The Pop Star with No Aura

A snapshot of two decades of the digital music revolution

In the middle of last year, we let our intern Michelle take over the Sonos for the afternoon. One of the songs she played, a piano ballad, full of falsetto and earnest pining, immediately jumped out:

I need somebody to heal
Somebody to know
Somebody to have
Somebody to hold
It's easy to say
But it's never the same
I guess I kinda liked the way you numbed all the pain

If you’ve listened to commercial radio at all in the past year, you would know the song I’m referring to - Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved.

Sidebar: I get my commercial radio fix by catching Ubers a lot. Smooth FM seems to be the favourite of the Melbourne Uber driving community.

Capaldi’s on the pop spectrum somewhere between James Blunt and Adele, which means Spotify’s algo would be unlikely to push him to me.

YouTube’s algo on the other hand… had other ideas. I love unearthing epic live versions of songs recorded by audience members, which is probably why YouTube sent me to Capaldi’s cover of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’.

And there began my Lewis Capaldi rabbit hole. It turns out he’s almost the perfect encapsulation of where the music industry finds itself in 2020.

Sidebar: My first career was in music, I think of A&R for artists as VC for startups, and I’m fascinated by the discovery and supercharging of new talent in all industries.

But back to Capaldi:

His manager discovered him via Soundcloud, through an iPhone recorded demo:

The bit I enjoy the least about [being a manager] is sitting, trawling through SoundCloud and YouTube for seven hours a day, but that’s what I did. I would open – no joke – about 500 SoundCloud tabs at a time, listening to 10 seconds of each artist to get a read on it.

About four and a half months into that search, I was in my mum’s house, and I stumbled across a recording of Lewis on SoundCloud singing into his iPhone in his bedroom.

Immediately I thought: ‘This is amazing, I’m in.’

Sidebar: My first big career break came from launching a blog for EMI with a Soundcloud account for new artists to send their music straight to the A&R team. Wired Magazine wrote about it here. SoundCloud has had its ups and downs, but it deserves credit as one of the purest creative communities the internet has ever seen.

Capaldi initially broke in Germany, and not the UK:

After the switch to streaming five years or so ago, at first the UK took a while to find a way to properly break artists again. In Europe, the barriers to entry at radio were much lower; the gap between streaming and radio was smaller than the UK. At the UK [networks] it was like, ‘You need crazy streaming numbers and your socials need to be on fire [before we playlist you].’ We felt it was a helpful entry point to have Germany lead that.

Note the phrase: “your socials need to be on fire” as a prerequisite to success, and not the result of it. Also note the continued necessity of radio to break a song.

Capaldi’s breakout track Bruises, released independently in March 2017, led him to being named one of Vevo’s ‘Artists To Watch’ that year. Then, without having released a full-length album, Capaldi became the first artist ever to sell out a UK arena tour.

iPhone recording ↠ Soundcloud upload ↠ serendipitous Soundcloud discovery ↠ independently released single ↠ Vevo artist to watch ↠ German radio ↠ hot socials… that’s the formula now!

Sidebar: For another amazing recent example, see Tones & I. From busking in Byron Bay on NYE to Jimmy Fallon and 20M views on a saxophone cover of her song in less than a year.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Capaldi though is his personality. In contrast to the music, he is funny, disarmingly honest, unvarnished and completely… normal.

Here he is getting his celebrity mates to sing along to Bruises.

Here he is befuddling a Swedish interviewer with stories about toilets and referring to himself the Scottish Beyonce:

And here he is ridiculing himself on a trip back to his hometown:

It is hard to think of a pop-star precedent. But rather than being an anomaly, I think we’ll see more of this. The era of the manufactured, inaccessible artist is gone.

No more Spice Girls at one end of the spectrum. No more Nick Cave at the other.

We’re in a TikTok/Snapchat artist/Billie Eilish world now, where your favourite artist in your Instagram stories, everything is seen, and nothing much is left to the imagination.


Quick Links:

This video of people singing together on a subway platform after a Robyn concert made me so nostalgic for New York. The fact there are multiple YouTube clips of this event says something else about the way music works in 2020 too.

It is amazing to see the cultural resonance of Don’t Look Back in Anger growing over time. 25 years on, and its meaning to people is at an all-time high, perhaps now eclipsing Wonderwall as Oasis’ defining song.

And to end, my most played amateur live music YouTube clip ever. I can even singalong to Frank’s crowd chatter now… WE LOVE YOU FRAAAANK!

Actually, before I go, YouTube Bon Iver is veritable gold mine:

My favourite live recording:

My favourite studio recording:

A magical version of Beth/Rest:

Perfection in an echoing Paris stairwell.

And Woods.