Video Made the Radio Star 

Oakland's Maldroid hopes to ride YouTube all the way to the top.

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.

His attraction to music videos had solidified earlier that year, when he learned that Apple was selling them online through iTunes in the UK. He figured the feature would come to the US within a year. "I thought it would create a marketplace similar to MTV, where there was a reason to make good videos again," he said. "I thought we'd grab a foothold that way. ... I'm very interested in abusing the technology that's out there in ways that people aren't trying to do." At the time, not even Divine, perpetually confident and self-assured, knew quite how right he was.

Six months after coining the name Maldroid, Divine got his inspiration for the band's breakthrough video. "I was sitting on my couch, and A-ha's video came on [for 1986's "Take on Me"], and I started to wonder why no one made videos like that anymore," he recounted. Drawing from his lifelong hobby of illustrating cartoon characters, Divine got to work. He spent much of the next year in his Oakland apartment animating the video's sixteen hundred frames.

The video opens with Shawn Harris, of Oakland pop-punk group the Matches, hopping on a BART train and opening a comic book in his lap. As the camera zooms in on the panels of the comic, we see a young couple arguing on a couch: A girl threatens to leave her good-for-nothing boyfriend, who shows no remorse. Interspersed with this plot is staged footage of the band performing against a white backdrop. The entire work was filmed with a borrowed camera and only cost as much as some whiskey and hot dogs.

Divine continued to write new songs while animating the video. Maldroid remained a one-man band up to October 2005, when Divine shared forty of his songs with longtime friend and collaborator Johnny Genius. Genius had played in the Oakland alt-pop group the K.G.B., another central L3 band that signed to Dreamworks Records while its members were still in high school. By whittling Divine's songs down to the five best, Genius helped shape a musical direction for Maldroid, honing myriad impulses into what Divine considers a blend of Iggy Pop, the Kinks, and Beck. But the music alone wasn't enough to interest Genius in joining the band. What hooked him was the video.

The duo considered different options for Maldroid — such as building a robot PA to play backing tracks. But they soon scrapped that in favor of assembling a full-fledged band, and new members trickled in over the next year. Drummer Mike O'Million, 26, who also had played in Solemite, joined in January; Shippley, 25, and keyboardist Prince J, aka Jerry Yamashita, 24, both from the Stockton group Soundboy, joined in March; Brown, 26, who had played in local bands for years, joined shortly thereafter; and Riot, aka Justin Kirkpatrick, 26, another ex-Solemite member, wasn't added until November.

As Maldroid coalesced, so did its conviction that this band would operate differently from any others its members had played in. "None of us were interested in starting from scratch," said Divine. "We just don't want to build it up grassroots like we did before." Where previous groups had stretched themselves thin by touring the Bay Area almost weekly, Maldroid elected to build momentum online and only play select shows.

Maldroid also developed a different concept of what it meant to be in a band. Divine sought to establish Maldroid as a brand that superseded music, to place each of its members' creative outlets under one flag. This could extend to video production, original paintings, clothing ... maybe even a fragrance. Divine doesn't mind obscuring the fact that Maldroid is a band. "I'd love for people to just be like, 'Hey, have you heard Maldroid?' 'Heard Maldroid? You mean have I seen Maldroid? Because they make videos, right?' I want it to be confusing."

Divine conceived of the band as one big art project. He came up with a color scheme, designed and drew a mock-prep-school Maldroid crest, and painted unique images on the back of each person's jacket. These projects took a lot of time — time most other bands would have spent on their music.

The band members knew they were on the right track when Chicago band OK Go earned mainstream cachet through its "Here It Goes Again" video last July. The homemade video, which showed the four band members performing a choreographed dance on eight treadmills, earned a million YouTube views in six days. It now has more than eleven million views and is one of the site's most popular videos. Following the video's success, OK Go has appeared on virtually every late-night talk show and was recently awarded a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. "When that video dropped and that band got successful, I think all of us in this band were just like, 'Right, we need to just keep making good videos,'" said Divine. "If OK Go can make videos, then so can we."

Shortly after creating a YouTube Musician account for Maldroid early last October, Divine came across an advertisement for the site's ongoing music promotion, dubbed Cingular Presents YouTube Underground. He quickly entered both of Maldroid's videos — a rough cut of "He Said, She Said" and a finished version of "You Can Have It All," which was completed in a month that summer. By the end of the submission period, Maldroid was up against 2,200 other videos.

