Having been one of the UK's most popular rock acts in the early '90s, Thunder found that record labels were no longer willing or able to promote their releases properly. Now they have taken matters into their own hands, using the Internet and new methods of distribution to get their records back in the charts.
Speak to any artist, producer or manager who has been around for some time and they will tell you that the global record industry has changed enormously over the last decade so. While CD burning and the illegal downloading of MP3s have robbed the industry of necessary record sale revenue, other entertainment industries such as computer games are believed to have appropriated a portion of consumer spending once destined for singles and albums.
Whatever the reasons for industry difficulties, the upshot of it all is that record labels have less money to spend developing new acts, or indeed, sustaining the acts they already have on their books. Bands that were once flavour of the month are quickly dropped when their heyday has passed, and those that still have contracts often find there is no money in the pot for promoting and advertising their releases.
It's not surprising, then, that bands with loyal and active fan bases are now questioning whether signing to a label is the right thing to do, when they get so little in return for signing over the rights to their music.
British hard rock band Thunder are a good example, having recently enjoyed a top 30 hit despite having no label or management company, and without the help of any TV or radio advertising. They reached their commercial peak in the early '90s, performing sell-out gigs at London's Hammersmith Odeon and appearing at the Monsters Of Rock Festival. Their second album even reached number two in the charts, but they found themselves out of fashion when the grunge rock movement, spearheaded by Nirvana, knocked stadium rock from its pedestal.
Thunder kept their recording contract with EMI until 1995, when they were finally dropped because of declining sales. Nevertheless, they still had many record-buying fans, and on that basis were picked up by independents Castle Communications for one album, and then by Eagle Rock. By the end of the decade, though, the band had decided cut their losses and pursue other interests.
"Signing to Castle and Eagle Rock went well at first, but we soon realised that they'd spent loads of money on signings and didn't have anything left for marketing," explains Danny Bowes, singer and now also manager of the band. "We had a decent-sized fan base and that encouraged them to pay a lot of money to sign us, but, with hindsight, maybe they paid too much — which is why they couldn't afford any promotion and marketing. We began to feel like we were going round and round in smaller circles, so I told the band that I was getting tired. It takes just as much effort to make a record that doesn't sell as it does to record a hit album."
The split came in 2000, but only lasted for two years before the band regrouped to take part in a series of live shows. "We didn't come back with a view to starting a label and selling records in any kind of meaningful way," explains Danny, who was quite happily working in production after leaving Thunder. "I'd been involved with a Smash Hits tour and thought that it would be really good to have the same kind of thing for rock music, although I was thinking of a Monsters Of Rock-type thing for indoor arenas really. So I came up with a few solutions to some of the logistical problems and took the idea to a guy who runs Clear Channel in the UK and became sort of a back-seat partner.
"There were a lot of classic rock bands waiting for an opportunity to go out and play, so we asked Neil Warnock of the Agency Group if he had a big-name act to headline, and he said that Alice Cooper would love to do it, so suddenly we had a show! Clear Channel then asked Thunder to take part because our 'powder was dry', metaphorically speaking, after two years away, and they knew that we always sold well live.
"We didn't want to play some shows and then split up again because the fans would think we'd just done it for the money, so, before we knew it, we were making an EP to sell via our web site and at shows. In the end we sold 5000 copies to a total audience of 50,000, which was very encouraging."
The success of the EP started Thunder thinking about the possibility of making further single and album recordings, but they had no label, management or distribution, and did not intend to release anything half-heartedly. "I'd never considered just using the Internet to sell records because I didn't fancy doing the cottage-industry-style thing of licking up labels and sticking them on CD-Rs," Danny admits. "So I had a couple of long conversations with a guy called Bruce McKenzie about selling our music through shops without label distribution. He runs a chain of record stores called Townsend Records, but he's very much the new breed of record-store owner who wants to be involved in making records as well as selling them. He agreed to help me sell them on-line if I took care of the manufacture and finance of the records.
"Thunder had a good relationship with retail, so I knew it was possible. We used to do in-store tours around the time of the release of our records. We'd do an acoustic set in the morning, signing in the afternoon and we'd literally tour the country that way. We'd take a little PA and a driver who doubled up as a technical guy. Retail loved it and we sold loads of records on the strength of it. So I knew that if we said to retail that we were doing an album ourselves, as long as we had someone who could distribute the record correctly, they'd be interested. We couldn't have done that from scratch, though — we were in a position of strength."
