Willgoose Esq, the 32-year-old heavily bespectacled man behind Public Service Broadcasting, stands on the beach at Bournemouth, the latest stop on a tour supporting Kaiser Chiefs, and tells me he is nervous. “I’m quite an anxious person,” he says.
We are talking about the fact that his band has achieved something impressively DIY by becoming a critical and comparative commercial success without the might, the heft, and the budget of a record label.
Finding audiences, selling albums and earning a living is no easy thing for a musician; it’s why record labels came to exist in the first place . But an increasing number of acts today, in a music world now dictated by digital downloads and social media, is increasingly finding another way.
“But it’s hard,” frets Willgoose. “The financial side, especially. It’s great to be in control when things go well, less so when they go belly-up. It’s a lot of pressure.” Nevertheless, it’s working. Public Service Broadcasting sample dialogue from old propaganda films. For new album The Race for Space, they’ve archived dialogue from the Apollo space missions – and set it to hypnotic electronic music. It’s compelling, inventive, and catchy. Their debut, Inform-Educate-Entertain, reached number 21 in the charts in 2013, and went on to sell 50,000 copies.
“I had no idea we’d reach so many people so quickly,” Willgoose says now. But then he is surprised they found an audience at all. In 2009, when they formed, no label had wanted to sign them. “And if they had, I’m sure there would have been all sorts of creative constraints. I’m a control freak, so I wouldn’t have liked that. Doing it alone has all been strangely stressful, but I wouldn’t change a thing, not now.”
James Bay, who has just been given the Brits Critic’s Choice award, found success as an unsigned artist after posting a recording in 2012 to the BBC Introducing website, which helps promote unsigned acts.
Gold Wolf, a new rock band, are hoping to follow his example and are thoroughly enjoying the exhilaration of doing it by themselves. “The best thing about being unsigned is the adventure of trying to achieve something together from nothing with no support from anyone – apart from our devoted family, friends and fans” says Tom Roberts, lead singer and guitarist, “and we’re enjoying that every step of the way.”
It wasn’t always this way. Time was, if a band failed to secure the attentions of a major label, they’d pawn the guitars and get a proper job. Not anymore. Now there are platforms specifically for new, unsigned artists, such as the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury (where George Ezra, now signed to Sony, got his first break in 2013), Roundhouse Rising and SXSW, where rising acts like SOAK and Spring King will fight to get noticed this year.
And thanks to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, bands can now interact directly with fans; all they need is a hardcore following. And, often, those in the hardcore, once they have established themselves as such, prove themselves keen to facilitate and assist with furthering the band’s prospects. They help fund their favourite acts’ albums and tours, they pay to download, they buy the T-shirts.
When the American singer Amanda Palmer crowdfunded her album Theatre is Evil in 2012, her fans pledged over $1m. But then Palmer was already established, the hardcore already in place. It is more difficult, says Alison Wenham, CEO of the Association of Independent Music, for bands just starting out. “It isn’t easy to have immediate success in this way if nobody knows who you are yet,” she says, “and the old-fashioned skills of promotion, positioning, connecting to a fanbase and building a campaign still need to be done.”
This was where, traditionally, a record company would come in. But as David Balfour, a contributing editor to the music industry magazine Record of the Day, points out, record labels don’t even do that very much anymore. “Once, [recording companies] would have taken a punt on a band if they saw early potential, and offer big advances,” he says. “But these days, they are looking for much more evidence upfront before signing an artist. They want to see potential; they want to see a genuine fanbase already in place, proven songcraft and a big presence on social media.”
What this breeds is an altogether new kind of artist: the musician as entrepreneur. Nine years ago, when an alternative metal act from St Albans called Enter Shikari began to generate wild excitement amongst a headache-resistant metal crowd, their manager thought it futile to pursue a recording contract when they could simply set up their own label, and sell direct to those fans.
