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Monday, February 25, 2013

Update: Celtic Thunder's Social Toaster

Celtic Thunder's fans outside the US and Canada are once again in the running for the prizes offered on Celtic Thunder's Social Toaster site, demonstrating once again that Celtic Thunder's management appreciates its loyal fans. Whatever the reasoning was behind restricting the eligibility for prizes on this site originally, Celtic Thunder clearly values its fans as much as the Thunderheads value Celtic Thunder. Of course now that the rest of the planet is back in the running for shot glasses, hats and t-shirts, some of these nifty prizes will be heading south to their new homes in Australia, but this is just as we Thunderheads expected it ought to be.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Deep Thoughts on Celtic Thunder's SocialToaster Adventure

A short while ago, Celtic Thunder rolled out a new social media marketing toy that on the surface seemed like a really cool idea. Actually, I still think it could be really cool, but after playing with it for a few days and seeing the reactions of the other Thunderheads to this new site, my original concerns are weighing heavily against this tool as it is being managed now. Of course, Celtic Thunder is somewhat between gigs at the moment, with all the lads and the band off until this week on a well-deserved mini-holiday before their March promo tour in the US. So, while this socialtoaster thing is frustrating a lot of fans, and not accomplishing much to show for it, perhaps this tool was simply rolled out too early and will work more smoothly once the band and its marketing department are in full swing again. If there's one thing I can always find to gripe about with this band, it is the occasional but very visible PR issues that seem to crop up every few months, possibly whittling away a few more loyal Thunderheads from the fanbase with each PR crisis. Hopefully this socialtoaster experiment doesn't become the next PR 'crisis'.

Social Toaster is a company which facilitates marketing through fans. From their own website: "SocialToaster is a hosted software platform that helps brands maximize their reach through the social networks. Our platform is designed to make it easy for organizations to identify and enlist their loyal supporter as Super Fans; vocal enthusiasts that are proud to share the brand’s regular content to their personal friend networks. SocialToaster allows your organization’s Super Fans to drive traffic to your web site by granting your organization permission to automatically post links to their profiles on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn. SocialToaster is the only solution of its kind to provide advanced real-time reporting and social analytics that featurers full end-to-end tracking from initial link promotion through to lead-capture and revenue generation." 
Points scheme for
Celtic Thunder's
Social Toaster

In the US, anyway, and for music & entertainment companies, I'm not so sure what benefit LinkedIn would be, and who uses Myspace anymore? I would have wished for a Tumblr and a Pinterest option, given the current patterns of Thunderhead social media use. That aside, this is basically an app that obtains permission from you, the fan, to post things on your behalf concerning the company and its products, only you also get points for sharing these posts on your twitter, facebook, etc. These points are the clever part of this marketing tool. Companies can set up prizes and rewards for their fans, and can base these on the points fans have earned by posting links to recruit new fan participants, posting status updates with certain keywords, and posting content sent to the fans for dissemination. 

So far, so good. Thunderheads love prizes and recognition as much as any fans, and we clearly love promoting our beloved band already, so how hard could it be to set up a system that recognizes these already dedicated fans and gives them cool merchandise? Well, first of all, we've had to address the fact that the prizes are only available to legal residents of the US and Canada. Having just finished a tour in Australia and New Zealand, it should not come as a surprise to this band that the fans from that part of the planet might be very enthusiastic about participating in this activity. Several of the most active Thunderheads in our whole Thunderhead community are from Australia, and these ladies are already clearly 'superfans', whether they can receive prizes through the new Celtic Thunder Social Toaster scheme or not. Sure, bypassing the Aussie fans on the leaderboard might mean I could actually win something (not wanting to completely spam my dear followers and readers means I am only barely participating in some of the link sharing aspects of the social toaster game, thus I rank somewhere near 160th right now, and drop a bit every time new fans start playing). But, I don't really want a Celtic Thunder shot glass and really none of the prizes are worth accepting artificial divisions in our fan community. 

Unfortunately for the success of the current social toaster set-up, we don't need Celtic Thunder to start deciding who is a ThunderHead, and we don't need to join any site or group to be one either. The Thunderheads emerged quite organically as honest fans of an excellent music group that brings its collection of lovely people on tour through our cities every year and fills our PBS stations' schedules with reruns of old Celtic Thunder shows. So long as Celtic Thunder remains a show promoted primarily through PBS, QVC and morning news-channel talk shows, it will retain pretty much the same fans as always. 

