34: A tilt at the pop charts, part two
Hello, welcome to The Border Crossing, issue #34.
Please, no more than six of you reading this. Them’s the rules.
In all seriousness, I hope you’re well, keeping positive. I’m so buoyed with gratitude by your messages: I hugely appreciate that you spend time with Border Crossing anyway – it means a great deal. Alongside the little bump of cash money I get from paying subscribers, just that you’re reading this reminds me it’s worth continuing to develop writing stuff. So, thank you, from the bum of my heart.
Enjoy the email and look after yourself.
Nick Hayes’ The Book Of Trespass is bloody wonderful: earthy and vivid as the finest nature writing, yet unflinching and humane as the best radical history work. It is a contender for my non-fiction book of the year. It also pierces right into the heart of where I want to stand, long term, with Border Crossing and my work, generally.
If you have the stomach to dip into the US healthcare system, Timothy Snyder’s unflinching personal essay about his own brush with death, ‘What Ails America’ in New York Review Of Books is an eviscerating read.
They’re re-showing Danish political drama Borgen on Netflix, which I thought I’d wholeheartedly recommend. But the rewatch has made me a bit sad: at least for season one, it hasn’t dated as well as its reputation, after a decade. The toxic men are dispiriting. Also the politics is quite dumbass, despite the show being remembered as a sophisticated European West Wing. It's nowhere near. Some excellent, strong drama but with outdated manners, not to mention clunky, unconvincing, oddly 'edited in' sex bits, it’s quite yuck. Compared to The Bridge (still stunning, ten years on) Borgen is just solid. Perhaps it’ll get better. Perhaps my own decline into cynicism is a factor: first time around, I thought of Nyborg (the fictional Danish PM) as a decent, progressive-ish leader. Now she seems a grandstanding Clegg with zero negotiatory savvy, who needs men to confirm her and often makes her problems worse by pointlessly telling people off. Still, after all that, the show is worth a go, if you never saw it.
According to MSN, Geri Horner (the former Ginger Spice) recalled that her favourite moments in the Spice Girls involved eating baked potatoes.
#34: A tilt at the pop charts, part two
Where were we? Ah yes, it's late Autumn, 2019.
Jim is gigging with his new band lineup and unbeknownst to the rest of us, quietly writing incredible new songs about the awful state of the world. That's despite not having released a new album for seven years. Meanwhile, manager Marc, with no idea that songs are incoming, has long had a plan ready.
Marc and I both had a childhood obsession with the pop charts. He’s a few years younger than me but we’re both of the generation that listened religiously to the Radio 1 Top 40, which became our first metric of success. I didn’t discover alternative music until my mid teens, pretty late. Before that, my music memories are almost entirely built from the pop charts.
Marc: I know they don’t mean as much any more – but it is true, they’re still a barometer of success. The ‘industry’ still looks at chart positions and without them you aren’t taken as seriously by booking agents, radio, telly, etc.
To my mind, Jim always sold a decent number of albums, via mail order and especially a ton of CDs on tour – we always had a hectic merch stall. But there wasn't infrastructure to count those sales for charts. Yet his audience was growing – and more quickly in recent years.
Marc: It always bothered me that Jim's solo albums hadn't made the wider impact they deserved. Writing novels, he’s had two best sellers, because book sales get counted. So I was determined that if Jim ever did another album, we’d try and get in the proper charts. I was happy to do a Morrissey – I don’t mean be a racist; just make sure that most purchases happen prior to release, so that first week sales are big. Then you’re a New Entry in the chart and it doesn’t matter if you drop out the following week, your record is noticed and your album becomes ‘proper’.
So pre-orders in the run-up to a release count as first week sales? That’s why everyone always promotes their pre-orders.
Marc: You know Chris, I have a huge amount of issues with social media, the spite and hatred that goes with it. But for cheap, effective marketing, it's fantastic. I like the positive stuff, passionate fan groups on Facebook. Social media means I can now access 25,000 Carter USM fans. Back in the early days of Jim’s solo career, we relied on postal mail-outs and seeking out all these old fans, via traditional marketing. It’s expensive and takes ages. That's no longer the case. Building the success of Jim’s recent solo tours, the huge Carter USM reunions, and the success of the online store, all of it means an active and engaged fanbase that we can connect with.
It’s not easy though, for example the Facebook algorithm only rewards paid content or certain content it wants to share. But marketing is my job, I get social media, and I knew if we did it right, we stood a decent fighting chance.
Then Jim told us he had songs demoed, which he planned to record with the band. The scene is set. Late 2019, we go into the studio to record Pop Up Jim Bob. Possibly I heard first mixes when I was in Iceland, so that would've still been January.
Marc: When I found out Jim was actually going to make an album, my first plan was to announce it in conjunction with big live dates, with people pre-ordering it, to gain access to a live gig pre-sale. But Jim wasn't keen on that. Another idea is to release a number of different formats (different coloured vinyl, for example) so hardcore fans buy more than one item, increasing sales. I also looked ahead at the 2020 release schedule and carefully picked a very quiet week in August, when major artists weren’t releasing new music.
