In recent months I've blogged about some irrevocable changes to the music industry and the increasingly important role of social media. It forms a free outlet for any musician in an otherwise heavily fortified business and offers exposure to new artists on a previously unattainable scale. But it's not just for the un-heard and un-signed; experienced and credible acts are now using it as a vehicle for reinvention and few more effectively than one Ivor Novello winner.
In early 2000, while working as a Producer at South Coast radio station, Power FM, the studio opposite mine became occupied by an eclectic stream of musicians on a mission to complete their first album. What emerged from 'Studio H' became a seminal UK Garage album, popularising a scene that had remained underground for many years. The Artful Dodger's It's All About The Stragglers boasted five Top Ten hits and launched, among others, the career of Craig David.
The primary driving force behind the group was Mark Hill, a man I've come to know quite well over the last 12 years. Mark's approach to a turbulent industry has always been intelligent and driven by a genuine passion for the music. Very much a master of his own destiny, he's positioned himself only among the projects that excite him, regardless of any external expectations, and has an acute understanding of an evolving business.
In 2002, Artful Dodger politics began to takes their toll on Mark so he sold his majority share to band mate, Pete Devereux. His departure allowed him time to co-write Craig David's debut album Born To Do It, a record Jamie Foxx recently called 'incredible' in GQ Magazine. Mark continued to write and produce, working with Lemar, Mel C, Liberty X and Gareth Gates and even penning tracks for Whitney Houston and J-Lo. But the industry was changing. The CD to MP3 transition began, record sales fell, record companies panicked and money became sparse. And so in 2005, he walked away from the business all together.
After a six year sabbatical-buying property, trading foreign currency and getting married, Mark tentatively returned to the scene. Initially collaborating as a songwriter and producer with a number of record companies and artists, he realised quickly that everything had become very speculative; nobody paid for anything unless they, themselves, were being paid.
Furthermore, the industry had become risk averse, frightened to back any project that wasn't going to be a rock solid, guaranteed success. It was more dire than when he left. But it did help Mark make an important decision; if he was going to speculate, why not speculate purely for himself? He'd written chart topping tracks before, why not do it again? After all, he still had the passion and creativity. What he didn't own, however, was the name and having previously sold the rights to the Artful Dodger, he'd lost a significant track record from which to trade. So, choosing to re-launch himself as 'Artful', Mark effectively began from scratch. The immediate question was how to reconnect with an old fan base under a new name and with no backing? His solution was to exploit the one thing that didn't exist a decade earlier; social media.
Bizarrely, the initial approach was not to sell records. The focus was on building the Artful brand. Twitter and Facebook were just the start. Via these streams he offered free downloads, launched merchandise, put on live shows and appeared at events; anything and everything to promote the image and the sound. He created his own label, wrote a wealth of new tracks, remixed others and collaborated with fresh artists. Through a constant flow of high quality, free material, the original Artful Dodger fans rediscovered him and shared his work in ways only Twitter and Facebook can offer. He developed new fans too, also keen to pass on what they'd heard.
So far, the process has been purely self-generated and Mark openly confesses it's like spinning plates as he spreads himself across every aspect of the Artful product. But the hard work is beginning to pay off. Almost 1000 new Twitter followers every month. Over 35,000 plays on TwitMusic. Sold out live gigs. And all of this achieved through a dedicated and well orchestrated use of social media. Of course, it's important not to forget that these figures are built on a foundation of Mark's continued ability to write and produce premium tracks. But it's certainly testament to what can be gained through an intelligent use of web and mobile based technologies. And naturally, as the fan base expands, Artful moves ever closer to a tipping point where the momentum generated from social media creates more demand and a process that becomes self perpetuating AND financially viable.
The future is looking very good for Mark. And his approach should inspire any artist who believes that musical success is somehow dictated by someone else; that's simply not the case. Write the songs, build the brand, don't be precious and exploit the web because in a 21st Century music industry, it's all about being Artful.
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