In May 2008 I spent a wonderful few days at the Listowel Writers’ Week, where my friend David and I had decided to join a series of songwriting workshops. Glen Hansard had originally been slated to lead the course, but being in unexpectedly high demand having won himself an Oscar, he pulled out a few weeks ahead of the event and handed the reins over to Freddie White. The latter is a fine guitarist and singer, but is not notable as a songwriter, so it didn’t result in the participants making great strides in that department. Nevertheless we had some memorable musical adventures, and if I hadn’t been there I would never have met Maeve Sweeney O’Connor.
Maeve was from Donegal and had joined the workshop to see whether she could scratch a persistent musical itch. She was someone who, as I recall, was always scribbling down potential lyrics. She played a bit of guitar, but hadn’t done a whole lot of songwriting. My most vivid memory of her in Listowel was during an afternoon song session in a pub, when she sang a beautiful unaccompanied version of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate.
Maeve Sweeney at Silverwood Studios, Wicklow, August 2008
I had been writing songs for a few years prior to my trip to Listowel. One that I was really excited about was a duet called Dear Liza, based on the famous children’s song about the hole in the bucket. I was planning to spend some time in a recording studio later that summer, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to include Dear Liza as didn’t have a female vocalist. I remember nervously asking Maeve if she’d let me play the song for her and perhaps have a go at the female part. She sang it perfectly almost instantly and we even recorded a rough demo version there and then (to which I later added some additional guitar lines).
I was thrilled when she agreed to travel down to Wicklow from Donegal when I was back in Ireland for the recording sessions in August. In the end she sang on every track that we recorded over those two days at Gavin Ralston’s Silverwood Studios. I’m very proud of those songs. Maeve’s vocal on Dear Liza is spot on. It has always reminded me of Briana Corrigan’s singing on The Beautiful South song A Little Time: strong and direct, but with buckets of passion. Maeve’s Donegal lilt adds a welcome measure of feistiness too.
Maeve died on 24 July 2016. I had been in touch with her on and off over the years, but – regrettably – not in recent times. I had sent her a note via Facebook in early July, just to say that I had been thinking of her and was pleased to see that her FB timeline suggested she was about and active. Just a few days later her husband Derek sent an email to say that she was in a hospice and had stage four bowel cancer. She died the following Sunday.
I didn’t know Maeve well, but we shared the intimate experience of making music together. She was a warm, caring person, hugely proud of her children and passionate about theatre and music. She was only 44 when she died.
I don’t think any of us needs reminding that life is short and fragile. (Once again my friend Iain Twigg comes to mind.) Maeve was the kind of person who would accept an invitation from someone she barely knew to drive half the length of Ireland and spend two days hanging around a recording studio to sing backing vocals on a few songs simply because it seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do. She was the kind of person who said, yes, let’s give it a go. I will think of her often.
Having failed to set the world alight with our first attempt to make it to the top of the Christmas pops with our song A Perfect Christmas, we decided to have one more crack of the whip and throw a bit of money at the problem. Following 2013’s DIY approach to music promo, this time David and I (who together are Mulled) hired a professional promoter to ensure that the job would be done properly. Did it work? All will be revealed!
The amount of money one could spend promoting a single has a lot in common with the length of the proverbial piece of string. Our piece of string, however, was definitely on the short side and so we had to go for what was probably close to the cheapest package with which one could reasonably expect to have an impact.
Around the time when we were trying to decide how we could try to break into the Irish radio market in 2014, I happened to read an article in the Irish Times – “How to get ahead in rock’n’roll” – that included advice from Emma Harney at Orchestrate PR. What caught my eye was the line “The cost depends on the project: it can start at €750, which would be for a tailored indie campaign“. Within a few short weeks we had signed on the dotted line and by mid-November our campaign was up and running.
Bad money after good?
The total campaign ended up costing just short of €1,400, as there was VAT to be paid on that €750, another €200 to have 100 CD singles printed up (for which we used CDduplication.ie), plus €250 in costs (again to Orchestrate) to cover postage and the monitoring of radio and print media for plays and mentions. The single was “plugged” to all relevant radio stations in Ireland, going to Heads of Music and some DJs too. We got weekly reports on the feedback received. This varied from those who didn’t like the track at all, to those who liked it but didn’t feel it fitted with their station, to those that would consider it for some plays, to those who said they would add it to the playlist. Of course talk is cheap…the question was how many would actually play it in the end.
One song, two videos
We still had the super animated video from the previous year, kindly made for us by our friends at Lovely Toons. By November it had racked up north of 20,000 views, largely thanks to YouTube advertising credit that the other half of Mulled has access to. While having this many views certainly made a good impression, the fact that the release date on the video was 2013 didn’t help when we were in fact trying to spin it as a new release for 2014. We thought, therefore, that in some cases it’d be no harm to have a new video with a 2014 release date. We got something very simple made for the princely sum of €35 thanks to an efficient, friendly and talented chap called Calvin who sells his services via Fiverr.com.