So a tour goes on sale, instigating a rush of fan interest. People purchase a bundle that includes gig tickets and the pre-order. Those pre-orders all count as first week sales, so you’ve leveraged the fanbase at the exact moment they’re most excited. When you first started thinking about getting the record in the charts, was this the backbone of your plan?
Marc: Yes, we were doing the gig code thing and we had those three big shows booked for this December, which we knew would sell out quickly. But Jim wasn’t comfortable with it, especially the priority access, I don’t think. I was trying to persuade him. We debated releasing it ourselves, working with a distributor who’d specialise in that tie-in stuff, or going via a record label. But we have a great relationship with the indie label Cherry Red, who’d recently done a great job on a limited vinyl boxset for Carter USM and published Jim's two volumes of memoir.
Cherry Red had just had chart success with a Hawkwind album and they were excited for Jim’s new material. That enthusiasm was important. They’re a great label but release a lot of stuff, without huge budgets. However they have passionate staff, expertise and energy. I knew I'd need to do some heavy lifting, marketing wise – but they were keen. That deal gave us freedom to move quickly. Cherry Red worked with us, not against us, so there weren’t layers of approval or sign-off, if I needed to do something.
Still, I didn’t realise, Jim himself wasn’t sold on any of the multi-formatting and such?
Marc: Not at all. He wouldn't go for it. We did just one formatting decision: that the vinyl, CD and download could have different covers. But that was a creative choice, reacting to the sleeve images. The illustrator Mark Reynolds drew multiple Jims, in different outfits, like the Village People, or Mr Benn. We created a universe with this art, from the start. Mark did a brilliant job. We wanted the packaging to be gorgeous, to make physical copies worthwhile. We knew fans would buy both vinyl and CD. But we stuck with just one vinyl and one CD format.
Even then Jim wasn't happy. We asked the label if we could do a discount, for if fans bought both formats. They agreed to a pound off – but it wasn’t enough, so Jim decided to make a whole separate download album of cover versions, as a 'thank you’ freebie, for anyone who bought both formats.
I’ll say, it still didn’t go down well with everyone. Some fans said they were being forced into buying both formats and wanted to get the covers album just for buying one. I found that upsetting: obviously Jim is trying to add value. I think we made good decisions and I know you can’t please everyone. For example, nothing at all against The Levellers (they just did what everyone does) but as a comparison, they released their album Peace the same week as Jim, we had two physical formats, they had seven.
I think by this point, Jim had worked out I was obsessed with the charts. But he wouldn't compromise on what he perceived to be tactics, so it was Jim's idea for the free calendar, to insert in the vinyl gatefold. Cherry Red also offered a signed postcard with the first 1,000 CDs.
I think the calendar is perfect, because you have Jim ‘cosplay’ images for the whole year. It works as a memento that lasts a long time. Like, even in December 2021, we'll all still be gawping at illustrations of Jim. Plus a 2021 calendar sits in that same aesthetic universe you're describing.
Marc: If you do a physical product it has to be a piece of art. I’m so proud of it. The final product looks and smells fantastic. You should smell it, out of the box! Simple things like quality paper stock choice, but also Jim being singleminded about details.
For me, this is a big difference with this record, from Jim’s earlier records. He always has great art ideas but in the past I sometimes felt like he’d sort of lose interest in the project once it was mixed. But now he’s still into the entire process, right through.
Marc: Also, Jim was never bothered about the charts, even on this one. Been there, done that, with Carter, obviously. But I knew he wanted the record to be heard more widely and he’s disillusioned about how music gets released. I had to really sell him my plan, to use streaming as a shop window, knowing there is zero cash in streams.
We went on pre-sale and the plan included three singles. By singles I mean in the new digital sense, using a thing called ‘instant grat’, where the track goes onto streaming platforms and if you pre-order the album, you own that track instantly. But we still needed videos. Jim and I also needed to keep coming up with ideas, to keep our flow of content and conversation going with fans.
You two balance well, Marc. You’re the salesman with explicit sales messages, though delivered in a funny, daft way. Jim is quieter but creative and, for example, makes promos and teasers himself – but when he's talking to his audience, he’s not sales-y, just does his thing.
Anyway, here’s the big bit. Here comes March and coronavirus. I mean, it screwed everyone in the world, let alone the music business. But how did Covid and lockdown – and the vanishing overnight of UK live music – affect the project? By May, I admit I was very surprised you were even still considering releasing it in August and not postponing.
Marc: When coronavirus happened, it was obvious right away that gigs would not take place. Though with some later shows it took longer to get clarity, because nobody knew how long it would last. But with the album, there was no reason we couldn’t go ahead with the August release. Jim really wanted the album to come out and didn’t want to push it back, is the honest answer. Also, I actually don’t believe he ever thought we'd get anywhere near the charts, so certainly my plan wasn’t his top consideration.
It also screwed up another core element of your plan, right? Which was the very quiet week for releases that you’d picked. Because in May, June, so many artists started to reschedule their albums because of cancelled tours.
