New sounds and vision
Ben East talks to the people behind three very different online music TV ventures coming out of Manchester, and finds plenty of opportunities for musicians with multi-media ambitions.
It’s no good having the song if you’ve not got the image. But where’s a new band to go if they want to be seen as well as heard? Ben East talks to the people behind three very different online music TV ventures coming out of Manchester, and finds plenty of opportunities for musicians with multi-media ambitions.
The notion of a band’s image being as important as the music goes right back to the Beatles’ moptop haircuts in Hamburg. Peter Saville and Factory shifted the visual element of music towards achingly-cool record sleeves, and, of course, MTV’s launch in 1981 made the video as crucial as the tune for a new band.
Almost 30 years on, though, Top Of The Pops is dead, MTV broadcasts a diet of reality television shows, and sitting down to watch a television programme such as The Chart Show is a redundant idea. Increasingly, we consume new music online, and visuals are becoming more and more important in the battle for our attention. Which is why three Manchester video-based undertakings are, in their own way, reflective of where you might uncover your favourite new band.
They’re also very different entities. The New Mancunian, launching in the autumn, will be a magazine-style website focusing on Manchester’s music scene, but with television-quality production. The Source, which begins screening videos July 22, is, initially at least, a talent contest: bands upload their own videos, the most popular featuring on a television show in September, from which an overall winner is picked. Manchester Scene Wipe is an online video channel influenced by popular French website La Blogoteque, where bands – both from the city and touring to it – are taken to quirky locations to record a song.
“I think bands understand how aware they have to be of their image these days, and that music with visuals is a far more instant way of selling what they do.”
Manchester Scene Wipe will celebrate its 100th video upload in August. As the only project of the three with a concrete audience for now – founder Toby Potter says the site is getting 1000 hits a day – they have plenty of experience to impart. What they’ve learned over the past year is a salutory lesson for the people behind The New Mancunian and The Source, as well as the bands that they’ve featured. For Potter – and his Scene Wipe cohort Sam Alder – it’s very much a labour of love.
“We got a £1500 overdraft facility from the bank, which meant we could afford a HD video camera and pretty much bottom of the range audio equipment,” he says. “But essentially, it’s a great way to film our favourite bands and give Manchester acts exposure too. It’s never really been about making money, it’s about promoting the Manchester music scene.”
All of which means Potter and Alder – who do have day jobs – upload the videos to Vimeo, You Tube, and the bands’ own websites. They’re not possessive about their content, but that doesn’t mean it’s without value. Scene Wipe acts as a kindly editor of the best in new music: it’s got to the stage where Potter is not just asking bands to come and play a song under, say, the T-Rex skeleton in Manchester Museum (as Lissie did), but bands are coming to them.
“I think they’re understanding how aware they have to be of their image these days, and that music with visuals is a far more instant way of selling it,” says Potter. “But on a deeper level, what we can do is show that the bands have talent. If we’re filming out and about in the city with no power, the band have to work out a different way of playing their songs, so it shows how versatile they can be. They can’t hide behind the studio techniques. It’s been interesting, too, that nearly all of the videos have been done in one take.”
It would be unfair to suggest that Dan Parrott’s The New Mancunian will be a more professional version of Manchester Scene Wipe: there’s something rather pleasing about the latter’s unpolished approach. But Parrott not only has music television production on his CV – he was in charge of the well-regarded Channel M Music show – but he runs a record label Love And Disaster, has made videos for Dutch Uncles and is also that band’s manager.
His concept for The New Mancunian is similar to his Channel M show, bringing bands either from Manchester or playing live in the city into a studio for a filmed session. Of course, the crucial difference is that this time, it’s online.
“If you hear an unsigned band on the radio then you might turn it off, but if you can actually see them… well, I think that makes a massive difference,” he says. “I don’t know if the Channel M show made careers for bands such as Delphic or Everything Everything, but it certainly encouraged them to develop.”
