Interview with JACK CONTE of US indie duo POMPLAMOOSE - Apr 2, 2012
“It comes together with the music being good, and the videos being good packaging. You need kick ass packaging to sell even the very best products“
Social media may have given artists the power to broadcast their music to the wider world, but it hasn’t really made getting heard any easier. To rise above the noisy clamour for attention on web, your creativity needs to be working overtime to not only write great songs but market them brilliantly as well.
With their innovative brand of YouTube-friendly “VideoSongs”, US indie duo Pomplamoose have shown the incredible effect imaginatively “packaged” music can have in getting your music heard by the masses. They may be yet to hit big on the Billboard charts yet but having clocked up hundreds of thousands of online music sales, millions of YouTube views, and attracted a long line of licensing suitors, including major brands like Toyota and Hyundai, they have managed to carve out that most coveted of ambitions: a genuine self-sustaining music career without label interference. How have they managed it?
In this exclusive interview one half of Pomplamoose, Jack Conte, reveals all, talking about the magical combination of video and song, the video sharing website’s cover song favouritism and why the traditional live gigging route proved a total non-starter.
How did Pomplamoose first begin, and then how did you manage to attract such an enthusiastic online response?
Nataly [Dawn] and I started making music together when she was in her senior year of college. I’d tried producing one of her records, but it didn’t work out so well and so we left it. As we were in a relationship together and didn’t want to mess that up, we decided to keep the music and personal stuff separate. But two years down the road, when we working on our own YouTube channels, she started complaining that her stuff didn’t sound very well produced. So I said, “Let’s take one more crack at this!” I produced one of the songs she had written and it came out so different to what she’d had in mind originally that we decided to make it a band and gave it the name Pomplamoose.
When I put it up on my channel it got a way better response than anything Nataly or I had put up on our own and so we decided to do a little bit more. We wrote another song, made a new YouTube channel, and things took off from there.
As you are both songwriters why did you decide to cover other people’s songs?
We realised that covering really popular pop songs was the way to go – YouTube’s great algorithm for recommendations meant that we could mooch off of other people’s traffic. For example, if you’ve just watched Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, it will recommend other videos that have “Single Ladies” in the title, and that’s how our video got out there.
It started to get recommended a lot, and got on the front page of YouTube. That was the big moment for us, and the rest really started snowballing from that point.
How did your unique brand of “VideoSong” first come about?
We already knew at the beginning of Pomplamoose that the video song medium was engaging as I’d been releasing video songs before Pomplamoose started. These multi-layered, multi-angled clips came about around four years ago with a song I wrote called ‘Push’. Nataly is a fantastic editor and her editing gave it an extra layer and an extra spark. It got a really good response when it was released and made me realise that it was a pretty good idea and that I should release more.
Was there a particular point when your success made you decide to focus on making music full-time?
That was a pretty clear moment. We were both busy with our own things – I was working for Google as a video producer and in-house composer and Nataly was finishing school – but I was starting to make more and money through my mp3 sales, and through Pomplamoose’s own mp3 sales. And then when we released our covers record ‘Tribute to Famous People’ we sold 30,000 songs in the first month. That was the defining moment when we said, “We’re not working on other things now, we’re focusing on this.”
To achieve that success, were you doing anything to help promote your video songs or were you just relying on the viral effect they attracted by themselves?
It’s just been YouTube. It’s only been recently that we’ve worked with a PR agent or manager or anything and that was because we wanted to go on tour.
We did get a lot of calls from people in the industry, but we didn’t want to do that as we felt we were outside the record business – and we liked that. I’d read a lot of horror stories about what goes on behind the scenes in the music industry and so I wasn’t waiting for a record deal at all.
And we’ve managed to avoid it until now – we’re talking with this label called Nonesuch [Records]. If we are ever going to work with a label, it will be these guys – they really understand music and have a lot of great artists on their roster.
What in particular is it about the label that makes you want to work with them?
They do things in an old school way, like a 1960s label – they let the artist create and don’t just pump out radio hits. They just want really good music, and whether is sells 5000 copies or a million copies, they are happy to put it out. That’s the kind of label we want to work with. Sometimes our music can be very poppy, but sometimes it can be a bit weird, and we like that, and don’t want a label telling us what to do, trying to mould us into a radio sound.
Plus the other artists they have are people I respect tremendously, people like Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Philip Glass, Bjork and Black Keys.
Where are your main sources of revenue at the moment?
Right now its mp3 sales and licensing deals – not necessarily publishing deals though. We did a holiday ad with Hyundai that was on three national channels and that pays really well. There was also a Samsung product placement for our Angry Birds video, and that was another huge income boost.
