The Fine Art Of Promotion of a Non-Indie Indie Band
By Keith Walsh
The notion of overnight success is usually a misnomer. As Andy Partridge of XTC said during a radio interview in the early '90's, "We were an overnight success – it only took ten years." The rise of digital media and the proliferation of online music has paradoxically brought with it increasing competition among young bands. A promising new British rock and roll outfit, The Tomicks, are jumping through the obligatory hoops in an effort to break through the noise, doing everything they can to get heard. Fronted by drummer/singer-songwriter Tom Cridland, The Tomicks released their eponymous debut album in February, an impressive ten track disc recorded at L.A.'s famed The Village studios, and infused with echoes of the classic rock they love.
Along with Cridland, a self-made fashion designer who turned a tidy £3 million in revenue last year with his online brand of sustainable clothing, The Tomicks features his girlfriend Deborah Marx on vocals (and in an increasing role on keyboards, including live) and Nick Whitehead on keyboards as well. If you think it takes some serious skills to achieve the kind of success in business that Cridland achieved in the just four years since launching his clothing line with a small government loan of £6,000, you're probably right. Cridland apparently has the music business sussed as well, as he and his band, along with Tom Cridland Public Relations, are attempting to take the music world by storm.
"It's quite difficult, at the start," Cridland says, "because obviously we don't have much of a following yet, because it's difficult to get music heard. Particularly music that's written by bands who are not signed. We're not able to make the kinds of deals with Spotify to get ourselves onto playlists. We've gotta pitch ourselves. And it doesn't seem like music that's not kind of pop, electronic, or rap is very much of this moment, and it's not really fashionable to be in a band anymore. Rock and roll isn't really much of my generation, very sadly. There just seems to be a sea of blandness occupying commercial radio."
With their self-titled debut, which features several ballads along with pop numbers and a couple harder-edged tunes, The Tomicks present a commercial sound that hearkens back to the days before synthesizers and digital audio workstations-dominated music. In fact, there are no synths on the record at all, as keyboardist Whitehead plays only a nine foot grand piano and a Hammond organ on the disc. Cridland and Whitehead wrote all of the tunes on the album, priding themselves on not writing by formula. And as polished as the album is, it was only decided well into the recording sessions (which feature former Simply Red guitarist Kenji Suzuki on guitar and bass) that Cridland would not only serve as a drummer, but also as the lead vocalist.
Technically, they're an indie band due to the fact that the album is self-released, with retro rock roots with prominent new wave influences as well, but The Tomicks efforts are aimed at a wider audience than the typical indie band. "It's difficult to establish what our audience is, 'cause in a way our audience is quite mainstream if you think about it. The acts we're inspired by fall into the mainstream category. People like Elton and The Eagles, and The Beatles- we're not really about the indie thing. Even though we appreciate that music a lot, we're not the classic indie band really."
In line with an indie approach, much of the band's promotion is of the grass roots variety, with Cridland feverishly emailing media outlets, hand delivering CD's and promo materials to broadcast outlets throughout London, and pondering publicity stunts like attempting to break the Guinness World's Record for the Longest Live Musical Performance, which was voted down by the band. Cridland explains: "I kind of prefer to work on our live show and our second record, because I don't think the other band members are so keen, and also because I think it would detract from the quality, ultimately. The 90th hour of us playing is not going to sound that good, and we are about quality at the end of the day."
In February, The Tomicks took out 4 x 4 ads in 105 stations of The London Underground railway, in bold black and white, featuring The Tomicks' circular piano keys logo and the provocative phrase "Forget 'Make America Great Again' – Let's Make Rock N' Roll Great Again." Without the support of a major label --who conceivably might take out railway ads, but also in trade magazines and billboards, not to mention the leverage labels famously have in persuading radio outlets to play an artist --The Tomicks have taken a D.I.Y. approach to promotion and are relying on these efforts as well as the strength of the recordings and live performances.
"At this point in time it's challenging," Cridland explains." We have the ads on The Tube, our streaming numbers went up a bit, and we were happy with that, but we weren't foolish enough to think ads on The Tube were going to make or break us. We're very fortunate that we're making our next album at Abbey Road, and we're very fortunate that we've made our first album at The Village. We've managed to finance and give ourselves the resources to do a lot of things that a label maybe even wouldn't do for us. We kind of are signed to our label. I mean technically we call it Tom Cridland Entertainment. But that's kind of tongue in cheek joke really."
Cridland seems truly grateful for his business success and the opportunities it offers him. One of the ways he expresses this gratitude is by donating ticket proceeds from live shows to the charity Help Musicians UK, as well as organizing a fundraising event last year for MusiCares that involved selling T-shirts with the authorized likenesses of dozens of rock superstars. He explains: "It's not many bands that are able to record in these types of facilities, and we're incredibly fortunate, and in that sense, we do have the label support. And in the sense that we don't have label support, we can't make deals with Spotify. We can't get onto the sort of 'Friday Chill' playlist easily, we're going to try our best to do so, we're not going to stop trying. That's the challenge that we face, that sort of promotional side. We've got to try and make some friends, and recently BBC Introducing have just listened to a couple tracks from my record, 'Closing Time," and 'I'm Gonna Quit,' so hopefully, fingers crossed, we get picked up on BBC radio. We've had a smattering of radio play, we've had a smattering of blog reviews, and we're incredibly grateful for anything."
