The songs may change but the story of a hit remains the same. With today’s reduced attention spans, it’s no small feat that four boys from western Sydney are taking the world by storm.
IT WOULD BE hard to invent a more perfect fantasy than the one Ashton Irwin is living today. This time last year, he had just finished high school and had drummed fewer than a dozen gigs with the band 5 Seconds of Summer. One year on, he is on a world tour supporting One Direction — the hottest teenage band in a generation.
Fourteen months ago, 5 Seconds of Summer played to 20 fans at the Annandale Hotel. This year they will perform before 1.3 million people.
”I still don’t understand why this is happening to us,” Irwin laughs in a Skype conversation from the band’s house in London.
”Like, we’re just four guys from the western suburbs in Sydney.”
The teenage quartet are at the leading edge of change in pop music. The new music industry is driven by social media and by groups developing alliances and networks. For the past three months, 5 Seconds of Summer (5 SOS to their fans) have been ensconced in a suburban London house. Two of the band — singer Luke Hemmings and bass player Calum Hood — have dropped out of Norwest Christian College. Guitarist Michael Clifford had already left. They have put everything into taking a shot at the big time.
The opportunity for the move to Britain was provided by One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and Niall Horan, who tweeted shout-outs to 5SOS last year after a mutual fan showed Horan a 5SOS video. Suddenly the world knew about these Australian kids.
The 5SOS Facebook page and Twitter accounts increased dramatically. They have more than 225,000 followers on Twitter; their YouTube account has more than 5 million views. Those are not stratospheric numbers, but the band has released fewer than half a dozen songs and has no record label.
Who needs a record label when you have One Direction?
”They’re nearly the same age as us. I went and hung out at their rehearsal the other day,” Irwin says of his English boy-band pals. ”One day when we were in the studio, Niall came and hung out. We really got along with him. They’re just normal people, to be honest. They’re nice guys to hang out with and we don’t have many friends over here.”
A cursory glance at the comments on the 5 SOS Facebook page suggests most of the band’s international fan base are ”Directioners”. But they are developing an audience in London. There have been well-attended busking events and a meet-and-greet for this still obscure group.
As they play their own instruments, 5SOS are not technically a boy band. Their inspiration has always been the pop-punk style of American band All Time Low.
Irwin is determined that his band stays its course. ”We would not have done the One Direction tour if they wanted a boy band,” he says. ”The contrast between our bands is so huge and that’s what [One Direction] wanted, too.”
Creating a pop hit is the most difficult challenge in all of show business. A No.1 pop hit is the perfect blend of science and art.
Pop is about allure. Pop tunes instantly transport you back to the summer of your first love affair or similar key moments.
Throughout the 20th century, pop music was created in tin-pan alleys. Impresarios found the talent and then found the songs to match. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, even the early Kylie Minogue, had their careers shaped like this.
The record companies created fantasies to match the part the singer played. Dean Martin, for instance, was not a big drinker. The Rolling Stones were not louts. The art in pop was in putting together the raw materials, building the dream and then making it all come true. Screenwriter William Goldman once famously said of Hollywood that ”no one knows anything” and that’s equally true of pop. Amanda Pelman, who brought Kylie Minogue to Mushroom Records, says: ”Finding talent is all instinct. You make the record and then it’s up to the market.” But it’s expensive. The artist needs songs. John Farnham famously spent a full year compiling the songs for Whispering Jack. Manager David Caplice spent six solid months on the first Jessica Mauboy album, including its lead track Running Back, which was the biggest-selling single of 2008. ”Songs break acts and, in the pop world, it’s all about the single. The act lives and dies on the back of the singles,” says Caplice, who has managed some of Australia’s most successful pop acts including Mauboy, Guy Sebastian, Bardot, David Campbell and Young Divas.
The cost of recording, with session musicians, producers and studio time, can easily run to $100,000. If the record isn’t up to scratch, that money has to be written off. Every major label in Australia has had projects costing up to half a million dollars that never saw the light of day.
After an album is finished, the marketing will more than double that initial investment. And even then, fewer than one in 10 projects will be a hit.
Although it is true that revenue from record sales has collapsed, the total revenue in the music business has increased. Concert tours can be very, very lucrative. The use of songs in commercials, TV and film is increasing. Merchandising and sponsorship is on the rise — fans once just wanted the music. Now they need branded merchandise from Bieber perfume to KISS beer.
