It was the morning after a gig in South Wales when Sandi Thom had her moment of revelation. The 24-year-old singer and songwriter, who was born in the coastal town of Banff in Scotland, had just driven through the night from a gig in York, where she had played to 150 people, to a venue in Wales, where she played to 220 people. According to her manager, she lost about £300 on both shows. And then her car broke down.
"I've had my car six years, carrying four people up and down the country," Thom says, "and it's completely on its last legs. I drove back to London, literally with my exhaust pipe hanging on with a coathanger. Those are the kind of dire straits that make you think, 'Oh, for God's sake, there must be some other way to do this'."
The "other way" which Thom came up with was ingeniously simple, virtually cost-free, and gained her worldwide audiences of more than 150,000 viewers, overnight. It has also landed her a multi-album deal with RCA/Sony BMG, which she signed on Monday.
Instead of travelling round the country, Thom acquired a webcam for £60, and announced a run of 21 gigs to be performed on consecutive nights in the basement of her flat in Tooting. The audience capacity in the flat itself was limited to just six people. But the half-hour shows would be broadcast, free of charge, via her website at www.sandithom.com. The first night 70 people tuned in to watch, the next night it went up to 670. And by the middle of the second week she was performing to a peak audience of 162,000.
"I'm amazed at how well it's turned out, absolutely overwhelmed by it," Thom says. "But it isn't the end in itself. I can't imagine anybody, if you truly love to do music and to perform, who would want to stay in a basement and get cabin-fever for the rest of their life. For what we wanted it to be, the purpose of it was to just try and expose ourselves to people in a way that didn't cost money and it was a very cushy situation. All we've got to do is go downstairs. But it's catapulted me and my band into a situation where we can go out and play to hopefully a thousand people or whatever. And that is what we wanted to achieve. That's really the most important thing."
"What is really interesting is that the audience has been moving from country to country," says Chris Dabbs, the group account director of Streaming Tank, the company which set up the webcasts. "You can see it in the viewing stats. It started in the UK, then it went Stateside, then it started trickling into Europe, Scandinavia, and the largest audience at the moment is now in Italy. It's been talked about on blogs and word has spread all over the internet. It's turned into the ultimate viral marketing campaign."
But that was only the beginning. Within a week of the shows starting, executives from every major record label had visited the flat in Tooting. All of them put in offers. Meanwhile, Thom's neighbours got used to the sight of television news crews trailing their cameras and cables down the street. Freshman Guitars sent over a couple of brand new acoustic guitars in the hope that Thom and her group would use them in her remaining concerts, and other promotional freebies that have arrived include everything from capos to harmonicas. Thom played the last of her 21 Dates From Tooting "tour" on March 16, after which she emerged blinking into a new world.
Her debut album, Smile... It Confuses People, which was due to be released on the tiny Scottish independent label, Legacy, will now have the full marketing muscle of the RCA group behind it. In a nice finishing touch to the story, Thom actually signed the major label contract live in front of her webcam audience on Monday night with the RCA executive Craig Logan (formerly a member of 1980s boyband Bros). The company is calling it "the first webcast signing in major record label history". But presumably not the last.
"People are saying: 'You're a pioneer'," Thom says. "And I think that's amazing that I was in at the beginning of something quite revolutionary. Before this all kicked off it was just a lot of fun. I wasn't aware of whether other people had done it or not. I don't know anything about the technology. I'm always thinking of hare-brained schemes to get exposure. Ever since I was young I've always had a knack for getting myself exposed - or I should say to market my music. It wasn't an epiphany or anything. More an act of desperation to be honest. But I don't know quite why it worked so well for me. I've been used to gigging since I was 14. Maybe all those years of slogging up and down the country have finally paid off."
Thom's manager, Ian Brown, is currently fielding about 10 enquiries a day from other artists wanting to know how she pulled off this remarkable feat, while Streaming Tank has been approached by "hundreds" of acts, both famous and unknown, to organise similar events.
"We have been involved in putting live work on the internet before," Dabbs says, "but nothing that's kicked off like this. At the moment it's unique, but I don't think it's going to be for much longer."
