Shikari: A record deal? No way

Koopa and Enter Shikari are happy to be DIY bands who do it all for themselves. And they're just the start, says Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

For a record company that sells downloads to talk of "digital music year zero" sounds like hype, but the Musical Rights Collective might be on to something.

"DMY0" is when digital revenues outstrip those from physical formats. And such is the authority of this start-up operation that it began this year by merging with the long-established dance label Distinctive Records, home to breakbeat veterans Way Out West, Hybrid and Dub Pistols.

If anyone is making DMY0 a reality, though, it is artists working out of the mainstream - and none more so than Enter Shikari. This unsigned outfit sold out the 2,000-capacity Astoria in London last November, one of only two unsigned bands to do so. The Darkness was the other.

Enter Shikari are still refusing deals from major labels to release music through their own imprint, Ambush Reality. Their intention to remain self-sufficient may be tested, however; music writers polled by the BBC selected the St Albans band as one of their top five tips for 2007.

Their sound is not for the faint-hearted, similar as it is to the screamo phenomenon that looks to combine an emo aesthetic, as promoted by Fall Out Boy, with a more histrionic edge reminiscent of extreme heavy metal. The band have their first European dates this month in the Netherlands.

They may have already had live success at home, but they still sleep on floors, says the bassist Chris Batten. "We've still got no money, so we're just taking a minibus out to bring our crew with us. We're just glad to have a chance of playing to people who don't know our music."

Batten is still a little stunned by their success in selling out the Astoria for a gig that was upgraded from a smaller London venue. "It was amazing, unbelievable. We were worried about playing to a half-empty room, but with the ticket sales we had it was a risk worth taking."

Sleeping on floors is better than signing to a major label, Batten says. Enter Shikari are receiving support from their distributors, which has helped them to sign a deal in Europe, at the expense of receiving a massive advance.

"We thought long and hard about it because the big companies did make decent offers, but half their job is to build the grassroots and we'd done that already. So we're keeping our copyright and looking after the details such as merchandise and artwork - all the decisions that a major label wouldn't have passed through us."

Screamo has benefited from internet exposure, as disaffected teens bypass the fresh-faced bands that appeal to the big labels and plug in directly to hard-hitting sounds from as far afield as San Diego and New Jersey. Now, screamo qualifies as a specific genre on MySpace.

The British side of the scene is diverse and dispersed. Enter Shikari's trance-style synths soften the hardcore distortion, giving them a unique appeal. Close behind come the even more strident Flood of Red, roaring out of their native Glasgow with a blood-curdling answer to emo's star acts. And watch out for The Blackout, from Merthyr Tydfil; they take the established thorax-wrenching vocal style and add their own swagger, not dissimilar to the garage revival of Queens of the Stone Age.

If such groups have a measure of their success, it is the number of fans who link to their websites. This is a figure that is easy to bump up, so the trick is to count the number of times people have heard their tracks. On current playlists, each band is pushing half a million listens.

Hard as it may be to turn these figures into actual sales, this is certainly a good time for DIY bands to make their mark. The singles chart now counts downloaded tracks towards total sales, even if they do not form part of an official single release. This makes it easier for bands to make their mark. This week, Essex's unsigned pop-punk trio Koopa gatecrashed the charts with their track "Blag, Steal and Borrow".

The question now arises; should the chart retain its familiar name? The change to include downloads hasn't brought radical upheaval; the X Factor winner Leona Lewis retains her No 1 slot, with only minor changes to the chart's composition elsewhere. Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" re-entered after being deleted as a single, while Eminem's "You Don't Know" gained a top 40 position in spite of its physical version being disqualified owing to the inclusion of a sticker giveaway.

Still, the updated rules are good news for artists who want to rely on digital sales - as Enter Shikari, with their young fan-base, undoubtedly will. For a band with such energy, the avenues via which they can promote themselves have expanded considerably. This time last year, we were all talking about the potential of MySpace as a cheap, easy means for artists to get their music into the wider world. Certainly, Lily Allen and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah showed what can be achieved.

Now attention is focused on the video site YouTube, where some labels have been happy to promote their artists. Super Furry Animals front-man Gruff Rhys has used the site to promote his solo material; with its odd mix of psychedelic whimsy and pastoral, his album Candylion could have remained a cult listen. So the online outlets are not just for the new teen idols - anyone can benefit.

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