I get the impression that posting more about Celtic Thunder is meant to attract new fans, not just bug the heck out of the existing ones. The majority of the crowds at any music show I have been to this past year have no clue who Celtic Thunder is, because these crowds are full of people who listen to NPR and satellite radio, or who use the internet for most of their news and music. These crowds wouldn't be caught dead shopping on QVC, and have not watched PBS willingly since they left middle school, at least. Perhaps through posting more, and more often about Celtic Thunder, we'll draw in these crowds that PBS, QVC and local morning shows fail to reach. The Thunderheads are already promoting Celtic Thunder, however, and will continue to do so- whatever sour taste Social Toaster might have left in the mouths of some of us, we still all consider the Celtic Thunder folks to be sort of an adopted extended family. But, I'm not so sure that spamming our friends is the way to go about successfully promoting this band. At least all this posting will drive up stats online so that Celtic Thunder looks more popular on facebook and twitter, which is one way to play the social media popularity game.

Prizes and rewards would be nice, sure, even if the scheme isn't perfect, and I'm certain that all the fans who have participated in the Social Toaster experiment so far loved the free download they got of Emmet Cahill singing "Spanish Lady". I can certainly see how Celtic Thunder might use Social Toaster in ways that benefit everyone, especially if they actually start generating content for us to share, and if they can figure out some more rewards that, like that free download,d are available to all Thunderheads regardless of country.

The prizes, which only the first 100 or 120 Thunderheads win
(it seems unclear whether the folks who win the shot glass
 also can win the tshirts and the cap, in which case
only the top 120 fans will win anything at all.)
One other concern I'll mention now is with the competitive aspect of the prizes that Celtic Thunder has set up so far. Celtic Thunder fans are very supportive of each other, and tend to bypass a lot of the jockying for position and status that one sees in many fan communities. All of us are quite fond of all the lads who sing for Celtic Thunder, but when particular fans latch onto particular lads as their 'future husband' or similar obsession, this is simply absorbed into the structure of our community. We celebrate with these obsessed/infatuated fans when their beloved singers retweet them or otherwise respond to them, and rarely do we see any sign of intolerance or jealousy when other fans confess to also loving these men. 
(There are only 6 principal singers, and thousands of infatuated fans, so the math would suggest that we'll all have to share anyway or be very unhappy.) Some of us take pictures or draw or make crafts that catch the attention of the Celtic Thunder singers, and here, too, the rest of the Thunderheads are glad to see that these creative fans are recognized. So, with the competition element of the Social Toaster site, I'd wager that most of us can already guess who the top 20 names will be on the leaderboard, and we're cool with that- cool enough to defeat the purpose of the competition perhaps, since the folks at the top now are the because the rest of us are happy to help them gain more points to win those shot glasses, t-shirts and caps, if it makes them happy. 

It is early still in this experiment, so maybe it will turn out alright once Celtic Thunder shows up in North America for their promo tour next month. And, while with my luck the prize cap will be one with that stiff mesh under the front embroidery (those always fit weird on small heads like mine), I do love hats, and a bright red Celtic Thunder hat would be a fun addition to my collection, if I ever could get enough points fast enough. I'm not holding my breath about that hat, really, but I will most likely revisit this topic later, as it is an interesting application of a cool social media marketing tool to promote one of my favorite companies.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Celtic Thunder: Mythology (album review)

I try to never review any new albums or singles until and unless I have heard them multiple times, preferably over enough time to let the music sink in a bit. So, finally, here's my nod to the new Celtic Thunder album, Mythology.

This is a fantastic album of course, well worth purchasing, and from what I've seen on social media this week, all those extras that come with the better packages are also worth the extra money. Sadly I won't be able to justify the added expense to get all those extras right now, so it may be a while before I can speak intelligently about the rest of the new material Celtic Thunder has just released. Still, the album and basic DVD are more than plenty to keep me happy for a long time. The new songs are refreshingly different without getting away from the concept of Celtic Thunder, and the musicians singing and playing in this show all look like they had a blast making this show happen.