“It seemed a shame to come from a punk rock, DIY ethic just to then throw yourself into the major-label mincer,” says Ian Johnsen, Enter Shikari’s manager. “Sure, bands need infrastructure, but the infrastructure can still be there – via publishing deals and licensing – without signing your creativity away.” And creativity is key. Enter Shikari tried out life on a major label, Atlantic, for a while but it was, says Johnsen, “a nightmare. It taught us it was possible to do this by ourselves, without interference. Four Top 10 albums have proved that, I think.”
In 2006, Chicago act OK Go became an internet sensation when the video for their single “Here It Goes Again” went viral. They sold a lot of albums off the back of this exposure, and became a major priority on their label, Capitol Records. But by 2010, all sorts of videos were going viral, and the label was losing interest. The moment the band were released from their contract, singer Damian Kulash tells me, they felt reborn.
“Big record labels are pretty much a risk aggregation system,” he says. “They sign 20 bands with the expectation that only one will be successful, which means that one band will have to make a twenty-fold profit in order to pay for the other 19. There is nothing inherently wrong with this system if you happen to be Coldplay or Green Day, but not so great if you’re not.”
OK Go set up their own label, Paracadute, and suddenly found themselves in sole charge of their destiny. “Now, if we want to do a collaboration with, say, someone in Japan, or something in Germany, we don’t have to go through a dozen label division heads.”
Releasing records on a worldwide scale, and putting on tours – like the current European one in support of new album Hungry Ghosts – takes business acumen, and OK Go still frequently struggle with it. “Our economic model is pretty much like roadrunner off the cliff: run like a motherfucker, and don’t look down,” he laughs. “That can be stressful, but it’s also exhilarating.”
Rock and pop highlights of 2015
Rock and pop highlights of 2015
1/5 Mark Lanegan Band - touring from 20 January
The most intriguing performance prospect of a fairly docile January is the arrival of the Mark Lanegan Band for a clutch of shows in support of the recent masterly album Phantom Radio. Expect soul-ravaged blues fatalism as Lanegan confronts dark memories and apocalyptic visions with apparent sangfroid, his baritone croon traversing soundscapes of chugging electropop, spiralling guitars and courtly pop melancholy.
Kevin Nixon/Future Publishing/REX
2/5 Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night released 2 February
An album on which Dylan sings Sinatra, a performer in whose voice he claimed to hear "death, God, the universe, everything". He's eschewing the usual swaddling orchestrations in favour of relaxed small-combo versions, recorded with his own band. They're not cover versions, he explains: "They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter of fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day."
3/5 The War on Drugs - touring from 16 February
2014's breakout US indie band will arrive for a string of British dates. Songwriter/frontman Adam Granduciel's blending of Dylanesque vocals, stadium-pop melodies and guitar drones should appeal to fans of Neil Young and My Bloody Valentine alike, and these shows offer the perfect opportunity to check whether they’re as loud and overbearing as Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek claims in his amusing song "War on Drugs: Suck My Cock". Thankfully, music is big enough to accommodate both.
4/5 The Jesus and Mary Chain - touring from 16 February
Having bowed to the demand to perform their debut Psychocandy in its entirety – a move that places them firmly in the rock-heritage classicist ranks, rather than the punk-nihilist cadre of their original 1980s inception – the re-formed Mary Chain take their sweet white whine around the country. Expect: great tunes; loud feedback. Don’t expect: a revolution.
5/5 Nicki Minaj - touring from 28 March
Initial reaction to Nicki Minaj's new album The Pinkprint is mixed, but however its more assertively autobiographical songs transfer to the live arena, bangers like "Want Some More" and "Anaconda" suggest that her upcoming shows should pack some punch. And the flamboyant diva can surely be relied on to put on a show. But what will be the colour-scheme? Think pink.
Enter Shikari’s manager agrees, and is convinced that this DIY approach will increasingly inform how bands now choose to reach not just any audience, but their audience. “There are all sorts of ways of making a living out of music,” Johnsen says, “because not everybody wants to be the next Taylor Swift, the next Ed Sheeran. And if more bands start to feel that they don’t have to conform, and can still be successful on their own terms, then that’s got to be a good thing for music in general, right?”
Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘The Race for Space’ and OK Go’s ‘Hungry Ghosts’ are out now