Archive for the ‘Breaking New Talent’ Category

The hitmakers: why music pluggers are thriving in the digital age

April 30, 2018

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney 4/27/18

The hitmakers: why music pluggers are thriving in the digital age

Business is brisk for the men and women who hustle for radio airtime
My parents are never able to understand what I do,” James Passmore of Plugged In PR says before attempting the same feat of explication for the FT.
We are in his company’s office in Soho, central London. The room contains two desks. The other is occupied by Mr Passmore’s colleague, Mikey Lloyd. There are gold and platinum discs on the wall, a stereo and a cheerful dog called Rocky, named after A$AP Rocky, a US rapper and one of Plugged In’s former clients.
Mr Passmore, 33, and Mr Lloyd, 31, are record pluggers. “We take an artist’s music to radio stations on behalf of record labels or management and try to convince them to support that artist,” Mr Passmore says. The ultimate aim is to get a song on to the roster of 30 to 40 songs that play throughout the day on national UK broadcasters, such as BBC Radio 1 or Capital FM.
“At the start of an artist’s career it can just be ‘spot plays’, which are like one-off plays on specialist DJ shows,” Mr Passmore explains. “But as you build an artist’s career it becomes more strategic. You’re building towards playlist support and playlist rotation increase, trying to get from a C-list song to an A-list.”
Plugging is still a vibrant niche for entrepreneurs, relatively unscathed by the upheaval that has affected the rest of the music industry. This pivotal role in popular music goes back to the early days of radio in the 1920s, when big bands were feted acts.
Today it is a key strand in the promotional tactics used by record labels to drive a hit song. Digital teams target social media and street teams pound the pavements. Online and print press offices deal with websites and publications. All plug acts in the wider sense. But in the music industry the term refers to those who lobby for radio and television airtime.
Plugged In, which Mr Passmore set up in 2007, focuses on UK national radio (regional radio has its own network of specialist pluggers). Clients range from indie band Haim to rap group Migos. Among its current campaigns is up-and-coming singer Alice Merton, who is trying to crack the UK market with her single “No Roots”. Today, Mr Passmore and Mr Lloyd are waiting to learn if she has been playlisted by Radio 1. It turns out she has, which almost automatically guarantees a chart placing: the station has an audience reach of nearly 10m.
Their office is within walking distance of most of the UK’s national radio broadcasters. The stations usually hold formal meetings for pluggers to pitch songs to the producers and music teams who decide the weekly playlist.
“There might be something poignant to tell them,” says Mr Passmore. “Or it could be they’ve never heard of that artist but he or she has just sold out a large venue in their home town.”
Pluggers can pitch one or more songs in their 10-minute slot, one eye on the clock, the other on the pitchees’ reaction. It sounds pretty brutal. “Yeah!” Mr Passmore and Mr Lloyd say in unison.
They estimate there are about 20 other independent UK plugging companies working on national radio, as well as in-house plugging teams at record labels. “There is plenty of work to go around,” Mr Passmore says. “We turn down more than we take on.”
He came to the industry through work experience at a regional radio plugging company while studying for a commercial music degree. Mr Lloyd has a background in regional radio.
Much of a plugger’s daily routine is spent at the computer. But the core activity of meeting radio stations and persuading them to play a song is a throwback to a world of face-to-face business dealings.
“You’re basically trying to gain the trust of producers, DJs and programme controllers at record stations, so that when you bring in a brand new artist they’re going to take notice of it,” Mr Passmore says.
James Curran is director of music for national broadcasters Magic and Absolute Radio and their stable of nine subsidiary stations. Together they have a reach of 8.6m listeners. Like Radio 1, Absolute has decided to play “No Roots”.
Mr Curran’s music team sees pluggers on Monday afternoons in 15-minute appointments. “The whole process is about instilling confidence in the music programmer that a song has legs,” he says. “We want to be confident there is a story behind it. What makes it stand out from the crowd?”
A short walk away, Mel Rudder is sitting at a table in a stylish Soho café with a laptop and empty cup of coffee. Formerly a plugger at Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of the major label Warner Music, she set up her own company, Three Thirty Music, in 2016.
Whereas Plugged In pays about £2,500 each month for its Soho address, Ms Rudder is a nomad: “My job’s not nine to five so I’ve got to find places as and where I can. Wherever’s good WiFi, I’m there.”
Specialising in hip-hop, R&B and reggae, she has almost 30 campaigns on the go. “I’m super busy, it’s ridiculous,” she says. She left Atlantic because she wanted to work outside its roster of performers, a decision spurred by urban music’s entrepreneurial culture: “In the genres in which I work, a lot of artists are going out on their own.”
Ms Rudder works across radio and television. Live sessions are organised for acts to play in person for radio producers and music teams, a calling card with a personal touch.
The biggest change to plugging this decade is the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Last year songs were streamed 68.1bn times in the UK, representing more than half the consumption of all recorded music.
In the pre-streaming age, the plugger’s job was to create an appetite for a song before it arrived in shops. Now they operate in a climate of instant availability. Following US practice, the industry has agreed a common code whereby songs are promoted on a so-called “day-and-date” basis. “The day that you put the record out to media is the day that it should be available,” says Ms Rudder. “People now, as soon as they hear a record they want it straight away.”
Music is the most technologically disrupted of the creative industries. Record labels are no longer the only route to releasing music. Acts can promote themselves on social media and get songs on to SoundCloud and Spotify. But Ms Rudder believes the plugger’s role will remain vital.
“There are a lot of artists that can do certain bits by themselves. But for a proper radio campaign, pluggers are still very much relevant. It’s probably one of the most standard things that happens. I don’t think plugging will change.”
‘Payola’ and plugging in the 21st century
Streaming is the new frontier for music promotion. “There are a lot of radio pluggers who are going into streaming plugging as well,” Mel Rudder of Three Thirty Music says.
The goal is to get songs on the playlists used by the likes of Spotify to present new music to listeners. With many employees at streaming services having radio backgrounds, pluggers know who to approach.
But this is a murky area. “It’s because it’s so new,” Ms Rudder says. “There isn’t a full process of how things work at the moment.”
Plugged In PR’s James Passmore is dubious. “I’ve heard of companies that claim they have streaming plugging departments, but I’ve also heard that streaming plugging is not a service that Spotify will acknowledge exists.
“We saw it as an opportunity when streaming happened so we’ve maintained those relationships, but we’re not about to risk upsetting Spotify by charging for a service that doesn’t exist.”

“Payola” — the practice of pluggers paying for songs to be played on the radio — was banned in the UK after a scandal in the late 1950s.
Streaming services fall outside laws prohibiting it. Spotify took a lead by banning playlist payments in 2015, but there are whispers of its persistence elsewhere in the world of music promotion. Spotify declined to comment on its policy towards pluggers, nor the effectiveness of its ban.
“I’ve heard rumours from the US that there’s still a little bit going on,” Mr Passmore says. Plugging’s new frontier has something of the Wild West to it.


How an Indie-Rock Star Is Made in 2018

February 19, 2018


Last year, Lucy Dacus almost crumbled under the staggering load of anticipation.

A rising singer and songwriter with a new record deal and an intensifying air of next-big-thing-ness, Ms. Dacus was forced to weather real life — including health issues, mounting personal responsibilities and the ambient stress of political turmoil — while also focusing on what had all of a sudden become her job. In Nashville last March, she made her second album — the first with any expectations attached, the one that is supposed to change her life. Then she had to wait for it to come out.

During that uneasy downtime, Ms. Dacus thought a lot about what her emotionally raw and intimate new work might mean to people — the album, “Historian,” is out March 2 on the storied independent label Matador — and also about what it meant to make music her career.

At a time of immense technological and aesthetic change in the industry, Ms. Dacus, based in Richmond, Va., is a timeless model: a guitar-based, album-oriented songwriter with a big, unadulterated voice and tattooable lyrics. But as she prepared to take the ambitious jump from local band to national act, opener to headliner, amateur to professional, Ms. Dacus, 22, was grappling with what it’s like to be a winner of that lottery and a product of the hype machine that keeps modern indie rock humming.

“I never considered a career in music because it was too unattainable,” she said, just a few years removed from dropping out of film school and taking a seasonal job as a photo editor for yearbooks and class pictures. “I just didn’t believe it was possible.”

But her ascent, while unlikely, is also representative in this slice of the music world: Spurred by her emotionally astute songwriting, Ms. Dacus has seen her early course accelerated by grass roots and media support, and guided by shrewd business decisions, even as she has aimed to remain fully in charge of her art.

Ms. Dacus has been warned about the horrors of the music industry: “I’m actively, months in advance, trying to look out for myself and fight against whatever downward spiraling other people encounter.” Credit Rick Kern/WireImage, via Getty Images

In interviews spanning the last 11 months, beginning in the recording studio and ending on the edge of her album’s release, Ms. Dacus, a benevolent auteur-in-training, detailed the bizarre process of being deemed “up next” while trying to foreground what she called her “most precious thing — this music.”

“I feel so untrained and unprepared,” she said last month, “but it has been working.”

Building Buzz

Ms. Dacus’s first album, “No Burden,” was recorded in 20 hours for a school project. Her live guitarist and studio multi-instrumentalist, Jacob Blizard, was required to make something over a college winter break, and he enlisted his friends, including Ms. Dacus and the producer Collin Pastore. “I had not once sang with a band before recording,” Ms. Dacus said.

But she had quietly been writing songs for years and journaling since second grade, honing a preternaturally sharp voice on topics like gender, faith and creativity itself. On the album’s standout first song and single, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Ms. Dacus sang with a wry wit about female archetypes: “Is there room in the band?/I don’t need to be the frontman/if not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”

Tyler Williams, a Richmond musician, recalled being floored by his first listen. “This can’t possibly be made by a 20-year-old in Richmond,” he thought, and soon signed on as her manager, intent on finding a larger platform for “No Burden.” EggHunt, a tiny local label, agreed to back the LP, and a boutique public relations company in Brooklyn was hired for the campaign.

In November 2015, a few months before the album release, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” had its premiere on the website of the tastemaking magazine The Fader. That very day, Ms. Dacus was fielding interest from the major labels on down, along with publicists, booking agents and other background actors who make the business tick.

Mr. Williams, whose own group, the Head and the Heart, had signed to a major label, recognized what he called “the whirlwind of momentum picking up for a band, that hurricane of energy around an artist.”

