In 2001, everyone wanted to get rich on the Web. In 2006, everyone wants to be a rock star. There’s a musical gold rush now, filled with tales of artists who have made it big through non-traditional, online promotion, like the perpetually-hyped MySpace success story Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The challenge: separate real potential from fiction.
One-man DIY band Brad Sucks was a Web rock star before being a Web rock star was cool. Who else would title his album, brilliantly, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Last week, he was interviewed by GarageSpin, one of my favorite music blogs. He talks about how this got started in 2001, how the DIY spirit in his forums has built his fan base, and, most famously, how his creative commons approach (steal his music, make remixes) has helped spread his music. (For a label that has helped champion that approach, check out Magnatune.) My favorite quote, on his gear setup:
I try to hate all my gear equally at all times to keep the balance of power in my favor. Once gear detects weakness such as having favorites, it’ll break down and quit working right away.
At the other end of the spectrum, this week UK artist Sandi Thom released her first single on RCA, complete with music video. What makes Thom interesting is that she managed to snag a record deal by performing a “virtual tour” from her basement; RCA even signed her in front of her webcam, once they saw her audience rocket to six digits. The song is pretty good, though Sony BMG’s Website has pretty much killed any indie Web spirit. My suggestion: steal the idea, but skip the label. I’m also still working on the idea that her song “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker”, filled with nostalgia for the good ‘ol days of hippies and writing letters in the mail before she was born (she’s 24), was inspired by losing her cell phone, but I’ll go with it. Fortunately, the boot-stomping rhythms are great, she has the right voice for this.
(Note: This whole thing sounded a bit like a publicist’s creation to me when I first read it, especially since Thom doesn’t have her own personally-crafted site like Brad Sucks. Sure enough, see comments: it sounds as though the whole “Sony BMG stumbled upon the site and signed a contract” a fake. That said, drop the gimmick, do a real webcast, be a real indie band, and please, sing about something other than your lost cell phone. Although, that could make a really great country song . . . hmmmm. Oh, and also, Create Digital Music doesn’t really exist, either. There is no Peter Kirn. Peter Kirn is the fictional creation of a group of interactive media moguls. When we get bought out by MTV tomorrow, that will all have been all staged, too.)
Anyway, the real bottom line: people didn’t tune in because it was a gimmick; they tuned it because it made the Web feel a little more like a live performance. So, sure, Rolling Stone and major labels might be honing in on the gimmicks in the brave new world of Web promotion. But the dynamics of potential fans reading the Web are what’s really powerful, and there are plenty of role models with good ideas, just waiting to be copied and improved upon. I’m holding out for the crazy, experimental artist who makes it big on the Web without an ounce of pop. (Hey, Sun Ra had a label deal. I wish I were an Arkastra member with flowers in my hair.) Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting back to Last.fm’s CreateDigitalMusic group radio station.