Analysis

Interview: DIY musician Alex Day talks fans, the irrelevance of radio and why YouTube changes everything


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Alex Day is a 23-year-old Essex-based DIY artist whose track ‘Forever Yours’ went to #4 in the UK singles chart in Christmas week 2011 without label backing or radio support. He was previously a member of Sons Of Admirals along with Charlie McDonnell, one of the most successful young video bloggers in the world.

He has built his following primarily on YouTube where he regularly uploads both music tracks and video blogs. His YouTube channel now has over half a million subscribers and his videos have cumulatively generated 87.5m views. He rarely tours or plays live, opting instead to focus most of his activity to the web.

Here he outlines his tips on how artists can, genuinely, go it alone, without even having a manager, why the new breed of musicians are as tech- and business-savvy as they are musically creative and explains why a career in music is like Total Wipeout.

Write one good song

There is so much you think about when you are trying to break music – like having an online strategy and doing gigs and so forth. In that, the most obvious thing can get lost – which is that you need to have a really great song. I’ll write a song and follow it up with four or five more, then go into the studio and record the one I like best, then go back to the others and do that process again.

Eventually I’ll have one song I think is awesome and I’ll release that as a single. It’s a process of making sure the quality of what you do is really good. When you first write a song, it feels like it’s the best song ever written and you get that buzz of making something new. If you don’t listen to it for a while and then play it back you realise you could make it better.

For me, the main thing is getting to the point where that doesn’t happen – where you play a song over and over again and you still like it and are excited to play it to people and get it out there.

Don’t trust your fans

I don’t release anything that I’m not totally committed to. I don’t want people to get attached to songs. Also, my audience like me so I don’t trust them to be objective about my music. “This is great! It’s new music from you!” I think we have different goals. I probably have higher standards in what I am aiming for in my music.

If the people that listen to my music have good ideas about writing music, then they should be writing music. But if they don’t, they shouldn’t. It’s like any job – if there is someone who doesn’t have experience of working in that industry, you don’t ask them for advice. I like cars, but I don’t know how to build a good car. It’s the same thing. Just pick out two or three people you really trust and listen to them.

If a band plays a new song at a gig and asks if the crowd like it, of course they are going to cheer. It’s not as if they are going to say it’s shit! I feel you can’t trust people’s opinions as they are there to have a good time and to be supportive that you are sharing new stuff. It’s not like you are giving them a thoughtful feedback form. So I’d always trust my own instincts over everything else.

Find your mentor

I just start by questioning everything that anyone ever says. In the music industry, there are a lot of people who will promise you things that they can’t deliver or they’ll want to sign you just so someone else can’t have you. Or there are people who are well meaning but who might not share your goals.

A song you have done that they like might not necessarily be a song that you should release. I start by trusting my own instincts and treating what everyone else says with scepticism. It’s not so much about finding a mentor but learning who the few people you end up agreeing with are and who are honest with you. When they call you out on something, you can think about it and see it’s a better idea. It’s about finding those few people you can trust and go to with ideas.

I have about five people like that, but it’s not fixed. I don’t have a list of names written in blood on parchment in my office! It depends on what I am looking for and there are a handful of people I bear in mind as good soundboards. The thing is honesty and giving constructive criticism.

Handling the business side yourself stops you getting lazy

I don’t mind doing that as I don’t feel that anyone cares about my career as much as I do and as such I am going to do a better job than anyone else. I don’t have a PR or management but I feel that if I did, it would make me lazy as I have a PR person who I can let get on with it. If they have lots of clients, they won’t be dedicated to helping me all the time whereas I am dedicated to helping me all the time. It makes me appreciate it more.

For bands who have managers, often the end goal for them is getting signed. So I could get a manager who is already in that world and is good at negotiating with labels, but I’m not doing that. I’ve had meetings with labels and they were perfectly nice, but they just didn’t know what to do with me.

I was putting songs out and getting them in the charts without their help and all they could say was that I could do it with them but it would take a really long time. I just want to do what I do and it not take a really long time.

Being “unsigned” is no longer a dirty word

I always say I’m a musician and if anyone asks if I am signed I just say I am independent. I don’t say I am unsigned because it has that connotation where people go [sympathetic voice] “Oh well, one day!” If they do say that, I can say I sold half a million copies of my single! I would like to work with a label as that is the dream.

I had a meeting with one of the labels at Universal and I walked out of that rather grand building with all the images of Lady Gaga and so on on the front and felt really sad. That meeting didn’t offer me anything that I couldn’t do myself but I wished it had as I thought they could just take care of my life and make me really good and successful.

Ideally I’d like a label where I could say I was continuing what I was doing – pick my own singles and figure out my release strategy for everything – and they give me some money so I can do PR, or do the PR for me. They I’d have the reputation of being on a label and so radio stations and press would take me more seriously.

