It's a musical fairy tale: Seventeen-year-old Dan Hunter, a.k.a. PlayRadioPlay!, went from recording demos in his bedroom to getting a record deal and a sweet spot on a major tour, all in about a year and a half. Who was his fairy godmother? MySpace.
Three years ago, Hunter, who lives in Aledo, just outside Fort Worth, had yet to pick up a musical instrument. As a freshman in high school, he taught himself bass guitar. The inevitable garage band tenure followed, during which Hunter picked up some tips about playing lead guitar, drums and electronics. “When I was a sophomore in high school, I started getting into drum programming,” he says. “At the time, I had been recording lots of demo songs I was writing. I posted them on MySpace and kids started listening to them. Pretty soon labels got interested and I started touring. That's kinda how it happened.”
Okay, not exactly, right?
“Well, that's the short version,” Hunter laughs. “At first you have to work so hard just to get a few hundred plays a day and get new kids to listen to your music. After a lot of that, a lot of just talking to kids, going to kids' profiles and looking up their music taste and then sending them [a message] saying, ‘You might like my music,' after a long time of that, the kids kinda started to get into it. It started to spread by word of mouth. Right now I'm getting about 12,000 plays or so a day. I really don't do any promotion anymore; it's all by word of mouth, so it started taking care of itself.”
At this writing, Hunter's MySpace page shows over two million views, 79,000 friends and more than 6.7 million total record plays, with as many as 30,000 in one day. With CD and ticket sales on the downslide, the industry couldn't and shouldn't ignore those kinds of numbers. The kid got signed, recorded an EP and hit the road with the Warped Tour, playing alongside Boys Like Girls and Norma Jean, just like every garage musician dreams about.
So, is Hunter the real thing? Or is he the musical equivalent of the dot.com boom? A boom, you will remember, that quickly went bust. He's probably some of both. He is talented (though not the “‘poptronica' genius” other reporters have called him), but he hasn't been able to translate his phenomenal MySpace success into real-world record and ticket sales. First-week sales of his new EP in late April: 2,500 units. Not bad for a 17-year-old who just last year was still teaching himself to play guitar, but not great either. Hunter gets that many MySpace plays by lunchtime every day.
“No one really knew what to expect, as far as if any of those hits would translate into sales,” Hunter says. “It did good; I was No. 6 on Billboard's electronic chart that first week. What we're trying to do with the EP, we're trying to move a lot of the Internet fan base over to the physical side of the market, and hopefully start to make album sales out of [Internet] hits.”
Exactly how to do that is the question. Hunter doesn't have the answer. (He's a kid, remember?) It seems the music industry doesn't have the answer either, or PlayRadioPlay!'s first-week sales would be in the hundreds of thousands, not the low four figures. We don't have the answer this is a newsroom, not a think tank but (aha, here it comes) we do have an idea as to why Internet success does not necessarily equal real-world success: money.
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Surfing the Internet is free (or at least almost free, once you pay that pesky $24.95 per month). Kids don't have to pull out any cash or credit cards to visit PlayRadioPlay!'s MySpace site. In exchange for a couple of mouse clicks, fans get to hear Hunter's latest cuts; it's a completely money-free transaction. Free is good; everyone loves free. Tickets to concerts and CDs are not free. Why would somebody pay $15.99 for a CD they can hear online for free? They wouldn't. As evidenced by Hunter's sales so far, they haven't.
Also, kids will listen to a song over and over again; they'll visit a site every day, even several times a day, for updates about the artist, inflating the total play and visit numbers. And while a kid might click on a favorite song a dozen times a week, even the most ardent fan will not buy the same CD a dozen times, or pay to download the same single repeatedly.
Going from free to pay is a huge hurdle, but not one that's impossible to clear (look at cable television and satellite radio). It's too early to say whether Dan Hunter can do it, especially since the record label suits have got ahold of him. “Before I was signed,” he says, “I was putting up a new song about once a week at the most. Just as I recorded them, I would release them online. Now I haven't posted anything new in a while, just because we're saving everything for the album. I'll probably release a new song once every couple of months now.”
PlayRadioPlay! performs Friday, May 18, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Ave., 713-862-2513.