From "I'm Gonna Quit"
"You only get one life
You shouldn't settle for less
Don't doubt myself one bit
I'm gonna quit.
Through all the blood and tears
And all of those lonesome years
This'll be my last hit
I'm gonna quit."
One advantage The Tomicks have is informal assistance from Elton John's management company, Rocket Music. "Rocket Music have been very helpful in general. They've just sort of nudged us in the right direction, and they've pretty much told us to do what we're doing. They told us to go out there and play live, get some music online, start promoting. Basic things thus far. And they've been incredibly good to us. There's no overriding answer in terms of what to do next. I think we need to do all of the things we've been doing, have to be pitching to the press, have to be pitching to radio, pitching to Spotify playlists, doing the social media, working on the live shows, make sure you're uploading great content regularly, keep on writing, because you never know what you might write round the corner – all of these things you've got to keep doing, and luckily we enjoy all of them. So it's an absolute pleasure."
In addition to the debut release, recorded at The Village – a studio that's a favorite of Cridland's hero Elton John, The Tomicks are scheduling an average of six or seven live performances each month. "I think we're coming along very well live," he says. "I was pleased at the progress at the start, but it's really starting to sound good, and we're going to keep on gigging aggressively and just keep improving." As the band are heading into Abbey Road to work on a second album, I asked if they are incorporating any of these newer tunes into the set. "We haven't started adding second album tunes," Cridland explains. "What we're doing at the moment is roughly fifty percent covers, fifty percent original. We try and choose covers that are well known but that people don't often do."
These cover tunes represent some of the classic rock influences on the band, which Cridland got into heavily in his college years at Bristol University (where he majored in French and Portuguese) and include Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," The Eagles' "Hotel California," Phil Collins' "Something Happened On The Way To Heaven," Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," ELO's "Evil Woman," and "Everywhere" by Fleetwood Mac, with vocals by Marx. "We mix it up and make it a fun show for people who aren't familiar with our material," he says. "(Sometimes) we play 'Don't Look Back In Anger" by Oasis, somewhere where there a lot of drunk people and it's eleven o'clock, then we'll bring that out, in a mass sing along and it's huge, and everyone's happy. We're more likely to say to people who have just enjoyed singing along to that well, we're called 'The Tomicks,' check out our new album."
Cridland, who sang in choir as a child in the famed British boarding school Eton, and had some guitar lessons growing up, is a self-taught drummer who was inspired to take up drums after meeting Nigel Olsson (Elton's drummer since 1969) whom he sold clothing to. Cridland is a frequent backstage guest at Elton John concerts, and that's where he met keyboardist Whitehead, a friend of Elton's keyboardist Kim Bullard and percussionist/backing vocalist John Mahon. After jamming a few times, they decided to create the band, with core members Cridland, Whitehead and Marx, bringing in industry veteran Kenji Suzuki early on. Marx and Cridland met in college; he credits her with inspiring outstanding behavior in him, including getting closer to his family, starting the clothing line, and launching The Tomicks.
As a keen observer of the commercial music scene going back to classic rock, Cridland is well aware of the changes in popular styles. Still, he remains undaunted in promoting The Tomicks' stylish sounds. "We know how hard it is. The long and short of it is, it's difficult in this current landscape when records that an artist [releases] break, it's very singles oriented, it's not albums. It's like the sort of thing a chimp could understand the melody of in sort of fifteen seconds. That's kind of the prerequisite of what's successful. It needs to be that kind of cathartic, immediate, instant gratification, a bit of like club sound."
Contrary to these notions of what's popular, The Tomicks have created their debut with a respect for the traditions of rock and roll, including releasing it on vinyl, complete with an illustrated booklet inspired by the artwork included with the 1970s release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Cridland explains: "It's not like the old days where you parted with your money and bought a record on the recommendation of a magazine or a newspaper or your friend and you took it home – it's not like you had an infinite number of music selections that you could turn to. If you bought the record, chances are you'd listen to it. And our music is a record, The Tomicks' album is a whole album. And every song we're proud of."
From "Classic Line."
"I'm heading down on the highway
I know you're hurt baby
But you couldn't say
Written you a love song
It's just yours and mine
But I couldn't think
Of that classic line."
Balancing the clothing business, live performances, songwriting for the next album and the promotional end of things must be challenging, to say the least. One promotional element that The Tomicks still have to find time for is a proper music video. "We're still going to make a video, we've filmed these last gigs as well. There's footage of us playing live on the Internet. From the mixing board, it's been really well filmed, and I think that is going to be a real step in the right direction in terms of us being able to get out there and promote more effectively. I think we are still piecing together the building blocks of what constitutes a band. A live show, a good social, good footage of us playing live, music online – we're nearly there."
See more about the Tomicks at their website
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