Alex Day And The Dilemma Of The DIY Pop Star

Stupid-stupidLast year Alex Day's Christmas campaign took his single "Forever Yours" to #4 on the UK singles chart earning him a Guinness World Record for highest charting single by an unsigned artist and a lot of press. This year he's building on his success as a DIY pop musician and going for #1 on the UK singles charts. Though he might well get that #1, he still faces the dilemma of how to get to the next level in a genre of music that is typically far from DIY.

I spoke with Alex Day recently about his progress in the world of pop music. He's in an interesting position in that he's actually selling music and accomplishing quite a bit without touring or being signed. Yet his increasingly polished pop tracks are the kind of music it's somewhat surprising to encounter in a DIY setting.

Supported by a strong fanbase, last year Day enlisted them in the Nermie Army and together they pushed Forever Yours to #4 on the UK singles chart leading to a Guinness World Record for top charting unsigned artist. Since then he's had:

"an amazing year – two Top 20 singles, sold over 300,000 songs on iTunes and made £150,000 from my music, all without a label, manager, PR person or any radio support."

Recently he began teasing his upcoming single, "Stupid Stupid", with an option to retire from the Nermie Army or to reup for an entirely new effort. Sunday he debuted the master plan which includes a few World Record attempts amongst all the activity.

Next week Day will release the music video for Stupid Stupid, a track I might best describe as happy lightweight music about young love. On December 16th, the following Sunday, the day on which the English chart week begins, Stupid Stupid will be released for sale on iTunes and as a CD single at HMV. The track is already available on those outlets for preorder.

Day will make what I understand to be a relatively rare public appearance on the 16th in London for an event titled "Stupidfest" to promote the first hour of sales.

The hope is that the Nermie Army and other fans will push the track to #1 on iTunes in its first hour of availability. The rest of the week will be spent leveraging that news, along with such bits as his plan to give up to 30k pounds to charity, and pushing for #1 on the UK Billboard Singles Chart.

If successful, Day will have come one step closer to his often repeated goal of having everyone know his music, even if they don't know him.

It's the kind of goal one wouldn't normally take on in DIY fashion. Day has pretty much done all the groundwork one would except to lead to a signing. He's built a powerful web-connected fanbase that actually buys music which could be quickly grown and fed through fan-relevant mass media appearances and serious touring.

The problem is that the kind of music and media Alex Day creates with his friends has typically been of interest to the music industry as something that can be controlled if not created outright in the studio. It's a business environment devoid of someone like Christian Clancy who has learned to work with Odd Future rather than slotting them into an industry template.

When Forever Yours charted at #4 in the UK, Day heard from multiple reps of major labels. Though he speaks pretty lightly about the whole affair, he told me he was actually hoping that he would be convinced to sign. The problem was that he'd have to compromise quite a bit, shifting to an album focus and not being allowed to choose the singles for promotion.

It's an interesting dilemma. Day is doing well on his own terms and likes knowing those with whom he does business. He told me he prefers representing himself because he's the one who cares the most about his work. But he also feels scattershot and not always sure where best to focus his business energies. He's open to finding help but he's not sure who would be the ideal consultant, for example, because he's outside of the traditional industry.

Right now Day can do most of what he needs to do because he's chosen not to tour and his current tasks are relatively manageable. He can hold on to the idea that it's better to be able to represent himself directly to folks at HMV or wherever he conducts business.

I wouldn't call that a luxury, exactly, but if he started touring and working with a booking agent, he would then immediately be forced into giving up some of the things he holds on to in order to move to the next step. And even when you're calling the shots, working with more people including employees and partners means you just can't be as hands-on across the board.

Alex Day is part of a larger phenomenon of young people making pop music from a DIY perspective. Most of those artists have used YouTube as a platform that allowed them to build audiences while bypassing gatekeepers. Yet those in the industry who are most attuned to building pop artists tends towards highly controlling approaches to artist management. It makes one wonder if new business people will emerge that can work with the needs of DIY pop musicians just as they have in other genres such as hip hop and indie rock.

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. “It makes one wonder if new business people will emerge that can work with the needs of DIY pop musicians just as they have in other genres such as hip hop and indie rock.”
    An intriguing idea. Scott Borchetta of BMLG (at least from the articles one can read about him and his label) claims to allow his artists creative freedom, he marks them really well, and he is having significant success in pop with Taylor Swift with a model that is perhaps somewhat less controlled. Maybe. I can’t see Columbia controlling Trent Reznor. Although I’m not sure he’s pop, exactly. But maybe the labels are finally getting the message that controlling and exploiting pop artists doesn’t work in the long run. Hmmm.
    Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and their New York manager The Agency Group’s Zach Quillen, about whom I know you have also written, have definitely taken the collaborative approach. They have a group of business people around them who market them – it seems very much a team effort. Mackemore has talked about the growing pains of a “small” business – it’s clearly a challenge working outside the label structure, but he chooses not to give up control in exchange for a smoother growth path for his business. After all, it really is just like starting a business to start a music career.
    I would love to see more freelance music business professionals have a way to identify and come together around emerging pop musicians – provide marketing support, merchandising, PR, management, and even raise capital as needed – just like in the tech startup community. There’s an idea – Shark Tank for musicians… Oh, I guess that’s been done (The Voice, American Idol…) Seriously, an angel investor startup business model that matched musical talent and music industry business savvy would be so welcome in the indie pop market, and so much more functional than what happens today. We might get better pop music, too.

  2. Hmmm… but In 40 years will we recognize Alex Day as the man who challenged the boundaries of pop, giving us the Bohemian Rhapsody of the 2Ks, and holding the record for those sales, will we see him as the kid who proved the Internet is a funnel for garbage that can be used to sell very literally, anything?
    Didn’t we already kind of know this potential about the Internet and isn’t it the music industry who has dragged its feet on the piont?
    I’m just sayin’ …

  3. I’m not sure what you’re saying. It seems to be a bit off-tiopic.
    But given that the majority of what’s on the web and the people posting things on the web will be meaningless in 40 years it probably doesn’t really matter what either of us have to say on a music blog.

  4. Certainly for musicians that want to create original music and have some control over their career it is totally about starting a business.
    One of the big problems facing freelance music biz professionals is that they have to make a living too and music is actually a pretty lousy business play for the most part.
    Plus, artists who turn their nose up at business while hoping someone else will take care of things for them doesn’t make it easy for business people to do their jobs.
    One thing I didn’t really clarify is what I mean by pop music. I’m really thinking of things like boy bands and bubble gum as opposed to simply stuff that sells. That scene has been so much about business people creating a product that the DIY approach is almost incomprehensible.

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