There are various technical explanations for the emergence of such a phenomenon. Last year marked the point at which the number of consumers on broadband connections overtook those on dial-up, which has made it much more feasible for a mass audience to receive webcasts of this nature. But Thom's performances have also sparked people's imaginations. Her style is simple, authentic and intimate. In the basement broadcasts her drummer sat beside her banging on the sides of what looked like a cardboard box.
"I've always been influenced by soul singers," Thom says. "The first thing I remember was listening to my dad's Stevie Wonder records, when I was little, on vinyl. I grew up on him and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, these amazing singers. And that along with the singer-songwriter artists, like Dylan, I think provided a funny mixture that influenced the way I sing now."
Her natural talent and enthusiasm was channelled by a period of studying at the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts, the so-called Fame Academy, founded by Sir Paul McCartney.
But despite all the years of training and effort, it wasn't until she found a way of proving her appeal to a substantial audience of viewers on the internet that the major record labels suddenly showed an interest. "The record industry is being forced to go back to its grass roots," Dabbs says. "It is suddenly being dominated by what the audience wants, rather than what the record label and marketing department wants to give them. It is the dawning of a new era."
This is a theme which echoes the well-documented rise in recent months of bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hawthorne Heights and others who have benefited handsomely from the new environment which has been created by web technology, and in particular by the rise of the MySpace phenomenon. Currently the world's number-three-ranked website (ahead of Google, and lagging behind only Yahoo and MSN), www.myspace.com is rapidly becoming the universal means by which musicians from the most humble to the most celebrated can tap into an instant worldwide audience for their music. So far the site has concentrated mostly on recorded music, but already there are numerous webcast organisations springing up, with the aim of showcasing live performances, primarily by new or local acts. As I write this I am watching a jazz band led by Miles Mosley performing live in a studio in Los Angeles on a site called FlashRock (www.flashrock.com), which operates via the MySpace site. At the moment they have about three such events a week, but that is bound to increase as the idea catches on.
"The world is on MSM now," Dabbs says. "That means people are getting more and more used to using video and internet cameras. The internet companies are now becoming able to deal with the extra amount of pressure that this brings on to the system. And in the past the internet has always followed what has been demanded of it. So if the audience is after more video, the internet companies will find a way to provide that."
It can only be a matter of time, therefore, before anyone who wants to create their own televised music show and put it within reach of a potential audience of millions can do so. But it may be worth bearing in mind that Sandi Thom was by no means an absolute beginner. Like Arctic Monkeys, she already had a manager, a PR, a road manager and a small record label all working on her behalf, not to mention many hard years spent playing her music in front of real live audiences. The internet merely helped a talented performer locate an audience without recourse to the industry middlemen. It didn't create the music or the performances that proved so appealing.
These developments mirror an even purer "people's revolution" which is currently taking place in the book publishing world. While the big publishing houses are trimming their lists of authors, self-publishing is now said to be the fastest-growing sector of the market. At the most radical end of the spectrum, the internet site www.lulu.com has come up with the bold idea of enabling anyone who has written a book to publish it for free, initially by uploading their manuscript on to the Lulu site where it is offered (digitally) until such time as a sale is confirmed. At this point, one copy of the book will be printed, bound and delivered to the purchaser. The author takes 80 per cent of the fee and Lulu takes the other 20 per cent. Some books sell as many as 500 copies, others as little as one or two. But the company is growing at a rate of 10 per cent a month.
Other organisations, such as the American company, AuthorHouse, offer an assisted self-publishing service, at a price of around £1,000. Josa Young who, like the great majority of would-be authors, failed to secure a deal with a conventional publisher for her modern love story, One Apple Tasted, has nothing but praise for the company, which has helped her to lay out and format her manuscript and will place copies of the book in Waterstone's in Oxford Street when it is published this month.
"I just got so sick of rejection letters," Young says. "This way, my book will be on the net and in Waterstone's in Oxford Street, and then we'll see what happens. Why does everything have to be filtered through jaundiced professionals, when the people who are actually going to be enjoying these books are not anything like that at all?"
As with the army of do-it-yourself recording acts currently on the march, it is all about locating an audience for yourself. And what is the betting against an authorial equivalent of the Arctic Monkeys emerging via the self-publishing route - and sooner rather than later?
Sandi Thom's single 'I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker', is released on Legacy/RCA on 22 May. Her album 'Smile... It Confuses People' follows on 5 JuneReuse content