Ms. Dacus, though, remained measured. Despite being wined and dined over the coming months — some labels would “make a point to say, ‘This is a very expensive restaurant,’” she said — Ms. Dacus ultimately went with Matador, a late entry in the sweepstakes, whose executives had approached after seeing her live, not online.

She also appreciated the label’s track record with longevity, citing career artists like Yo La Tengo who continue to make albums and tour long after any trendiness has worn off. Matador would go on to rerelease “No Burden” in September 2016, building on the buzz generated by Bandcamp streams and coverage from influential outlets like Pitchfork and NPR, as Ms. Dacus continued writing songs and making a name on the road.

As the pieces fell into place for a follow-up on a larger scale, all Ms. Dacus had to do was make it.

In the Studio

Last spring, the “No Burden” team reassembled. Ms. Dacus had first tried recording her fresh material with a new producer in Portland, Ore., but the sessions failed to jell. Soon after, at a Nashville studio known for Christian rock where the weekend rates were discounted, she was joined once again by Mr. Blizard and Mr. Pastore.

The rooms were stuffed with vintage equipment, and the rapport between the old friends was easy. Though Ms. Dacus referred obliquely to “sophomore album worries,” she had already meticulously arranged the music and planned a track list. As Mr. Blizard recorded guitar, Ms. Dacus exerted a firm but casual authority, taking suggestions and using “we” and “us” when referring to the process, but making every final decision — from the tone of a solo to the arrangement of a backup vocal — herself.

The compositions had grown more grand than those on “No Burden,” with space for horns and strings, but they hadn’t lost their sprawl or specificity. On the opening song, “Night Shift,” a nearly seven-minute slow-build about a necessary breakup, Ms. Dacus reached for the climax. “You got a 9 to 5 so I’ll take the night shift/and I’ll never see you again if I can help it,” she belted. “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers.”

In down moments, Ms. Dacus, wrapped in a blanket, journaled or tended to the stack of books she was devouring, including Susan Sontag’s journals, short stories by James Baldwin and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. She was also shopping online for a home in Richmond, a once-impossible idea made realistic by her budding career.

On its seventh day in the studio, the group ran out of finishing touches and gave itself a small round of applause. Ms. Dacus, as usual, seemed content and levelheaded, with a touch of concern. “I wonder if I will ever stop feeling wound up until this album comes out,” she said.

The Waiting

In between may have been the hardest part.

As Ms. Dacus’s album was mixed and mastered, and she fretted over cover art and the title (she considered “Penultimatum,” but wondered if it was too punny), she also emotionally prepared to have her puncturing, diaristic songs heard on a scale they never had been before.

“I think it’s good,” she said in June, “and I’m very intimidated by what it might mean to people and how my identity is going to be dispersed by it.” With the first LP, Ms. Dacus said, “We had no concept of it mattering.”

A band that comes out of nowhere is easy to root for; but, as a part of the industry, with levers being pulled on her behalf, Ms. Dacus had signed up for more scrutiny. She mused about the need to develop “a thicker skin while also remaining vulnerable.”

As someone who had long created with no expectation of an audience, the path to professionalizing was fraught. “Even people who have never been involved in the music industry are like, ‘Watch out, it’s going to change you — things are going to get weird,’” Ms. Dacus said. “That’s a well-documented fact about artists as their careers go on. I’m actively, months in advance, trying to look out for myself and fight against whatever downward spiraling other people encounter.”

Julien Baker, another Southern singer-songwriter who also signed to Matador after a small, much-adored debut, has developed a deep kinship with Ms. Dacus as the two walk similar paths. Ms. Baker wrote in an email that Ms. Dacus “understands being a deeply creative person and having to try to fit one’s relationship to their art into a schema of what it means to be a career musician.”

“Lucy is acutely aware of her position to the world and extremely compassionate, but has a deep strength and self-assuredness,” she added. “ Her confidence isn’t rooted in arrogance, it’s just rooted in the peace of self-knowledge.”

Still, there was room for doubts. “I’m, like, a kid,” Ms. Dacus said. “I might never be ready, but it’s going to happen.”

The Release

By January, with the album around the corner, Ms. Dacus had largely come to terms with the expectations that had grown around her. Though the sale was hectic, she’d settled into her new home in Richmond, putting down roots she hoped would ground her as her new life took off.

“I feel really lucky,” she said of the apparatus that was revving up to spread her work. “So few people get that, and that’s why this record is kind of intense.”

She had settled on the title “Historian,” from a poignant line on the album’s closing track: “I’ll be your historian/and you’ll be mine/And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/hoping the words carry meaning.”

The sentiment spoke to what Ms. Dacus considers her most important role as a writer, that of a collector and chronicler of her own life and the lives of the people she loves. Having sat with the finished album for months and having allowed it to settle, she described “Historian” as a song cycle about “living through loss and the inevitable darkness of life, and doing so hopefully and joyfully.”

From “Night Shift,” the breakup song, to “Pillar of Truth,” a devastating hymnal about the death of her grandmother, Ms. Dacus traced an arc of increasingly difficult grief that is processed and preserved in music, allowing her to ultimately choose optimism. “I am at peace with my death,” she sings on “Next of Kin.” “I can go back to bed.”

“There’s a lot of art that’s about loss and sadness,” Ms. Dacus said, “but I would love it if hopefulness were more of a cliché. That’s the work that always sticks with me and emboldens me in life.”

Having seized her opportunity for growth as an artist, she relished the thought of performing her new work far and wide, for audiences and also herself, for as long as she can.

“It’s important for me to write songs that feel good to sing every night and remind me of my core, truest beliefs,” she said. “If you can come out from under pain, why wouldn’t you? You definitely can. There’s no question.”

‘We sign music we love. We’re not sniffing around to find the new thing all the time’

February 7, 2017

Kenny Gates 1/24/17

You can’t always derive much about a record label’s identity from its name.

Matador founder Chris Lombardi, for example, pinched his company’s brand from a Pedro Almodóvar movie in a snap decision spurred on by design deadlines.

Yet there are certainly characteristics of the bullfighter which rather suit the history of Matador, which turns 28 this year – particularly a penchant for the powerful and provocative, and a fearlessness in the face of peril.

Since Matador was created in Lombardi’s Tribeca apartment in 1989, it’s gone on to introduce audiences to the likes of Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Pavement, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo and Interpol.

More recent successful signings have included Kurt Vile, Savages, Cat Power and Queens Of The Stone Age – who scored their first ever US No.1 album in 2013 with Like Clockwork… on Matador after years signed to a major label.

Lombardi met his Matador colleagues Gerard Cosloy and Patrick Amory before the label existed, when the trio worked at indie Dutch East India Trading.

He says that he initially started his record company “as a hobby – to document some bands playing in New York at the time”.

[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with Lombardi to get the story of Matador’s origins – and gauge his view of the music industry today…

Am I right that the first record you put out on Matador was by an Austrian band?

Yes, a band called H.P Zinker. Gerard recommended I go see them. It was supposed to be a 7″ deal – just a song, but they recorded a mini-album, six tracks. That was more than I expected.

At the same time I was friends with some other bands in New York. I quickly had four or five albums coming out – including The Dustdevils, Railroad Jerk and Superchunk.

All of a sudden I had a number of releases to responsibly promote, press and distribute.

You had to pay bills, then?

Yeah – and it wasn’t easy to get paid in those days. A Lot of the indie distributors weren’t the quickest to write a cheque, especially if you didn’t have a hot record.

Did you have startup capital to get going?

I borrowed some money from my dad. Not very much. Probably $40,000 over two years. That helped keep the lights on.

The Railroad Jerk record did pretty well and the Superchunk record did pretty well, and Gerard had also gotten this cassette from the guys in a band called Teenage Fanclub. He had been shopping that around to a few different major labels at the time, but between [Cosloy’s label] Homestead and Matador we said: ‘Let’s put that out together.’

That’s when we started working together. We signed Teenage Fanclub and things really started to take off.

So that was your breakthrough record?

Yeah. It was also a time where things were starting to change with the mainstream for the indie music business. There were a number of different labels cropping up – Sup-Pop, Matador, Merge. And then in 1991, Nirvana really started to heat up.

During that frenzy of alternative rock, the major labels were trying to grab a piece of something they didn’t quite understand. At the time there was a lot of LA hair metal bands, Guns’N’Roses and Poison, and pop music.

The bands we were signing were starting to sell real records and we did a distribution deal with Atlantic at the start of 1993.

Why did you do that? You needed the cash?

One thing we’ve always been able to do, which is a pretty amazing luxury, is that somehow we found a way to put out whatever we wanted while never really having to concern ourselves with the commercial viability of it – because we’ve had partners who’ve allowed us to do what we wanted.

We’ve been able to do these joint venture deals, grow the company and hold onto our artists while not compromising on our artistic taste.

How does it work with you and Gerard?

We’re both the A&R guys. We sign the bands that we like and the music we want to hear. It’s really about the music that we love.

The thing that’s been great is for the past 27 years we’ve only worked with artists we like. We’re not sniffing around to find the ‘new’ thing all the time or meeting every band that comes to town.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Probably in the pure sense that I work for myself and do what I want.

In terms of being a businessman, no. I never thought of myself as a businessman first.

How did you deal with the company expanding? Did you go to business school?

No I only went to college for three months, and Gerard also went to college for a few months. So… instinct!

We had business managers to deal with royalties and the more complicated aspects of a larger roster with 30 employees, but [the growth in the business] was mostly us just figuring it out.

It’s hard to become a ‘boss’ all of a sudden. We really just employed our friends for a long time. Our oldest employee, Rusty Clarke, is Director Of Sales at Beggars [US]. At the time, the only requirement of people we hired was to love the music we loved and be able to talk knowledgeably about it.

Previous history in the music business was actually considered a downside. If you’d worked for a record company, it probably meant you’d been influenced by someone else.

Rusty was a waitress, but she went to every show we were at. It was hand-to-mouth for quite a while.

How long did it take before you were able to actually make a salary out of the business?

Well, we didn’t really work like we had salaries. We’d just about pay our rent and buy pizza. We lived with the label.

I had thousands of H.P Zinker records at my loft. You kind of forget how much space that many boxes, 3,000 sleeves, inserts and pieces of vinyl fill up. They don’t come assembled!

We’d invite friends and the bands over, get some beers in and some drugs and stuff the records for a few hours. It was great. It felt home-made, which it was.

Let’s go back to your time with Atlantic Records – in hindsight, was it a good or bad era?

I won’t say those experiences were ideal relationship-wise. I don’t think we got much from it really. But we did get capital, and with their investment we were able to grow the company further.