For Thunder to be able to manage their own affairs, each band member has had to take on a certain area of responsibility. Danny's friendship with guitarist and writer Luke Morley dates back to their school days (they formed their first band at the age of 15), so the idea of drawing up a contract denoting each Thunder member's role was never discussed. Instead, each person simply gravitated to their own area of interest. "We're very fortunate that everybody is qualified to do something that we need within the framework of our organisation," says Danny.
When he isn't singing, Danny manages the band, taking care of budgets, promotion and distribution, and sorting out contractual legalities and licensing deals, as well as other tasks that would otherwise be handled by a label. "I take care of a lot of the business, and do all the shouting and screaming and coordinating," he says. "Luke is very much the songwriter and the arbiter of taste when it comes to music. He writes the songs, occasionally with a bit of help from Harry James the drummer and Chris Childs the bass player. Luke's always been interested in that side of it.
"Ben [Matthews], one of our guitarists, is the Pro Tools man. He's a qualified studio engineer, and knows what the band needs. Last year we bought a big TDM Pro Tools rig [consisting of a dual-1.25GHz G4 Mac, an HD2 system and two 192 interfaces, each with the A-D expansion card, plus numerous plug-ins] and that's worked out very well for us. HHB designed it to fit in two cases which we can get into the back of an estate car. You can take it pretty much anywhere because all you need are a pair of plug sockets and two cables to connect the units together. The racks are also filled with Focusrite preamps so we don't need a desk, and the Mac fits in the cases too. You can operate the whole thing using pair of headphones. It cost approximately £20,000 but it saves us thousands too. We still have to record the drums and loud stuff in a controlled studio environment, but we can take the rig away and overdub and mix in our own home studio, so it's the convenience as well as the money savings that makes it a worthwhile way to work.
"We also get help from a Pro Tools expert called Rupert Coulsen who has worked with us on the last four studio albums. He's based at AIR Lyndhurst, and was trained by George Martin. He shares the programming stuff with Ben.
"Chris, our bassist, takes care of all the design, and what he isn't doing himself he's coordinating with a designer. He has a very keen eye for it although it has only emerged in the last year or so. He's done all the T-shirts for latest tour, as well as things like labels, but he has had to find his way in terms of what needs to be sent to the factory for production. A lot of it is learning as you go.
"Chris came up with the design concept for the new album. He wasn't quite up to doing the whole album package himself, so we gave the concept to another guy who we've used before, but the work was based on Chris's ideas. Chris also has a PC-based studio at home, so together with Ben, he's one of the technical guys."
When Thunder temporarily split up in 2000, Danny immediately threw himself into a series of industry production jobs which gave him valuable experience. "Even when I first started singing in the band I was interested in what happened behind the scenes. I was always interrogating the manager, accountants and lawyers. While the rest of the guys were working on the tunes or chasing girls around after the gigs, I was analysing the merchandising figures! After the split I started doing production work for MTV, staging dance and club shows, managing a band and singer, and during that time I met the finance director of the company who manage the Barfly venues around the country. They were looking for someone to sort out all their production troubles, so I became their production manager.
"I also began acting as a consultant for the label started by Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics. We started with just an empty building, so I found myself doing things like getting the networking of the computers sorted out and tour managing Jimmy Cliff, who Dave had signed. I ended up negotiating with the BBC for the worldwide TV rights for the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony, which was performed by Dave and Jimmy Cliff's band."
Despite having an able team of people within the band, releasing records and managing everything that goes with that process still requires outside help, particularly when it comes to distribution, accounts, manufacturing, publicity and promotion. Thunder hire in the help they need as and when necessary rather than retaining anyone on a salary, although it's possible that the situation may change as more and more recordings are released and need to be managed. "We're bringing in a production girl to help with manufacturing, which we haven't done before," admits Danny. "Her job will be to solely oversee the production and make sure records get made on time. We now manage four records including some singles and a Bowes & Morley album Luke and I recorded together, and they're all selling constantly.
