Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hoist the sails, this is really good. But what direction does Starsailor set now?

Starsailor. That name doesn’t inspire let’s be honest.

But then, the name Coldplay didn’t at first, much. It hardly rolled off the tongue, but by the time Coldplay became a household name that hardly mattered. Now the word ‘Coldplay’ is part of our global language.

It might have gone the same way for Starsailor, but it didn’t turn out like that. They blasted off well enough with first album Good Souls, back in 2001, which NME called ‘an album of real musical depth’. It did very well commercially with UK sales of 550k (to date, UK Chart co.). But then the band got caught up in themselves a little bit, probably under pressure to do as well or better second time around, and the follow-up album ‘Silence Is Easy’, stuttered. Both critics and fans liked it less and it showed commercially, with 270k sales. Not bad, but still a 50% drop on the debut.
Starsailor was always far better than indie landfill, but could sail close to being bland, which didn’t endear them to a wide audience for long. Even the band’s singer James Walsh once told a festival audience that “saying you like Starsailor is never going to get you laid”. That summed up their position at that time perfectly. But by album number three things got worse, as the band found themselves firmly ‘on the outside’ as that record’s title suggested.
Actually, they were in ‘The Hole’. The Hole is something I explained (and charted) in the post on Elbow last year. It’s not a place any well meaning career band wants to find itself, because you cannot write - record or perform your way out of it. In fact, you may be creatively improving and you might get better reviews, but your audience and your sales continue to dwindle. And your label accountant doesn’t miss those. What you need is a fresh injection of belief, from both within the band and from the help. Coincidentally, Starsailor are in a hole as deep as Elbow was, with both third albums shifting just 80k units despite improved critical and fan reviews (see chart).
Eight years on from album one, re-entering the atmosphere (sorry, that’s it for the crappy galaxy metaphors) comes Starsailor again, with album four ‘All The Plans’. This is, take it from me, a very good record. Whether you can set aside your prejudice and enjoy it for what it is however, is another matter. But sometimes that’s exactly when you can enjoy music the most isn’t it? When it comes from an unexpected source and hits you right where it hurts – in your own musical preconceptions. Ooof, feel that!
It first happened to me with Duran Duran’s 'Notorious'. I hated them, but I loved it. I tried to resist, but in the end I submitted to it and was converted into a late-coming, unashamed life-long Duranie - and that feels good! It happened again more recently with Wilco’s 'A Ghost Is Born', which made me wonder how on earth I’d missed 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'. Somehow, when your converted to a band in this way, you warm to the artist even more than if you liked them from the off. It’s a respect thing I guess. You respect that they, the artist, has made something that has changed you.
But that isn’t exactly an insight that Virgin, Starsailor’s label, can work with I don’t think. The label now has a mixed blessing on its hands. Because the band has delivered with this richly creative, un-self-conscious, genuine, passionate record - and now it’s the label’s turn to deliver its end of the bargain.
So now what? This is a very interesting question for the label (and the band!) so let’s briefly examine the options.
Maybe, Virgin could simply prioritise the record over its other releases (something not easy to do for a band so deep in the hole). And even if it did this, what exactly does that entail? Cranking the promotion machine up to 11? Working the album for longer? Throwing more budget at it? (and convincing top management it'll be worth it). Strike option 3, this is the recession.
Is there truly something different that can be done when it comes to marketing (as opposed to promoting) a record, when you know that record is exceptional? I’m not talking about gimmicks by the way. Sure, Radiohead went & did the best marketing strategy in ages with In Rainbows. But was it really more than a gimmick writ large? It’s certainly not something that can be routinely done. Even by Radiohead’s own admission, it will be different next time.
You could always go for the covermount option, but that’s a cheap shot really isn’t it? Take the money, save a lot of money you would have needed to spend on promo, and go home knowing that 90% of a newspaper’s loyal readers will toss your plastic in the bin on the way out of the newsagents. It isn’t dignified.
You could try & synch the album tracks like crazy. I read recently that James Walsh went over to the USA and performed the new songs acoustically to music supervisors, so the band is already working that space, hard. That sounds like real work – no lazy artists here. But synch has become par for the course these days. Every label & manager worth their salt is at it, fighting for slots on the big US and UK ‘music shows’, now firmly actually television dramas.
Could Virgin have released the album via a brand partnership? All The Plans isn’t a record for brands. It’s a heartfelt thing that is meant to be universally appealing. It’s a record of simple melodies and small understated anthems. Not sure Doritos would be interested anyway even if the band was to be honest.
The label could work the album stateside, where the record has potentially broad appeal and the band less baggage. But that’s just a bigger, harder slog than grinding it out over here. We are seriously running out of options here. Just what is the answer?
Maybe we really know. I’ve started it off already, here, by telling you I love a Starsailor record! I’m going way out on a limb here this is a big risk you know! I’ve built my reputation on recommending great music to people. Real music. But All The Plans is real music.
Somehow, Virgin and Starsailor have to work as a team with this record to gain a groundswell and regain the audience the band has lost. But the band's fans have to do the selling, first by reconnecting. Could Starsailor play some intimate free gigs for the hard core fan base, performing the whole album? Perhaps on condition those invited bring along a close friend who isn’t a fan. Reach out for the to-be-converted. There’s a raft of ideas to brainstorm - “imagine, then do” as Terry McBride says. A groundswell strategy is mostly a combination of digital and live, the mainstream media slots aren't as effective these days (but the traditional slots can’t be ignored either).
The inspiration here undoubtedly, is our friends in the north and Starsailor’s own north western neighbours, Elbow. If you make a record for the people, it deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

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