We had a pretty liberal arrangement with them. We were a fairly in-demand company at the time. And we weren’t super-greedy; we weren’t trying to sell ourselves.

It ended at the end of 1995, which was kind of the beginning of our first-hand experience of the major label revolving door. We saw record company executives we’d begun our relationship with go away. The guys we did our deals with, first at Atlantic and then Capitol, they moved on.

These executives are really there for themselves, they’re dictated to by a corporation, sales goals and publicly-traded companies. They come and go, and they go to the next place that gives them the best deal.

The next guy wants to get rid of the other guy’s [ideas] as soon as he can. He doesn’t want someone else to get the credit, and certainly he doesn’t want someone else’s failure on his hands.

You signed to EMI/Capitol after Atlantic. Why?

Our guy from Atlantic, Danny Goldberg, moved on and so it was time for us to find someone else who was sympathetic to what we do.

That ended up being Gary Gersch at Capitol – the guy who signed Nirvana to Geffen. He was at Capitol for about two years, and then he left. And so we were getting used to this major label situation.

You sold 49% of your business to EMI? How do you get past that?

We did. The Capitol deal bought us out of the Atlantic deal, then when we finished up with the Capitol deal we did a distribution agreement with DNA, part of Valley, and we were fully an independent company again.

You got an advance for your distribution and paid back Capitol?

Yes. Then Valley/DNA went bankrupt. We were able to get our stock out. And, of course, we owed them money – but they were bankrupt. So we walked free and clear and did a deal with ADA.

And finally, you found the ideal suitor…

By 2001, we wanted a more engaged partner; a partner who was more established outside of the United States where we’d struggled for a long time.

We had various distribution deals [around the world] at that point. We contacted Martin Mills and talked to him about partnering up. And by the end of that year we sold 50% of Matador to the Beggars Group. And it’s been a tremendous period of stability and growth ever since.

Martin and the Beggars Group have really allowed Gerard, Patrick and I to do what we do best and not worry about…

All the shit.

Exactly. All the shit.

Being able to represent ourselves as a truly global company is remarkable. It’s been amazing.

Beggars has given us excellent stability as well as great insight – they’re a cutting edge entertainment company. They’re at the forefront of all the new media stuff.

You made a comment when Queens OF The Stone Age went to No.1 in the US that you felt “numb”. Why?

It’s hard to go up from No.1. When Queens went to No.1, I wasn’t looking for it – it wasn’t our goal. We’ve never felt competitive in that kind of way.

It’s never been about volume of sales or being a commercial market leader for us. It’s just been about putting out the best music. We want our records in as many people’s pockets as possible, but we’re not about having hit records.

So was it scary?

No. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t ‘us’ at any point; we’d been fans and friends of Queens since the very beginning. That didn’t feel weird.

We’ve gotten pretty good at what we do, and it’s not every day you get one of those achievements. But that’s not our focus.

Were you proud?

Yes, but I was more happy for the staff and the band; they deserve to experience having a No.1 record. I was proud to say an independent label like Matador was able to give a giant rock band like Queens Of The Stone Age their first No.1 record – that was a satisfying moment for sure.

If the Chris Lombardi from 1989 could see the Chris Lombardi of today, what would he think?

He probably wouldn’t believe it. But with hindsight, I probably would have done a few less drugs. [Laughs].

I think we’ve done good. I love coming to work every day and working with the folks in this office. My days are spent having meals with unbelievably talented musicians – people who are musicians because they have to be. They’re not trying to score a hit record; they have to express themselves in a unique way.

I’m pretty emotional about my business. It’s all about caring about and believing in the people you’re working with – and convincing people to take the time to check out something you believe is truly special.

Did you ever get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think: ‘I’m not up to this. I can’t do this?’

No. I’m a fairly optimistic person. I’m certain there were some times where we were flying by the seat of our pants. But those are kind of the funnest times – when all of your senses are at their rawest and you’re just trying to figure it out.

What’s the worst moment in your career?

I don’t think I have one! I honestly haven’t really had any shitty moments.

I guess my worst moment was we had a much too large staff after our various major label partnerships. We had staffed up to resist their involvement.

When we became fully independent our cash was a lot tighter and we had to be more responsible with our overhead. We had to slim down and let go of some staff that weren’t necessary. [Getting too big] wasn’t the best decision my part, and that was hard.

Who are your mentors; people who inspired you to do what you do?

It’s the bands. They’re who inspire me. There’s no executive who inspires me.

Are you a romantic?

I’m a pretty romantic guy. But I’m romantic about now. I don’t romance the past. I like what I’m doing right now – I’m enjoying talking to you. I’m talking about myself, though, which is…

You’re a bit uncomfortable talking about yourself?

I don’t feel great about it.

Streaming. What do you think of it?

It’s great. I meet kids who are more knowledgeable about my artists than I am, and that’s because of streaming. They have entire catalogues at the tips of their fingers.

When we were growing up, it was like if they were out of stock, they were out of stock.

What about an industry that’s 90% streaming? You think we’ll still be able to break bands?

Yeah. If it’s good, it’ll float to the top. I don’t really beat the dead horse of physical. I actually always think there will be a physical aspect.

But the fact is, many, many more people will be able to listen to our music and we’ll get paid for it. That’s exiting for us and our artists.

Why do you still get up in the morning and do this? What’s your purpose?

To help support and spread the message of people I feel are hugely talented.

I have the best job in the world. I really do. And I’m very lucky it fell into place the way it did

Young Performers Look to Apps for Stardom

July 6, 2016

By BEN SISARIO 07/04/16

ANAHEIM, Calif. — At VidCon, a sprawling conference here for the young stars of online video, success has a particular sound: a sudden, earsplitting shriek, signaling that a legion of tween-age fans have spotted one of their idols and are making a frantic selfie run.

Hailey Knox, a 17-year-old singer from Carmel, N.Y., who was visiting VidCon late last month to promote her debut EP, “A Little Awkward,” has not cracked the shriek level of fame. But the team of music and technology executives behind her is betting that, based on her budding popularity online, she could soon be enjoying a screamfest of her own.

Ms. Knox is one of the stars of YouNow, a live-streaming mobile app on which she broadcasts a few times a week, usually from her bedroom. She plays quirky cover tunes, along with earnest songs she’s written herself, all the while interacting with her 80,000 followers. Her popularity on the app helped her land a record deal and a tour, and now Ms. Knox is poised to become the live-streaming world’s first crossover music star.

“There’s social media fame, and then there’s Justin Bieber fame,” Ms. Knox said at VidCon. “I’d love to break out the way Justin Bieber has, through his YouTube to where he is now. That would be cool.”

Pop stars were once crowned on “American Bandstand” and MTV, but in the YouTube era the connection to fans has been much more personal. The newest talent incubators are apps like YouNow,, Flipagram, Snapchat and Vine, which satisfy millennials’ preference for rapid-fire interactivity.

“This is the new farm club,” said David Hyman, a longtime digital music executive whose latest enterprise, Chosen, is a talent-contest app.

Hailey Knox broadcasts on the mobile app YouNow a few times a week, usually from her bedroom. She plays quirky cover tunes and earnest songs she’s written herself, and interacts with her 80,000 followers.

Increasingly, the apps are also live, giving users a sense of taking part in something immediate, and creating a new class of performance stars on Facebook Live, YouNow and Twitter’s Periscope app who may make music, dance or simply chat.

Their clientele is very young. On YouNow, where the broadcast streams are festooned with emoji and comments, 74 percent of the users are between 13 and 24, according to the company., which has bite-size videos of teenagers lip-syncing to pop hits, said it has 90 million users, and Flipagram, which attaches soundtracks to slide shows, said it has 200 million.

“This generation was born with screens all around them,” said Adi Sideman, the founder and chief executive of YouNow, which said it streams 50 years’ worth of video each month. “Performing live, and being live, is completely natural to them.”

The music industry got a taste of the power of video apps a year ago when 16-year-old Shawn Mendes, who got his start on Vine, had a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. Few other acts have graduated from the app world to significant sales, but that may be less important as the music industry shifts toward a streaming model that makes money from every click.

YouNow also lets performers make money from virtual gifts from fans; one performer, Brent Morgan, a 28-year-old from Alabama, said he makes $10,000 a month from these tips.

“There’s a perception among brands that all of a star’s audience will migrate from their YouTube channel or Instagram feed,” Ms. Johnson said, “but what we are seeing is that those numbers don’t always meet expectations.”

Ms. Knox’s label, S-Curve Records, wants to position her as a credible singer-songwriter whose experience as a live streamer can prepare her for wider audiences.

Petite but with a snarky edge, Ms. Knox began playing guitar when she was 7. By age 12, her YouTube videos had attracted two experienced producers, Mike Mangini and Peter Zizzo, who have worked with artists like Avril Lavigne and Joss Stone.

They decided then that she was too young, but a couple of years ago — just as she was beginning to use YouNow — they reconnected with Ms. Knox and began bringing her to New York for regular writing and recording sessions. With her parents’ blessing, Ms. Knox left school during her senior year and is finishing her course work online to focus on her music career. At VidCon, her entourage included her mother and father, a police officer whose job at the conference was carrying his daughter’s guitar, and her younger sister, Samantha.

In the more than 300 videos she has made through YouNow, she banters with other users, mugs for the camera on her phone, plays guitar with surprising polish and uses a feature of the app to perform split-screen duets with her viewers. In one video from April, she sat at a deli, eating a salad and fielding questions.

She has learned that singing viewers’ names as they watch her helps keep her play counts high, but that what works best is simply “being yourself.”

“Showing my goofy personality,” she said. “People can relate to that.”

A year ago Ms. Knox signed with S-Curve, whose founder, Steve Greenberg, has worked with acts like Hanson, Ms. Stone and, most recently, Andy Grammer. Mr. Greenberg described YouNow as an accelerated way for an artist to develop the skills of performance and crowd interaction.

“In the old days, an artist would have to find some club to get good about relating to an audience,” he said. “With YouNow she can just go online and play, whether it’s for hundreds or thousands of people, and get real-time feedback.”
Ms. Knox’s career so far has been a mix of do-it-yourself online promotion and connections in the traditional music business. Her manager, Darin Harmon, used to work with Coldplay, and she secured a slot this fall opening for Charlie Puth, known as the guest singer on one of last year’s biggest hits, Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.”

Yet Ms. Knox has also rejected parts of the Hollywood machine. She was approached to be a contestant on “The Voice,” “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” but turned them all down, favoring YouNow and the freedom to sign with a label of her choosing, according to her mother, Jamie.

