BalconyTV is 10 years old and in that time has grown from a small-scale operation in Dublin to now being in 65 cities around the world.
The company was bought by The Orchard in 2014 and now finds itself headquartered in New York and setting up its own label. All this, from an idea that started as a hangover.
“My friends and I were living in an apartment in Dublin which had a small balcony that we would never use – and we usually threw our rubbish onto it,” explains co-founder Stephen O’Regan.
“We all had a bit of a hangover one day, I confess, and I went to get some fresh air. I noticed we had a great view – Trinity College on one side and Dublin Castle on the other. I jokingly said to my friends that we should use the balcony more as we never go out onto it. In that moment, we came up with the idea of BalconyTV. At that stage it was just ‘BalconyTV’ – a phrase, really.”
That quickly became a show format: a short to-camera intro, a one-song performance and then a short to-camera outro, run on a shoestring for the first six years of its life.
“I thought it would be an interesting snapshot of Dublin city every day, says O’Regan. “A weird window into Dublin every day.”
From a hobby to international expansion
While being run almost like a hobby, BalconyTV quickly started to gather coverage in the Irish media and won the best music website at the country’s Digital Media Awards in 2007 when it was “just this rinky-dink thing” a year old.
From there, people in other cities approached the company to put on their own versions of the show. It is now in 65 cities – including many of the obvious ones as well as Mumbai, Lima, Crimea and Zagreb (and they have recently been approached by someone in Havana to do a Cuban edition) – all uploading new shows once a week or once a fortnight depending on the size of the city.
The ‘syndication’ terms are that local producers have to shoot a test show first to ensure that it’s of sufficient quality and also commit to regular output.
“The format of the show is something we have kept from the very beginning,” says O’Regan. “The only thing that has changed is that over the last few years the producers themselves have pushed up the quality of the show – using high-def cameras and better sound recording. At the start it was just a bog-standard camera and a little mic Sellotaped to a wall. That’s how I would film it.”
A focus on music beyond the global mainstream
BalconyTV’s international spread means that it takes a very different thrust to the likes of Black Cab Sessions or La Blogothèque with their focus on big or hot acts.
“At the beginning with BalconyTV – and still now – we welcome on artists and they don’t have to be attached to a major label or a cool label,” says O’Regan. “My perception of who is big in the music world has completely changed. Say we do BalconyTV in Poland – an artist that is big in Poland might never have been heard of in the UK or America. That doesn’t mean they are not huge in Poland.”
He adds, “There is a false perception based on what is a big artist based on the world that we look at music from. We think if they’re not big in the UK or Ireland then they are not big. In Australia, there are loads of artists that are just big in Australia. Does that mean Australia should be discounted?”
‘The business model has always been an ongoing struggle’
Given it was run as a hobby and on a shoestring for its first six years, O’Regan has a refreshing (some might say cavalier) approach to monetisation.
In July 2012, his company took its first round of funding from Polaris Venture Partners, Lerer Ventures and Greycroft Partners, with Judy McGrath (former CEO of MTV Networks) joining in an advisory role.
Two years later came its acquisition by The Orchard, but O’Regan doesn’t feel under pressure to fast-track the revenue potential.
“The business model has always been an ongoing struggle.There never really was a business model – it was just a fun idea in the early days,” he admits.
“Once you do something for a while, people turn around and ask, ‘How do you make any money out of this?‘ That’s a question that people ask and it starts to become quite awkward to answer. ‘Well, we don’t – but we do it anyway.’ Because we kept on doing it, it almost confuses people that you do something where there is no money involved. It throws them. ‘WHY do you do this if you’re not making any money from it?'”
Music Ally suggests that the industry is obsessed with asking about the monetisation of digital music services because it wants to find someone who has cracked it so everyone can copy what they did.
“Don’t worry – we’re not going to be cracking any models any time soon,” jokes O’Regan. “That’s one thing I have learned!”
Brand deals, he feels, are the best way to monetise a service like BalconyTV, with a series of local deals already in place – such as Coca-Cola in Budapest and Estrella in Barcelona.
“Ideally it will be a blend between local brand partnerships and more global brand partnerships that fit in,” he says of how it will evolve. “But, my God, it never surprises me how difficult it is to create those relationships.”
Because of its global footprint, this means BalconyTV can think about less obvious brand partnerships. “I am increasingly looking at BalconyTV from a travel perspective. It does have its view into these locations and so we are speaking to a few travel brands at the moment and will see what comes out of that.”
The Orchard connection and promotional opportunities
Being owned by The Orchard does take some of the pressure off, but there is still a need for it to prove its worth to its new owners. The main ways BalconyTV is doing that, beyond the brand deals, is by adding a new promotional platform for Orchard acts as well as collecting performances for release on BalconyTV Records.
“I don’t think about it as ‘the next stage’ of the company,” he says of the label venture. “I probably should, but I don’t. The Orchard is obviously in the business of putting the music out there. It’s just a natural thing to do – to try and put the music out there in a different way. The hope is that we can release some kind of album every two weeks or so with the best of the recordings. I am not expecting to compete with Adele or anything like that. It’s nice way to put the music out there.”
On the marketing side, he says, “With things like Spotify, there is not a huge amount of tangibility in music anymore. The only way you can get tangible with music these days is by literally going to see music. MTV doesn’t exist in its old form any more. There is very little music on TV any more. The Orchard has offices all around the world. If an Orchard artist wants to play on our balcony in Melbourne or LA, we can make that happen very easily. It was just a very simple little fit.”
Even though the core focus has always on new acts, more established ones are starting to get involved, such as Joss Stone who has performed for the channel and hosted a number of shows in different cities. It is evolving – slowly.
“One way of looking at it was that it was just a fun idea at the beginning,” says O’Regan as he reflects on the past decade. “It’s been a very strange 10 years.”