Digital Music: How to become a rockstar

We see just how far music has come since the digital revolution

From generating buzz to building communities to selling your music straight to the public, no record company required, this is how music works today…

The digital age has changed music promotion for ever. Oh, the music never stops, sure, but the face of the music business has changed completely. We're blasted with stories and stats that tell us daily how illegal downloading has battered the music biz, but technology has also been a boon to forward-thinking artists.

Your mum might not like them, you may not have heard of them, but hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (AKA the barely easier OFWGKTA or – ah, nice and simple – Odd Future) are just about the most important band in the world right now. Billboard magazine has proclaimed them the future of the music biz, P. Diddy and Jay-Z went to war – and both lost – in a battle to sign them, and when they rap about slitting the throat of Bruno Mars the youth of the western world listens. Often too loudly, on phones, whilst travelling on public transport.

Yet, despite all of the above, hardly anyone buys Odd Future records. The band’s front man Tyler The Creator has nearly a million followers on Twitter, his Yonkers video has over 40 million hits on YouTube, but OFWGKTA’s first release from their deal with Sony failed to chart in the UK or the US, while Tyler’s massively hyped solo album Goblin sold only a solid 45,000 copies in the States in its first week.

That’s because the music industry has moved on. Moved to a place where one million Spotify plays of Poker Face – one of the most popular songs on the site – earned Lady Gaga a princely $167. A place where people don’t buy music. Hell, every Odd Future release is easily found for free online, and not just illegally; they’ve given away more than 20 albums worth of tracks for free.

The weird bit is this: they’re happy with the situation and, with their own TV show and gigs selling out in hours, they’re thriving in it. Maybe it’s time to stop consoling Gaga, Sting and Cliff Richard about the death of their industry and start looking at what other bands are doing to reboot rock and hip-hop for the digital age. Read on.

Making an album

The old way: If you weren’t already on a label, you needed to get finance to make a demo, send it around, get noticed, get signed. Once you had your deal, your label would loan you further truck loads of money – the studio rental cost alone for Rihanna’s album Loud, for example, came in at $25,000 a day. Once the record was out, the label would recoup their giant loan through sales profits.

The new way: No label, no loans, no unrepayable debt. Fans fund the cost of producing an album by becoming online investors in the project.

Examples: Cast, Swans.

There have been successful micro-lending sites like Prosper and Kiva for years now. You’ve probably seen them – they use multiple small payments for online investors to contribute to a larger goal, from building a business to owning a race horse. The same process is now being used by musicians. In effect, you buy the album in advance and become part of its creation. The more leftfield likes of German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten have been doing this for years.

Now, Pledgemusic is leading the way in this field, says its CEO Benji Rogers. “We built this system where artists can reach out to their fans via email, Facebook, Twitter and so on,” he tells us. “From day one you get access to a site which features video blogs, rough mixes and demos of the making of that album. “Then, depending on how much you pledge to the album’s creation, which begins with an £8 digital download, you get the finished record, but also autographs, hand-written lyrics sheets… It goes up to personalised listening parties of the album, where the band comes and plays at your house.”

Britpop survivors Cast were once one of the UK’s biggest bands. On Polydor they had the highest-selling debut album in the label’s proud history. In late 2011 they released Troubled Times, their first album for a decade, not on a major but via Pledgemusic. “I’m not into social media and all that sh*t,” John Power reassures us. “When this band disbanded there was no Facebook, no music even on the internet. We’re no spring chickens, but that doesn’t mean we’re not roosters. Times have changed and we’re into looking forward with it, not back, feeling nostalgic.

The Pledge thing was not about being down with the kids, it was about us making the album we wanted to do, how we’ve always wanted to do it.” Record labels were lined up, Power says, but, “With a label it’s about making money. They would want us to do the nostalgic thing, which wasn’t us. The stupid thing about it all, is that I can tell you now it would have cost us more to make the album on a label, it would have cost our fans more to buy it, and it wouldn’t have been as good an album. Ridiculous really and that’s why I think things like Pledge are the future of not just this band, but this industry.”

This approach makes artists approach music differently. Michael Gira of angry post-punk icons Swans recently sold a cheap-to-make live CD to fund the recording of the next “proper” Swans album via the web. It came in a plethora of different editions, depending on how much you paid; at the top end you could have signed artwork, executive producer status on the next album, gig tickets and even your name mentioned in song. What more could the man do to make his fans feel more involved, short of letting them play drums?


The old way: The people who bought your album, or liked what they heard on the radio, booked tickets and came to your show. Perhaps they bought a t-shirt. Simple, right?

The new way: Bands build a community of gig goers via social networks, even live streaming shows. Fans share the experience of concerts with other fans through forums, blogging, filming and sharing, which in turn leads to more fans and bigger gigs.

Examples: Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Insane Clown Posse, Everything Everything, Lana Del Rey.

In 2010 around 7.7 million people illegally downloaded music in Britain, according to research by the BPI, the British record industry’s trade association. As a result, 1.2 billion tracks were pirated or shared, costing the industry a reported £219m.