At VidCon, Ms. Knox shuttled between performances, promotional appearances and impromptu broadcasts at YouNow’s dedicated booth, but she seemed most excited about meeting other young live-streamers, most of whom she had developed extensive online relationships with.

“It’s funny seeing faces that I’ve seen before all over the internet,” she said.

At the YouNow booth, while Ms. Knox performed on a couch with two new friends, Nick Bean, a 21-year-old who is part of 5quad, a performance group made up of YouNow heartthrobs, described the importance of the app to his growing business portfolio, including an app of his own that he said he was on his way to San Francisco to pitch to tech investors.

“When I’m live, I’m relevant,” Mr. Bean said.

Given all that, is simply releasing an album a little, well, old-fashioned?

“Not really,” Ms. Knox said. “They’re all just ways of promoting yourself.”

Spinrilla, DatPiff, My Mixtapez Apps Offer Illegal Access To Music, And Record Labels Won’t Touch Them

October 6, 2015

By Max Willens 10/03/15

If you found yourself worried about missing out on the Drake-Future mixtape “What a Time to Be Alive,” which dropped exclusively on Apple Music two weeks ago, you were not alone. And if you happened to be one of those people who illegally downloaded it using a mixtape app, you weren’t alone, either. According to a source at Universal Music Group who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter, “What a Time to Be Alive” was illegally downloaded more than a million times in less than a week via Spinrilla and My Mixtapez — two sites that are part of a subset of popular mixtape sites and apps that provide users with access to huge archives of amateur, occasionally illegal music for free.

Unlike on-demand streaming services like Spotify, which offer users access to millions of songs and albums, or radio-style services like Pandora, mixtape sites offer on-demand access to hip-hop mixtapes, compilations of unofficial or leaked material often built out of other artists’ hit songs.

These sites and apps, many of which have been around for a decade, are an entrenched part of music consumption. According to data from App Annie, six of the 25 most popular music apps on iOS last month were mixtape apps, and some of the top sites, like DatPiff, have generated more than $1 million in annual advertising revenue. But they are also an intrinsic part of hip-hop’s musical culture dating back decades, and they occupy a complicated place in record labels’ worlds. Those labels and publishers — which have found a way to monetize most of the music we can find online in one way or another — don’t see a cent.

They also don’t want to talk about them, because a number of top hip-hop recording artists, including the aforementioned Drake and Future, regularly and routinely put their songs on these sites with their labels’ blessing. The major labels, however, all declined to comment on the relationship they have with these sites.

“It was one of those necessary evils,” said Shawn Prez, the head of Power Moves Inc. and the former vice president of promotions at Bad Boy Records. “Mixtapes were incredibly important to breaking artists.”

The mixtape played a vital role in hip-hop’s cultural and economic history. In the late 1970s, when the art forms of rapping and DJing were growing up in parks and recreation centers in New York, people would trade recordings of DJ sets and people rhyming. In the 1980s, when club promoters were afraid of booking hip-hop acts or DJs, those same DJs would produce tapes in home studios and either give them away or sell them.

Later, DJs looking for new ways to stand out from the pack would cozy up to artist managers, producers and artists looking to get their hands on unreleased material that they could offer exclusively. DJ Clue, the first mixtape DJ to sign a major-label recording contract, would frequently hang around outside recording studios waiting for individual songs to be finished so he could release them before anyone else.

The tapes became so popular that they circled the globe. Copies of some of the most popular tapes, like Doo Wop’s “ ’95 Live,” made their way halfway around the world, showing up in collector hands in Japan and England and Brazil.

And as mixtape culture grew, the market for commercially released hip hop grew along with it. Label owners took notice. “The music industry embraced the mixtape DJ,” Prez said. “Those guys were essentially on the front lines of breaking our music.”

Legal Gray Area

The fact that every DJ was technically breaking the law was beside the point.

Irrespective of whether they sold their tapes or gave them away, mixtape DJs were all doing something illegal by distributing copyrighted material that they had not secured a license to distribute. “Whether you give it away or sell it, it’s still a copyright violation,” said Robert Meloni, a partner at Meloni & McCaffrey, who represents a number of prominent artists, including Drake and Lana Del Rey.

Beyond the legal red tape associated with giving away songs that were somebody else’s property, plenty of hip-hop music, especially songs made in the genre’s earlier years, relies heavily on samples of pre-existing hits, which also needed to be cleared with rights holders legally. Those hip-hop tracks, all made by younger artists and producers who lacked the business know-how, resources or inclination to clear those samples, rarely did. “In most case, people don’t get permission,” Meloni said.

But because mixtapes were unquestionably helping labels shift units, executives didn’t seem to mind. They began allocating resources to ensure their artists were well represented in that black market. “There was always a budget for mixtape promotion,” said Sommer Regan McCoy, founder of the Mixtape Museum and former manager of the Clipse. “Always.”

Before long, the label support for mixtape culture became even more institutional. Atlantic Records, home to artists like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa and a number of other artists who put out mixtapes regularly, was one of the first sponsors of the Justo Mixtape Awards, the first awards show to recognize and celebrate the country’s most popular mixtapes, artists and producers.

Digital World

Inevitably, the world of mixtapes moved online. In 2004, the Boston DJ Clinton Sparks launched MixUnit, a site that became a kind of marketplace for mixtapes from all over the country. A year later, a site called DatPiff launched, and both businesses flourished. Five years after it went live, DatPiff’s parent company, Idle Media, filed for an initial public offering.

But as piracy squeezed the music business, some labels began to change their tune. DatPiff was named in a number of lawsuits filed by artists for facilitating the distribution of songs that violated their copyrights, and in 2007, the Recording Industry Association of America went went to war with the mixtape industry, arresting popular mixtape DJs and producers Don Cannon and DJ Drama and jailing record store employees at shops that carried the tapes. While the RIAA is not currently in the middle of a full-scale offensive against these sites, their stance on them remains unchanged.

“Many mixtape sites and apps like these appear to operate under the misconception that they can distribute any content they choose to characterize as a mixtape and the burden is on the copyright owner to complain about each work. That is wrong,” Brad Buckles, the RIAA’s executive vice president of anti-piracy, wrote in an email. “These sites frequently engage in massive infringement of copyrighted works. They are unlicensed music services plain and simple and cannot hide behind the DMCA” — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Partners In Crime

Yet despite the widespread infringement and the lawsuits, the sites continued to operate, and artists, who saw the sites and apps as a proven place to grow their fan bases, continued to feed them. “Artists do what they want to do,” McCoy said. “They’ll leak to tapes. They’re notorious for it.”

Thanks partly to the arrests and the suits, and partly to changing tastes, the mixtape and hip-hop evolved too. Producers moved away from blatant use of recognizable samples; mixtape DJs became more cautious in the material they used; and artists, following the example of stars including 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, started putting out album-length releases of original material and labeling them mixtapes. “Once upon a time, the mixtape was a playlist, a collage of old music, new music, all kinds of artists,” Prez said. “Nowadays, 90 percent of the mixtapes done are like artists dropping their own albums.”

Prez argues a large amount of the content that’s filling sites like DatPiff and Spinrilla isn’t owned by any of the labels that might once have rightfully felt infringed. But every once in a while, a release like Drake and Future’s will pop up on one. And even if it doesn’t, tracks featuring the beats or vocals from those hits will appear, often within days of the official release.
Yet despite the collaboration and interdependence, the prospect of an economic partnership feels stalled. Neither the three major labels nor Merlin, the digital rights agency that negotiates on behalf of independent labels, has any licenses in place with mixtape sites. According to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, Universal Music Group has tried to compel a number of the sites to sign a blanket licensing deal, though those talks were unsuccessful.

Similarly, the prospects of killing these sites in court are dim. “You cut off that one head, and 10 more pop up,” Prez said.

Boston Calling: the city at the heart of America’s DIY renaissance

January 4, 2015

The east coast city has always had its share of influential bands, but today, more groups are taking the stage under their own steam
From Bad Brains to Cerebral Ballzy: why hardcore will never die

Sam Blum 1/3/15

Boston has always existed on the fringes of America’s cultural fabric. The American Revolution started there, it boasts one of the most robust intellectual communities in the world, it is the birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts, and it has a turbulent racial history and divide. It’s a town of academic transients, middle-class families and the working-class Bostonian populace.

But Boston is also home to a tradition steeped in underground folklore that’s much louder, one forged on the head-banging energy of punk rock’s forebears: the city’s consistently booming independent punk, metal, hardcore, indie-rock and post-punk music scenes. The aging record collector and millennialmusicsnob should know about Boston heavyweights like Siege, Jerry’s Kidz and Amherst’s Dinosaur Jr – bands who, in eras defined by blaring guitars, booked their own tours and played shows before their like-minded disciples. The Boston scene, just like the influential hardcore punk of Reagan-era Washington DC or Seattle’s flannel-wearing grunge scene, embodied an actively rebellious ethic, and thus wore the anti-corporate Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mentality boldly on its sleeve.

And just as Seattle existed on the outskirts of America’s cultural landscape before grunge, today’s Boston and the greater northeast are home to an impressive cadre of boisterous and creative bands who champion the densely textured post-punk sounds of bands like Dinosaur Jr, Polvo and other 90s luminaries.

Currently, Boston’s scene is still very regional, with only a few bands like Krill and Speedy Ortiz having broken through nationally and internationally. Many more bands from the region – like Kal Marx, Grass is Green, Guerilla Toss, Fat History Month, Mean Creek, and Bent Shapes – aren’t much recognized outside of their home towns.

But will the scene that birthed these new bands ever get the widespread recognition it deserves? And what are the conditions that hamper the meteoric rise of bands born of punk roots and regional, DIY diktats in 2015?

“Regional sounds have lost usefulness because the concept of community has expanded so much,” says J Robbins, record producer and former guitarist and frontman of Washington DC post-punk band Jawbox.

Musical communities are born in the blogosphere and in subreddits now, just as they were born on college radio stations in the 1980s and 90s. Robbins expands on this notion by invoking his time as a young, guitar-toting, perpetually road-weary musician in the 90s. He reasons that “the geography (of musical scenes) felt much further apart and much more separate” 20 years ago, and that regional musical communities became cultural flashpoints out of necessity, because there wasn’t much else to facilitate connections between aspiring bands.

Now, as many point out, web communities are the defining rule, stipulating who connects with whom and when – the question of where is less important.