Marc: True, at first during Covid nothing was released until July. Then it was obvious lots of other albums were being released, so it wouldn’t be an empty week like I'd hoped. But we weren’t going to push back to January 2021, just to get a chart place! Looking now, every week is packed, so tinkering with our release date would’ve made no difference.
The lead single, ‘2020WTF!’ is only 27 seconds long. Even though it's not Covid-related, it felt very pertinent. Jim’s idea was to release it to Instagram with a mash-up video, using stock images and news footage. That got 130,000 views in a week and kicked us off to a great start with pre-sales. We crashed Cherry Red's website on the first day. But here's the thing: it was down to the song. It always comes back to the songs.
We plugged away on socials, drip-fed artwork and trailers and such. Jim got my seven year old daughter to do a Zoom interview with him. That was hilarious, far more fun than a normal newspaper interview.
We did the traditional PR as well, interviews for the monthlies and blogs and so on. Reviews were good, though they all follow the same format: ‘Carter were around in the 90s… Jim Bob is back… Fantastic lyrics… 4/5’. Beggars can’t be choosers though, it’s been a lot better than the press from 2000 to 2016.
Then we did second single, ‘Jo’s Got Papercuts’. Jim made this beautiful animated video, which was when I think people properly realised a special album was on the way. The song is very moving, so the reaction from our core fanbase was perfect.
We didn’t get the radio play I’d hoped for, though. Steve Lamacq played it a couple of times, as did Vic Galloway on BBC Scotland and Gary Crowley on BBC London. But that was it. A bit later, Janice Long supported the record. But regardless of the quality of Jim’s work, he just doesn't fit in. I think his old band were too genuinely edgy and he doesn't enjoy the industry ‘rock star’ status of a James Dean Bradfield or even a Brett Anderson. ‘2020WTF!’ was rejected for being too depressing, and god knows why but ‘Jo’s Got Papercuts’ was just rejected. You can tell, I’m still pissed off about it now. It sounded amazing on the radio.
Urgh. Well, it absolutely deserved a playlist and much wider support. I've thought about it a lot, since.
Marc: To be positive, fans loved it and there was growing excitement, so it didn't matter. Jim did his series of regular Facebook live sets. He read from his books and sang different songs each week – not new album stuff, back catalogue. I think it was as much for himself as his audience. At first, each performance got 4,000 or so views, but by the end it was 20,000+ views each time, so the momentum was constantly upwards.
I sensed that momentum most probably around release day itself, which I haven’t felt with Jim's stuff before. But, if I’m honest Marc, once I found out that Biffy, James Dean Bradfield, Levellers, even Kate Rusby, had all put their records in that same week, that’s when I gave up on your dream of charting. To me, it was impossible at that point. Especially with an audience overlap with some of those artists. What did that feel like, from inside the action?
Marc: Well, I worry about everything, anyway. The tiniest technical detail can sink you. I worry about everything from albums being delivered late, to something going wrong with the counting system. But if I didn’t worry and constantly imagine the worst happening, I’d be a different person. I knew we’d done well – but that made it worse.
Then on the Monday after release we learnt that we were number 12 in the midweeks. That sounds amazing – and it is – I whooped for joy – but we needed to sell at least half again of what we’d already done (including pre-orders) to make the Top 40. That’s the first time I let the fans know that a chart placing was a real possibility and encouraged people to get behind it. Until then, we'd never made it a public ‘chart campaign’. But their response was superb.
I knew it would be close, but Chris, I never once gave up thinking a Top 40 was possible, not for one moment.
They called me at 12noon on Friday. Pop Up Jim Bob charted at number 26. It was number 8 in the physical sales chart and number 5 in the indie chart.
Weeks later, Marc and I still choke up, talking about it.
Marc: No, I can't put it into words how delighted I was. Also relief. I didn’t want to let Jim down, this crazy idea had come off. Charts are stupid, but not to me they aren’t and not to any of us that day.
No way, it felt like vindication. When you see it written there in the lists, alongside all these major records. It’s where Jim’s music ought to be. He sings songs – and makes music – that’s for everyone, not just a niche artist. Apart from friendship, for me Jim is a benchmark of where our real musical mainstream diaspora ought to be.
Marc: It makes me feel that Jim is back, and that we've really successfully built on that first time selling out Shepherds Bush Empire, back in 2018.
By the way, I’ll say this: if we had done the full-on multi-formatting, like most releases that came out the same week, I think Jim would’ve gone well inside Top 20. But we would’ve had pushback from fans – and in the end I agree with Jim, this way felt cleaner. What I keep coming back to Chris is the quality of the album. It’s superb, and even though it feels so ‘now’, I also know it will stand the test of time. The reaction on socials was staggering. If the response hadn’t been off the scale, then it wouldn’t have sold anything like as well. All the marketing tactics in the world can’t fake it. Especially when Jim won’t let you use any!
So I haven't quite yet achieved my aim of making Jim a BBC Radio 2 staple – but we’re getting somewhere. Pop Up Jim Bob was a chart smash and nobody can take that away from me.
And with that, Marc finishes his tumbler of Disaronno, as the rest of our Monday Club quiz night friends start to arrive.
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