(This was also published in the Huffington Post)
Yesterday was a special day. Not because it was Christmas Eve, but because I had a cup of tea with jockey-turned-rock manager-turned-comedian Bob Slayer.
Any day when Bob Slayer has a cup of tea instead of 15 pints of beer is a special day.
The American comedian Louis CK had reportedly just made over a million dollars from his concert video. He did not release as a DVD through the normal channels. Instead, he released it by himself as a download. The result?
Over $1 million of income from $5 downloads in 12 days.
He bypassed the big DVD distributors, wholesalers and retailers and sold direct to his audience via the internet.
It cost him $250,000 to record the show, set up the website and pay banking fees to handle the transactions. But he grossed over $1 million in 12 days.
“It’s the day Comedy experienced its Radiohead Moment,” Bob Slayer said to me.
“Are you sure you haven’t had a few pints?” I asked.
“It’s a great headline, though, isn’t it?” he laughed.
Bob knows the independent music scene. From 2003 to 2009, he was full-time manager of Japanese rock band Electric Eel Shock, whom he constantly calls “EES” – I think because it is difficult to pronounce “Electric Eel Shock” after downing 15 pints of beer.
When they had been in previous bands, the members of Electric Eel Shock had released tracks and albums on major labels in Japan and not enjoyed the experience. Hardened by this, they became fiercely independent and – who knows why? – they let Bob Slayer manage them. Strangely, they got on well with the anarchic yet experienced Bob and his sometimes unconventional, often lateral-thinking ideas.
“In a way,” says Bob. “I was lucky. They were – and still are – an amazing live band. So good that, over several years, I toured them in over 30 countries around the world and they are still conquering new countries all the time.”
One of Bob’s bright entrepreneurial ideas was to sell one hundred fans “EES guest list for life” passes at £100 each. This created £10,000 in cash and helped the band get out of a label deal with a man called Eric. They then went for another of Bob’s bright ideas – to finance their recordings by asking fans to buy the albums in advance – before they had recorded them.
“They raised over $50,000 to record their last album,” Bob tells me. “We used to rub shoulders with other bands following similar DIY routes but we all knew that we were on the fringes of the music industry. We were looked down on a little.
“But then, in 2006, DIY went almost mainstream. Lilly Allen and the Arctic Monkeys were marketed as coming from an independent/MySpace scene… although the irony was that major labels spent millions of pounds telling us just how independent these act were.
“That was like a phony start, but it showed the promise…
“Then, in 2007, it all changed for real. Radiohead got out of their contract with EMI and released In Rainbows as a digital download. They asked their fans to pay whatever they liked for it – it is like the Free Fringe and Free Festival shows in Edinburgh, where punters pay what they like on the way out.
“The band were selling direct to their audience and cutting out the middle men. Not only did they get the cash, just as Louis CK has done, but they overnight created a huge database of fan contacts.
“Radiohead proved that ‘Independent’ could be done on a grand scale and, since then, huge parts of the music industry have turned themselves inside-out. Artists are much more central to the whole process and music is all the more healthy for it.
“My pal, who ‘found’ The Darkness and got them picked up by Warners after selling-out the Astoria as an unsigned band, did something similar but vitally different with a band called Enter Shikari a couple of years later… They sold out the Astoria (just before it was pulled down), they milked the press coverage by turning down the major labels’ offers and then they released the album themselves.
“OK, so they only sold half a million records compared to the Darkness’ five million, but they made up to £5 per CD as opposed to less than £1 and importantly – although you haven’t heard of them – they still have a huge hardcore audience several albums later.
“The comedy business has always trailed behind the music business a bit. Alternative comedy arrived maybe five years after punk had imploded.
“Here we are in 2011. Bo Burnham in 2010 could be seen as the Arctic Monkeys of comedy. And Louis CK could be seen as the equivalent of Radiohead.”
It would avoid the publishers, wholesalers and retailers and the royalties would be around 80% instead of 7.5%.
So Bob’s enthusiasm for a new method of selling music and comedy recordings to the public interests me.
“So what happens next?” I asked him.
“Well, with any luck,” he told me, “we have an independent comedy revolution and it gets a lot more interesting again… I think I fancy a beer…”