever have hoped. But, while ravaged with excitement, at the back of my mind, I am wondering whether anyone has actually gone and bought the thing.
Step 10: A star is born?
We have to wait until yesterday, 29 August, to get my first set of sales figures from Ally at Emubands.com. By this point, almost a quarter of a million people have watched the video, and for a brief period we've edged out Linkin Park and become YouTube's No 3 music video globally during that week. The chart rundown looks hilarious, with my solitary, valiant DIY effort amid a sea of swanky major-label productions for the likes of Foo Fighters, Pharrell Williams and Enrique Iglesias.
At midday, the total sales for that the previous week finally arrive in my e-mail inbox. There's no easy way of writing this, so I'll just write it: 58. And for the avoidance of doubt: fifty-eight.
This news is, on a personal level, deflating. My total costs, including the £300 for Westminster Council, have come to around £870. My total receipts are about £27. Extrapolate these figures to the industry as a whole, and you can see why the boardrooms are in crisis; even taking into account that my record might just be a bit rubbish, 58 sales out of a quarter of a million YouTube views provides undeniable proof of both the fleeting nature of internet success, and the reluctance of the public to spend money on pop music.
I break the news to Alex; it's her video, after all, that has brought my song to so many people. "Bah," she texts back, grumpily. " Nobody actually pays for music anymore, do they?" Hmm. Maybe that's just how it is. So maybe I am being needlessly downhearted. There's my own artistic fulfilment to consider, after all. I might be out of pocket, but a quarter of a million people had heard my song. So let's paraphrase Scritti Politti's inspiration, the Desperate Bicycles. It was fairly easy. And it would have been cheap, had it not been for Westminster Council. So hey – why not just go and do it anyway?
Alex de Campi's guide to low-budget videos
The important thing is to remember that it's a lottery. We were fantastically lucky with the Schema video, but you should assume your efforts will have zero effect (maybe 1,000 views over six months) and spend only as much as you're comfortable wasting.
* When in doubt, just do a stop-motion video with your camera and assemble it in iMovie or similar free movie software package. If you want to spend more, ask all your friends whether they know a good director. If nobody knows anyone, post a plea for help onwww.shootingpeople.org.uk.
* On no account spend more than £1,000 of your own money.
* Do not do a performance video. I don't care how good you are on stage, it looks so dull. Think of the best videos you've ever seen – they told a story, they made you laugh, or cry, or go "wow". Think up a great story for your video and film that. Don't just illustrate the lyrics or have the story follow the lyrics 100 per cent – that's just visual karaoke.
* Oh, and remember to actually sing the words while lipsynching. Just mouthing them looks fake.
* Some great DIY videos: A video for Emmy The Great, done with camera and Fuzzy Felt:www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhxF9xudm04
The Duloks – also made really cheaply: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Q9KxCQZJ2c
Six nation state – a brilliant video made by the band: www.youtube.com/ watch?v=YEQpgg3x5HU (this was done after their record label paid out £4,000 for something far worse: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb5breksLfo)
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