From The Times
October 16, 2009
Fresh on the Net showcases new talent
Tom Robinson, the pop star turned radio presenter talks about the birth of his show
I joined my first proper band, Café Society, back in 1973 and somehow managed to earn a living as a musician for the next 29 years. Today in the MySpace era it’s easy to forget that back then home recording was almost unknown. Bands had to gig until they got good, then pester record companies to see them play. With luck you might finally get to record a demo in their studios. A lot of luck might land you a contract and you might even make a proper record. But unless your disc got played on the radio it might as well not exist; only your family and fans would ever hear it.
Initially Café Society got lucky, making our first demo for no less a talent scout than Ray Davies of the Kinks, who produced our debut album. But without a single play on Radio 1 it sold fewer than 500 copies and I eventually left to try again under my own name. The Tom Robinson Band was more successful, due to its simpler approach, catchier songs and the EMI song plugger Eric Hall, who persuaded David Jensen to make 2-4-6-8 Motorway his single of the week. Like many bands of the punk era we got press coverage galore; but the only ones remembered today are those that made the Radio 1 playlist.
So when I gave up gigging in 2002 to become a presenter on the new digital BBC station 6 Music, it felt like switching sides: like a chef exchanging his sweaty backstreet kitchen for the life of a restaurant critic. I remained keenly aware of the difference a single play can make to an artist’s career. But there are always far more records than airtime and only a tiny fraction of records sent to radio stations are broadcast.
The business had changed surprisingly little when I started at 6 Music. Vinyl had given way to compact disc and analogue tape to digital audio, but the basic model was still more or less intact. The iTunes store was still no more than a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye, and bands depended on record companies and radio for exposure.
Seven years later all creative industries face unparalleled threats to their business models. Record companies may have squealed loudest at the derailing of their gravy train, but journalists, authors, film-makers and broadcasters all have equal reason to fear the digital “freeconomy”.
Yet it seems to me that today’s aspiring songwriters operate in a far more favourable environment than when I started. You now need little more than a laptop and a good pair of ears to produce high-quality recordings or even video at home. Compact discs can be produced for pennies, while distribution on iTunes requires only £30 and a broadband connection. Best of all, music and visuals can be “broadcast” worldwide on MySpace and YouTube at no cost at all. You may no longer make a fortune but you’ll certainly earn a living. All you have to be is good.
Which is why two years ago I proposed a new radio show devoted exclusively to online music. Listeners and musicians would recommend their discoveries on a dedicated web page, bypassing CDs entirely. This would make auditioning tracks quicker — and prevent industry insiders from jumping the queue.
Our main worry — whether there would be enough decent music in cyberspace to fill two hours a week — proved unfounded. When BBC Introducing: Fresh on the Net launched in October 2007 we were swamped with music of an astonishingly high standard. We started to get tips from other BBC Introducing presenters such as Ras Kwame at 1Xtra and Bobby Friction on Asian Network, while at Radio 1 Bethan Elfyn and Huw Stephens began sending us their own discoveries. Within a few months a second show had been added and, finally, our own weekly 60-minute podcast with permission to play full-length tracks. It’s like being allowed to give away a free album of favourite music every week.
Two years and 1,500 artists later, some discoveries inevitably stand out more than others. Lisbee Stainton came recommended by a leftfield indie beatmeister in Basingstoke known only as Raz, but her song Red was an exquisite slice of traditional songwriting: pure and pitch-perfect. She turned out to be a final-year music student at Goldsmiths University with a formidable command of her custom eight-string guitar. Within months the song was all over the Radio 2 playlist.
Ezra Bang recommended himself, typing in BLOCK CAPITALS. He had quit the New York rap scene and headed across the pond to recruit a far more diverse band of musicians in London. The result was Hot Machine — a brash, turbocharged rock band with monophonic synths instead of guitars and a rhythm section to die for. A week later they’d come in for a live session. By summer they were blowing away the audience at T in the Park.
Our goals remain simple: to tell listeners about the best new music they can hear free online, and to support the artists who make it. By reading out everyone’s website URLs (and listing them online) we aim to put bands and fans in direct touch with each other, cutting out the middlemen.
On our second anniversary next week, Fresh on the Net will be going live with a two-week festival at Riverside Studios in West London. It will be a friendly, informal affair featuring three outstanding artists a night from all over the country. Don’t take my word for it how great they are — hear them for yourself at http://freshonthenet.co.uk.
Among them there’s the astonishing King Charles, who, at Glastonbury this year, delivered blistering guitar and heartbreaking songs while wearing mirrored leggings and waistlength dreadlocks wrapped up in a bun. And doing occasional backflips off the drum riser. And the youthful London quartet Fiction, who seem to have torn up the rule book and started over from scratch. Instead of a drummer, their lead singers take turns bashing a pair of tomtoms at the front of the stage.
And on October 25 you’ll hear the heartstopping vocals of Manuela Schütte, Yolanda Quartey and Chris Turpin with their respective bands: Mishaped Pearls, Phantom Limb and Kill It Kid. These are three of the finest voices of their generation. Feel free to come by and say hello. Whichever date you choose, if you aren’t gobsmacked by the end of the night I’ll give you your six quid back. And that’s a promise.