From Busted to Fightstar to establishing himself as a solo artist, Charlie Simpson has witnessed arguably the music industry’s most turbulent transition over a 22-year career. Here, he talks about his new album and life as an independent artist in the modern music business…
As one-third of multi-BRIT Award winning pop-punk sensation Busted, Charlie Simpson was at the centre of one of the most prominent UK success stories of the early Noughties. Forming at the turn of the millennium, the band garnered four No.1 singles and sold over 5 million records in just five years before disbanding.
Simpson went on to satisfy his heavier rock side with Fightstar and developed a solo career before reforming with Busted in 2015.
As a solo artist, Simpson has released two full studio albums Young Pilgrim (2011) and Long Road Home (2014), both of which were UK Top 10 hits. They were followed by Little Hands, a compilation of rare tracks spanning 2010 – 2016.
Over the course of a 22-year career, Simpson has seen the music industry at every level as both a major and independent label artist.
He has just released his next solo album, Hope Is A Drug, on his own Komorebi Entertainment label in partnership with Absolute Label Services.
We spoke with Simpson about the new record, how the music business has evolved during his career, and the benefits of being independent in 2022…
Tell us a bit about the new record…
It’s my third full solo album, called Hope Is A Drug. It was a weird one because I was due to record it before the pandemic but obviously that all stopped, so I decided that it was the right time to build my own recording studio. I did that and ended up producing the album myself. It opened my entire world up to a whole new avenue. I always thought I wanted to get to this stage later in life, but it came a bit quicker than I anticipated.
I’m really proud of this record. I’ve learned so much from making it. It’s a bit more of a personal album for me – quite a few stripped back songs with just vocal and piano, which I’ve never done before.
When you say you wanted to get to this stage, what was that exactly?
To start producing my own stuff and maybe producing for other artists. I just wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be. During the two years of the pandemic, I did a lot of learning and picked up all the skills I’d never really had because I was focused on being an artist. I did mix courses, sound engineering… Now I can produce a record completely by myself. Obviously, the pandemic was fucking awful but you’ve got to try and look for the positives, and it set me up with a new avenue in my career that I’d always wanted to go down but never had the time.
You release on your own label now, could you see a time when you might release other artists?
Definitely. Now that I’ve set this label up with Absolute, it gives me scope to find new artists. I worked with a girl the other day who came to my studio to do some vocals and she was brilliant. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years now and feel like I have some experience in every part of it. I don’t think I’d want to manage artists, but I can definitely imagine helping on the creative side for other artists.
Tell us how you came to work with Absolute…
I’ve worked with Fraser [Ealey] at Absolute for a long time. He used to work at Gut Records in the early Noughties. Fightstar signed to Gut after we left Island and he was our marketing manager, so I worked with him many moons ago. I always thought he was brilliant. Then, when we did the Busted reunion and made another record, he was actually working for the management at the time. So there’s always been a link with Fraser.
There are quite a few people in the marketplace doing label services but I was keen to work with people who understood me as an artist. What’s great about Absolute is they can do as much or as little as you want, and I quite like that approach. I like to do a lot myself now. They just ask what they can do to help and it’s a collaborative effort.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time now. You’ve experienced that big major machine as well as different types of independence. What’s your take on those different sides of the business?
I go through real waves – despairing about the business but then getting excited about new prospects. When I first joined the industry, you couldn’t get signed unless you were spotted by a label directly. The internet was just getting going, there was no social media… The positive change in the music industry is that the gatekeepers have broadened. As a new artist, you don’t have to rely on as much luck or being in the right place at the right time. The flip side is that there is so much music coming out now. I heard some ridiculous stat that 60,000 songs get released on Spotify every day. I feel like that might be too much. There’s just this huge wave of music. But it does give power to the artist, allowing them to find their feet and their audience without needing someone to help them, which is great.
It makes me sad that people don’t buy records anymore. They don’t read the vinyl sleeve or take interest in the process of making an album. Even the idea of the album is being diluted now.
