Analysis

Interview: Alex Day talks BitTorrent, YouTube and the lure of touring


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alex-dayEarlier this week, musician Alex Day revealed plans to release a free BitTorrent bundle of tracks to promote his new album, following in the footsteps of DJ Shadow, Counting Crows and Pretty Lights in working with the technology company.

It’s the latest curveball in a career that’s seen Day build a fanbase mainly on YouTube, where he has more than 664,000 subscribers and 108 million video views since joining the video service in August 2006.

Despite minimal radio airplay, Day has sold more than 500,000 tracks as downloads. Music Ally talked to him about the BitTorrent deal and his wider career.

The new album is called ‘Epigrams And Interludes’, and will be released on iTunes this Sunday (17 March). It’s actually a compilation of existing songs: previous singles, unreleased songs, remixes and acoustic tracks.

“Now more than ever in my music career, people are finding me for the first time,” says Day. “And when you first get into an artist and want to find everything they’ve ever done, you need a clear entry point, which is kinda what this is.”

The 20-track digital album will cost £3.99 on iTunes, which Day says is partly an attempt to woo those newcomers, and partly an effort to make his existing fans not feel ripped off if they already own some of the songs.

So, BitTorrent. The bundle being distributed on its network includes 10 of the tracks from ‘Epigrams And Interludes’, three music videos, album artwork and a message from Day, with BitTorrent promoting him as someone who’s “hacked the record industry – without any label support”.

alex-dayDay made contact with BitTorrent after admiring the campaign it ran with author Tim Ferriss to promote his book The 4-Hour Chef. His bundle was downloaded more than 300,000 times in its first day on BitTorrent.

“I haven’t got very clear mission goals, like ‘I must get X hundred thousand clicks,” says Day. “I’m just trying it out. With this release, it’s about exposure really: getting my music heard by as many people as possible.”

YouTube is playing a role in that mission too. Day says he’s currently seeing around 500 new people a day subscribing to his channel. He thinks that his number of subscribers is the true measure of his popularity on YouTube, rather than video views.

“It’s always been like that for me: a community of people built up around my videos,” he says. “Hopefully people are coming round to the idea that subscribers are what’s important, not views. Subscribers are making a commitment that they’re going to be watching you, after all.”

Day manages his career himself, but works with other entities when it makes sense. For example, he makes use of YouTube Space London, a production facility in Soho made available by YouTube for its ‘Partners’ with more than 10,000 subscribers to shoot and edit their videos.

Day also works with online video network ChannelFlip to make money from his videos. “They said ‘we can pay you more for your ads than Google do’, so I said ‘yes please, that sounds like a good deal’,” he says.

“They don’t interfere in anything I’m doing, and they give me more money than I would have made before, so I’m really chuffed with that. A lot of networks can be more restrictive or take a bigger cut.”

Talking money can be a sensitive subject when interviewing musicians like Day who are working outside the label system. You probably wouldn’t badger someone at a party to tell you their salary – it’d be rude – but there’s a real hunger from journalists and fellow musicians alike to understand the economics of YouTube stardom and direct-to-fan sales.

Day prefers not to go into specifics about his earnings, although he does say that a Guardian interview last December hinting at monthly earnings of $2,300 from his YouTube channel was wide of the mark – because it depends on what ads are being served around his videos, and also because he’s selling more downloads as time goes on.

The fact that Day is selling hundreds of thousands of downloads is significant, I think. Not least because a big chunk of his fanbase are teenagers, who are often maligned by older industry folk as a generation that’s unwilling to pay for music.

“The demographic is about 85% female, and then 60% 13-17 year-olds, with around 40% in the US and 30% in the UK,” says Day. It’s these young fans who bought enough iTunes downloads to give him a top-five UK chart hit in Christmas week 2011, famously.

CS451071-01B-BIGDay’s fans have also been willing to buy physical music – a CD version of his ‘Lady Godiva’ single released in 2012 through a distribution deal with Universal Music. “Everyone I knew was saying ‘What’s the point? It’s all iTunes and no one buys physical CDs!’. But we ended up selling 10,000 CDs,” he says.

“One Direction fans are used to seeing them in shops, but because my relationship with my fans is primarily online, to suddenly see my music in the real world is amazing to me, but just as exciting to them. It validates this weird thing they’re doing on their computer!”

The new album’s release is an interesting time for Day: it’s exactly the point most artists would head out on a lengthy tour to promote the record and win new fans. Yet Day doesn’t really do tours – or at least hasn’t to date.

I’ve seen him live at a Google media party a couple of years ago, and he was very good: not just the songs, but his charismatic stage presence too. So it’s not stage-fright that’s stopping him: more the practicalities of touring life as it might relate to his fanbase.

“It’s partly the thought of being non-stop on a tour for a year and a half, and being unable to make anything new,” he says.

“But also I have an online audience – the same size audience as someone who would be very big locally – but they’re just spread out across the world. If I do a tour, more people are not going to be able to go to the gigs than are going to. You can reach everyone when you release a single. You can’t on a tour.”

If Day’s fans were excited about seeing his CD single in shops, would they be even more excited about seeing him live, though?

“There’s definitely an audience for that: taking the internet and making it real, suddenly having a physical, tangible experience,” he says. “Yet they also don’t mind that I don’t tour. If Rihanna didn’t tour for five years, it would be strange to hardcore fans. But people who really like my music don’t expect me to tour.”

They may be getting a nice surprise in the coming months though.

“I’ll release more singles this year, and I would like to do some shows,” says Day. “I’ve never had the experience of being on tour… Although I wouldn’t want to go away for more than a couple of weeks. Home by the weekend, and that’ll be great!”

Meanwhile, Day – like all independent musicians – is keeping his eye on new platforms and opportunities to distribute his music and connect with fans.

He’s a big fan of Spotify, for example, and a paying subscriber. “I do make money from Spotify streams, but the problem some people [artists] have is they compare it to a music sale: 79p for a sale on iTunes, but it takes a million plays or whatever to get £100 on Spotify,” he says.

“But it’s more like traditional radio, where if your song gets played once you’ll get £100. But that’s going out to a million people, so it’s the same. Don’t make Spotify your only income stream, but it’s definitely valuable.”

What about crowdfunding? In one sense, Day seems ideally placed to launch a successful Kickstarter, with a thriving community of online fans, and plenty of experience engaging with them through the kind of videos that tend to nudge crowdfunding campaigns along.

“I don’t really have a problem with people doing Kickstarters. I just wouldn’t do one myself,” he says. “It feels a bit weird: I don’t like the idea of getting paid for work I haven’t done yet. It would be fine if it was a label paying me, but when it’s people who like my music… I don’t want them to pay me first. I want to do things, and then they can pay if they like what I’ve done.”

In the absence of a live backdrop with 20-foot dragons and a flying drumkit, or a few more explosions in those YouTube videos, Day seems to be sustaining his career just fine on his income from YouTube, iTunes, Spotify and other sources.

And that’s perhaps the best way to think of him: not as a ‘YouTube star’ (yes, we’ve been guilty of that) or a ‘D2C case study’, but as a musician finding his audience and exploring every opportunity that comes his way.

“A lot of people say ‘he’s a YouTuber’ or something like that,” says Day. “I always say I’m just a musician. You might have played in bars or pubs to get your audience, but YouTube is where I happen to get my audience.”

Stuart Dredge

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