That’s my ideal situation but obviously they’d want a measure of creative control, which I’m not willing to give up.

Radio isn’t everything

I don’t feel I have cracked radio. I have got into the charts with Forever Yours. When it got into the mid-weeks at number 3 in Christmas week, suddenly radio couldn’t ignore it so they played it once in the mid-week chart show on Radio 1 and then once in the full chart when it was number 4. They didn’t play it again after that. The same happened when I released my next single in March. They played it once in the mid-week chart show when it was number 11 and then played it again in the full chart show and never played it again.

Most people can listen to whatever music they want now because of iTunes and Spotify so radio seems like a less attractive proposition as someone is telling you what songs to listen to and they might not even be songs that you like. The downside of that is that you are not really being exposed to new music. If you want to listen to something that you choose, you’ll always choose something you already know.

The problem I have as an upcoming artist is figuring out how I get my music to people. They are choosing to listen to what they listen to and if they don’t know I’m there then they won’t choose to listen to me.

I feel that the internet has solved the problem of gatekeepers on music stores – with iTunes anyone can sell their music – and YouTube covers music videos. The problem of finding new stuff is the last aspect missing from the new model of music on the internet and is the biggest thing that record labels can still offer.

Put out a little music but do it regularly

My strategy at the moment is to write a really great strong, push everything I have behind it, release it and hope that it does well. I’m not really thinking about an album given that with iTunes you can just cherry pick whatever song you want. It means each song has its own moment in the spotlight. It’ll have its own video and will be showcased for months.

That makes me work harder to up the quality of my songs. It makes it better for my audience rather than them waiting every two years for a collection of 10 songs they are getting new stuff every three or four months.

Every three-to-six months is a decent goal to release stuff. Beyond anything else, the main work I put into breaking a single is just putting the time in every day to contact people who might be interested.

One in a hundred things works so you might have to contact 100 journalists before one gets back as they think it’s interesting and that’s all the work you’ve done that day. You have to stay positive in the face of people not being supportive. It’s a hard thing to do. I’d rather not make a lot of noise – I’d rather make the right sort of noise.

You’re never finished

It’s sucks – because you never are. It depends on your goals. Lady Gaga was asked when the moment was when she felt she’d made it and she replied by saying she didn’t think she had. It’s just a gradual process.

I think of it like Total Wipeout where you see the course with all the crazy things you have to do and then someone runs along the course and might only get half way through and hit one of the bouncy balls and fall down. Then someone else runs the gauntlet and most of them don’t succeed. It’s like that except every single one of those people is me. So I’ll release a song and run the gauntlet to see how well I can do. Each time you do it, you learn a bit more and maybe get a bit further. But then you have to start again.

When I got into the charts at Christmas I thought that was the turning point but then radio didn’t play the single again and the next week it was out of the charts and I was back to where I was. People were interested for that week but when that was over I had to start again. So you do the course again and hopefully there will be a tipping point where everyone will get really excited.

There is never a point where you have got there and done it. Neil Gaiman said he thought the first half of his career as asking himself if he had any talent and the second half was asking if he’d lost his talent.

YouTube is more powerful than SoundCloud, Facebook and Twitter combined

I don’t have a SoundCloud account, as I don’t understand why I would need one. I find it easier to share music when there is a video attached as it gives users another reason to engage with it. YouTube is my main avenue and I have been making videos on there for six years and have built up half a million subscribers.

I don’t have a personal Facebook account. I have a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account but they’re like my work account so I use them to update people when I am in the studio or releasing a new video. I’ll post on there every couple of days and that’s about it. I try not to spend much of my time on there, as I want to be spending that time making things for people. I’m sure people would like me to interact with them more but I tell them that if I was interacting with them I wouldn’t have time to make the stuff they like.

If YouTube died on its arse tomorrow, I don’t know what I’d do. That’s my main way of reaching people. I don’t have a Pinterest or a Tumblr. I don’t want to rely on the audience I have online to get me places.

I tell people not to buy my music unless they like it. I don’t want them buying it just because they think I’m funny on the internet. It should stand on its own merit. But I don’t want to have burden them with it every three months going, “Here’s another single! Help me break into the music industry!” It shouldn’t be their problem.

You can make more than a living online

I make loads. I don’t know why other artists say they make a little. It baffles me. I don’t really do tours and I find I can reach more people in a YouTube video. It’s more inclusive as anyone in the world can watch it. I’ll get more views and, from a selfish perspective, I don’t have to leave the house.

I don’t make money from touring or merchandise but, I guess, I just make good enough songs and they sell well. Forever Yours sold 100,000 copies worldwide in the week it came out. 50,000 were in the UK. If I get 50p per song, that’s £50,000 I can have. That was one week and I could live off that for ages. I don’t have a particularly decadent lifestyle – I can pay the rent and eat. Every time I release a song, it gets me by until I want to do something else.

Eamonn Forde

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