How to be a DIY pop star: lollipops, kung fu and other fail-safe strategies
By David Hillier
Personalised notes, sponsored tours and celebrity Twitter endorsements are just some of the tactics put into practice by the likes of Dodie, Tom Rosenthal, Paigey Cakey and more, who refuse to lean on the mainstream industry.
After years of upheaval, the music industry is still pulling itself out of the doldrums. News that music revenues grew 5.9% to £12.2bn in 2016 – largely thanks to the continuing evolution of streaming – was met by a howl of discord in many quarters (not least an article in the Quietus that stated, perhaps fairly, that for independent and small-label artists, the Valhalla of a Spotify-curated playlist is as distant a proposition as Simon Cowell signing Fat White Family). Nevertheless, there are plenty of independent musicians building enduring careers away from the limelight. We’ve spoken to five soloists about how they’ve grown outside of the label model, whilst receiving little to no exposure in the mainstream outlets normally seen as key to future success.
She’s got over a million YouTube subscribers, 477,000 Twitter followers, a Top 40 EP, Intertwined, that also went to No 5 in the iTunes album charts, plus one Shorty award for best musician on YouTube. But unless you have a teenage child with a love of pensive, cutesy folk, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard of the singer, serial vlogger and ukuleledon Dodie Clark. And the 22-year old is just fine with that: “I like it! We’ve been brought up in a world where mainstream fame separates you into black and white, and the celebrities are untouchable. I’ve basically lived my life online through songs and vlogs and videos. I’m not untouchable.”
Though she counts herself as a musician – she started uploading music online when she was 15 – much of her income comes through brand work. In the past, this was writing songs for Kellogg’s and Barclays; now it’s Chupa Chups sponsoring her tours and giving her thousands of sugar-free lollipops for her fans. Despite a slight reticence about how she’s perceived outside of her YouTube bubble, she does profess to aspirations to go more mainstream. “It would be interesting to document it,” she says, “I can’t think of many people doing that.”
Thirty-year-old Tom Rosenthal is about to release his third album, Fenn (named after his second daughter), and has been releasing music on the internet since 2005. He’s racked up Spotify streams of around 55m, 22m YouTube views, and been courted by major labels keen to release his gently epic ballads, which channel Brian Wilson-esque whimsy through the mind of the classic British kook. “But why would I change everything to make just 20% of the money when I currently make 80%?” Tom says. “If you want to be the next Ed Sheeran, it might be beneficial. But I don’t.”
Tom puts his success down to several factors: a penchant for songwriting, obviously. But most crucial are a constant stream of content (he’ll be releasing a video for every song on Fenn), and building a granite-strong fanbase. “This last year, I’ve sent out thousands of personalised notes to people. It’s nothing to do with songwriting, but it connects you to people in a (hopefully) lovely way. If you build the foundations of a strong house, it’s hard to knock down.”
When we call the Shaolin kung fu-trained rapper ShaoDow (pronounced “sha-ow-dough”), he’s about to leave south London to manage a pop-up shop in Gateshead’s Metrocentre shopping mall. Retail work might not be that unconventional a sidejob for the budding musician, but Shao is different: he’ll be selling all his own-branded caps, hoodies and tees. He also has a range of branded headphones and wrote a manga book – The Way of the Shao – to go with 2016’s album of the same name. He’s also a rapper, of course, selling around 25,000 albums independently and touring with the likes of Stormzy and Skepta. The temptation is to see him as an architect and gatekeeper of a brand, rather than a musician?
“To a degree you have to be, nowadays,” he says. “My income split is about 60% music and 40% merchandise. But I want to get to a point where I can hire people to do the other stuff, so I can be in the studio making music.”
“A lot of people recognise me in Hackney,” says 24-year old Paige Mead, AKA Paigey Cakey, “though half the time it’s because we went to school together.”
Cakey might not have the mainstream profile of other Hackney musical alumni like Rudimental, JME or Professor Green, but that doesn’t mean the MC couldn’t sell out the Hackney Empire in 2013. “That show was dope, but that was in the early stages of my career. If I did it now, it would be so much better.”
Paigey’s media career started on screen. She was in cult ghetto sci-fi film Attack the Block, and then a role in BBC’s Waterloo Road helped raise her profile and drew attention to her music. Both careers now feed off each other, though she’ll freely admit the role that social media has played in her success: “Social networking is the best thing. Don’t be shy. I try to engage with everybody so they know I’m a human being. And always put your music out there – time waits for nobody!”
“For every star, there’s a hundred broken dreams,” says the virtuosic guitarist Jon Gomm. “I’ve seen too many of my friends sign major deals, then have their life’s work left to rot, owned by a corporation who won’t release it or market it.”
Jon started having ukulele lessons at just two years old and has a mind-skewering method of playing his acoustic guitar, retuning the strings as he goes to create bass, and using the body of the guitar to generate drum, bongo, bass and snare sounds. He’s toured full time since 2004, and album sales are now in the “tens of thousands” for each release (there’s been three). Also, uniquely, none of his music is on Spotify.
Jon has a fervent belief in social media’s importance, saying: “It’s almost everything now.” This perhaps isn’t surprising, since a 2012 tweet from Stephen Fry about his song Passionflower helped fire him into a wider consciousness. Elsewhere, he says don’t be afraid to put your money where your talent is. “It drives me crazy when my musician friends don’t want to spend money on advertising or hiring a PR person. You have to invest in your own music, as any business has to invest in itself.”