To promote "He Said, She Said," Divine scouted A-ha's original video on YouTube and invited those who had left positive comments on it to view Maldroid's video. Through YouTube's built-in messaging service, he also encouraged users who had expressed a strong liking for "He Said, She Said" to similarly market the video to any other bands they liked. The Oakland group's tiny fanbase quickly webbed around the world.

Information on how the winning bands were selected is murky at best. It's clear that Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor for TV's The OC and Grey's Anatomy, made the final call when it came to placing four bands into four winning slots (Best Video, Best Song, Best Live Performance, and Most Creative). But various sources disagree as to where those four bands came from: Patsavas said YouTube sent fifty videos her way; original contest rules stated that the top twenty would be under consideration; and YouTube marketing manager Jennifer Nielsen insisted that Patsavas looked only at the top four videos. The company refused to release any numbers to corroborate either story — not how many votes Maldroid received, not how close Maldroid was in votes to the other winning bands, and not how many total votes were cast in the contest. "I will tell you we didn't have the most votes, at all; not even close," said Divine in his initial discussion of the contest, before reverting to YouTube's story.

Nielsen, who is based in San Francisco, was happy to share that she and her colleagues were very impressed by Maldroid's video and that "there was buzz, internally, about the video" before voting began.

No matter how you cut it, it was an honor to be vetted by Patsavas, an indie rock tastemaker who has bolstered the careers of groups such as Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, and Bright Eyes by playing them on The OC, whose soundtracks have sold more than a million copies. "I thought it was a great video and a great song," she said of "He Said, She Said" in an interview. It's also nearly irrelevant how Maldroid won, because dollar for dollar it had the best product. Ostrich Head, recipient of the Most Creative award and owner of arguably the second top video, paid $2,500 to Santa Monica-based LaLa Films to produce its MTV-quality spot.

On the evening of Sunday, November 19, Divine received an e-mail from YouTube. Maldroid had won Best Video. He could hardly believe it; the band had expected to hear the results two days earlier and had almost given up on winning. Maldroid quickly hired manager Miles Hurwitz, who also manages the Matches, and met with him to discuss logistics for the impending trip. Maldroid would be doing a slew of interviews and hobnobbing with industry professionals, and this was all uncharted territory for the group.

"We approached it from, 'All right, there's three other bands out there, how are we gonna stand out from those bands?'" Divine said of the trip. "'How are we gonna be the best band out there? How are we gonna be the coolest guys out there?'"

Still uncertain of what to expect, they packed their bags, threw on their suits, and boarded a plane for New York. Waiting for them were two YouTube representatives who had no idea their grand prize winner had yet to play a single live show.

During the next three days and two nights, the band members say, they slept less than two hours. They partied both nights and racked up a $4,000 bar tab that YouTube gladly paid. They convinced one hostess to play their EP over the house stereo. When the winning groups appeared on Good Morning America on the morning of November 29, Divine was the only person interviewed on air. "I'm trying to make an effort to make videos cool again," he told ABC News weather anchor Sam Champion.

The suits never came off during the entire trip and soon became vital to Maldroid's identity. Both the band and YouTube's Nielsen report that on multiple occasions, complete strangers approached the group in Times Square and asked who'd made their jackets. They also say R&B singer India.Arie encountered Maldroid in the lobby of the W Hotel, where YouTube had put them up, and inquired if they were a fashion troupe. And at the Gibson USA showroom in what used to be the Hit Factory — where Bruce Springsteen recorded Born to Run — they were approached by a onetime guitarist for the early-'70s glam-rock group T. Rex, who was similarly impressed with Maldroid's look.

Newest member AJ Riot, who joined the lineup a week before the trip, did not accompany the group to New York — not because he couldn't make it, or because YouTube couldn't accommodate him, but because he didn't have a jacket. "He understood that it was a business thing going up there," said Divine. "It was us looking like we're gonna look, and representing. And he could not fit into that program, so he had no place."

In the month or so preceding the contest's conclusion, "He Said, She Said" received around 3,000 views. The day that Maldroid's win was announced, that number soared to 200,000. The next day, another 80,000. Then 60,000. Today, more than two months later, the original rough cut of the video continues to get 3,000 views a day, for a total now exceeding 700,000.

Among four bands boosted by music videos, Maldroid, it seems, was the only one anticipating it. Each group has certainly benefited from the contest — Los Angeles' Ostrich Head secured online distribution through iTunes and eMusic; Nashville's GreenLand signed with an international booking agency; Philadelphia's Pawnshop Roses have been doing more press and playing more shows than ever — but only Maldroid has sustained its YouTube campaign. The group's channel now contains 16 clips and adds new content almost every week. Among all YouTube Musician accounts, signed and unsigned alike, Maldroid's has climbed into the top 25 most viewed of all time.

