The Overtones released their debut album, Good Ol’ Fashioned Love, in 2010 – a time when, although digital music was firmly established in the form of downloads, the music business’ next big shift was still in its early days. Indeed, Spotify would only announce a million paying subscribers in March the following year.
The vocal harmony group benefitted from still healthy CD sales in particular, with their music drawing from evergreen catalogues that chimed with an older demographic. Their first four albums – released via Warner Bros Records – were all Top 10 hits in the UK.
After the release of Good Ol’ Fashioned Christmas on their own Gambling Man record label in 2015, The Overtones inked a worldwide deal with Absolute Label Services in 2018 to power an independent career.
Following the passing of the group’s lead singer Timmy Matley in April that year, their next, self-titled album became a bittersweet tribute to Matley as well as the start of a new chapter for The Overtones. It entered the Official UK Albums Chart at No.11, narrowly missing out on a Top 10 position by just a handful of units – demonstrating the potential of the DIY approach.
The music industry is a much different place now compared to when The Overtones signed their first record deal, with streaming the dominant format and a greater range of routes to market for artists to exploit.
With their anniversary album 10 released July 30th – a year later than planned thanks to the effects of the pandemic – we sat down with Mike Crawshaw and Mark Franks from the group to discuss their career, their take on the music business, and the virtues of being independent.
What do you think has given you this longevity?
Mark Franks: I think we put our stamp on real classic songs from yesteryear that are timeless. We’re not going to be seen as a musical fad, we’re not riding a wave, and we’ve kind of created a sound for ourselves that will travel through the ages. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still recording artists and still touring.
We do work really hard as well. It’s a cutthroat industry. You have to be ahead of the game all the time. There’ll always be people chomping at your heels. We’re really driven and we really enjoy what we do. When we’re on stage, everyone’s having a good time. It’s a big party and everyone’s invited.
Your first four albums were with Warner. What was your experience like in that major label world?
Mike Crawshaw: It was wonderful, stressful, exciting and worrying all at the same time. We’d worked so hard to get to that position and were all very aware that we wanted to retain the experience and all that success. Being signed to a major label for five albums in an industry that is very cutthroat and difficult to break into was amazing for us.
Our first album, even though we were on a major, was on a shoestring. There were lots of people that we had to prove ourselves to within the label. The first album got to No.4 in the charts and ended up selling half a million. That made people think, ‘Ok, these guys are the real deal.’ Then the label had more confidence in committing a bit more money to us.
Can you remember your first contact with Absolute?
Mike: We first met Absolute quite a few years ago in 2017, I’d say. We had a meeting with Henry [Semmence, Absolute MD] and Fraser [Ealey, Absolute Senior Label Manager] and it quickly became apparent that we were going to have a lot more freedom and control over our destiny with the assistance of Absolute.
We released our first album with them in 2018 and it was great. It allowed us to learn loads more about the industry as well as having that support network behind us. Our next album with them, 10, is released this Friday and it’s just a really exciting time. It’s great to have that freedom and support.
How involved are you on the business side of things? Do you like to get stuck in or is it more about building a team around you?
Mike: It’s a bit of both really. We’re very hands on as individuals in the group, we’ve each got our roles in terms of the management and admin side of things. Absolute allow us to do that while guiding us. Obviously our main priority is standing on stage and performing, but equally we’ve been able to learn a lot more about the industry and it’s been great to be able to get involved in every element.
When you started out, streaming was around but relatively embryonic. You did well with an older demographic and physical music. How have you had to adapt as the business has changed?
Mark: That’s where Absolute has been crucial, really. This is a whole new world for us and we’re trying to navigate our way through it. We have had to adapt quickly because the landscape has changed so quickly. We’ve tried to grow our online audience and take our demographic with us. They’re [on the journey] with us when it comes to streaming platforms, YouTube and so on. We’re learning along with our fans. We’ve definitely seen a growth in our online presence and streaming numbers. It’s heading in the right direction.
Live is a big part of any artist’s career but even more so for you guys, perhaps. How have you coped over the pandemic? Have you put anything in place to weather that storm?
Mike: Yes and no. For us, it’s been more about maintaining communication with our fanbase. We’ve used socials a lot for that.
In terms of the music itself, we’re a very positive bunch of guys. Although the pandemic has hit The Overtones hard in the sense that we had to cancel two major tours, we were able to turn that into a positive by really focusing on the new album and make it into something that it wouldn’t have been had we not had that time. Our focus was getting the album right and staying connected to our fans, keeping their chins up during a difficult time for everyone.
What advice would you give to an artist that is running the business side of their career as well as creating music?
Mike: One of the things that struck me when we started taking more control over our career – the management of the band and label – was that you’ve got to get an even harder skin than you did before. Obviously, with this being a tough industry, you always need a tough skin. But I think, managing the label and the act itself, that goes even further because you’re discussing things with your TV team or your radio team and you’re hearing the brutal truth of everything directly. The job of management, a lot of the time, is to shield artists from that sort of stuff. So you need to be prepared for some pretty brutal truths from time to time. You need to be able to absorb that but not let it affect your positivity in moving forward.
Is it too simple a question to ask which world you prefer these days? The independent side or being part of that major label system?
Mike: I think there are pros and cons to everything. The control [as an independent] is a massive thing. Major labels take huge slices of your pie. Though we’re tremendously grateful for the opportunities that signing with Warner afforded us, we had to give away a massive part of the income and control.
The other positive of a label services company is that you’re getting the expertise of very experienced people who will guide you and take the reigns when they need to but step back when it’s appropriate.
If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?
Mike: I don’t think I’d change anything. Every industry has its faults, its ups and downs, and people maybe aren’t quite as wholesome as you’d hope, but I think this industry has been really kind to us. We’ve had an amazing career that hasn’t finished yet.
What are your hopes for the album?
Mike: Ultimately, we want it to be successful enough for us to keep on doing what we’re doing.