Boston’s scene, however, seems to function on a more localized level, where internet activity takes a back seat to more genuine, word-of-mouth interaction. As Matt Becker, guitarist of Boston band Pile, says, there’s a lot of history undergirding the momentum of area bands today

“Boston and Massachusetts in general already has an enormous legacy of influential underground music, whether it was 80s and 90s punk and hardcore or the scene that grew out of western Massachusetts in the mid 1980s that spawned one of the most significant and archetypal independent rock movements in contemporary history,” he says.

Expanding on this sentiment is Sadie Dupuis, the vocalist/guitarist behind Speedy Ortiz of Northampton, Massachusetts. She says that Boston is an ever-expanding playground of musical experimentation full of bold and “risk-taking” songwriters.

“There’s always new people moving there and moving away, which means new blood, new bands, and little to no regard for whatever’s hip outside of its boundaries,” she says.

Boston’s is a scene driven by a disregard for what’s hip – a hoisting of the punk ethos much like DC hardcore, but without an era-defining sound or emblematic figure like Kurt Cobain or Henry Rollins for the media to latch onto. There’s no obvious enemy like Ronald Reagan for the bands to focus on, and politics isn’t something the bands are singing about.

“Seldom are bands performing to rally around a cause or social idea. Nascent protests are way more likely to gain traction via a hashtag than an impassioned band’s lyrics” in 2015, says Dupuis.

“It’s harder to rally around a scene that’s fractioned and introspective. Small scenes that turn into national movements need a cause to attract passion and interest, and music isn’t really the distribution point for causes anymore.”

In 2015, Boston bands wear their influences on their sleeves. Their tunes harken back to a time when many of the musicians were in their youths, when the guitar came first and bands with loud drummers took precedence over all slow-burning, soft-rock sensibilities.

J Robbins of Jawbox reasons that it’s quite possible that nearly all musical stunts have been pulled in rock; there’s not much else for new bands to glean from the genre as a whole. Meanwhile, a national music scene over-saturated with bands makes it harder for regional scenes to get noticed on a national scale.

“There are so many bands now that the likelihood of being derivative is just so much higher,” he says, noting that being derivative isn’t, however, always a bad thing.

One has to ask, though: do upstart post-punk bands in Boston and elsewhere even care about putting their music on the map of American musical legacy towns?

Matt Becker doesn’t seem to think so, since he already sees his band as part of a longstanding citywide tradition of musical ingenuity. He says Boston has always prided “art for art’s sake” above all else.

He says “the (Boston) legacy exists and has proven itself intact with this new generation of bands”.

Independent bands play for themselves and strive to share their music in any way possible with people who genuinely care. The prospect of fame remains just that: a possibility that remains more of a passing joke than any real aspiration.

It’s evident that this new generation of post-punk revivalists champion the same anti-corporate ethic that drove bands that reached legendary status years ago. In 2015, though, there are certain deterrents that hamper new DIY bands’ chances to reach the mainstream. For one, consumers are more apathetic than ever. J Robbins notes that to the average, detached listener, “music is just sonic wallpaper” that changes with the push of a button or click of a mouse.

Boston might not be the epicenter of the next great American rock-and-roll explosion, but grungers in the Pacific Northwest of the early 90s (and certainly punks in 80s DC) never sought to change the world. A certain 90s post-punk revival in the northeastern US probably won’t reach the same level of notoriety, and that’s OK, because the bands are, for the most part, content with what they already have.

As Becker puts it: “We’re extremely lucky to be able to play to full rooms at home without a ton of show promotion. On a good night, there is very little differentiation between those making art and those enjoying it. We’re the same people.”

J Robbins echoes Becker’s sentiment, invoking his own musical prime. “It wasn’t about trying to burst on to the international consciousness of a generation and trying to take over the world. It was about making a utopia.”

As strange as it might seem, that utopia might actually exist – in Boston.

How Payola Laws Keep Independent Artists Off Mainstream Radio

December 1, 2014

Nick Messitte 11/30/14

There exists, in our country, a chasm between the perceived problems of payola (paying under-the-table for radio airplay) and the actual problems of payola.

The actual problems of payola—or rather, the problems with how major labels, radio stations and independent promoters operate within U.S. payola laws—are far more counterintuitive than you’d imagine.

Let’s examine:

Payola laws were first enacted in the 1930s, and like most legal decrees, their wording is quite interesting when examined under a linguistic microscope: contrary to popular opinion, you can still pay to play a song on the radio in the United States, but the broadcaster must disclose who paid for the tune. Not only that, but said disclosure must be handled in a particular way; from DJ to Station Manager to Program Director and beyond, “the information must be provided up the chain of production and distribution before the time of broadcast, so the station can air the required disclosure.”

Should an artist decide to weather this bureaucracy and pay openly for radio spins, any return on the investment would be scant: an artist would constantly have to pay many individual stations at once (and disclose these payments every single time through the proper channels) in order to compete with the rate at which major label material is broadcasted.

To be sure, certain bands have gotten around this problem in the not-too-distant past. Limp Bizkit’s label infamously purchased airtime for their first single, but their success is the exception, not the rule: since a 1959 congressional investigation into Payola scandals, bribing disc jockeys for radio play has largely gone out of fashion—at least in the conventional sense.

Plenty of unconventional kinds of payola still abound these days, but first, let me ask you a question crucial to understanding the enforcement of payola laws:

Why, after more than twenty years of these laws being on the books, did congress only conduct an investigation in 1959?

The answer lies in the era: Rock’n’Roll was starting to gain traction, gradually winning out over cultural biases against “race music,” and doing so, in so small part, through radio airplay, much of it purchased.

As rock’n’roll rose to prominence, major labels found themselves competing against independent rock’n’roll upstarts like Chess Records, while the performance rights organization ASCAP (who catered to the old, white guard) found itself competing with BMI (who tended to represent a bunch of rock’n’roll upstarts). In response, ASCAP and the labels pushed for the investigation under the guise of evening the playing field for everyone.

But this was a guise pure and simple, as the evidence of our modern day radio landscape would suggest: if the playing field were truly even, any artist would sport roughly the same merit-based chance of appearing on the radio, so long as consumers liked the music and demanded to hear it.

Can anyone with two functioning ears say that radio is a more varied climate than it used to be? Racially, sure, but in terms of artist variation, genre and sub-genre, no; as the Wall Street Journal reported, FM Radio currently broadcasts less new music than ever before.

Why is this the case, given that payola laws were put in place to ensure competitive fairness, at least nominally?

“The fact of the matter is payola laws have not stopped people from paying or compensating others for playing their music,” George Howard told me recently. “Period. Full stop.”

He should know—in addition to being the former president of Rykodisc and managing Carly Simon, George wrote a fascinating treatise on the subject, available here (he’s also the Board Advisor to a company attempting to innovate within the boundaries of payola laws, but more on that in a subsequent post).

Indeed, within radio’s “many, many formats—not all formats, but certainly the higher-level formats—there is a quid pro quo going on,” said George.

The quid pro quo comes indirectly: major labels have historically found a way to circumvent these laws through the use of independent promoters, or “indies” as they’re more commonly known (not to be confused with independent labels, or “indies” as they’re also more commonly known).

“The indies are the shadowy middlemen record companies will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to this year to get songs played on the radio,” Eric Boehlert wrote in an article for Salon some time ago. “Indies align themselves with certain radio stations by promising the stations ‘promotional payments’ in the six figures. Then, every time the radio station adds a Shaggy or Madonna or Janet Jackson song to its playlist, the indie gets paid by the record label.”

Check out those names: Shaggy, Madonna, Janet Jackson—when was this article written? Fifteen years ago?

Almost: the article was published in 2001, and since then, little has changed; indeed, the proper word would be “upgraded”: as recently as October, it came to light that Pandora, entering into a deal with Merlin (a large rights holder for many independent labels), was “‘steering’ its algorithms to perform more music from the Merlin catalogue in exchange for lower rates”—a practice that “sounds uncomfortably like the age-old practice of payola.”

Now in theory, anyone with a checkbook could fork over money to these independent promoters for spinning a specific song.

But, as we indicated before, the problem becomes one of competitive frequency: most individuals don’t have nearly enough money to compete for a healthy volume of spins with major labels, who, up until recently, often kept such promoters on retainer.

As a result, independent artists have found themselves “locked out of that system,” George Howard told me recently, “because the major labels—the ones…doing the quid pro quo—have the resources to do it on a regular basis, and they do it because it’s a good return on investment.”

Indeed it is: common belief has held that radio airplay helps to drive sales, and what little data-driven analysis there exists on that hypothesis largely bears out the claim.

“It’s not even ‘do you have the most money,’” George Howard said. “In the radio world, that won’t even do it for you if you don’t have the frequency. You need both money and frequency.”

Right now, a question might be fomenting in your brain: if so many entities are frequently trying to “get over” on payola laws, why has there been no substantive probe into this matter since 1950s?

There actually have been two: one in 1986, when an NBC news investigation entitled “The New Payola” inspired congressional hearings to reexamine the matter, and one again in the early 2000s.

The latter probe even yielded monetary results: the Attorney General pushing for the investigation—Eliot Spitzer—reached settlements with Sony BMG (10 million), Warner Music Group (5 million) and Universal (12 million). More settlements were reached with other entities (CBS radio, citadel, Clear Channel, Entercom) in 2007.

Yet for all these strides forward, little has changed, at least in my estimation: as recently as January, reports surfaced that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “hired an independent arm of Warner Music Group, the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which helps independent acts get their stuff on radio.” Zach Quillen, manager of Macklemore and Brian Lewis, discussed how “they paid the alliance a flat monthly fee to help promote the album.” Many in the Hip Hop world have remarked on how this tack resembled payola, and how their indie success was essentially a fiction.

If the above narrative displays anything, it’s that our payola laws have enabled the erection of a grey market, one in which shady, quasi-legal deals take place, and independent artists lose out more often than not (again, Macklemore is the exception, not the rule; by the metrics of his independent success, he fell into the ADA’s criteria of “the right artist, the right time, the right record.”)

Clearly payola laws have done nothing for evening the playing field of mainstream radio, because the menu of selection provided by mainstream radio is always shrinking.

Clearly congressional probes into the matter haven’t made much of a difference, because not much has changed in the wake of three different investigations; as Neil Young astutely mentioned at the top of “Payola Blues,” “This one’s for Alan Freed—wherever you go, whatever you do—cause the things they’re doing today will make a saint out of you.”

So the question then becomes, how does an independent artist reckon with such a marketplace, one that is innately stacked against the indies (artists, not promoters—boy that’s confusing)?

