Fresh On The Net has been going in its current form for over a decade. Del Osei-Owusu took it upon himself to interview the site’s founder, songwriter, musician, broadcaster, and activist, Tom Robinson…
It’s been 10 years since Fresh On The Net took its current form. Congratulations. How do you feel about that?
Amazed and pleased really. In the grander scheme of the music world Fresh On The Net has always been a bit of a niche, under the radar website. But since our mission over the years has been to help niche, under the radar artists in the first place that seems fine.
A bit of background: when I started trying to make my own way in music there was no internet, no social media and everything was controlled by gatekeepers. You had to get the permission of a record company, publishing company, or manager just to make a demo. (Home recording was very expensive and mostly the province of hobbyists.)
Your only hope of making An Actual Record was to satisfy an A&R executive and get signed to a label, but if the Marketing Departments didn’t care for that record, it’d never get into the shops. And even then, if Radio 1 or Capital Radio didn’t like it, nobody outside your family, fans and friends would ever hear it. If you had opinions about music, unless Sounds, Melody Maker or the NME liked you, nobody would ever hear them.
In the 70s and 80s, my own musical efforts managed to put bread on the table following two brief spells of pop success. But those efforts were also feeding any number of lawyers, publishers, managers, A&R men, studio owners, recording engineers, publicists, journalists, marketing executives, record pluggers, video makers and the like. It’s in the nature of the music business that artists come and go, while the industry carries on from year to year happily creaming its percentages off whoever happens to be selling at the time.
In the 21st century that world began to change, thank God. The internet broke the industry’s stranglehold on music distribution. But it also broke the broadcasters’ stranglehold on music playback and the print industry’s monopoly on information. Computers were becoming cheaper and more powerful. The dam finally broke once dialup gave way to broadband – and along came MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook…
All this coincided with the rise of BBC 6 Music – who gave me a dream job listening to great new music and then playing it on the radio. I never forgot my own years of paying pluggers to take my records to Radio in the forlorn hope of getting them played – so I found the rise of MySpace and DIY recording fantastically exciting. Musicians with no money or contacts suddenly had a new way to find an audience that completely bypassed the gatekeepers – as the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Nicki Minaj soon proved.
The record industry has generally made its profits by insinuating itself between creators and consumers. So when 6 Music gave me a BBC Introducing show of my own in 2007 I dreamed we could use the internet to do the exact opposite: connect our listeners with musicians directly via MySpace, then get out of the way. Thats why we called the show “BBC Introducing: Fresh On The Net”
… Sorry, I digress. What was the question again – how do I feel about 10 years of Fresh On The Net its current form? Well yes, amazed and pleased says it all really 🙂
What was the story behind the blog?
Well, like I say FOTN did start out as a late night BBC Introducing show on 6 Music – particularly focussed on the DIY music possibilities offered by MySpace. We actually played any music by anyone from anywhere, but only if it could be heard online in full. Our offer to listeners was that if you liked what you heard on the show, you could always hear it again on the artist’s own web page and engage with them there. That was still a pretty novel concept back then, which most record companies and some artists still hated like poison.
We had four hours of airtime spread over two nights, with sessions, interviews, listener tips and the luxury of enough airtime to play records more than once. Since a lot of our listeners were actually bands and musicians, we aimed to provide information to help them bypass the industry in other ways too. What publishers do, and why you should hold onto your copyrights. What pluggers do, and how you can do most of it yourself. That kind of thing.
Interviewees included digital visionaries like Dave Haynes from SoundCloud, Mark Meharry from Music Glue, Simon Pursehouse from Sentric Music, and Benji Rogers from PledgeMusic – who were all pioneering new ways of helping musicians make a living. PledgeMusic eventually came to a bad end but all the others are all now mainstream and flourishing…
The key thing we offered musicians was an open door – the submission form on our web page. So long as the track could be heard on MySpace or Reverbnation somebody on the team would listen, with no need to pay a plugger. The admin was immense – back then we had to write to every single artist requesting an audio file and permission to play it.
Our big mistake was not setting limits: that door was left open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However hard we worked, there was always a massive backlog of stuff we hadn’t listened to.
Even today Fresh On The Net still has an open door that anyone can use, but I’ve learned my lesson. These days it’s strictly limited to three days a week and 200 tracks max.