"I do a lot of the accounting but we have a book-keeper who comes in a couple of days a week and we have a business manager who steps in every now and then. He used to manage a very big company, so he and I have the 'big picture' conversation a few times a year. We hired a radio plugger and a publicity person for the last single, but we won't use a plugger for the LP because there's no point trying to get LP tracks for this band on the radio. The publicity lady has some radio connections with all the kinds of stations we could expect to receive plays from, as well as local national and digital radio stations."
Many labels set aside a percentage of their production budget for advertising, promotion and so on, but Danny admits that he hasn't really found time to work out an exact system. "I have a gut feeling on how much I think we need to spend, which is based on how much we spent last time and how many records we sold. Each production run seems to bring in more and more money because we're reaching a bigger audience, and that makes you feel like you could reach an even bigger audience with a little more promotion, but we're very careful about how we go about it. We work on the assumption that sales pay for more records, and occasionally the band get some money out of it. Touring pays the band, so after we've paid our costs, the net income is distributed to the band members. So they all earn from touring but not from record sales at the moment."
It's ironic that the very technology that many record labels blame for forcing them to cut back on their support for new signings and artist development has enabled some acts to go it alone without any label involvement. One the one hand, downloading and CD copying has allowed the public to get their hands on music without paying for it; on the other, it has also made it easy for artists to place downloadable taster tracks on their official web sites to draw in the punters. Thunder have done just that, but the biggest benefit they have found has come from the way the site is used to publicise gigs and new releases, and to canvass fans' opinions on a day-to-day basis.
"Our web site is absolutely vital," insists Danny. "Direct communication is what it's all about. When there are thousands of people looking at your web site every week you are in a position where you can swap information with them, inform them of events, and they can tell you what they think about it. For example, when it came to the idea for a one-off T-shirt to be sold at the Christmas show, I became very aware that we might be demanding too much from our fans. We had already asked them to buy our single which came in three formats, each with a different B-side. All of those add up in terms of money, and we'd also asked our fans to buy Deep Purple tour tickets in November, tickets for our tour in March, and again for our Christmas show.
"I was able to ask directly via the web site how they would feel about us doing a limited-edition T-shirt specifically for the show, explaining that we were concerned that they might think we were trying to fleece them. We got over 200 replies saying that they wanted the T-shirts, and they were just the people who could be bothered to reply, so we went ahead."
The web site has also made it easy for the band to notify the fans of up-and-coming concerts, and to point them directly to the place where tickets can be bought, therefore removing the need for expensive advertising. "For our Christmas show at Rock City in Nottingham, we did a deal whereby all our tickets were sold directly from their box office. We didn't go to a promoter, or advertise it anywhere apart from on our site, we just pointed people to the Rock City credit-card hotline, and sold all 1000 tickets in six days at £25 a head. Being able to send out a blanket email to 10,000 people is just incredible."
Feedback from the public has even helped Thunder tackle problems with manufacturing and distribution, as Danny explains. "Recently we had to delay a single release date by two weeks because we had so many orders that we needed a larger print run. The problem was that some singles leaked out from the distributor to Virgin stores and started selling, and this happened while we were busy on tour with Deep Purple. Our web site manager called us having received emails from people who were buying singles two weeks early, and with that information I was able to call the distributor and get them to pull the stock from the stores. Without that instant communication we wouldn't have been able to do that, and would have lost our chart placing because of it."
Now that Thunder are having success managing their own releases, they are in a position to help other bands get started in the industry. Ever the businessman, Danny is considering the possibilities. "We've talked about it, and we've found a couple of interesting acts, but we need a substantial pool of money to help them develop and get a name, and at this moment in time we're still building the label and the Thunder catalogue by ploughing the money we make back in, but if we had some fat we could devote it to other acts, and I'd be happy to do that.
"If you find acts you believe in you have to be able to put your money where your mouth is, but there's no point berating record labels if you are just going to do the same thing as them. We need to have the courage of our convictions, find the acts and then get to work.
"It's actually hard to find acts who believe that you can help them, because there is still this misconception that only record companies can do it, which is patently untrue. In November we charted a single at 27, and we have no record label. What we do have is UK record distribution, lots of expertise, and a group of people working to help us put a proper campaign together.
