You can’t buy it, see it on television or even hear it on the radio in its true form, but Cee Lo Green has a monster hit on his hands.
The Atlanta R&B singer’s song F**k You! is a blend of pure funk-soul uplift and extensive swearing so catchy that you can find yourself singing it in the most inappropriate places. The post office queue may prefer the diluted radio version, Forget You, but even without this declawing, the internet has spoken: people adore it in their millions.
The prevalance of music on the web has taken the guesswork out of hitmaking. Record companies no longer need to send a grovelling plugger to Radio 1 and pray to every god going for a spot on the A-list. In Green’s song’s first 48 hours on YouTube in late August, where it appeared as a laughably simple animation featuring the earthy lyrics stretching and bouncing across the screen, it was watched over a million times. The figure is now approaching six million, while other statistical accolades such as “global top favourited video” and “worldwide most discussed video” make it obvious that enough people will buy it on its official October 4 release date for it to earn the traditional hit status that everyone understands: a high placing on the Official UK Singles Chart.
While the internet was supposed to have killed off the music business by now, single sales are in fact enjoying a “golden age”, according to Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company. Annual individual track downloads have risen dramatically from around 90 million in 2007 to 150 million last year and are expected to top 170 million by the end of this year.
“It’s so much easier to buy a song now than it was even three or four years ago,” says Talbot. “Once, if you liked a tune you had to remember it and wait until you next passed a record shop. Now you can use your laptop, your smartphone, or the track identifying service Shazam, and download a track instantly without even thinking about it.”
Of course the people who sell music want the process to be as painless for we consumers as possible. The now ubiquitous free download is almost always offered for the price of our email address, so they can subsequently inform us directly about upcoming albums, singles and tours.
They also want us to be their virtual friends on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, though that friendship is usually pretty one-sided as we laugh at their jokes and are willingly marshalled to vote for them at awards ceremonies, yet are met with icy silence if we attempt to join in the conversation.
Nevertheless, this is a new kind of access, more immediate and apparently truthful than the traditional publicist-approved newspaper profiles or promotional videos. Now we know from the horse’s mouth what kind of pillows Kanye West sleeps on (they’re fur!) and that 50 Cent really is as big a moron as he appears.
Those who do talk back, however, are reaping the rewards. Stephen Manderson, aka Hackney rapper Professor Green, currently has over 500,000 Facebook friends, far more than his more established labelmate Kylie Minogue. After gigs he’s straight onto Twitter, talking to the fans who attended. “I like it because I’m in control – my words can’t be twisted,” he tells me. “The label doesn’t have any say in what I say. I’m sure they get quite worried sometimes, but I haven’t had my wrist slapped yet.”
He only wishes it was easier to keep up with all the new ways there are for him to talk about his music. So far his record company is posting limited updates on his behalf on his Ping profile – Apple’s new mix of music and social networking, which had decidedly lukewarm reviews when it launched earlier this month. It remains to be seen whether Green or other notables will also be attracted to the forthcoming Pic-Nic Village, another social music site being launched by Big Chill festival founder Pete Lawrence, and he hasn’t touched Mflow, the service billed as “Twitter for music” when it arrived to some fanfare in April.
But on the more established sites, his chattiness has really paid off. He befriended Lily Allen on Facebook before he had even signed a record deal. She asked to hear a demo of his song Just be Good to Green and volunteered to sing on it without any record company involvement. “She did it for all the right reasons,” says Green.
“I doubt Pro or Lily would take too kindly to being forced into a collaboration by their record company!” says Sam Evitt, the Professor’s marketing man now he’s at Virgin Records – who were no doubt thrilled to have a top five hit come their way without having to do very much at all.
The internet can even tell them what to do next. In the week Green’s album, Alive Till I’m Dead, was released, the individual track Monster climbed to number 80 in the iTunes download chart. That’s how he knows it’s the most popular song to release as his next single on October 4.
Another heavy tweeter, English electronica performer Imogen Heap, learned through the site that she had enough fans in Indonesia to justify a one-off gig for 4,000 in Jakarta last March. “That was the power of what I need to harness, this incredible word of mouth,” she said.
Meanwhile McFly, chirpy pop-rockers who have proved to be unlikely innovators during seven years in the business, are going to extreme lengths to combat a problem they faced with their last album. Radio:Active was given away with the Mail on Sunday in 2008, but because it was then individually licensed to other record labels around the world, it didn’t reach Spain, for example, until nearly 18 months later. In the interim it is certain to have been downloaded illegally by thousands of frustrated potential buyers.
Hence the imminent next album, Above the Noise, is to be made simultaneously available worldwide to subscribers to their new website, a “Super City” at mcfly.com which Tom Fletcher from the band assures me is “like nothing else on the internet. It looks absolutely incredible.”
Launching on October 1, for £6 a month or £40 a year it offers inclusive advance downloads of all their new music as well as a lot more. “We each have our own ‘rooms’, where I’ll be sharing new demos before the rest of the band have even heard them, and Danny [Jones] will be uploading his dance music,” says Fletcher. “Subscribers earn points for things like getting involved in webchats and uploading photos, and the most active will get phone calls or to hang out with us at soundchecks, for example.”
It sounds like a stalker’s paradise. As with Professor Green’s tweeting, it also appears to cut out the middle man – the record company – and create an uninterrupted link from band to fan. Although McFly are signed to Universal, they paid for the website from their own pockets.
So with maufacturing and distribution costs minimal for downloads, and the lines of direct communication well and truly open, who needs record labels? The artists online at Pledgemusic.com don’t think they do. They’re going the extra mile by offering unique experiences at a hefty price tag in order to fund the recording of their next masterpieces. How about post-punks Gang of Four’s CD, several books and a phial of their own blood for £45? A microphone signed by Busted/Fightstar man Charlie Simpson for £150? Or a private burlesque strip tease from New York rapper Princess Superstar for a mere $10,000? She’s offering three if you’re feeling flush.
It’s a novel way of scrabbling for the thing that is still difficult to get in this deafening digital free-for-all: attention from the masses. As Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company says: “You may not need a record company to make and distribute your single, but because anyone can release a song now, there’s so much more music out there that it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. You need help to get your head above the parapet.”
It sounds like the marketing muscle of a major record label is what’s required. The more things change, the more they stay the same.