Monday, June 19, 2006

Sandi Thom: I wish I was a PR man with money in the bank

Her CD has a sticker: "The singer who webcast to the world from her Tooting basement". It is becoming clear that, far from being an impoverished artist using new technology to reach an audience, her success is a triumph of conventional marketing. The webcasts were effectively showcase gigs intended to garner major label interest, after last year's small-label release failed to get any higher than No. 55 despite Radio 2 airplay. The vagueness of ST and her backers about the numbers of viewers of the webcast smacks of fiction: if there really were 70,000 (or, later, 40,000) people tuning in having picked up on an Internet buzz, it is astonishing that so few blogged about it, mentioned in on a website measured by Technorati, or visited her MySpace site: the Internet buzz followed the press reports, not the other way round. It looks as if she used the webcast angle as a way of making unverifiable claims for popularity in order to get the labels hungry. They did, and RCA (or rather Sony BMG, trading as RCA) eventually snapped her up.

Her current success has been driven partly by expensive PR: when was the last time a debut (or 'debut') single was released (re-released) with two weeks of TV adverts? But more than that, there has been the collusion of the press, which has picked up on the webcast thing and given her massive exposure in the print media. A little digging, or even the application of memory or common sense, would have led to a more critical approach, but everyone seems to have concluded, with the editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty valance, that given the choice of telling the truth or printing the legend, you should print the legend.

The 'new star created by the Internet' story is a popular one, one that people keep trying to foist on any act with enough savvy to register their own web domain. I think the appeal lies in the Cinderella myth: the daydream that someone can become rich and famous overnight, without having paid any dues. ST has been plugging away for years, touring, recording, session singing, but that's not what people want: they want Chantelle success, similar to the daydream you enjoy in the period between buying a lottery ticket and finding out you haven't won. This is nothing new: when video first came along, Toni Basil found instant stardom (although Wikipedia tells me that her first single was recorded 15 years before 'Hey Mickey'); when Paul Macartney 'discovered' Mary Hopkin, she was already an experienced and well-trained singer in the Welsh music scene.

What is perhaps surprising is the fury that ST's success has unleashed. The air is thick with complaints about a 'cynical marketing ploy', a phrase that has always seemed to me to be redundant: what, you mean it isn't a good old philanthropic altruistic marketing ploy? Yet those who continue to be amazed at the antics of the music business always seem to forget the 'business' part. Music involves money. I can remember one rock god saying despairingly that you could tell you had made it when you were employing people you didn't even know about. Music is expensive. Mainstream acts can revel in this: the manufactured nature of the Spice Girls, Westlife, the Sugababes is part of the fun. But for left-field acts you're supposed to ignore it, so that U2, the Rolling Stones, Sting, retain some credibility (or are supposed to) while also raking in money faster than many small countries. Again, this is nothing new: Pink Floyd appeared in the 60s on the Harvest label, an EMI owned company which was intended to obscure the corporate nature of the organisation behind the band.

It would of course be totally cynical to suggest that the press gave the Sandi story such an easy ride because Sony BMG places so much advertising in their papers. It wasn't like that in '69 or '77. Except it was- as Patrik Fitzgerald said at the time, it was "Come and get your punk in Woolworth's / Bondage trousers - twelve pounds" (Make it safe).

I was going to put a link to Sandi Thom's website, but then I thought, 'Why should I? She never links to mine!' (Copyright the estate of Spike Milligan) Her website needs Flash to view it. These crazy web nuts!


Sandi appeared on BBC Radio 4's arts magazine, Front Row, on Wednesday 19/7/06, and was asked specifically about the webcast/PR controversy. She said the whole 'penniless songwriter' thing had come from the press, not from her, since she acknowldedges she had the backing of a small record label, a management company and a PR firm before the Tooting webcasts started. This is a little disingenuous, since her she has certainly seemed keen to emphasise the squalor of the 'piss-stained basement', as if to imply that she had no backing. Quized about the webcast audience figures, she preferred to talk about how cool it was that people [however many there were] were viewing from all over the world. That doesn't impress me much: even this humble blog is regularly visited by sleepless people in Southeast Asia who want to know what "Blowin' in the Wind" means , or about megalomaniacs. Sher did end by endorsing the Web as a place where people can say what they think, which is good in its way, I suppose.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

More than a little disingenuous is that Front Row interview response you cite. For those wondering, is Sandi Thom an active participant in the con, or, rather, a simple musician who doesn't understand the game that's being played, that gives more than a clue.

Claims of Thom being skint - too penniless to tour - came from her directly, and from her PR and management team. They've been in spin mode ever since being called on those misleading claims.

With the backing of a multi-millionaire, Angus Sinclair, for years, and a squad of songwriters - including John McLaughlin (Westlife) and Simon Perry (The Noise Next Door) - making the songs, and manager Ian Brown fronting for still more, its telling how the packagers of this manufactured product have gone to such lengths to create the illusion of an original singer-songwriter.

The lack of a webcast audience is but the tip of this particular PR hoax.