BBC Introducing: Fresh On The Net ran as a radio show from 2007 to 2012 and played well over 10,000 tunes by little-known artists. Some were repeat plays of course – but even so that’s a huge number of DIY artists that we managed to support in those four and a half years. Nothing lasts forever of course and the show eventually came to an end after David Cameron froze the BBC license fee, forcing a major round of cuts.
It felt important to continue supporting all those grassroots musicmakers. I’d already created a Fresh On The Net website that was independent from the BBC. So it made sense to move the whole project there, get in a web designer and develop the site into a fully fledged music blog.
I recruited volunteers from friends and fellow musicians to be our moderation team, and figured we would offer artists a place to try out their new tunes on total strangers. With the added chance of a written review for the tracks our readers liked best – which is how the Listening Post was born. We also regularly invited friends and experts to contribute blog posts with all that “how-to” information for musicians that had always been a key part of the radio show from Day One.
That radio show had also had its own BBC podcast and very luckily my bosses allowed me to hang onto it even after the programme was scrapped. Obviously there was no shortage of tunes to fill it with, but using music in podcasts raises all kind of rights issues. The way we got around those issues was to only use music uploaded direct to BBC Introducing, which provides a limited grant of rights. And that’s why our old podcast morphed into The BBC Introducing Mixtape.
At first the podcast was only something I made in my spare time – with no official status at 6 Music. But after a few months the station started quietly putting it out on air to pad out the overnight schedules, since it was a decent bit of extra content they didn’t have to pay for. At first it was literally just an hour of unbroken music with no speech. But eventually BBC Introducing HQ contributed the resources for me to start writing and recording links between the songs, and the Mixtape became the full radio show we know today.
You have up to 200 songs coming through the inbox a week, do you have a typical routine when listening to music?
Um. Well the key benefit of our FOTN system is that everything arrives in a single Soundcloud playlist – which I work through, making notes beside the list of track titles. Track length first (crucial to how many tunes can be included in a one hour show). Then whether there’s a female vocalist (to help get gender balance). A few words of description. And a verdict of YES, NO, MAYBE or OISOEP (“OK If Someone Else Picks”) ie not sure, need a second opinion. Here’s a sample….
- 4.46 UNUSUAL (F-M) EPIC BAND. OVERLONG, BUT PRETTY GOOD
- 2.11 AMBIENT INSTRUMENTAL. NOTHING SPECIAL
- 3.08 MIDTEMPO INDIE LANDFILL. DULL – NO
- 3.30 (F) MANNERED MARIMBAPOP DONE WELL
- 2.56 NAH CLUNKY RAWK NOT MUCH SONG
- 3.01 INTERESTING YESSS
- 4.51 (F) OVERLONG, LO NRG, DONE WELL BUT PROB NO FOR MIXTAPE
- 1.25 LOFI PUNK OISOEP
- 4.19 ELECTROFUNK FUCK YES INSTANT FABNESS. SHORTEN
- 3.15 (F) HALFTIME DREAMPOP SLOWBUILD EPIC. MAYBE
- 2.41 YES PRETTY GOOD TOUGH ELECTRO SPOKEN POLEMIC
- 2.57 ROCK 6/8 EPIC RETRO BUT MADE WELL. MAYBE.
- 4.38 NAH. NONSTARTER.
- 2.35 FACETIOUS BACKBEAT, GREAT VOCAL YES
- 3.03 CRAMPSY MOTORING, SHOUTY (M-F) PUNK VOCAL YES
- 3.11 (F) PLAYED EM BEFORE – FOLKY INTEGRITY – YES FOR MIXTAPE
- 3.10 (F) WISPY WET NOODLING – NOT AWFUL
- 1.53 ACOUSTIC GTR INSTRUMENTAL NOODLING. NO SUBSTANCE
- 2.33 NOODLY (F) ACOUSTICA MAYBE
- 3.45 FACETIOUS ZAPPA-TINGED SCOTS DECLAIMING – MIXTAPE?
- 2.23 MESSY ELECTRO DECLAIMING. ALL OVER THE PLACE
- 2.06 (F) FUZZY LOFI FLYING LIZARDS MAYBE FOR MIXTAPE
- 2.48 YES PLEASANT COMPETENT ACOUSTICA, SUNG IN BEDROOM?