Is there a solution to this problem in our newfangled, mixed-up ecosystem of music and tech? Is there any entity which can sidestep the indie promoters, the pay-to-play swindlers (several of whom targeted my old band in the early 2000’s), and the payola laws to allow independent artists greater reach?

Stay tuned—we’ll have an answer for you later in the week.

New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander Grants First Interview in 15 Years (Exclusive)

October 15, 2014

Scott Feinberg Hollywood Reporter 10/14/14
The frontman of the 1990s band behind the hit single ‘You Get What You Give’ was lured back into the business, after a long self-imposed exile, to write the songs for ‘Begin Again,’ including best original song Oscar contender ‘Lost Stars’

It couldn’t have been scripted more poignantly. Last week, as I waited in the lobby of a New York hotel to meet Gregg Alexander — the frontman of the 1990s band The New Radicals who, shortly after releasing their smash-hit “You Get What You Give” (“You’ve Got the Music in You”), disbanded the group and turned his back on fame and fortune — for his first interview in 15 years, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry bounded past me, out the doors and into a throng of fans who mobbed him, clamoring for autographs, selfies and a chance to touch greatness, or at least celebrity. Past this scene strolled Alexander, a rail-thin 6’4″ bald man whom none of those fans noticed, despite the fact that his own music was side-by-side with Aerosmith’s on the Billboard charts in the late nineties. “Did you see that?” he asked me with childlike wonder — and not a hint of envy

As we made our way up to the room in which this interview would take place and took our seats, Alexander struck me as the furthest thing one could be from the stereotypical rock star — perhaps because it’s been so long since he was one. He was sweet, sensitive, self-effacing and effusively appreciative of my interest in talking to him. Was he putting me on? He, after all, had provided me with an integral and cherished portion of the soundtrack of my youth — I don’t think there was a party during my high school years at which “You Get What You Give” wasn’t played. I still listen to and love it. And, until recently, I periodically wondered what had happened to the guy who sang it.

Alexander, through an intermediary, had offered me his first interview because I have been a vocal fan of John Carney’s Begin Again — for which he came out of his self-imposed exile to write/co-write some wonderful songs, including best original song Oscar contender “Lost Stars” — since it premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?. Few, if any, creative endeavors have ever meant as much to him as this low-budget indie about the power of music, as well as the perils of the music industry — the things that drove him to walk away from it, in a sense, all those years ago, and which he feels are even worse today.

But before we get into all of that, we have to go back to where it all started for Alexander: in Motown. “Me and my mom would get in the car, drive around and listen to A.M. radio in the metropolitan Detroit area,” he tells me. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness and with a diverse group of friends, all of his favorite music was soul and rock and roll. He remembers listening to “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney, the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” George Clinton, and the like; fooling around on the family piano, “just instinctively writing my own melodies because I couldn’t really learn other people’s”; and then later focusing on the guitar and drums. “But the game-changer for me was seeing Prince in Purple Rain at 13 or 14,” he says, noting that he snuck into the R-rated movie. “‘Let’s Go Crazy’ knocked me over my head, but then when I heard ‘The Beautiful Ones’ it was all over. At that point I knew I was gonna be running away to California.”

His initial trip to Los Angeles was with his mother — ostensibly out of a desire to visit his aunt, but really as “a covert research and development trip,” he says with a laugh. There, he felt “that post-sixties spirit that was still alive in the mid-eighties,” visited an open-mic night and “literally snuck into the Grammys,” where he saw “all of my heroes” and “everything seemed within reach.” He knew he was home. That summer, while back in Detroit, he recalls, “I said to my parents, ‘I’m running away to California to be a rock star.’ My mom knew I was serious, but my dad said, ‘Well, make sure you’re back home in September for school if it hasn’t come together.”

His summer in L.A. could be the focus of a movie itself. He lived in Compton, Studio City and North Hollywood — “It was the black community that really took me in,” he says, “and thank God for that or else I would have been sleeping on the streets” — and he would regularly lug his raw demo tapes — “me pounding out in a some crappy studios in Detroit, howling at the top of my lungs” — down to Sunset Blvd., where he received a lot of encouragement. “Not everybody was like, ‘We’ll give you a record deal, kid,’ but it felt, in a strange way, that there was some angel looking over my shoulder a bit.”

It’s hard to doubt that was the case: by September, he had met record producer Jimmy Iovine, who had a production deal with A&M Records, and who offered him a record deal. He was just 16, and would not be permitted to sign it until he was 18, but he was given an “allowance,” of sorts, in the meantime. There would be no going back to Detroit.

For the next two years, he rode the buses to the beach and wrote songs all day. When I ask him what sort of a future he envisioned for himself upon turning 18 in 1988 — a solo career, being part of a band or perhaps something else — he is overcome with emotion. “That’s a sad question,” he says, wiping away tears. He says that he believed, at the time, “that a song and a sentiment would be able to right the wrongs of the world and make people actually love each other.” But his sense of idealism and optimism would soon be threatened by the business side of his art form.

For the next nine years, he had “a consummate blast, in a lot of ways,” much of it spent traveling around Europe while writing songs and honing his craft. But his career unfolded like a rollercoaster. The A&M deal lasted for a while, but his first record came out just after Polygram bought A&M for a half-billion dollars — “right around when the business started becoming, sadly, big money” — and his record got totally lost. He was soon a free agent again but, two years later, against great odds, he landed another record deal, this time with Epic Records. His second record, however, came out at the height of grunge — “and died because I refused to sound like that because it wasn’t me. I couldn’t fake that. I had to follow my heart creatively.” Then he lost that record deal, too. At 27, he had already experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and he says now, “I already felt like an old soul.”

By this point he was “used to making records that never got heard,” so, as he set about writing new songs, he “completely ripped up” the “few rules that applied to my first two records” and produced the third one himself. He recalls, “Most of that record was me pulling favors with studios or musicians that had played on earlier records and were like, ‘Oh, Gregg’s down on his luck — let’s go play on his demo for the hell of it, we’ll have a good laugh, have a couple of beers and maybe smoke a jay or whatever.'”

In the end, though, the album was impressive. He reflects, “We captured something that I thought that the music business, even at that time, had become too big-business and corporate to acknowledge. But, to my pleasant surprise, somebody wanted to sign me [again]. I couldn’t believe it.” That somebody was Michael Rosenblatt, who had signed Madonna, and who was sent Alexander’s demo tape by a friend. It was all but unheard of for an artist to get a third record deal after “failing” with the first two; usually you’re lucky if you get one shot. But, not for the last time, Alexander proved the exception to the rule.

The album was titled “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” and released in 1998 as a work of “The New Radicals.” Almost immediately, one single on it, “You Get What You Give,” catapulted into the top 40 on the Billboard charts. Alexander smiles and recalls, “I was on Sunset Blvd. walking down the street shortly after the record came out and I heard the song blasting out of someone’s car — and my immediate instinct was, ‘Oh, my God, someone stole my demo tape!’ I was really serious, too. And then I heard it coming from another car like a minute later and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how did all these people get my demo tape?!” He howls with laughter at the memory. (In the ensuing years, U2’s The Edge would name “You Get What You Give” as the song he’s the most “jealous of,” Joni Mitchell would assert that it rose “from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope” and VH1 would choose it as one of the “100 Greatest Songs of the ’90s.”)

Alexander was now a full-fledged rock star, with all that came with it. He remembers, “Touring was fun. Playing live was exciting. I just wish there would have been an off-button, you know? If modern pop-culture was just about the work and performing and creating some sort of euphoria for those who are inclined to like what you do, if there was a way to turn it off when you’re offstage, it would be the greatest job on the planet.” Alas, it involves much more.

“My favorite writers and artists had a human-politics aspect to their work, and that was something that drove me, as well,” he says. But, he laments, “I felt — perhaps too early on — that it was going to be a challenge to get even a portion of that sentiment across.” He elaborates, “As an experiment on the song ‘You Get What You Give,’ I had what at the time was one of the more political lyrics in a long, long, long time, to the point where some of the people I was working with were horrified: in a pop song, I was going after health insurance companies and corruption — ‘Health insurance rip off lying’; the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, which was not real; ‘big bankers’ and Wall Street. To allude to all that stuff in a pop song was, in retrospect, a naively crazy proposition.” Immediately after that political riff in his song, he inserted, “almost as a joke,” lyrics knocking Courtney Love and other pop-cultural figures of the time. “But to put them next to each other, and then to notice that everybody focused on the so-called “celebrity-bashing” lyric instead of this lyric that was talking about the powers-that-be that are holding everybody down—” He trails off. “That was something that I was kind of disillusioned by.”

His own growing celebrity was also increasingly troubling to him. “Artists are supposed to observe life,” he says, noting that it became harder to do that without people observing him. Moreover, people wanted to know about his personal life more than his art. “My favorite artists — Prince, [David Lee] Roth-era Van Halen, even Madonna when she was doing cutting-edge work — they were mysteries to me and my friends,” he emphasizes. “That was part of what made their work compelling, was that we didn’t have their opinions tweeted and Facebooked every 30 seconds. I didn’t know what Prince was having for dinner, thank God. So that was some of what I idealized and thought would be more present in my life as an artist” — only, that era had already begun to pass.

But perhaps most intolerable to him was the insistence by the industry itself — “the big business that run these corporations and multinationals that own the record companies and all of the conduits through which artists get their music out there” — that he and other artists “whore out” themselves in order to continue to make art. An example? “Things like doing station P.A.s, you know, where you have to go, ‘You’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ [The Party Pig was the mascot for the LA area’s now-defunct KQLZ 100.3 AM.] You know? ‘This is Gregg from The New Radicals and you’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ ‘Hangin’ with the Party Pig’ is a metaphor for all the sort of stuff that artists, to this day, have to do, and as bad as it seemed back then, it has multiplied a thousand times. It seems like a sad trade-off for artists. It’s the deal with the devil: if you want your work to be seen, it’s unfortunately not just about the work. And when it becomes less about the art, then the art suffers.”

“I simply missed feeling like an artist everyday and being able to write songs everyday and not feel like my time was being controlled and managed to answer to corporate shareholders,” Alexander says. Moreover, he adds, “I missed my old life.” So in 1999, just one year after “You Get What You Give” neared the top of the Billboard charts, he disbanded The New Radicals, turned his back on fame and fortune and simply walked away.