And develop they have, well beyond Manchester’s city limits. Parrott’s certain that the notion of a Manchester ‘sound’ is over, but, he smiles, “the old mythology certainly helps when you’re trying to get interest in things like this.”
Parrott intends to produce weekly “issues” with a presenter rather than simply posting footage up when it’s ready. So you can watch an entire programme, or just cherry pick the band or the interview you want to watch that week. In that way, it does relate back to the early days of MTV.
“If you hear an unsigned band on the radio then you might turn it off, but if you can actually see them that makes a massive difference.”
“I do want to give it that televisual element,” he agrees. “I mean, music television’s been lacking for a few years now, and it would be nice if we can give it a bit more spark, perhaps be a bit more irreverent than we could be at Channel M, too.”
Still, an idea is one thing. Getting, essentially, an Internet-provided television platform launched and funded is another. Parrott has benefited from a £2500 grant from the Umbro Industries scheme, but realistically his hopes for the long-term success of The New Mancunian probably rely on investment from a suitable brand.
But away from the finance, Parrott is really keen to stress how such an undertaking can genuinely help the creative community. Highly-rated Manchester band Airship – whose debut single was on Love And Disaster – are a case in point. Drummer Steven Griffiths thinks a session recording the band did with Parrott for Channel M Music was more than just a nice opportunity for exposure, it kickstarted their career before they’d even released a single.
“Often a new band’s demo only tells half the story,” he says. “So the session recording we did for Channel M Music opened so many doors for us as the industry – as well as fans – could actually see the full package, especially what we were like live. It was unique in that sense, and I know a lot of other new Manchester bands felt the same.”
Bands such as Airship will also have to understand the power of the visual form if they want to be on The Source; it’s the whole premise of the show. New, unsigned bands will be able to upload a video to The Source’s site for £10, and create a profile. After encouraging online votes, the top 150 acts go forward to the television show (to be broadcast on Channel M and Showcase on Sky), where the videos are played in the style of the much-missed Chart Show, and voting via text comes into play. The most popular bands win the weekly finals, and go through to the live grand final, where £10,000 is at stake.
Immediately it’s obvious that The Source is a much more commercial concern. But it does have an altruistic element too, as co-creator Iain May explains.
“All of us have been in bands, so we know what it’s like to struggle to earn money from music,” he says. “So The Source shares the net voting revenue 50-50 with the musicians. We’ll offer the best bands the chance to be on our label, which will also share any profits 50-50. This is what The Source does that sticking a video on You Tube doesn’t.”
Again, it’s not limited to Manchester, just based “in a city with an ethos of innovation and co-operation” says May. And again, it’s predicated on the demand for new music.
“Remember when you walked into a music shop and listened to the latest vinyl on headphones? You didn’t know the quality beforehand, you just did it. And we’re trying to replicate that feeling – I’m hoping it will become not just a way for people to consume music in a visual way but also discover new sounds that haven’t been manipulated and sanitised.”
And what would May say to bands who think it’s hard enough to make a good song, let alone a video?
“Well, I’d admit that they’ll have to put a bit of effort in, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It means they have to be more committed to what they believe they can achieve. And in any case, when I was in bands, making a video of broadcast quality could easily cost up to £100,000. Now it’s much easier.”
So it’ll be fascinating to see, a year from now, what The New Mancunian, Manchester Scene Wipe and The Source have achieved – and perhaps more importantly, what impact they’ve had on the bands they’ve featured. In the meantime, Toby Potter has an interesting take on why it is that Manchester should be the base for these three very different sites focusing on new music.
“It’s simply because of the healthy music scene,” says the founder of Manchester Scene Wipe. “Without it, you can’t possibly hope to pull off something like we’re doing. And best of all, the bands coming out of Manchester itself might all know each other, but they’re all very musically distinct.”
And, via these operations, they’ll be visually distinct, too.
Images: Delphic perform on the Channel M Music Show; Manchester Scene Wipe filming Lissie (and T-Rex); The Source team (Lucy Whitehead, Ben Martin, Iain May)