Pop has been changed by two media phenomena. The first was the Idol TV series. The show pretended to expose the star-making machinery and offered to find superstars behind the till of every local supermarket.
For the past 10 years, these talent quests have brought forth artists the judges invariably describe as ”superstars” and who are forgotten within weeks of the finale.
Tens of millions of dollars in TV production and marketing has produced only two stars (Sebastian and Mauboy). Two more (Matt Corby and Lisa Mitchell) briefly appeared on Idol but then went back to the tried and true paying of dues playing gigs in small venues.
Wes Carr, one former Idol winner, believes the process so damaged his career that he has changed his name to Buffalotales. X Factor winner Altiyan Childs disappeared to a cave to ”reconnect with his sadness”.
”The TV talent shows are only good to a point,” Caplice says. ”Unless you have the right song and positioning post the show, you’ll wither on the vine very quickly.”
One Direction are famously the product of the X Factor television show in Britain, coming in third place in 2010. However, 5 Seconds of Summer chose not to go down the TV route and went old-school, playing live. That and the internet.
The launch of YouTube in February 2005 changed the way we listen to music. Pelman says bluntly: ”Our world doesn’t have the attention span to listen to a whole album any more. Gone are the days of the concept album where you had to listen from go to whoa. I don’t care.
”iTunes has increased the importance of the ‘single track’ and in pop it’s the ‘hit’ that matters, not the deeper experience offered by the album,” Caplice says. ”If it doesn’t stick, we move on. It is brutal. The days of development are sadly gone.”
The present-day irony is that while more music is more available than ever, the dominant format on radio – which sets the agenda for sounds you’re assaulted with in shops and public spaces – is still a tight pop-hits format. If anything, song rotation is tighter than ever.
That means that the hits, when they happen, are bigger than ever and the misses are instantly forgotten. The tight playlists may also account for the fast turnover of acts. Miley Cyrus was a superstar four years ago and is now as hot as her dad Billy Ray Cyrus was a year after Achy Breaky Heart — which is to say, not at all.
There are more than a million artists on YouTube but fewer than a dozen have had any success.
It would have to be said that the first YouTube postings by 5 Seconds of Summer showed little promise. But, being handsome teenagers, they had a few hundred hits and each posting was a slight improvement on the last.
In December 2011, 5 SOS were offered their first show at the Annandale pub in Sydney. The first gig was the first time that three of them had ever been in a music venue. Their support band was the first group that guitarist Clifford ever saw play live.
The YouTube videos of their early shows depict a relentless roar of screaming teenage girls, widespread equipment failure, nervous energy and a good time being had by all. What they lack in ability, they make up for in charm.
Despite many drawbacks, they were pulling reasonable crowds just on the back of the social networking. Smelling a possible hit, record companies traipsed the two hours from the city to the western outskirts of Sydney, where the band lived. Music publishers followed. Three labels put firm offers to the band.
Instead, on their manager’s advice, the group chose to stay independent. They recorded a four-track EP and distributed it through iTunes, as they have done with subsequent releases. ”The band have had plenty of interest and offers but it hasn’t been the right time yet,” a management spokesman says. ”The band has a publishing partner and a distribution partner in Australia. The rules are changing all the time. The most important rule in the current landscape is: the fans come first.”
With the contraction in the record business, the major labels have shed up to 60 per cent of their staff compared with eight years ago. Although it seems more organic, the same strategies are still being employed to make perfect pop.
The boys spend at least eight hours a day writing, recording or rehearsing. By the time they left Australia in November, 5SOS were turning out a credible, inventive, sophisticated live show.
Having inked a publishing deal with Sony ATV, the four members of 5SOS were teamed with established songwriters. This is the modern version of the tin-pan alley song pluggers. They now have about 40 songs under their belt, including co-writes with established British hit makers.
They have been recording with heavyweight producer Steve Robson, whose credits include One Direction, James Blunt, Christina Aguilera, Rascal Flatts, Olly Murs and Take That, so someone believes in them. When not working, the boys can sometimes be found partying with One Direction. Irwin and Clifford were both spotted on Twitter with Tomlinson.
Six months ago, when I first met 5SOS, Hood admitted the pressure of the band was keeping him awake at nights. When I ask how the pressure is now, Irwin just laughs, as if to suggest it’s off the charts.
”We’re very focused on what we need to get done and how hard we do need to work. We’re very self-motivated,” he says. ”We had to ‘take it to the next level’ like five times in the last year.”
© Toby Creswell, Sydney Morning Herald, the, 10 March 2013