On a Friday afternoon in early January, Divine crawls on his hands and knees across the kitchen floor of the one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt where he lives with his wife. As he moves, he pulls oversize plastic dominos from a shoebox and lines them up on the linoleum, spaced about an inch apart. Glued to one side of each is a small picture of Divine's face: sequential stills clipped from a short video of him nodding his head.

He positions his brand-new $1,200 Sony HD camcorder on the adjacent living room carpet — near the dining nook that now houses Divine's desk, studio-quality recording equipment, and a Macintosh computer loaded with such indispensable software as ProTools, Photoshop, After-FX, and Final Cut Pro — then pushes record and flicks the first domino. As the chain races across the floor in less than two seconds, Divine attempts to simultaneously pan and zoom the camera to capture the images on the dominos as they fall.

"This is gonna work," he insists to guitarist Todd Brown, who drove from Walnut Creek today to help test the shot.

"You knew what you were getting yourself into," Brown says.

"The theory is sound," Divine counters. "It's just finding a way to make it work." Creating the animated effect of his head bobbing up and down on the faces of falling dominos proves elusive. Following a few failed attempts at capturing the shot from a stationary point on the carpet, Divine lines up the dominos for another test run. After about ten are set, he mishandles one and the line tumbles down. No time for frustration. He starts over. Yet this time, after about 25 dominos are up, he trips the line again. Without hesitation Divine resumes, even more carefully, while Brown works from the opposite end. Somehow they're both still smiling.

Before attempting it himself, Divine tried to sell his dominos video idea to the Raconteurs, a rock band featuring Jack White of the White Stripes. It declined. Now Divine is left to his own devices trying to make it work with zero budget. Already he's daydreaming about what it would be like to realize his ideas with some financial backing. "We've gotta get someone who believes that what we do can be profitable," he says. He idolizes Michel Gondry, the patron saint of music videos, who in 2002 directed a brilliant stop-motion Lego video for the White Stripes, and would love to earn Gondry's support. Until then, it's "beg, borrow, and steal." Beyond establishing the Maldroid name, making videos for other groups would be a great way to fund their own. He insists he'll save the best stuff for Maldroid.

So far, his best stuff has been pretty good. Maldroid's first completed video was a computer-animated jigsaw puzzle for "You Can Have It All." Then came "He Said, She Said." His third video, for "Heck No (I'll Never Listen to Techno)," was featured on YouTube's homepage for five days in early February, where it was viewed more than 700,000 times — surpassing the total for "He Said, She Said" — and lauded by countless bloggers. The animated stop-motion Lite Brite video required six months to complete, which involved conceiving and sketching the plot via storyboard, painstakingly illustrating it frame-by-frame on a Lite Brite toy, and finally fusing the shots together into a fluid sequence on his computer. Also in production on the computer is an Etch A Sketch animation. The toy theme is no coincidence, Divine says. "A lot of my ideas lean toward toys I played with as a kid."

During a regular Thursday night rehearsal at Oakland's Skyline Studios, where the group also self-recorded and produced its debut EP, work takes precedence over play. The band is drained after an hour and a half spent fine-tuning a new song.

"Do you guys feel like you wanna do that again, or do you think ... ?" Divine asks.

"No, we're good!" Shippley fires back. "You don't wanna overkill it."

"All right," Brown says. "It's getting there, it's definitely getting there. It does need that golden chorus, but it's almost there."

"I think like with the rest of our songs, a great video will do it right," Genius adds.

"I wrote that song, and you know when you've written the golden hit, and I know that ain't it," Brown says with a laugh.

"But a good video can make it a hit," Divine stresses.

"Is it the number one smash hit of the century? No."

"But if we go viral with the video, it could be."

"You know what Miles said was," Brown continues, "'If you guys have a pseudo-punk sound, then why don't I just call you a punk band? What makes you guys different? What makes you better?'"

Genius doesn't need time to think. "We look better."

Indeed. They often go so far as to attend these rehearsals in full Maldroid regalia, as if playing a gig: coats, ties, ascots, and all. Through its videos and physical appearance, Maldroid has taken full control of its image. Even the keytar was introduced for image purposes, to help distinguish the brand.

It's a delicate balance: While projecting a lighthearted and playful front, Maldroid is a carefully orchestrated business. Every morning, the guys plan a strategy for the day and assign tasks to each member, many of which involve public relations. Likewise, Maldroid's videos are at once commercials and products themselves. Enacting this dichotomy live, the band performs songs by both Devo and the Stooges — one plasticized pop, the other pure rock aggression.