15 years later, I ask him if he ever feels like he pulled the plug too soon on his life in the limelight. “I have a lot of fantastic memories and there were a lot of amazing things about it,” he says, citing heartfelt fan interactions as a particular highlight. “As they say, hindsight is 20-20. In retrospect, maybe I could have and should have doubled-down and just kept the blinders on and the foot on the accelerator. But at 28, when my life was all about making music, all of a sudden it started morphing into supporting the machine and things that felt like the antithesis of creativity.”

At that point, Alexander moved to London, where he aimed to find a way to remain musically creative but also anonymous. “Thank God for the British record business and ‘Uncle Lucian,'” he says in reference to the Universal Music Group’s chief Lucian Grainge, who gave him “an open door policy” to write and produce songs for UMG artists while using pseudonyms. “I wanted people to either like or not like a song on its own volition,” he explains. “It gave me something to do and it gave me a feeling that my music was being heard in my absence of being the person out there doing the dog-and-pony show.”

In short order, he had penned about a half-dozen pan-European hits, including “Murder on the Dance Floor” for Sophie Ellis-Bextor and “Life Is a Rollercoaster” for Ronan Keating. And then Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, paired “The Game of Love,” a song that Alexander and Rick Nowels had co-written, with the artist Santana — “It was such an unlikely song for Santana to record,” he marvels — and the result was a smash hit for which Alexander won a Grammy. “I used another name, and did that for about five years.” But even from a distance, he continued to feel that the music business “was morphing and becoming even more corporate,” and “I kind of took a step back [again] at that point.” He began splitting time between Europe, New York and Los Angeles, and took on work completely unrelated to music, such as advocating on behalf of clean water projects, poverty alleviation and the Robin Hood Tax to promote the taxation of offshore accounts and derivatives.

Then, about two years ago, Alexander got a phone call from the writer-director-musician John Carney. Carney had been given Alexander’s contact info by fellow Irishman Bono, who had always been supportive of Alexander’s work and felt that he could be a great help on Can a Song Save Your Life?, Carney’s music-centric follow up to his 2007 Oscar-winning indie Once (which Alexander, a “cinephile,” had seen and loved). “We were on the phone for about 90 minutes, just talking about film and music, and it became evident rather early on that he is definitely a genius,” Alexander recalls.

Carney then sent Alexander a draft of his script about a young couple, Gretta (who Scarlett Johansson was originally attached to play, but who was ultimately played by “incredibly brave” singing novice Keira Knightley) and Dave (pop star Adam Levine), who grow apart after he becomes a star and she gets left behind — only to be discovered by a down-on-his-luck record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Alexander recalls, “When I read the screenplay, it completely threw me for six.” He acknowledges, “I saw myself, to some degree,” in all of the principal characters — Gretta’s pure love for music, Dave’s jarring experience with stardom and Dan’s disillusionment with the state of the business today — and couldn’t resist the chance to be a part of the project. “It gave me the impetus to walk away from my break,” he says, and once he decided to do so, “I was all guns blazing; I started writing songs immediately.”

Now no longer a kid in his late twenties, but a man in his early forties, he was back — not in front of the mic himself anymore, but aiming to provide those who were with the best possible product to perform. And he felt great pressure to nail one song, in particular, around which Carney had constructed much of his film, and which was tacitly the inspiration for the film’s then-title: the one that Gretta would write — and sing as a soulful, “innocent” tune — as a Christmas gift for Dave; Dave would then cover as “a more superfluous, up-tempo dance version” and turn into a hit; and that would ultimately be performed a third and final time in a way that would determine the fate of their relationship. It was a song that would need to sound good in each of these different incarnations and that he saw as the film’s “Purple Rain,” in “the humblest sense” of being “the song at the end of the film that hopefully ties everything together.”

Alexander and co-writers Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood worked furiously on the number, which they called “Lost Stars.” He recalls, “The goal was for each lyric and sentiment to be a story and a thought unto itself, but also to the greater mystery of life, which is that we are all just coming and going in this life. We are just a lost star. We are a spark on the horizon.” He continues, “The song was probably the saddest songs that I’ve ever written in my life, to the point where I had to morph the melodies and the chords to try to make it uplifting.” It worked. Carney loved it. “When I gave ‘Lost Stars’ to John I got back the most beautiful email saying that he had been crying on his keyboard. That was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as a collaborator.”

When Alexander first saw the finished film, which revolves so much around his music, he found himself in tears, and, since the film’s theatrical release over the summer under the new title Begin Again, he has been deeply touched by how many people have indicated that “Lost Stars” was meaningful to them. “The fact that some people hear the song and feel tears of joy instead of tears of sadness? That’s the most satisfying part of it.” It has also made him want to continue to find outlets for music in films, since he believes that films are now the ideal vehicle through which artists can put out meaningful music. “Independent films and studio films that have an important message and are willing to fight the power are the new rock and roll,” he insists.

So… is he “back” now from what he termed his “extended hiatus and sabbatical”?

Well, the concerns that drove him away from the business in the first place certainly aren’t gone. “Rock and roll has, sadly, flat-lined, it has dissipated,” he says mournfully. “It’s heartbreaking to see lyrics playing second-fiddle to beats and sounds, which there’s always a place for, but my favorite artists brought it all together.” Moreover, he still can’t get over “the corporatization and the celebrity-centric dumbing-down of music — signing artists based on what they look like, or how many YouTube plays their ego-centric, quirky videos get, instead of trying to find the next Dylan or Prince — the bedroom weirdos, the people that are making music in their bedrooms, the outcasts and the eccentrics. That was always the job of the music business.” And the celebrity obsession of the culture has only gotten worse: “For artists the dream is to touch people with your art. Now it seems like artists are props for selfies.”

And he doesn’t exactly miss being the guy out front — “Only walking on stage and feeling that electric energy,” he says, adding, “That was so beyond me. It was almost like this mysterious alternative universe that I didn’t really belong in — but it was fun.”

Still, he says, “I’m back in so much as I want to keep writing the best music I’ve ever done and hopefully find a way to say things that may not otherwise get said in the arts,” and also “to find the right voices or the right projects that can hopefully takes those songs to the world.”

Is there any chance that his might once again be one of those voices? “Oh, gosh,” he says with a laugh. “Let me get back to you!”

‘You become an arse overnight’: the pitfalls of having a hit novelty single

September 13, 2014

We love them (for about five minutes). Then we hate them (for ever). But what do the people who made such classics as Kung Fu Fighting and the Crazy Frog think of them now?

Peter Robinson 9/11/14

In 1974, a 32-year-old Jamaican singer called Carl Douglas was hoping to release a single called I Wanna Give You My Everything. One afternoon, his label’s head of A&R announced that the single could come out as soon as it had a B-side, and asked his colleagues to sift through Douglas’s recordings for suitable candidates. He went to lunch, came back an hour later and was greeted by a defiantly absurd disco banger by the name of Kung Fu Fighting.

That executive’s response, Douglas explains today from his Hamburg home, was this: “JESUS CHRIST! This is a monster. We need a B-side for THIS. He’s going into the FUTURE!”

Carl laughs at the memory. That’s only fair: Kung Fu Fighting was released 40 years ago this month, sold 11m copies, won a Grammy, and hit No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year, the song topped the charts in China for the first time, and is one of the 50 best-selling singles of all time. It’s also the quintessential novelty single.

In 2014 novelty records continue to seduce record buyers around the world. Forty years (and one week) after Kung Fu Fighting topped the UK charts, Meghan Trainor’s quirky, doo-wop-inspired rotundity anthem All About That Bass will be released in the UK having already hit No 1 in 28 countries. Like Kung Fu Fighting and a surprising number of novelty records it is exquisitely written and produced. But just like Kung Fu Fighting and era-spanning hits from Yakety Yak and Yes! We Have No Bananas to One Pound Fish and Can We Fix It? it is, at its heart, a novelty track.

Rarely championed by media gatekeepers, novelty hits prompt a visceral, unmediated type of connection with record buyers – one that’s arguably stronger than you will find in pop’s better regarded sub-genres. But they have morphed over the decades. In pop’s early days, when audiences would come to know songs such as David Seville’s 50s hit The Witch Doctor, Napoleon XIV’s 1966 hit, They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! (whose B-side was simply the A-side played backwards) primarily through radio broadcasts, novelty hits were frequently song-driven efforts.

By the 80s novelty hits such as seemed to come with a far greater reliance on presentation and personality – a novelty single came part and parcel with a career in light entertainment. In 2014, a track like All About That Bass has blown up – like Gangnam Style – through YouTube, where its brilliantly charismatic video is the embellishment on the song’s eccentric sonic styling.

It is a curious and perhaps heartening fact that very few novelty hits are totally worthless on a musical level. “Novelty records usually tread the knife-edge of taste,” admits producer Nick Coler, who worked on the Timelords single in 1988, and later propelled the Tweenies into the top 5. “So they’re normally considered crap, but all the biggest novelty records are generally well recorded.”

It’s certainly easy to reassess the Simpsons’ Do the Bartman when you know Michael Jackson wrote it. Equally, does William Orbit’s role in Loadsamoney (Doin’ Up the House) qualify that song for honorary Balearic classic status? More recently, does the presence of Stargate – the team behind hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna and countless others – on Ylvis’ The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) make that song seem any less inane? Either way, Coler suggests that novelty records must tick one further box. “They normally have someone behind them who’s taking the piss,” he says, “but in a pleasant manner.”

All pop transports the listener to the point in time when they listened to it, but novelty records – obsessed as they often are with zeitgeist – can prove particularly potent portals to specific moments. The Cuban Boys’ 1999 hit Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia was based on the hugely popular “hamster dance” song that itself proved an early viral sensation as dialup connections gave more and more families internet access, and says as much about that era as the Chainsmokers’ recent viral hit #Selfie does about 2014.

“I had this idea of a concept album chronologically sampling music from the 20th century,” remembers Cuban Boys founder John Matthews. “It would end, I decided, with the millennial No 1 – an ultra-banal, ultra-repetitive, internet-flavoured hit.” The album never materialised but Matthews did create that internet-flavoured hit – based on the hamster dance song – and found an unlikely champion in John Peel. The Cuban Boys signed to EMI, and the single made the top five.

A couple of years later Matthews teamed up with jocular rapper Daz Sampson, who’d already charted with his own version of Kung Fu Fighting, to form Rikki & Daz. They roped in Glen Campbell – “I think the extent of our UK credibility may have been slightly exaggerated to his people,” Matthews laughs – for a version of Rhinestone Cowboy. Later, they reinvented themselves as the papier mache-bonced Barndance Boys. “We hyped that Barndance Boys single to No 1 on [TV music channel] The Box by phoning up a million times,” Matthews admits. “When thousands of copies were ordered in the shops it inevitably turned out nobody wanted them, and we may have helped bankrupt Woolworths. Maybe we were dancing in the last flames of the old-school novelty hit back then, but we were still desperately trying to keep that career fire burning.”

