Dear Dan Bull: A Case Study In Musical Innovation

from the dan-bull-will dept

Two quick announcements. First, this is the latest in our “case study” series, of content creators doing interesting things online, and seeing what we can learn from them. The case studies now have their own tab if you want to check out previous case studies. Second, this profile is about Dan Bull, but stay tuned, because tomorrow, he’ll be coming out with a new song, commenting on ACTA and the Gallo Report. We’ll post it here, but trust me, you don’t want to miss it.

You may recall, about a year ago, there was a bit of a kerfuffle involving singer Lily Allen — who had built her (major label) career, in part off of releasing a bunch of clearly infringing mixtapes of other artists, mixed with some of her own music on her MySpace page and her official website (controlled by EMI). And yet… she suddenly posted a rant against file sharing, talking about how it was destroying the industry. She even started a blog about how evil copying was, but amusingly plagiarized an entire Techdirt post. We were fine with it (our material is free to use however you’d like), but thought it was an interesting teaching moment about the value of copying, and how even those who claim they’re against it implicitly seem to recognize that copying is “natural.” While Lily apologized to me, as we noted there was no need to apologize — the content was free for using. We were hoping that she would understand how her actions went against her own words. Instead, she blamed everyone else, claimed she was “attacked” and shut down her blog.

However, soon after all of this, a musician in the UK, named Dan Bull, wrote and recorded a musical “open letter” to Ms. Allen, for which he created a video, and posted the whole thing to YouTube, generating a ton of attention. If you haven’t seen it (or even if you have…), check it out:

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m name checked in the song, which actually caused me to go out and buy Dan’s album, even though he makes it available for free as well, uploaded to various file sharing systems that are regularly decried for “destroying” the industry. With the Dear Lily song getting so much attention, Dan has continued to write new songs along these lines, starting with an open letter to Peter Mandelson, the UK politician who was the main driving force behind the Digital Economy Act, which brought three strikes to the UK:
Earlier this year, as the debate heated up over kicking people offline via the Digital Economy Act, UK ISP TalkTalk had Dan Bull create a new song, reminding us how familiar the recording industry’s complaints sound to their complaints from years back about how home taping was killing music:
Tomorrow he’s coming out with his latest track related to copyright issues, specifically commenting on ACTA and the Gallo report. I’ve heard it already, and you don’t want to miss it. We’ll post it as soon as it’s ready to go tomorrow. However, as we gear up for that, I spoke to Dan about his experience creating music that has championed the idea that copyright is a much bigger problem than a solution to the music industry, and what lessons he’s learned.

The first thing, of course, is that his music career was completely transformed by the original Dear Lily video. Even though he’d already released an album, this one song, changed things. As Dan told me:

I’ve been putting my songs on YouTube for years without anyone really noticing, so I didn’t expect anything different with Dear Lily. I uploaded the video, e-mailed the link to the P2P blog TorrentFreak, and went to bed. The next morning I woke up to find my inbox was broken due to responses arriving every couple of seconds. The video seemed to have struck the right chord at the right time, and I was summarising what was on everybody’s mind. Except Lily Allen’s.

He pointed out that the video got 80,000 views that first night, and the MP3 (made freely available, of course) was downloaded over 20,000 times. And, despite all the claims that folks who support file sharing or think that copyright has problems are just a bunch of freeloaders who want stuff for free, this song made Dan money:

I made more money from music that week than I had in my entire musical career previously. I’d say it was split 50/50 between sales of my album, and donations from people who just wanted to show their appreciation. It goes to show that filesharers aren’t cheapskates; they’re happy to hand over a bit of cash if they know who it’s going to.

He also pointed out that, if all of the interest in his songs had been monitored by the folks who create the charts, the song actually would have ended up on the UK singles charts.

But, of course, was this just a flash in the pan, one-hit-wonder sort of thing? Not according to Dan. He notes that he had a decent group of supporters before:

But this was when I first started to feel like I had a real fanbase, and that there are lots of other people out there who feel the way I do. Plenty of the people who saw the video have stuck around to check out my new stuff too. It’s also made it easier to get my other songs noticed, and I’ve been on television and radio a few times as a result.