Hurwitz, Maldroid's manager, recognizes this as one of the band's strongest qualities. "Divine's not shy about wanting commercial success, but he wants that commercial success to come from an authentic, unadulterated vision." The singer has guided Maldroid to embody the calling card of the music video: the duality of art and commerce. "Divine is a serious artist dressing himself up in shtick," the manager says approvingly.

Live 105 music director Aaron Axelsen agrees: "The trick is finding ones that balance art and commerce; the records that have cool, cutting-edge flair that are also palatable enough that I can turn over to the masses. 'He Said, She Said' fits the bill perfectly," he says, calling it a "catchy and memorable local pop tune with commercial viability potential."

His station has been playing "He Said, She Said" for almost a year. The song spins about ten times a month and requests have spiked since the win was announced. Maldroid is at the top of the list of local bands generating major label interest, says Axelsen. Columbia, Atlantic, and Interscope Records have all called him and asked if mainstream radio will embrace the album. "The answer is yes," he says. Stations in Las Vegas and Denver have already picked it up.

No matter how the band captures attention, Hurwitz and Axelsen say, its songs must ultimately hold that attention. Axelsen said he believes Maldroid's music is strong enough. Before the YouTube contest, the group placed seventh out of 25 finalists in an online competition to play at Live 105's Not So Silent Night concert in December. "That's a good sign," says Axelsen. "That means it has merit without any sort of accolade or quirky award."

Fans have also shown approval of Maldroid's music by putting their money where their mouse is. Since its release in early December, Maldroid's digital EP Malfunction, which includes five songs and three videos configured for playback on video iPods, has sold more than eight hundred downloads at 99 cents each via the iMusicast Web site.

But if there's a specter haunting Maldroid's music, it's originality. The opening bassline for "He Said, She Said" borrows heavily from Joy Division's "She's Lost Control." Other influences are similarly close to the surface. Devo cover "Uncontrollable Urge," which Divine rarely identifies as such, is a live staple for the group and one of its best live songs. Of course, this also is evidence of Divine's keen ability to serve up popular culture through pastiche. No one's claiming this style of music hasn't been done before. Yet no band has ever assembled the elements quite like Maldroid.

By the band's second show, a January 11 after-party at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop for attendees of that day's MacWorld conference — where Divine gave a thirty-minute talk about using Apple Motion software to make music videos — Maldroid's performance has improved considerably. Divine wails like Iggy Pop despite his sore throat, and early in the set inadvertently cuts his face on his mic, causing blood to run down his cheek. Introducing a new song a bit later, he shouts, "It's about rock 'n' roll, and if you don't know what that is, get the fuck out!"

The other members appear equally animated and confident. Throughout Maldroid's thirty-minute set, they perform for an audience of perhaps two hundred and fifty people as if it were one thousand. Brown's progression from last month to tonight is particularly obvious: He's adapted flawlessly to his role as flashy lead guitarist. Satisfying the promise of the "Rock On" sticker on his black-and-white Fender Stratocaster, he points the guitar toward the crowd while cramming in as many licks as he can. Feeding off the band's feverish energy, the audience tonight dances more than that at Blakes. During "He Said, She Said," it sings along more too.

Maldroid's third concert comes nine days later on January 20, and its fourth, a rare headlining opportunity for a local band at Aaron Axelsen's indie-rock club Popscene, follows on February 1. The band's fifth and biggest show will be a prime slot at Slim's, one of San Francisco's highest-visibility clubs, on February 17. Gibson-sponsored record company showcases in New York and Los Angeles could be forthcoming, as will an appearance at Austin's esteemed South by Southwest music festival in mid-March. To amplify the spectacle of its live show, the band already has begun to experiment with projecting abstract colors and shapes, as well as the Maldroid crest, onto a screen behind the stage. In the future, they plan to use elements from their videos to create a sort of live music video setting.

Other developments are on hold until the band signs a record contract. While Maldroid is not interested in surrendering creative control or abandoning its DIY ethic, it wants the added resources and manpower a label can provide. Most importantly, it looks to sign with a label, whether indie or major, that sees eye-to-eye with the band. After all, Divine says, what's the point of doing something different when what they're doing works so well?

One thing is certain: A label will be able to meet Divine's original goal of getting his videos on iTunes. The band also is waiting until it has signed a contract to release a full-length album. Divine hopes to package it as a DVD, with a video for each song, so that fans can watch and listen at the same time.

"I really want there to be a sense of when all is said and done, we're just artists," he said. "We're using the music to push everything, because that's what we love. But if you don't like our music, fine. You'll probably like our videos."


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