Back in the dim and distant olden days, a young Australian band named AC/DC desperately wanted to make it big. Album after album, gig after gig, they chased success with the endurance of marathon runners. As Bon Scott sang in 1975, ''It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock'n'roll.''
Well, that was then.
Forty years on, there are short cuts. In an age of Twitpics and Facebook friends, potential fans are a mere mouse click away. In Scott's day, overnight success was hyperbolic cliche. These days, it happens.
One day, you can be a pretty adolescent with a neat haircut; the next, you can lead an army of Beliebers. One day, you can be Lizzy Grant, playing dinky gigs in New York; the next, you can be Lana Del Rey. One day, you can be sitting in a Bondi bedsit with a head full of tunes; the next you can be making plans with a Brooklyn hipster who runs a niche fashion label and releases records on the side.
And so, for anyone after a short cut to pop stardom ...
1. VIRAL VIDEOS
Viral campaigns don't need to cost big bucks. An inexpensively recorded song and an equally thrifty video can be uploaded to YouTube and potentially seen by the world.
OK Go, an indie guitar-pop quartet from the US, had a reasonable song in 2006 with Here it Goes Again. But for a video clip, the band members performed a cleverly choreographed routine on eight strategically placed treadmills. Thanks to the cute clip, which won a Grammy and has been viewed more than 14 million times on YouTube, the track became the band's only song to enter the Billboard Hot 100.
Similarly, Melbourne folksters the Paper Kites have no major label deal but have had 1.5 million views for Bloom; English singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich has had a million views for Pictures. And earlier this year, Gotye became one of very few Australian artists to have a No.1 hit in the US with Somebody That I Used To Know, its success greatly aided by an inventive video that blended bright colours and bare flesh.
Topping that, Canadian band Walk Off the Earth's cover version of the song with five people playing one acoustic has attracted more than 131 million YouTube views. It catapulted them to fame.
Naturally, it helps if the clip fits a certain mould. Ideally, it needs to have the sort of earnest appeal that will tug at the heart strings of a lovelorn 18-year-old sitting at a computer at 3am.
2. DRIVE A CHROME CAR
Justin Bieber is another viral video star. Thanks to YouTube clips of the teenager performing covers, his skills as a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and singer caught the attention of Usher's record label - but what then?
In March, the teen idol was given a Fisker Karma sports car for his 18th birthday. It was expensive, ostentatious and attention-seeking. For Bieber, this wouldn't do. He wanted expensive, ostentatious and attention-seeking. So he had it spray-painted chrome to resemble a mirror on wheels.
This is not a sensible route to maintain pop stardom. It is also illegal. If you can afford a chrome car, you may as well buy a copy of your album for each of your prospective fans. Which is basically what Marcus Montana attempted ...
3. A MASSIVE PR CAMPAIGN
In the winter of 1989, Sydney was emblazoned with posters proclaiming ''Marcus is coming'' above a picture of a young man with a guitar, evoking Elvis. Who was this mysterious troubadour being heralded on billboards and the backs of buses? The son of a greengrocer, it turned out, whose fruit-vending dad was spending big bucks to generate buzz.
After the posters came the gigs and the album. To say they were well received is, frankly, fanciful. His first single, Tell Him I'm Your Man, become a standing joke among critics and DJs. ''Sack of shit,'' Andrew Mueller opined in music mag On the Street. ''Anyone who doesn't think so is a dickhead.''
One musician recruited to be in his band was Tim Freedman, who later found fame with the Whitlams. As Freedman said years later, ''The family were trying to make young Marcus Montana a rock'n'roll star, without the conventional backing of the corporate industry.'' The hype was huge, but as soon as Marcus sang a note, no one believed it. Not even Marcus.
The ''Marcus is coming'' posters were followed by ''Marcus is here!'' posters, but really he wasn't. Not for long, anyway.
4. SOCIAL NETWORKING
Radiohead have about 9 million Facebook ''likes''. Gaga has 28 million Twitter followers. And Justin Bieber has a chrome car. But we digress. Social media is huge, even for a band as idiosyncratic and credible as Sigur Ros. Last month, the Icelandic purveyors of epic soundscapes played their first shows in four years and in the lead-up they tweeted pictures of rehearsal rooms, backstage areas and impromptu soccer games. For fans, the effect is powerful. Even when a band is on the other side of the world, they can post regular updates to keep from slipping out of sight, out of mind.
In the noughties, social-media trailblazers included Arctic Monkeys, who - long before blitzing the London Olympics opening ceremony - built a large following by offering free downloads and live performances on Myspace.
''Social media is incredibly important these days,'' says Freya Berkhout, who plays ambitious pop in the Sydney duo Gnome. ''It's a really great way to establish and maintain your fan base. It's really changed the way new bands emerge and become popular. We've had people find us online who then come to shows and say hello. And our show at Oxford Art Factory [last night] was organised by a guy who found us on SoundCloud and then got in touch. Foster your online community, because that's how people explore, discover and share things these days.''