Technology, with its endless distractions and resulting drop in shared experience, has not been kind to the brand of novelty record many cherish, or at least fail to forget. “You need the focus of a nation for a gimmicky song,” Matthews explains. “As people are so rarely looking in the same direction now I think the ability of a mass audience to recognise and enjoy novelty music has been lost.”

In the modern age, with most releases strategised to within an inch of their lives, it is cheering that novelty hits can still happen almost by accident. In 2012 Sam & the Womp, the sort of fringy act you might find pootling away in the outer reaches of the Glastonbury site, had a surprise No 1 with an absurd drum’n’bass-inspired song called Bom Bom. Radio 1, apparently on something of a whim, awarded it heavy rotation. Sam & the Womp signed to Warner Brothers Records.

“In our mind Bom Bom really wasn’t a novelty song,” admits the band’s Sam Ritchie (in pleasing Seven Degrees Of Kung Fu Fighting Separation, he’s best friends with the godson of one of Kung Fu Fighting’s co-writers). “Our original instrumental worked well, but the slightly noveltyish lyrics did bring it to life. Only in hindsight am I now seeing that it had real novelty value.”

When it came to the second single, lightning refused to strike twice. “We thought there’d be a play on Fearne Cotton’s show,” Sam remembers. “It didn’t happen, and that was it.”

Instant, widespread recognition is important in a novelty hit, but it doesn’t always pan out well. Today, Alida Swart works in the operations department at a London telecoms company, but between 1996 and 1998 she and three friends were in a girlband called Vanilla. At an early stage in Vanilla’s career their manager explained that he had bought the rights to a piece of music, which producers would then write a song over. The piece of music was Mah Nà Mah Nà, a song closely associated with the Muppets; Vanilla’s resulting 1997 single, No Way No Way, was named the 26th worst song ever by Channel 4, but was inescapable at the time.

Swart laughs off the longstanding rumour that Vanilla signed to EMI as the result of someone losing a bet, but accepts that Vanilla were launched with what was unmistakably a novelty single. “When we first heard it we just laughed,” she remembers. “Then we looked at each other. Two of us wanted to be doing R&B. But we thought: ‘We might as well do it.’” Girl Power was at its peak; they reasoned that Wannabe had itself been gimmicky. No Way No Way got to No 14 but Vanilla’s second single only managed No 36 and the band were dropped. Nonetheless, Alida looks back fondly. “People still tell me today that they remember this song,” she laughs. “It’s been nominated as the worst song of the 90s quite a few times, but at least it’s remembered.”

Decent careers have been built on less. In 1997 Steps were signed for just one single – the line-dancing cash-in atrocity 5, 6, 7, 8 – but when it sold 300,000 copies they were given another single and the rest is history, or Tragedy: they eventually sold 20m records. A few years earlier, Right Said Fred got their foot in the door in a similar way.

“If you heard the original demo of I’m Too Sexy you’d have a hernia,” declares Right Said Fred’s former label boss, Guy Holmes. “It was a rock song. I said to them, I think you need to make this danceable. The entire music business thought it was a novelty single. We went on to become two-hit wonders, then three-hit wonders. The album cost £40,000 to make. That first album sold 5m copies, along with 7m singles.”

Holmes admits that while Right Said Fred used a novelty single as a trojan horse for a more conventional band launch, one of his later signings was less artistically driven. Years later, stranded in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami and, watching television in the only part of his hotel that hadn’t been destroyed, Holmes could not ignore one particular TV ad. It featuring a rather distinctive frog. “Every five minutes there was a fucking advert for this ‘ring-ding-ding-ding-ding’ ringtone,” he recalls. “I thought: ‘That would make a great record.’” The cash from Crazy Frog’s records meant Holmes’s label, Gut Records, could develop other artists, including a young Jessie J.

“My bank manager loved me,” Holmes laughs. “The downside is that you’re instantly an arsehole. Credible artists won’t sign to you. I’d worked with U2 in 1982, but as soon as I did I’m Too Sexy I was an arsehole, overnight. The music business should remember it’s about entertaining people. There’s room for everything, and novelty records are just moments of fun. Gangnam Style is an example that you can blow up on YouTube if you’ve got a massively entertaining video.”

Novelty records may have evolved over the years but many of the principles that made Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) a No 1 in the 1970s would still work today, despite changing consumption habits. The cooler corners of the internet are currently tying themselves in knots over QT’s Hey QT, a deranged electronic pop record fronted by a girl purportedly selling a made-up energy drink. The fact that it’s signed to XL Recordings sweetens the pill slightly; either way, Hey QT is arguably the first hipster novelty single.

Whether a novelty single is cool or not the trick to making one, John Matthews says, is not to fear failure – or criticism. “People hating something is a much better indication that you’ve hit gold than indifference,” he says. He recently wrote and recorded a single called Meat Paste (Get It Down Your Face) with CBBC puppet Hacker T Dog, which he hopes the BBC will release for Christmas. It is, he says, “exactly the sort of old-school novelty gimmick record we need nowadays”, though the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the public.

College radio is dying — and we need to save it

June 4, 2014


WRAS 88.5 FM in Atlanta was the first radio station to play Outkast. It was one of the first few stations in the country to play R.E.M., Deerhunter and the Indigo Girls. It’s been a crucial, student-run force in independent music both locally and nationally for decades. But later this month, a backdoor deal will replace all of its daytime programming with “Fresh Air” simulcasts and “Car Talk” reruns.
This is a huge blow for the students who run WRAS, for Atlanta’s art and music communities and for the entire independent music industry. WRAS is one of the most powerful college radio stations in the nation. Its signal is as strong as the law will allow; those 100,000 watts cover all of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan area. And the closure of WRAS is just the latest in a long string of colleges failing to preserve their cultural institutions and selling their radio signals off to outside interests. It happened at Rice in 2011, at Vanderbilt between 2011 and 2014, and now it’s happening at Georgia State University, home of one of the most important college radio stations in the nation.
In early May, GSU announced an agreement to hand over WRAS’s 100,000 watt signal to Georgia Public Broadcasting for 14 hours a day, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. The student-produced programming that WRAS has broadcast during those hours since 1971 will now be confined to an Internet stream. The students who run the station weren’t included in negotiations, which stretch back to 2012. The station’s student management only learned about the deal shortly before the public did. The larger GSU student body didn’t get to vote on the deal or have any input in the agreement. It feels similar to another recent ugly scene in Atlanta, as the neighboring Cobb County resorted to banana republic tactics to squelch public debate on its plan to give the Atlanta Braves hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium.
Since 1971, WRAS has played a mix of new independent rock, hip-hop, experimental noise and electronic music that’s played by no other radio station in Atlanta. WRAS is programmed and hosted by students who otherwise wouldn’t have any opportunity to DJ on FM radio, and it aids local arts and music communities by promoting upcoming events and giving away tickets. If WRAS pushed these rotation hours back to 7 p.m., it would have to either cancel the dozens of genre-specific specialty shows it airs at night, or air them exclusively on the station’s digital stream during the daytime. Either way the students lose exposure and the listeners lose variety. When WRAS adds a new artist to its rotation, it gets a heavy boost on the CMJ charts, and other stations around the nation tend to follow suit. WRAS is vital to gaining exposure both locally and nationally for upcoming bands, and with its signal disappearing from radios its significance will shrink

Although GPB has touted new educational possibilities for GSU students as part of the agreement, along with an expanded NPR presence in the city, it’s hard to see how this deal is good for either the students or Atlanta. The students are losing 98 hours of terrestrial radio a week, including the hours that draw the largest audiences. 88.5 might attract more listeners with NPR stalwarts than obscure indie rock or specialty shows devoted to reggae or hardcore, but non-commercial radio stations traditionally aren’t concerned with ratings, and the listener base for student programming will immediately plummet when it’s walled away online.
The demise of WRAS is bigger than Georgia State or even Atlanta. Today college radio is threatened by the same forces that undermine the commercial radio industry. The Internet has upended the entire notion of radio, as listeners can find almost anything they want at any moment. Satellite radio has eaten into the audience for local stations during drive-time hours. Younger listeners don’t grow up with a love for college radio, and thus don’t go out of their way to volunteer at a station when they’re in school, which leads to the increasingly common sound of older voices on the college frequency as community members fill in the gaps on the schedule.
Before the Internet conquered the world, college radio was the most reliable way to hear new underground music. Seventies punk grew into ’80s college rock and ’90s indie rock in seclusion at the left end of the FM dial, while the commercial radio stations and mainstream music industry that so smugly dismissed them chased trends and cycled through formats. College radio filled a vital gap, and although it has diminished in the face of 21st century technology, college radio stations are still as valuable as ever.
Beyond letting students gain experience on FM radio or serving as a social club for students who aren’t into sports or Greek culture, college radio is still one of the easiest entry points into subcultures ignored by mainstream media. It provides college students and teenagers bored with the pop music that’s played everywhere else with a window into a secret and more honest world. It isn’t just for the young, though; college radio is for anybody bored by the artless sounds and repetitive playlists of commercial radio.
Every radio station and format has its passionate fans, but the passion for college radio isn’t just for the nostalgia of classic rock or the desire to hear the latest hits. It’s a passion for variety and for the ability to hear what otherwise wouldn’t be heard on the radio. That most often means indie rock or underground hip-hop, but it also means specialty shows that focus on genres that commercial radio would never touch, from jazz to bluegrass to a surprisingly large number of metal and punk subgenres. Mostly it’s a passion for freedom, and as Clear Channel-style corporations take over more commercial stations in every market, that freedom becomes more valuable.
Local radio keeps us in touch with our communities. Local college radio keeps us in touch with parts of our communities that are otherwise invisible. Losing local college radio doesn’t just speed up the streamlined homogenization of our culture; it can decimate the local businesses and art communities that depend on that FM exposure.
If a station as powerful and influential on both a local and national level as WRAS can be gutted, a station whose progressive philosophy was, for decades, synonymous with the urban university that housed it, then all college stations are also at risk. If Rice and Vanderbilt’s stations were the first major dominoes to fall, then WRAS is the biggest — large enough to damage the entire college radio industry. This is the future of college radio, and it’s no future at all.