Because of that, and YouTube, Spotify and Apple taking bites out of every play or download, the UK music industry made £14.23 from record sales in 2011 (if you don’t include Adele or X-Factor alumni). Okay, that last stat is a lie.

But you get the idea: it’s very hard to make money selling singles and albums. As Madonna and others have proved by signing contracts based largely on performance revenues rather than album sales, the buck is in the gig. “When you’re not making millions from singles sales or album sales, people are still paying £18, £20, £30 to come see a band play live,” says Cast’s John Power. “Even at the moment when nobody’s got money.” “Social network chatter, whether positive or negative, keeps artists in fans’ consciousness, and keeps them coming to gigs,” adds Benji from Pledgemusic.

The Arctic Monkeys were among the first bands to get this. Before they were even signed, Sheffield’s finest built a big following on MySpace and Bebo. “There’s so much confusion about how the Arctic Monkeys got their music out there in the first place,” says Johnny Bradshaw, who became the Monkeys’ product manager when they eventually signed, complete with fan base, to Domino. “The truth is they handed out 50 CD-Rs at the early shows to a small group of fans. As the fans started file sharing them it spread over the internet. It was word of mouth.” The more people heard, the bigger the gigs got. So much so they were selling out The Astoria in London whilst still unsigned.

Odd Future’s success followed internationally much in the same way, and today artists from Ed Sheeran to Lana Del Rey have sold out gigs thanks to building online buzz long before signing on the dotted line of a record contract. Alternatively you could invite potential fans to see the gig free of charge, by live streaming it. U2 has streamed gigs over YouTube and art-rockers Everything Everything streamed their gig, plus bonus extras, in HD via a free iOS app in 2010.

You don’t need to have media-approved cool or, to be fair, decent music to find success this way. Iffy rap-rockers Insane Clown Posse have used social networking to create an entire loyal army of gig-going fans. The band have always had an excellent online presence: giving away free material, blogging and arranging fan events. They even have their own social networking site,, where you have homies not friends, you “whoop whoop” instead of “like”, and users appear to talk about sex even more than the online average. It’s not for everyone, but the result is thousands of “Juggalos” building excitement about the next ICP gig.


The old way: CDs were biked around media offices by filth-caked couriers, as PR companies and pluggers got paid mega-bucks to persuade DJs, hacks and TV presenters to get behind them.

The new way: Bands and PR companies – still in some cases paid mega-bucks – do anything and everything they can to make the artist a hit on Google.

Examples: The Ting Tings, Rihanna.

Marketing manager John Bonini of Impact Branding and Design recently told the Wall Street Journal that Lady Gaga’s tweets make her £19 million a year. That’s about £1 per follower. How is that possible? Well, “The first thing you do when you hear a new artist is Google them,” David Collyer tells us.

Collyer is the owner of Authority Communications. The Premier League likes of Elbow, Kasabian, Florence & The Machine, or Paul Weller, turn to him when they desire digital pimping. “You need an up-to-date online presence to survive these days,” says Collyer, and a key way to do this is with Twitter. Keeping connected with your fans not only makes you feel exciting, but part of someone’s life – you’re more likely to spend money on an album if you feel there is a genuine connection.

To give you some idea of Google’s power in the music industry, Coldplay’s Chris Martin recently said that his only regret regarding their latest album was calling it Mylo Xyloto. Not because it sounds like a sinister French clown but because it was “two words that you couldn’t even Google… Nobody knows how to even try to spell it as they enter it in that little white box.”

Rihanna also has a name that’s hard to spell but it doesn’t appear to be holding her back. With an artiste of this sort of size, clever campaigns and tailored content seem unnecessary; multiplatform promotional carpet bombing is the order of the day. The Umbrella singer has over a billion views on YouTube and more than 54 million Facebook “likes”, while nearly 16 million souls tune in to hear Twittercisms such as “This bitch I’m wit is thick as f*ck” and “God is MAJAH!”

Despite that, “The real idea is to go viral,” according to Matt Key, Engine Creative’s co-founder. “That gets the interaction from the fans, and the natural growth on Google.” The Ting Tings recent augmented album cover is a prime example. Engine Creative built an app so that when you place an iOS device over the album, the cover comes to life. As a result your jaw drops, so you tweet… Word spreads. “A company like ours provides a service for bands to do something a bit different, to stand out,” explains Key.

Post the Lana del Rey “authenticity” wars, this could become an issue, though. Key admits the Ting Tings did nothing in the creation of their own app beyond approving it, while Snow Patrol once told us they didn’t even know the app we were sent to interview them about existed. Similarly, Rihanna may not be entirely behind everything “Rihanna” puts online, and John Power would rather “strum guitars” than “tweet or any of that shite.” “I think if you’re putting it out there, it all has to be believable,” says Key. “It has to fit the brand, and resonate with the fans or it’ll undoubtedly fail”. Angry Birds: Joy Division Edition will have to remain but a cherished dream, then…


The old way: Your record label outsourced production to companies who pressed, packaged, stored, and delivered CDs – it took a lot of money and even more time. Failing that, they uploaded the files to sites like iTunes which took most of the profit. Many fans decided just to use torrents, YouTube or Spotify to get the same thing for free.