"A new band starting out might want to do it themselves but don't have that experience. The Internet makes it very easy to have a go, but unless you have some experience and/or some kind of industry contacts then it's very hard. I'm sure a lot of bands have gone into it very gung-ho and come out disheartened by the whole thing.
"I wouldn't have gone for it if I was a new act starting from scratch. Luke and I had already been waiting for a deal for nine years by the time our band Terraplane were signed to CBS in 1984, so we've built up a following and have loads of experience. The problem is that it costs a fortune to find a fan base, and you can't manufacture one out of nothing. People tend to go and see the bands they know, so you have to get in front of other people's audiences initially and hopefully take advantage of your opportunities. After a while you can book your own shows in your own right, but you have to start small and build up, and it all costs money. It is almost the chicken-and-egg scenario.
"I'm about to start managing a new band, but I'd probably release something by them independently purely and simply to help gain attention from a bigger record company who can supply the money to develop a fan base."
So far, actually selling records via their site has been less of an ambition for Thunder, who are determined to continue placing records in high-street shops. "We did an excusive deal with HMV for our first single because knew we weren't going to sell enough copies to put them in every shop in the country," says Danny. "We told fans that it was available in HMV and as a result we got it to number 48 in the charts, which was very good considering the limitations, and we made money out of that record!
"We used to sell all our on-line stuff through Townsend's on-line setup, although we do now have our own shop from where we sell some merchandise exclusively. For records, though, we still have links to Townsend's site. They buy the new stock from us, and have a large on-line store which carries all the old Thunder titles, rarities, imports and so on."
Naturally, Thunder have investigated the possibility of releasing MP3s, but Danny remains unconvinced that the necessary infrastructure is ready. "We are embracing every aspect of the digital revolution, but at the moment I don't feel totally comfortable that they've got it right. We did a deal with a company in the States to make the second Bowes & Morley album available on iTunes, but I wasn't very happy with how it turned out because although we do get revenue, it is not a massive amount because there are about eight people in the chain. For us it's not so much about the money, it's more about reaching a new audience through another shop window, but the whole thing took about six months to happen which I thought was ridiculous when the Internet is all about high speed. It's work in progress, in my opinion."
Danny is also sceptical that MP3s, and future download formats, are necessarily the way music will ultimately be delivered. "Downloading is very useful for people who live in remote places, but I don't think it will take over as the main way to buy records because of the physical need we all have for retail therapy. There's something irreplaceable about the feeling you get when you've found the thing you've been looking for or happened upon something you weren't expecting. The thing about the Internet is that it is all very good if you know the answer to the question.
"When I was young I bought records just because I liked the cover, although there was a lot more to look at on 12-inch vinyl. If something caught my eye I would buy it. Dark Side Of The Moon is a classic case of something I bought just because I was intrigued by the cover. When I got it home I was blown away. It shows how artwork can motivate people to do things."
Thunder are understandably pleased with themselves, having recently charted a single at number 27 and completed a successful UK arena tour with Deep Purple and Peter Frampton. At one point it must have seemed as though their 15 minutes of fame were behind them, but it just goes to show what a little determination and organisation can do. Danny: "This is a fascinating business at this point in time, because all the rules that were accepted five years ago are gone. It now appears that you can do pretty much whatever you want.
"Running your own affairs is incredibly empowering. You don't see anything when you're a band signed to a record label; you just hear what your manager tells you. A&R don't like having difficult conversations with artists. I used to ask fairly pointed questions of people in our record company and they used to get very nervous. They'd be trying to get out of giving me the answers. The manager acts as the go-between, and there are things that record companies will tell a manager that they never tell an artist. Like the singer looks like he's put on two stone, he needs to lose weight — that kind of thing. The manager has to tactfully call the singer and say 'Have you thought about going on a diet recently?'
"Having the experience to know whether something is worth acting on in the first place is fairly vital. If you've been in the business long enough you know someone who knows the answer, even if you don't yourself. It is just a case of making enough phone calls and staying on good terms with people.
"But, for me, the most important thing is that you live and die by your own actions. If, at the end of the day, it all falls down then it is our fault. By applying a business-minded approach, we feel we're going about it in the same way as a label, only we're responsible for every decision, and every mistake, as well as every success. We won't go into old age thinking it was all the fault of record companies. It shouldn't be like that. If you don't like a situation, do something about it."