- 2.44 (F) UNUSUAL SPIRITED DIY SPARKSISHNESS YES MIXTAPE
- 3.38 ACOUSTICA – NOT AWFUL – GOOD BRASS OISOEP
- 4.26 MUSO SHOWOFF TIME. TERRIBLY CLEVER. A BIT LONG
- 3.15 FORMULAIC ROCK LANDFILL POP, GOOD NRG BUT DULL
- 3.46 (F) MANNERED VOC OVER ELECTROFUNK RETREAD. NO REAL SONG
- 3.56 INSPIPID DREARY COUNTRY
- 3.22 (F) OTT EPIC BOMBAST, PRETTY DULL
- 6.31 PLEASANT AMBIENT SOUNDSCAPE, BUT 6 MINS
- 3.41 (F) SLOW EPIC ATMOS. SONGWRITING A BIT NAFF
- 3.28 OVERLONG RETRO FORMULAIC COUNTRYPOP BACKBEAT
Actually I go through this process twice – once on Soundcloud with the Fresh On The Net inbox, then again with tracks forwarded by other Introducing shows on the BBC Uploader. We end up with a longlist of about 30-40 songs which I pull down onto my computer from the Uploader.
Those tracks all need to be strong enough to include in the final show. A great drummer, or a killer groove (or both) always gets my attention. And although short energetic tracks are the easiest to fit into a playlist we do sometimes feature longer, slower and more understated ones too. The one thing that will (almost) always carry any kind of song is an exceptional vocal, regardless of the backing or recording quality. I say (almost) always because interesting singers don’t always write interesting songs.
The hard bit comes next – juggling those contenders about in iTunes until we end up with roughly 55 minutes of music – with roughly 5 minutes for talking. That usually means a final playlist of around 18 songs with a balance of styles, genres, genders and energy levels. I try to vary the texture track by track so that if the listener doesn’t like a particular song, something completely different will be along in a moment.
Unfortunately, the longer a tune is, the stronger it needs to be to get included. Some musicians howl with indignation when I point this out, but it’s simple arithmetic: for every six minute song we play, 2 x three minute ones will have to be dropped to make room for it. If all three songs are equally good, we’ll obviously choose the two shorter ones. But if the longer song is way more interesting, then yes of course that’s the one we’ll play.
By the same token if somebody sends a weird, experimental, leftfield – or just plain daft – track that’s only 70 seconds long there’s a much better chance of it squeezing into the show.
Sometimes we get sent formulaic songs with glossy “radio friendly” production that simply aren’t aimed at a 6 Music audience – particularly ones that lean heavily on processed autotune vocals. Obviously some 6 Music artists like Daft Punk do use it – but on the whole our listeners shy away from that sound, and I sort of know what they mean.
You have given many artists a break on your BBC Introducing Mixtape, are there any moments you are particularly proud of?
Yes! Discovering the band Orphans And Vandals – who could have (and should have) been a 21st century successor to The Velvet Underground. Two boys, three girls and an entire set of phenomenal leftfield songs with daring arrangements. A lineup of guitar, bass, two violins and a drummer who doubled on glockenspiel. Jawdroppiing lyrics packed with the queerest most transgressive poetry I’d ever heard in my life. Their only album “I Am Alive And You Are Dead” is still available on Spotify. I had them in for a live radio session and though the frontman Al Joshua dropped a massive F-bomb on air mid-song, I even managed to get them onto the bill for T in The Park. But like so many bands with massive potential they broke up acrimoniously before the date even arrived.
You have returned to the stage post-COVID restrictions; how has it been for you?
It’s still a constant worry. So far I’ve only played a few solo shows – literally just me on stage with a guitar and a piano – and have tried to be as safe as possible. The real proof of the pudding will come in May when we have four weeks of band shows – there’ll be seven of us cooped up every day in a tour bus. If there’s a new variant by then, there’ll be no escape.
What’s been a memorable moment from the road for you?
The high point has to be playing Rock Against Racism’s Carnival Against The Nazis in Victoria Park, Hackney on April 30th, 1978 with Steel Pulse, The Clash and X-Ray Spex. I’d warmly recommend seeking out Rubika Shah’s amazing documentary “White Riot” which gives a vivid sense of the social background in 70s Britain and what it was like to be there on the day.
The stage was made of scaffolding and because we had no idea how many people would show up, RAR optimistically hired a PA suitable for a crowd of 20,000 people. In the event 80,000 came on the day. The generators backstage were struggling and the voltage kept going down, which made our Hammond organ go a semitone out of tune. But playing to that sea of people – in support of an issue that affected so many of our lives – is an experience I’ll never forget.
