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CMU Beef Of The Week #282: Sandi Thom v Radio 2

By | Published on Friday 13 November 2015

Sandi Thom

Sandi Thom. You remember Sandi Thom. She did that song that you either found immediately irritating, or which you slowly grew to find irritating. Punk rock, flowers in hair, you remember.

That was quite an antagonistic start to an article about Sandi Thom, wasn’t it? I’d imagine she would say it was indicative of the media’s approach to both her and her music. Typical of the way hacks write about an artist who, for a brief time, was widely billed as the “next big thing”, but whose subsequent career never quite reached those heights. Which must mean everything she’s put out since was pretty awful, right?

So, the old build em up to bring em down technique. A tried and tested method. Couple that trajectory with the fact that Thom was dropped by a major label after two albums, but still has the audacity to get up each morning and try to satisfy her urge to create music, despite many a set back, and you’ve got a tale as old as the music industry itself.

And so, that is where our story begins. One chilly Wednesday night in November (ie Wednesday this week), Sandi Thom uploaded a video to YouTube. This was not the video for her new single, although she has got a new single – ‘Earthquake’ – coming out later this month. The posting did relate to that single though.

Recorded into the front-facing camera on her phone – a not uncommon thing to see if you’re familiar with her YouTube profile – Thom began explaining that Radio 2 had decided not to add that new song to its playlist. Through tears, she said that this essentially meant the new record had no chance of success in the UK, as the station is key to an artist such as herself. The rejection had come, she added, despite the fact that she had written a song that “fits their format”.

The aim of the video was to make “people realise how much it hurts” to be rejected like this. “I apparently can do no right”, she said. “I wrote a song that is catchy, and it’s pop and it fits their format, and there is no reason that they shouldn’t playlist my music. I swear to God, they have no idea how much it actually hurts a person when it’s been years and years to try and gain some kind of respect from these people, and after trying my hardest to do something that I thought was perfect for them they still say no”.

“I am done with this industry and its bullshit”, she proclaimed. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t playlist that song. It’s perfect. It perfectly fits their format for their station, and I am fucking sick and tired of having to sit on the edge of my seat, waiting for these people to come back and tell me the verdict to whether this song is gonna be a success in this country or not. Because, basically, without their support it can’t be a success”.

In addition to that, she went on, one of the big commercial radio firms, Bauer, had also decided that her song would not be aired on any of its stations. Not Kerrang! Radio. Not Absolute 90s. Not Kiss. None of them. “That’s 22 million people across this country who will not get to hear this song because of one person’s decision”, she sobbed.

“Honest to God, I am fucking sick to death of the bullshit that this industry pulls on people like me. And I have had it. Enough. I am done. Fuck you Radio 2. And fuck you Bauer Network. And fuck the lot of yous, because it is utter shit, OK? That’s a fucking good song, OK? A fucking good song. And there’s no reason why you need to do this to me once again. That is it, I am done. I have better things to do with my life and my time and this is utter bullshit. So, see you later, Radio 2. Go and shove it up your arse, cos I really don’t fucking care anymore”.

Despite those fairly strong words of retirement, ‘Earthquake’ is still listed as having a release date of 27 Nov. And its lyric video remains on the singer’s YouTube profile, though her Radio 2 rant has been deleted. If you missed it, here’s a rough re-enactment by Mathew Priest from Dodgy.

So, Sandi Thom Ltd is still seemingly a going concern, but questions remain about the outburst. Opinion has been polarised on the video. Some have expressed sympathy for the singer and empathy with her frustration. Others have called her an entitled idiot. And some, particularly in the media (those bastards), announced that Thom was probably having some kind of breakdown. Let’s deal with that latter conclusion first shall we? Can we all agree to stop questioning people’s mental health every time they get a little bit angry? It’s really not helpful.

As for the other viewpoints, well, the people who see Thom as entitled and slightly ridiculous possibly have a point. Given how many people there are out there fighting for some space in the limited attention spans of the public, it does seem pretty daft to get publicly angry when your latest single doesn’t get playlisted. Though converse to most of those fighters, Sandi Thom did experience a time when she was awarded that attention. To lose it and feel locked out by the people who were once slapping your back must be at least as upsetting as never having had it at all, and possibly more so.

I once spent an evening in the company of someone from a band that had been the hot new thing in relatively recent memory. He was grumpy and uncommunicative the whole time because Radio 1 had “fucked them over” by C-listing their latest single, resulting in it only going top 30. I – sitting opposite him – was working with bands at the time who would have all shat in their pants and danced for days if Radio 1 had given them one single play at four in the morning.

This, I guess, was his Sandi Thom moment. Was his frustration legitimate? Yes. Did it seem entirely out of proportion to me at the time? Also yes.