But, again for every negative, there’s a positive, it means that you can release stuff quickly. You don’t have to be stuck in these two-year cycles. The one thing I like now is that you’re hot on your feet. If I write a song today, it can be out in a month. It doesn’t have to be in an album cycle, you can just do singles.
I can’t decide what line I’m going to end up on. I definitely miss parts of the old industry but then I’m excited about the prospects of the new.
Do you think that independent artists and operators are more powerful these days?
100 percent. The thing with independence now is that the main asset you have now is your masters. The amount the streaming companies pay artists is so low, unless you’re having millions and millions of streams, the songwriter on his own, I think, is the one that’s worst affected. If you own your own master and put it out through someone like Absolute or a distributor – that’s the asset. That’s the bit you want to keep as an artist.
Obviously, there are pros to signing to a major, especially if you’re a new artist because they’re a big machine with a lot of money. But, at the end of the day, they’re acting like a bank. They aren’t giving you money; they’re loaning it to you and you have to pay it back.
The fourth Fightstar record was released independently. You just do it in a different way. You don’t spend 50,000 on a video – you don’t have to do that anymore. You look at your budget and what you want to achieve in week one. With that Fightstar record, we’d already recouped the advance and paid back our expenses in week one. Every record we sold after that was money to us. It’s about doing things in a smarter way. The record industry got so used to firing money at stuff. If you’re on a major and you pay it back, that’s fine. But artists get lost in that machine. Majors sign 10 artists with the view that two are going to do well.
Especially when it comes to artists with existing fanbases, you frame the budget of the campaign accordingly. If something sparks into a massive hit, everyone wins. But I think you have to go into it looking to do things sensibly and then you can find a sustainable way of working.
Do you think artists have to be so much more than more than musicians now, they have to be content creators…
Absolutely! One hundred percent. I’ve shot my own videos, made my own album adverts, shot the artwork… I love all that. All of the stuff on the creative side, I love. I get a bit bored by the admin side so having managers there is great. I really like a hands-on approach, but you’ve got to bear in mind that everything you do in a campaign costs money so they more you can do yourself, the less you’re going to have to spend.
One thing I’ve realised that’s true for any artist: Nobody is going to give a shit about your campaign as much as you. I might have people that really want to work with me, but I’ll spend longer making sure everything is just the way I want it than anyone else. The more creative output I can provide, the better.
There’s a common thread through your music but you’ve been able to change styles and genres over the course of your career. Do you think there’s a need to reinvent yourself or has it just come naturally?
Yeah, it’s been natural. I’ve never thought, ‘I should try and make a record like this.’ All the genres that I’ve released in have been part of my musical make-up as a kid. I love pop music, rock, metal… I grew up on that. My first solo stuff was inspired by the music my dad put me onto when I was younger. I’m lucky because I have a fanbase that allows me to work in all these genres. But I think the only way it’s possible is because it’s genuine. I think if you try and do something that doesn’t come naturally it can come across as disingenuous.
You’re releasing this album on multiple formats – physical music is still important to you…
It is, yeah. There’s something about physical. Not being able to hold something really depresses me. I love reading the sleeve, seeing where it was made… That was my ceremony when I was buying albums. I can’t expect the younger generation to have that because they grew up in a different time, but it’s still important to me. I’ll make sure that I always release physical copies.
What advice would you give to a young artist that’s just starting out?
I’d say use the tools at your disposable, of which you have many. Social media is a great platform to get your music out there. It’s crazy, things seem to be blowing up from TikTok these days. That’s still a bit new to me. If I’d have had a tenth of the stuff that kids have now when I was 16, it would have blown my mind. I was using a Tascam 4-track recorder to make demos and sending them to record companies. It’s a different world now.
How do you define success now?
You just have to hope that the audience you have stays with you. You’re always hoping that something will catch fire but that’s beyond your control. Especially now, I feel like so many songs that do catch a wider audience come from playlists and radio play – they’ve always been things that have been out of your control, so you can’t think too much about that. I’m fortunate that I have a very loyal fanbase that I can depend on. I just hope that they receive the music well and keep allowing me to do this.