Those are occasional income streams. The more constant income streams come from when we release a record and get mp3 sales for a year or two based on that record. Unlike the typical record label model where you release a record and make most of your money in the first week, the way people find us on YouTube means there’s a tricking effect from iTunes. We’re getting a few thousand subscribers a month, and they keep checking us out, and we keep on getting more and more sales from that kind of fan.
Do you find that because of your YouTube exposure, music supervisors and licensors come to you?
We’ve always had people come to us – we’ve been really lucky with that. For the Toyota commercial they got hold of us and said, “We really like your Mr Sandman song, can you give us a fee?” So we talked to some lawyer friends of ours and sent them a fee. Same with the Hyundai ad, they sent us an email saying, “Do you want to be on TV?”
Why do you think your music has proven so popular for licensing?
I think Pomplamoose has a very ‘sync-able’ sound. People who hear it want to put pictures to it.
Despite now enjoying success with licensing your music free of video accompaniment, do you think Pomplamoose would have found the same level of success if you had not made the video an integral part of the music?
About 99% of our success has come from the YouTube videos, without question.
Before the YouTube thing with Pomplamoose, I tried so hard with my own stuff to get out there. I went on tour three times. People had told me that’s what you need to do to build your fanbase. I did it and it didn’t work [laughs]. I tried playing every two weeks in San Fran, but my friends all got sick of coming to my shows. I tried MySpace and Facebook. I tried releasing music videos, but the truth is nothing really caught on until we started working together and made these video songs.
Why do you think the combination of video and song has worked so well for you?
It comes together with the music being pretty good, and the videos being really good packaging. If you ask anyone trying to sell a product, whether they’re a musician or a retail store owner, they will tell you that you need kick ass packaging to sell even the very best products.
Imagine if Apple didn’t spend millions on packaging and branding. Their whole approach is the sexy white earphones; ease of use gadgets; streamlined, modern computers – that whole package has nothing to do with the function or quality of their goods, it’s all external. But would their computers sell as well if they didn’t do all that and spend all that money? They have become a worldwide brand because of it. I feel that the Pomplamoose stuff has really good packaging for a really good product.
I don’t know how well it would have sold if we had just put the songs up on their own. I don’t think they would have gone viral if we had just posted the mp3s on Myspace.
Is there a definable formula and concept to your videos?
To some extent, yes. We want to make really engaging videos and in order to do that, we need to make something that we like to watch.
We try to put in a bit of ‘us’ in the videos. One thing we’ve really learned from being in touch with out fanbase and reading lots of comments is that people who watch our videos really like how “present” Nataly and I are in the videos, both as people and as a couple. But there’s a fine line between playing that up and it being natural, so we try to just have fun in the studio, and keep it as normal as possible.
Nataly’s sense of timing and comedy really come into play with the videos. When we are goofing around in the studio and recording, she is making notes in her head so that when she goes to edit she knows where to put in little funny parts and stuff.
We try to have a variety of things featured in the videos, like close-up shots, far away shots, and try to show just about every part of how the video was made, so people and viewers can feel a bit closer to us as artists when they watch us. We try not to repeat sections, unless it’s a thematic idea.
You mentioned being in regular contact with your fanbase. How do you do that mainly?
We don’t have an email list. We keep in touch with our fanbase through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. When we have an announcement, we post it on Facebook and Twitter, and if it’s a big one, we just put a video out about it. We read a ton of comments as well.
What was the response like when you went out on tour for the first time, with people having only seen you through your videos?
It was better than I ever could have expected. We played four shows and they all sold out. Everyone was really excited to be there, and afterwards we met and talked with everyone. It was really cool for us to meet these people who liked our videos so much, and it personalised the ‘other’ side of the YouTube videos. You only get 320 characters and a thumbnail to talk with people in comments and so you just can’t get to know someone. So having the people there and talking to you and sharing their lives is so rewarding and nice! To put faces to the viewers was great, and it really increased our appetite for playing more live shows.
Given the success you’ve found in helping pioneer the video song format, do you pursue a similar approach for your own music outside of Pomplamoose or do you try to do certain things totally differently?
We try to use the same format because we both want our own music to be just as successful but both Nataly’s and my music is so different to the Pomplamoose stuff that things are always gonna be a little different.
This might sound a little pretentious, but I think the videos for my own channel are a little more emotional and a little less fun. When we both write for our own stuff, the lyrics and music is a lot more personal as well, so when I’m in the studio singing it’s going to be way different than the Pomplamoose stuff, more solemn and less bubbly and poppy. That is the biggest difference and also why the Pomplamoose stuff has done way better.
Nataly’s videos are less multi-layered, just her and a guitar, and she can do that because her voice is just so beautiful. I have to compensate a bit for my crappy voice and instrumentation.
Nataly is releasing a solo record that she is really putting a lot of force into and I’m also doing a solo record, and another Pomplamoose record hopefully by the end of the year. More of the same – no major steps, just more baby steps.
interviewed by Aaron Bethune