And, in talking about attention from elsewhere, it’s not just limited to music about copyright. He’s becoming a go-to guy for music about all sorts of political issues, including a successful (and brilliant) UK Election Debate Rap Battle. The tech/copyright songs are still the songs that get the most people excited, but all of his new works are getting more and more attention. As Dan notes, the way you build a career is to continue to keep building, rather than relying on old works and copyright complaints:

I enjoyed the wave of publicity I had from the novelty of the Dear Lily video, but instead of trying to milk it I decided to carry on and write more songs. Each one I do gets a little more attention and it’s very satisfying when new fans get in touch with me. It’s good to discuss the issues with people who disagree as well – it makes me think hard about whether my beliefs are right.

Oh, and finally, I did wonder if he ever heard from either Lily Allen or Peter Mandelson in response to his open letters. No such luck, apparently, but he’s heard from a reliable source that Allen has at least seen the video, and he got to perform Dear Mandy right outside the houses of Parliament in front of a bunch of TV cameras, so he’s hoping that maybe, just maybe, Mandelson got to hear it “drifting through his window…”

Once again, this is another case of an artist really finding a way to connect with fans in a fun way, encouraging the free sharing of his music, but recognizing that fans are more than willing to pay, if given a reason to buy. And, of course, I do wonder how folks who insist that no “real” musician would ever speak out against copyright respond to folks like Dan Bull.

Anyway, thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer my questions, and stay tuned for his latest song and video…

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Comments on “Dear Dan Bull: A Case Study In Musical Innovation”

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Roger Dodger says:

But how much?

It’s nice that he’s making more than ever before but it sure sounds like he didn’t make much if anything before. So how much is he making? Can you give us any indication whether this flash in the pan is enough to buy a case of beer, a nice dinner out, a used car, or new house? It’s got to be somewhere on that scale.

Sam Kearns (profile) says:

Y’know I’ve had a hunch for a long time that a significant element of the decline in music sales in the last decade is due to the fact that there is no serious social movement being championed by musicians these days.

When you think about every decade of the 20th century since Elvis, the most important music was always the soundtrack to a social movement. The music of the noughties however has, by an large, totally failed to reflect the important issues of the time and so the reaction to that music is lacklustre because it is not bolstered by the feeling of belonging to a movement.

This story about Dan Bull captures some of that feeling of music being the soundtrack to a social movement and Dan’s success has really been about people identifying passionately with what he is singing about, rather than simply enjoying the music.

Mike says:

My problem

With this is this: You have people saying it’s THEIR right to take another’s creation and do what they want with it.

They can call it their “idea”, but it’s really their creation. Someone had to get the instruments and the players, and play the song and record it and master it, and even more stuff if we’re talking about a movie, and then this person says, “Hey, I should be able to do what I want with your creation because I said so.”

The bottom line is, GO MAKE YOUR OWN CREATION. If you can get the original artist’s permission, more power to you. But it’s certainly not YOUR place to say that you should be ENTITLED to do what you want with someone else’s creation.

That’s my biggest problem with this entire argument. People today think they’re entitled to do anything they want just because they can.

By that guy’s estimation, I should be able to take John Carpenter’s Halloween, edit it differently and put in some of my own footage, and then make money on it.

It’s not legal, it’s not ethical, and it shouldn’t be. If you don’t have the talent to make your own “thing” from scratch, you’re not talented at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My problem

“It’s not legal, it’s not ethical, and it shouldn’t be. If you don’t have the talent to make your own “thing” from scratch, you’re not talented at all.”

What about movie re-makes then? They didn’t create the original idea and concept, why should they benefit? Are they not talented?

What about music sampling? Nearly every artist in every genre has sampled others’ tracks – are they not talented?

Anonymous Coward says:

My problem

@ 17 – The argument isn’t that we should be able to take others’ work and call it our own and profit, the argument is that it should be legal for me to download a song/movie for free, and if I feel the creators deserve support for it, provide THE CONTENT CREATORS my hard-earned money.

As it stands right now, if you go buy an album or a movie, how much of that money goes toward the actual artist(s) or cast? Very little – the agencies and labels take the bulk and pass pittance on to the ones who we want to support. When you purchase a CD or DVD, you’re putting your money into conglomerates like the MPAA and RIAA, when those who created the content we enjoy only see pennies to the dollar.

Dan Bull is a prime example here – he is an independent artist who creates his content and gives it freely to us to enjoy. HE deserves our support, and HE gets our money. I bought his album – I haven’t bought music in nearly a decade.

He deserves my money because I enjoy the originality and creativity reflected in his music – and I know when I click the “Purchase” button, HE benefits. Not the executives of these corporations that believe they are entitled to make money off of others’ creativity.

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