The new way: Artists bypass middlemen and distribute or stream the music from their own sites, with a mix of free and paid-for content

Examples: Bloc Party, Radiohead, Danger Mouse, Odd Future.

When Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows, they famously said fans could pay nothing for it, or a little more if they felt the band deserved their cash. Giving your music away for nowt was not a new thing. Danger Mouse released his Beatles/Metallica mash-up The Grey Album gratis, over the web, largely because clearing the samples for it would have taxed the legal profession’s finest minds and required all the money in the world.

However, Radiohead’s move was significant because they weren’t looking for attention; they were, at the time, one of the biggest bands in the world. The PR generated by In Rainbows’ novel distribution model was priceless, but it freed Radiohead to release albums exactly as they wanted, cutting distribution costs dramatically and removing the need for a label. In one swift move they became the biggest indie band in the world.

Bloc Party utilised much the same idea for their 2008 album Intimacy, but without the attendant hype. On August 18, they unveiled details of this, their third album, during a fan web chat. Just under three days later, it had been released. No media build-up, no endless re-mastering, no illegalleaks on the internet – suddenly it was just out there, on, for £8. “I really liked the fact that nobody worked out what we were up to,” Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke recounts. “Everybody got to hear it at the exact same time. Even our families heard it first on the same day the fans and media did.”

The decision to release Intimacy in this way could have hit sales – it left the album missing out on review slots and unavailable on iTunes, which makes up somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of most records’ sales. However Okereke feels his band simply had no choice but to do things this way, and that was because of the time involved in distribution with the old model.

“After recording the last two albums we kind of just sat on them for six months each and both times we were uncomfortable with that decision,” says Okereke. “We finished them in the summer and our label didn’t want to bring them out until the end of the year. That’s a long time to wait on something. By the time the songs came out, we were bored of it all, and had already moved on. On both occasions the fans were excited, but it just didn’t feel fresh to us any more. I’d talked about them so much, I had kind of mentally moved on already.

“None of us wanted to go through all that again, so we didn’t. We did it on our own, our way. Nobody had any music aside from those immediately part of the band. We had to lie a lot. Well not lie, just mislead.”

The key about this, and with all the tech models we’ve mentioned, is the lack of a need for a label. Going back to our close personal chums Odd Future, they made their name, and became the monster they are now, without a deal. Odd Future associate Frank Ocean took this approach to some sort of extreme by giving away his Nostalgia, Ultra album despite ostensibly being signed to Def Jam. The result was minimal cash but massive critical acclaim and a greatly raised profile. Ocean even claims his relationship with Def Jam is now much better.

You can’t underestimate the power of this kind of free sample in leading to mega paying jobs – The Grey Album’s creator Danger Mouse is now one of the most sought-after producers in the business, working with everyone from U2 to The Black Keys. Even under the most lucrative record deals, the ones reserved for the Rihannas of this world, the artists can end up with less than 30 per cent of overall sales revenue – massively down on what it used to be.

But with artists now not only able to make records in their sheds but also market, distribute and promote them, they’re able to keep nearer 100 per cent of the dosh. As a result, much of the next generation of stars should exist outside of record company control. They’ll rule the world from their bedrooms, laptops and mobile phones. All you need is talent and bandwidth; tech, plugs and rock and roll…


Not every musician wants to join the digital revolution. Arguing that social media hurts true creativity, these artists are all holding back the years…


His Royal Purpleness refused to put his album 20Ten on iTunes and hired lawyers to remove every clip of him from YouTube, opining that, “The internet’s completely over… The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated.” For good measure, he then added, “Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.” Fair point, mate.


The internet loves little more than buzzing over a hot new band like a sexed-up hornet swarm. Girls are one of the most up-and-coming up-andcomers right now, yet they’ve opted for a name that’s very hard to Google. They’re not the first band to do this – The Muslims and The Middle East being other prime examples, while !!! is actually impossible for technical reasons rather than ones of ubiquity – but they are the first we know to have actually done this on purpose, in some kind of “f*ck search engines” statement. Even searching “Girls (band)” only delivers porn.

John Mayer

Hugely successful, Lego-haired, American blues/ pop man Mayer at one point had over four million Twitter followers. Then he ditched them. Why? “You’re coming up with 140-character zingers,” he said, “and the song is still four minutes long… I realised about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought anymore. I was a tweetaholic… It started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller. I couldn’t write a song.”

PJ Harvey

She lives on an isolated cliff in Dorset, records in a scout hut and writes incredible songs about historic battles, sometimes with medieval instruments. It’s not entirely a surprise that the brilliant PJ isn’t into iPads. Hilariously, her technophobia led to @pjharvey AKA Philip John Harvey, a computer software developer from Newcastle, being bombarded with love/hate messages after the singer-songwriter won the Mercury Prize. “I’m not her,” he told the BBC.