Today’s the day – after a nine-month release schedule of monthly digital ‘episodes’, Gorillaz’s Song Machine Season One – Strange Timez (Parlophone) finally makes its physical, full album bow today.
It’s been a groundbreaking campaign that has wracked up well over 100 million streams and involved an eclectic cast of collaborators, from Slowthai to Sir Elton John and Robert Smith to St Vincent. The band will debut its innovative Song Machine Live livestream across three different timezones on December 12 and 13.
Last month’s exclusive Music Week Gorillaz cover story lifted the lid on Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s mould-breaking approach. And now, with the arrival of the album version, Music Week quizzed Gorillaz co-manager Niamh Byrne – who manages the band at Eleven Mgmt with Régine Moylett – about how a campaign like no other came together…
Where did the idea for Song Machine come from and what have been the challenges and opportunities around this approach?
“Song Machine is an episodic series, constructed as a response to Damon and Jamie’s desire to release music and visuals as and when they were ready. The music was created in real time, which has its challenges as traditional 2D animation takes time, so we had to think outside of the box and find solutions to make it work. It is easy to forget when you see all the artwork that it literally comes from one person – essentially Jamie and a pencil.”
What’s been the impact on how the music is consumed?
“For us, Song Machine was also a streaming drive. With each track getting dropped regularly with no advance warning, the tactic required fans to subscribe and/or follow the various platforms to catch each release. This then fed the word of mouth and social media buzz around each drop, which created our own promotional engine. We also – for the first time – created bite-sized podcasts that sat within the ecosystem of streaming services where possible and encouraged fans to keep coming back to the Song Machine playlist. Each clip gives clues about which track we were about to drop next. I guess the downside could have been that by the third or fourth drop interest may have waned, but it’s had the opposite effect and each track drop has exponentially increased the numbers. Gorillaz is a gift – the music and artwork is consistently good – all we need to do is to put it in front of the right people.”
Gorillaz is a gift – all we need to do is to put it in front of the right people
Niamh Byrne, Eleven Mgmt
How do you feel about the response to the campaign so far?
“The response to the campaign has been great and fans have noticed a return to form both musically and visually. It feels really good.”
How have you been directing fans to the album release?
“Gorillaz have a significant audience for physical, which is why we have the formats we have. We put together a product suite which suits most pockets, and fans love the artwork and design and attention to detail. For this campaign, we also have the Gorillaz Almanac – a first for us and again something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s inspired by the British annual and is a compendium of fun material, character stories, games and puzzles and commentary on the year, with a new comic strip by Jamie.”
The collaborations on this record are next-level, how was it coordinating all of those superstars, especially with the visual element being so important?
“The collaborators are part of the creative process. The songs themselves dictate who is right for the track. Gorillaz have been very fortunate in that so many artists get excited by working on a particular track and they all – without exception – have fun with the characters too. We work very collaboratively with all the featured artists, and they seem to really appreciate being so involved in every aspect of what we do.”
How disruptive has the coronavirus crisis been to the campaign?
“The virus has obviously been devastating for the live industry, but we were very fortunate that we did not have a large amount of shows planned. It was also hugely rewarding to keep the Song Machine concept going despite the challenges around lockdown. The fans certainly appreciated it and, in some ways, it offered relief as we were all trying to process the enormity of what was going on. The team have been incredibly resilient and it’s a credit to them that we have been able to run things as planned with very little disruption. It shows that it is possible to do things, even if you are not all in the same room. If anything, it’s made us more efficient than before and forced us to re-think areas of the business that we had come to rely on and find new ways of doing things.”