Promo for the People

Musicians have taken their promotion out of the hands of big companies, attempting a new DIY approach to standing out from the crowd. Everything has changed, from the techniques to the content. Here’s how it works.

Ask Pavan Mukhi about the song Contact, the bouncy new single for his hip-hop crew The Foreign Beggars, and you’ll get a perplexed, almost bemused response. “We started a promo on that track about two months ago,” says Mukhi, known in his MC capacity as the interestingly named Orifice Vulgatron. “There were a few people who responded to the tune and liked it for what it was, and then as soon as the video was released, everybody was flipping over the track. I want to say the track itself is groundbreaking, it’s definitely a club banger that can’t be ignored, but it wasn’t there until people saw the video.” Since Contact was debuted on Youtube at the beginning of October, it has garnered over 160,000 views.

He isn’t just referring to something you might catch on MTV either. Like many artists, The Foreign Beggars have had to completely redefine their approach to promoting themselves. With copies of a new album, United Colours of Beggatron, to shift and shelf space to fight for, it is video content that Pavan and three bandmates have made to compliment the music that is really helping to raise their crew out of the mire of the thousands of other musicians trying to get put on.

It’s not just music videos either; the Beggars are also making slick videos of their studio sessions and engineering work, and distributing it to fans via Youtube. And then there’s the Audiosonic Neuromedical viral video the band participated in, along with associates Shlomo, Stig of the Dump, Dr Syntax and The Scratch Perverts. That video – not so much a specific song as an experiment in blending hip-hop with fantastic special effects – attracted over 300,000 views. Says Mukhi: “It’s that kind of stuff that traditionally would go onto a band’s DVD, but you can now pump it out a little earlier to publicise yourself. I think rather than doing a campaign of loads of small things to increase your profile, you can increase your content.”

Ten years ago – or even five – promotion was in the hands of a few closed companies, and was a discipline that most artists steered clear of entirely. Because at that time access to music and music videos was almost completely dependent on mainstream music channels, the general rule was for an artist to hire a company that had access to the playlist controllers.

But as clichéd as it now seems, along came the Internet. Things are different now. For starters, there are many, many more active recording artists than there once were. The rise of websites like MySpace coupled with drastic price drops in home recording software and equipment meant that suddenly there were thousands upon thousands of bands, DJs, singers and MCs hunting for your attention; the entry fee was lowered, literally and figuratively. According to web strategist Jeremiah Owyang, there are now more than eight million musicians on MySpace, and that’s just one website. That’s a lot of people among whom to stand out.

But it isn’t just the nature and size of the content that has changed; it’s the availability. Videos are now available at the click of a button, as are free downloads of almost any artist’s work. The companies paid for their access to those who determine what the public would listen to no longer control the market. They can’t. While PR outfits will always have their place, there is simply much less incentive for an artist to hire them, and even less incentive for an artist to work with the traditional music label model.

So musicians have to adapt. They’re turning away from the traditional model of being under a label and its associated and often monolithic publishing, distribution and promotional arms (Mukhi runs his own label, Dented Records, which houses the Beggars), and are adopting techniques designed to push their name above everyone else’s. And it’s not just digital content that artists are using to stand out. Just ask The Kiara Elles, named for their energetic front woman, Chiara Lucchini. The pop-punk five piece has been making some serious noise through slightly more DIY means. “When you first start making music, you have to put a bit of work into realising what stands out,” says Lucchini. “You’ve got to keep at it and have an idea of what’s going on around you. Bands can’t really depend on record sales anymore.” To that end, Lucchini and her bandmates decided to (somewhat) turn their back on the digital model and do something different. They’ve pressed their Odio EP on 7” vinyl, and have hand-stitched individually textured wallpaper sleeves for them, which they are pushing at their gigs to great effect.

Lucchini says the process, which she likens to a production line, took her and her band mates five months to complete. “We had to buy the wallpaper, cut it up. Emma Quick, bassist, did all the stencilling. We had to buy rubber and make our own stamps. It’s gone quite well.” Quick adds: “Selling records is hard. It’s easy to get a song off but fans don’t buy CDs anymore. We set out to make something really special – to make people see a record as an object again. Every bit of it is done with our hands.” It’s worth noting that this is another example of something that, traditionally, a band would have handed off to a PR company to organise. The Kiara Elles do still employ such a company, but they’re also recognising what they have to do for themselves, promotions-wise, to become the band the fans pay attention to.

Of course, this kind of do-it-yourself promotional aesthetic extends far beyond just content creation. As the social networking opportunities of the net have grown and mutated, so too have the techniques of promotion. For a perfect example of removing the promotion work from a private company, one only has to look at someone like Leigh Steven-Jennings. The South African born dance DJ, known as Little Leigh, has made it her goal to become a one-woman promo machine. Although directly associated with several outfits, such as DIRTYdubbin and Defected, Steven-Jennings has played her own online game to great effect. It’s worked, too, landing her gigs in Ibiza and Greece as well as several residencies in London.

Despite her massive presence online, she feels that the major shifts will come in the future. “I feel today that promotional work is still a hands-on, face-to-face approach as well as using the Internet and social networking sites, whereas in five years time, I feel that promotion will be largely Internet based as it saves time and money, and the options are endless in terms of information and resources that are at your disposal to further your career.” Leigh’s own dedicated website, she says, attracts 1,000 hits every month from people linking through her Facebook account.

Of course, all of this is meaningless if it doesn’t have a direct, measurable effect on the artist’s album sales – digitally or physically – and attendance at shows. Asked whether the high video viewing figures will directly affect sales, Mukhi is noncommittal. “It just depends,” he says carefully. “I think with a song it’s stranger, because people hear it again and again and they become familiar with it and it becomes a part of their life, and that increases the chances of them being on iTunes and buying the song. I can’t say there’s an exact correlation, but I know for a fact that because we are getting so much attention with the Contact video, the number of people who would buy the record has increased.”

At the time of going to the press, Beggatron had sold over 1,500 copies. “We hope to sell five times as much as our previous records,” says Mukhi, who also notes that the 12” version has sold 4000 copies already – up from around 1500 for previous releases. Altogether, Mukhi estimates that due to the massive increase in promotion, the Beggars will sell between 7,000 and 8,000 physical copies (he won’t be drawn on digital downloads).

There’s no question that, while the tactics are changing, the numbers that The Foreign Beggars, The Kiara Elles and Little Leigh are putting up, while nothing to sniff at, are probably somewhat lower than they would have been in previous years. Whether you put this down to the prevailing economic climate or the overabundance of acts is down to you, but keep this in mind: as artists change the promotional model, these numbers are going to get a whole lot bigger, and Pavan, Chiara and Leigh are just getting started.

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Rob Boffard