I’m sure he would have said his band’s song was “perfect” too. That it “fit the format” of the station, whatever that means. I know that it would be naïve to suggest that music isn’t written to a format – not just pop, pretty much all music – but to announce that you basically wrote a song so that a particular radio station would play it also seems quite silly.

Like many people, I’d imagine, the second I finished watching Thom’s rant video, I went to listen to the single. I actually hoped that it was some kind of mind-blowing record, the like of which had never been heard before, and we could all join in with the Radio 2 bashing. But, to be honest, I could see why it had been rejected. It kind of sounds like it was written to a formula and there’s some fairly dubious rhyming going on. Not that there isn’t a market for that, but there’s probably better stuff for Radio 2 to be getting behind at the moment.

There’s also a point to be made here, I think, about the perceived and possibly actual importance of a small number of old-school media in finding an audience for a certain sort of pop music. Without regular airplay on Radio 2, Sandi Thom has no chance of success in the UK, or so she says.

Now, you could argue that, commercially speaking, making music that entirely requires something as unlikely as being playlisted by Radio 2 to succeed is a foolish plan. But perhaps if you are making music for a 35+ demographic, it’s the only option. Which would suggest making music for that audience is even harder than when you’re a bright young thing pitching your output to bright young consumers, where online promo is as important.

That said, it’s not like Sandi Thom has had a massive change in direction since she started, and wasn’t she marketed entirely on the fact that she was a pioneer of online promo? We were told that she’d independently built up a sufficiently engaged online audience that she was webcasting to 100,000 people at a time from her cellar. And this was long before the words “YouTube” and “star” had ever been mashed together. Even taking into account how unlikely those numbers always seemed, Thom was certainly switched on to the power of the net in finding an audience, and not just an audience of web-savvy teenagers.

The fact that she still keeps her YouTube channel stocked up with various behind-the-scenes clips and video blogs would suggest she still recognises the power of online to get her music out there. Though the numbers of plays on those videos probably tell us that, with so many artists and creators now performing online, getting an audience that way is harder than ever, even for a pioneer. Hence the continued importance of the old channels to get heard above all the internet noise.

Having slept on it and then decided to take down her Radio 2 outburst video, Thom spoke to another BBC station, 5live, about what had led her to post it in the first place.

“For the last seven years I’ve been an independent artist”, she began. “I have my own label, and my own distribution, and I manage myself and basically self-release stuff. There’s been three records since the first two albums I made that were released by Sony, and yet the only music that’s in rotation at Radio 2 is my two records that were released with Sony. Typically it’s a Wednesday that you hear the results of playlist meetings, and I think this particular record I really had high hopes for”.

She continued: “Everybody was very positive about it, and of course when you get that disappointing text message saying that it didn’t make it… you know, I think the fact that I’m pregnant, I’m already emotional as it is, and the fact that it’s seven years of just endlessly trying and trying, I think it was just a combination of so much disappointment”.

It remains true, of course, that no one owes Sandi Thom a living. And she enjoyed far more time in the limelight than most musicians will ever achieve. But at the same time, it’s understandable why, having been the next big thing, and having had labels and DJs and heads of music woo you so heavily, to then see that fall away, and to have to fight so hard to have the same people even take your call, well, that’s going to be frustrating. And there’s plenty of once-buzzy artists who never quite made it to super-stardom who have the same frustrations, even if they don’t share them in such a public way.

That poses an interesting question. Given that this is an industry where more artists fail than succeed, and where more artists will be dropped by their (especially major) labels than see their initially agreed five album alliance through to its conclusion, should the business do more to prepare artists for the challenges ahead, and how to deal with suddenly losing the industry adoration that is mainly dished out to superstars and bright young things?

Now, what artist on the way up wants to hear that it could and probably will all come crashing down at some point in the near future? Would said artists listen even if you told them so? I suspect most creative people, who get to do what they love for a living, fear deep down that one day they’ll be “found out” and that privilege will be taken away from them. But at the same time, optimism aided by hype often convinces the very same people that things will probably work out OK for them.

Sandi Thom was dropped by Sony after her second album didn’t sell so well. Sure, it got to number 25, but her debut was a number one record and went platinum. Since then she’s self-released three albums, none of which have broken the top 100.

She’s still making music, and she’s still got an audience. And there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be able to satisfy her creative desires. But she seemingly still aspires for the kind of success, and industry support, she enjoyed during the hype days. Which is probably unrealistic. Unfortunately. Which possibly isn’t fair – after all, the people she now seeks to court were once seeking to court her.

Though even if the industry could be better at preparing its artists for this eventuality, that doesn’t mean this turn of events won’t still happen again and again.

And perversely, the likes of Thom probably have more chance of turning the tide by totally ignoring the formats pop and pop radio insist on, letting the machine shove such demands up its arse, and just getting on with making music they like, even if for a more modest crowd. They’ll be happier and, along the way, they might make that rule-breaking record that could excite the powers that be all over again.