(Nice to see that the new video has more than 1,000 plays already. We still mostly focused on the original animated video, so this isn’t too bad at all.)
Thanks to Orchestrate, we could be confident that our song was reaching the right people and that they’d at least give it a listen. But did anything actually come of all this effort? Probably the two highlights were getting “exposure” on two of the most important media outlets in the country. First up, The Irish Times reviewed us on 5 December, as follows:
Irish songwriters Eoghan O’Sullivan and David Graham outline various cliches they could do without this Christmas (snow, Santa, carollers), before unveiling their one wish: “Oh, won’t you please come back to stay this Christmas.” Any similarities to Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) are coincidental, we’re sure.
Not earth-shattering, but it came with three stars. Given that Eminem’s new single only got two stars that same week, we were pleased enough. The best was yet to come though.
It seems the Head of Music at RTE Radio One really liked the song – enough to add it to their Christmas playlist! I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw us listed there on the RTE website alongside the likes of Lisa Hannigan, Imelda May, Norah Jones. The problem was that getting onto the Radio One playlist is just leading the horse to water; making him drink was another thing entirely. The individual producers on the different shows actually decide what songs to play and they can – and do – completely ignore the playlist. In the end we were played only once, very early in the morning, by Shay Byrne on Risin’ Time.
We picked up various other reviews here and there, mostly music blogs regurgitating the sales pitch that had reached them from us via Orchestrate. (“It might just become your new favourite Christmas song.“) But there were one or two that went a step further. I particularly liked the description on FeckingDeadly.com: “…a lovely sing-along with a ‘ding-dong-ding-dong-ding’ refrain that will stick with you for weeks to come.” I also did an interview over the phone for a show called ArtsWave on Dublin South FM, but I’m not sure it ever actually went to air.
Aside from that one play on RTE Radio One, not a whole lot more came to pass. We were played on a handful of local stations, sometimes more than once: Beat 102-103, Midlands 103, Northern Sound and Shannonside all played it. The song also aired a couple of times on 2XM, a digital only station from RTE, as well as on 8Radio.com, an internet station. And we shouldn’t forget our good friends at World Radio Switzerland in Geneva, who again played it a number of times in the run-up to Christmas. (I also did an interview for Drivetime with Tony Johnston, who was as supportive as ever.)
The RadioMonitor service registered a total of 13 plays on Irish stations and estimated that it was heard by about 30,000 people. Nothing to write home about there.
The (Mince) Pie Chart
I was pretty active on Facebook and Twitter again. Probably the thing that got the best reaction on the social channels was the pie chart I threw together on a whim one evening. I realised that you’ve got to give people something that they might feel like sharing, liking, commenting on.
For a brief moment I thought our campaign to reach the #XmasNo100 might gather some momentum, but it wasn’t to be. Perhaps if we had a team of social media whiz kids backing us we could have done more here.
My favourite Twitter interaction had to be this one with the legendary John Creedon:
In terms of sales, we actually did worse than the previous year, selling only 16 downloads via iTunes! Given that the 37 we sold in 2013 earned us only $34, we’ve gone quite a bit further into the red. In reality the kind of campaign we mounted was never going to result in significant sales: we’re not a real band that tours and has a fan base we can call on. Once any friends that do actually download music from iTunes had bought the single, that was more or less it, unless it had somehow gained a bit of momentum from radio airplay (which, as we’ve already seen, was not the case).
Needless to say, we reached neither the #XmasNo1 nor the #XmasNo100. Maybe we were the #XmasNo1000 – I guess they stop counting at some point.
Ireland’s Christmas FM once again refused to play the song or even to acknowledge our emails asking whether they’d consider doing so. It seems a bit odd, particularly given some of the really terrible songs they do play. On the other hand, thanks to one of their DJs, Keith Shanley, the song was included on a royalty-free in-store music mix that was used by various retail chains in Ireland. I got reports of the song being heard in sports shops in Dublin and Donegal, so it seems it was heard by shoppers all around the country.
The End… Perhaps.
That, I think, brings the curtain down on this little project of ours. From this point on A Perfect Christmas will have to fend for itself in the musical wilderness. I retain the slim hope that some intern tasked with finding the perfect track for a movie soundtrack or Christmas advert will stumble upon it some day, rescuing it from obscurity and making David and I rich beyond our wildest dreams. Or at least recoup the money we’ve spent on recording, releasing and promoting it.
And, of course, it will probably always be a part of Christmas in the O’Sullivan and Graham households. Ding dong ding dong ding dong ding…
As a reward for reading all the way to the end, I thought it might be amusing to let you hear where A Perfect Christmas came from. I give you, in all its glory, the original demo of “Come out to play”, recorded (I think) in summer 2003 by me in the RTE Limerick studios late one night. The lyrics left a lot to be desired, but the melody and harmonies were all there. Skip to 3’00” for what became the ding-dongs. I think David and I did a good job in turning this into festive gold, right?