5. REINVENT YOURSELF
Some artists, realising they're going nowhere fast, carefully craft an alter ego. Last August, Lana Del Rey rose without trace when the video of her song Video Games went viral. She looked and sounded like a sulking screen goddess who had emerged straight from the 1950s. It was pure contrivance - and, of course, contrivance is nothing new.
Even AC/DC have dabbled. When the bluesy rockers emerged in the early '70s, guitarist Angus Young played gigs in outfits including a gorilla costume and a sailor suit before settling upon the schoolboy garb he still sports. This was, after all, an era of Ziggy Stardust, Roxy Music and T. Rex, when pop stars were particularly prone to dress-ups. These days, artists such as Janelle Monae and her ''archandroid'' aesthetic continue the tradition.
But artists attempting radical reinvention must be careful. On the one hand, there are those who become known and celebrated as the chameleons of the charts, such as Bowie, Madonna and Gaga. Their personas are allowed to shift. But then there are those who become defined by their adopted persona, including Angus Young and, already, Lana Del Rey. Once news broke that Del Rey was merely the stage name of Lizzy Grant, whose earlier efforts as a folk singer were worryingly unspectacular, thousands of fans turned against her.
Like Young the schoolboy, Del Rey the '50s siren may be forever trapped in her shtick.
6. START A FASHION LABEL
It all seems so obvious, really. You want millions of people to hear your music? Put your name on a line of clothes! In 1991, the first XLarge clothing store opened in the US, with whispers of links to the Beastie Boys. Its T-shirts were hot. It soon emerged that Beastie Boy Mike D was a shareholder who devised the idea.
''Mike D was the brainstorm behind it,'' a writer, Bob Mack, said. ''It's about them not really being a band, but more like a cultural thing, a way of life.''
Since XLarge, fashion labels have become the must-have accessory for hip-hoppers. Eminem has Shady Ltd, 50 Cent has G-Unit Clothing and Diddy has Sean John. Other sartorially minded hip-hop figures include 2Pac, Wu-Tang Clan, Nelly, Russell Simmons and Outkast. Fashion won't make an upcoming muso famous, but it may augment an already-established muso's fame. And bank balance.
7. GET PLAYED ON TV OR FILM
In 2006, Sydney's Youth Group landed a support slot for the biggest band in the world, Coldplay, thanks largely to a cover version recorded for a TV show. It all started when a friend passed on a copy of the band's CD to a music producer for The O.C., who then aired their song Shadowland. Next, the band were asked to record a cover of Forever Young, a cheesy synth-pop hit from 1984. As frontman Toby Martin says, ''At the time of recording it, we thought it would just be for the show and the soundtrack, but one thing led to another and ...'' Suddenly they were supporting Coldplay at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.
In the past, bands recorded albums, released singles and aimed for the charts. Now, they aim for Grey's Anatomy or Twilight. In the past, the goal was to be signed by a major label and get played on radio. Now, major labels and radio stations are fading into irrelevance beside TV shows and teen flicks.
Last year, when Belgian-Aussie songsmith Gotye was recording Somebody That I Used To Know, he struggled to find the perfect duet partner. He tried a ''high-profile female vocalist'', but with no luck. He tried his girlfriend, but he liked her too much to sing of mutual dislike. Then he tried Kiwi songbird Kimbra and the results were spectacular.
With Kimbra's help, Gotye became the fifth Aussie to top the US charts. His song has reached the top spot in 25 countries and sold 7 million copies.
Other recent collaborators include Nicki Minaj and Madonna, Daniel Merriweather and Mark Ronson, and Janelle Monae and Fun. Problem is, if you're Norm Noname from Newport, how will you get Kimbra to answer your emails? And there's always a risk: Collaboration also gave us Do They Know It's Christmas?
9. MAKE A SEX TAPE
In 2003, Paris Hilton's sex tape was released. Three years later came her debut solo album. If nothing else, critics praised her consistency. Both performances were abominable.
Sure, a sex tape may be a short cut to notoriety, but any fame is likely to be fleeting. Release a raunchy home video in the hope of becoming a pop star and you may well win fans, but you'll lose all credibility.
10. THE LONG WAY
OK, come closer. Lean in. Here, finally, I want to whisper the secret of musical success. The fail-safe way to make it big. And so, in just three words, here it is: have good songs.
That's it. Have good songs. Then practise in your bedroom and in your garage before hitting the road and honing your skills with a live crowd. Play night after night, like the Beatles, or John Butler, or Ed Sheeran. Emulate AC/DC, who had the songs and then earned the fans.
AC/DC had the songs. Marcus Montana didn't. And now AC/DC are one of the world's biggest bands. Short cuts are all well and good, but tend to work best if you know where you're going.
-Sydney Morning Herald
- Sydney Morning Herald