Fresh On The Net has become a massive platform for people to share their talents, what has been a proud moment for you in running the blog?
Well I’m proud that under my (mostly) benevolent dictatorship Team Freshnet has continued to evolve over the last 10 years. Our moderators all volunteer their free time in order to support new music, but listening carefully to 200 tracks every week can be pretty wearing and it’s easy to burn out. We’ve always taken breaks at Christmas, Easter and Summer to give everyone’s ears a rest, but inevitably there’s been a slow turnover of moderators.
In view of that, I’m proud of and grateful that a dedicated handful of the original team are still with us, still contributing their time and judgement week after week. I’m also grateful to the original pioneers who’ve since moved on. In particular Johnno, Debs, Mar, Benji, and Al Mobbs who all helped get things off the ground in the early days.
I’m very proud of enabling some of our more recent arrivals on the team to expand the ways we support artists. The immense work Neil and Chris put into staging Fresh On The Net festivals in London and Leith in 2019 made FOTN publicly visible in the physical world. I love the way your frequent in-depth interviews support artists’ careers and reveal what makes them tick.
It was great how Signal Committee (completely independently) started creating their Eclectic Picks playlists from our inbox, and I’m proud that we’ve now incorporated them into the heart of what we do. Also of the way Tobi has set up and begun running our guest mods programme, refreshing the range of music in our Listening Posts every week. Props to you (Del) and Neil too for your part in that one!
Most of all, I’m proud of having had the foresight back in 2014 to invite Steve Harris to join the team. Steve has excellent musical taste and writes insightful, highly readable reviews, but is also at home with coding and administration, has a phenomenal work ethic and possesses a big generous heart. Without his dedication and calm unruffled expertise behind the scenes, Fresh On The Net would have fallen apart years ago.
Artists are always looking for ways to crack what some may see as the holy grail – being played on the radio – what’s the best way to catch the ear of Tom Robinson?
Oh dear. Well taking the easy part first: what catches my ear is anything unusual. Unusual vocals, lyrics, grooves, originality, humour, passion, energy, brevity….
But honestly anyone who views catching my ear as some kind of holy grail is on the wrong quest. I remember one artist who mithered me for years before writing a genuinely interesting song which we duly included on the Mixtape. A week later he emailed plaintively “what happens now?” The answer was, of course, nothing. His record just got played on a radio show – which is a nice confidence boost and a badge of validation, but it’s fleeting.
Airplay on the Mixtape doesn’t provide any kind of magical gateway to fame, fortune and stardom. We’ve played thousands of artists over the last 10 years, and you’ve probably never heard of most of them. Yes, we played Nadine Shah and Sleaford Mods several years before anyone else, but that proves my point. That airplay came and went at the time – leaving them exactly where they were before. The breakthrough for both of them only came after several years’ work building up an audience and refining what they did. It certainly had nothing to do with those early plays from me.
So a much better holy grail to aim for is: to make records that catch the ear of the listening public. Tunes that start racking up plays and subscribers on YouTube, TikTok and Spotify. Tunes that complete strangers love so much that they start buying your T-shirts and wearing them to gigs and bringing all their friends. it’s the old EM Forster slogan “Only Connect” – not with gatekeepers like me – but with real world listeners by word of mouth. Unlike radio play, building up a fanbase one subscriber at a time is within your power and costs nothing.
And that’s what Fresh On The Net is here for. To help you try out tunes on people who’ve never heard of you – and find out how well they connect. The rest is up to you.
What are you listening to at the moment?
At this moment: the Entire Inbox at Fresh On The Net. For relaxation and pleasure: the absolutely brilliant audiobook of Bob Mortimer’s memoir “…And Away”. The funniest and most genuinely touching thing I’ve heard in years.
If you had three wishes as to where you’d like to take the blog what would you like to see happen?
- A wider range of music arriving in our inbox.
- A wider range of music fans showing up to vote on our Listening Posts
- Free help from a brilliant online publicist to make 1) and 2) happen
What are you looking forward to doing next?
Touring with my band in May – Covid fears and diesel prices notwithstanding. It’s due to end up with my 70th birthday party (two years late) at Shepherds Bush Empire in London on Friday May 27th – all welcome 🙂