The dark, low-ceilinged basement of Blakes on Telegraph is the sort of place where unknown young musicians test their songs before sympathetic audiences of a couple dozen friends. But on the night of December 9, the members of Maldroid have something bigger in mind.
It's not often that Blakes hosts an act this hot. Just three weeks earlier, Maldroid won a music video contest on the Internet's number-one site for video sharing. Following its victory in YouTube's so-called Underground Contest an American Idol-style music promotion for unsigned bands the Oakland-based band was flown to New York City, introduced to publishers and record labels, escorted around in limos and luxury tour buses, interviewed on Good Morning America, and otherwise treated like royalty. The band was outfitted with new gear from Gibson and given the opportunity to land its music in a movie or TV show.
So tonight's triumphant homecoming is more than a little special for the guys in Maldroid. In a venue where most bands show up wearing jeans and T-shirts, all seven members are wearing matching suits. Their jackets, pants, and shoes are dark brown, while the outfit's accents ties, ascots, and handkerchiefs are a caramel gold. On the right breast of each person's jacket is a small "M" logo in red and gold paint. Skate shoes, loose-fitting pants, and unbuttoned collars round off a distinctly punk-preppy look.
Once the other members have taken their places, founder and lead singer Ryan Divine emerges boldly from stage right. As he struts toward the mic stand, guitarist Todd Brown appears on his right bearing a brown briefcase. The singer removes the club's existing microphone, tosses it to the ground with dramatic flair, then pulls a vintage Shure Beta 57 from the briefcase and plugs it in. Members of the audience, which has swelled to a crowded two hundred for Maldroid's ten o'clock show, chuckle and stare expectantly as the band begins to play.
Maldroid's set doesn't sound as good as the band looks. The performance is somewhat sloppy, with rhythms, timing, and transitions looser than they could be. It's the forgivable sound of an eight-month-old group working out its kinks. But the band's high-energy pop-rock is undeniably effective live. The songs are catchy and short few exceed three minutes and follow a basic verse-chorus-verse format. In any case, the fans crowding the stage don't appear to notice the rough edges. Few can take their eyes off Divine's antics: He marches, swings his hips, spins, points, bends, makes faces, swirls the mic by its cord, dances like mad. Within three songs, he's drenched in sweat. His bandmates do their part, too: Keytarist AJ Riot and bassist Sean Shippley sing into the same mic; Shippley and Brown sing face to face, then lean in close, plucking their instruments in time; Riot plays his white keytar, a retro keyboard/guitar combo from the '80s, behind his head. During "Heck No (I'll Never Listen to Techno!)," the band members self-consciously swirl glowing blue light sticks above their heads.
When Maldroid begins to play its video hit "He Said, She Said," a gaggle of fans standing front and center, mostly young women, knows all the words. Eyes fixed on the band, they mouth the words in an exaggerated fashion, as if showing off the fact that they can sing along without missing a beat.
This is all the more impressive considering that Maldroid has never before played in public. The fans have learned the lyrics solely from Divine's award-winning video a crystal-clear picture of the group's unusual evolution. Before Maldroid had played a live show or released a single song for sale, it already had won a national contest, appeared on Good Morning America, and been courted by major labels.
Perhaps no one could have seen it coming but Divine, who planned from the outset to launch his band through music videos. In October 2004, when Maldroid existed only in his mind, and YouTube itself hadn't yet been created, he began the yearlong process of hand-animating a comic book video for his song "He Said, She Said."
His success illustrates a new phenomenon in the age of user-generated content: Self-produced music videos can now provide an unknown band's big break. "The music video has become a far more receptive medium for the little guys out there than for the superstars," says Saul Austerlitz, author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.
With the rise of cheap, high-quality video cameras and editing software, music videos have been transformed from pricey major-label productions into increasingly do-it-yourself affairs within the reach of bands such as Maldroid. Rather than being broadcast via mass media, the videos spread virally across the Internet via a tip from a friend instead of a corporate marketing campaign. With traffic averaging one hundred million views and 65,000 new uploads a day, YouTube has played a central role in this evolution. According to Web monitor Hitwise, the site commands a growing 60 percent share of the online video market.
Even as the Internet is blamed for devastating the music industry's conventional business model, it offers innumerable new avenues for artists and fans to connect.
But by building itself in reverse, Maldroid seems to have relegated its songs to secondary status. "The music industry is no longer about your songs," says guitarist Johnny Genius, aka John Murphy, 26. "It's about your whole image." Divine agrees. "In today's music world, you can't just be a band anymore. People need media from everything." Maldroid has thus become an image, a brand, a multimedia experience in effect, a living, breathing music video.
Divine, aka Ryan Hayford, 25, was an artist before he was a musician. At eighteen he left his hometown of Santa Cruz to enroll in San Francisco's Academy of the Arts College. Shortly thereafter he picked up a bass and joined a band with some new friends. Two frustrating years of general education and the school's refusal to renew his financial aid led him to drop out in 1999 and focus on what had become the Oakland new-wave band Solemite. Around 2001, Solemite emerged as an integral part of the Live, Loud, and Local (L3) scene in Oakland. The band later helped turn the city's new iMusicast venue into ground zero for a vibrant all-ages punk and indie rock scene. Solemite disbanded in early 2004 and Divine immediately began writing songs on his own. He named his new project Maldroid, for "malfunctioned robot," and resolved to build it on music videos.
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