Voices- The first time I heard it, I was actually a bit turned off by the first song on this album, which appeared partially in the preview 'sizzle reels' that have been on the Celtic Thunder website. "Voices" is more of a continuation of the musical theater stuff that we saw in the Storm production, which fans are still not all sure of, and certainly even after hearing it 4 or 5 times in context, this song still sounds like it was inspired by songs like the all-cast numbers in Les Miserables. But, I really, really like Les Miserables (the musical, the movies and the book), and especially after some obnoxious and as my nice semi-stable current living arrangements suffered some yet unresolved major setbacks mid-week, the lyrics of this one express nicely the constant litany of doubts and fears I'm probably going to be obsessing over for the next few months. So, now that I can relate personally to it, I really appreciate this song. I am also amused that the lyrics could easily be the voiced thoughts of the performers themselves as they put themselves out on a stage for another round of shows in the risky world of live-music entertainment.

Solo songs- Mythology includes a great solo song by each of the principal singers, Colm Keegan sings "Katie", Emmet Cahill sings "The Isle of Innisfree" (which is quickly becoming my favorite to sing along to) and a solo arrangement of "Danny Boy", and George Donaldson sings a nice cover of "Scarlet Ribbons". Ryan Kelly sings a gorgeous rendition of "Carrickfergus, which we've heard about before as his audition song from way back in 2007, but which we'd not had the pleasure of hearing on the Celtic Thunder stage until now. Neil Byrne sings "Carolina Rua", a song written by the American songwriter Thom Moore, though there are quite a few older Irish songs that no doubt inspire this one. Keith Harkin sings my favorite song off his own album, "Tears of Hercules", and also has the solo portion of a magically gorgeous track, "Now We Are Free". This one, when the rest of the singers come in, sounds a heck of a lot like their voices are being artificially echoed using some sort of effects-pedal or something, but one has simply to watch the DVD to be certain they are in fact just singing these complicated echoes really well.

My favorite thing about this album is that it utilizes the stunningly luscious sound that these 6 men achieve when harmonizing together. They sounded amazing when singing together for "Steal Away" during their last tour, better than any other voice combination or arrangement I've yet heard on that song, and those same gorgeous sounds come through in the various group numbers Mythology introduces. Back when Celtic Thunder first formed its 5 members had a synergy that helped considerably towards putting Celtic Thunder safely at the top of the world music charts. Since the, as Paul and Damian moved on, Neil stepped up from band-member to principal singer, and Emmet and Colm joined the group, these fellows have always kept high enough standards to stay on top, but not always with quite the same magical synergy as they had right at first. Well, after regrouping, preparing all-new material and truly incorporating Colm and Emmet, Celtic Thunder may be rekindling that old magic.

I am especially in love with their rendition of "She Moved Through The Fair", a song which Josh Groban also just recently covered for his new album. As my regular readers might recall, I tend to sing along to everything, but listening to this one song in particular, the Celtic Thunder version, I don't really want to sing along yet, because that would break the spell these men so carefully weave through their lush harmonies. Besides being completely captivated by their singing, I once again have to wonder whether the woman in this song is a young bride impatient to enjoy conjugal bliss with her beloved, or a young woman who died before her wedding day and returns to her beloved as a ghost. In other versions it always seems more like the story is along the lines of the first option, but this new version makes her almost certainly dead and returned from her grave, perhaps implying her beloved's pending doom as well. Love stories are a dime a dozen, but ghost stories, especially in Celtic Thunder shows, are more rare and thus more enticing.

The Mythology DVD, while offering almost the same songlist, with just a few additional songs, is also a decidedly rewarding purchase. The lads are of course rather easy on the eyes, but there are enough extra songs that are each in themselves worth buying an album for, too. At the top of my list would be the cover of "Sound of Silence", sung by Keith Harkin and Colm Keegan. Not having heard Colm sing much beyond cheesy romantic pop covers, I would not have pegged this pairing as at all special, but actually for covering Simon & Garfunkel tunes, these two men have the perfect combination of voices. I'd love to hear more of this pair together.

The special features that one could get on DVD with this new show are not on the standard DVD at all, so I am just going from the screenshots and comments other fans have posted, but I gather that the extra material is particularly cool this year. I only finally got a chance not too long ago to use my sister's DVD player and actually see the special features that were on the earlier shows' discs (my player, even before the speakers died, lost its ability to navigate through menu screens). Maybe by next year I'll have had the chance somehow to see all the other stuff my basic discs lack. From what I've seen so far, it should be an exciting year for us Celtic Thunder fans anyway, whether I see those other videos or not.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Music from Catch Bees and Celtic Thunder

For most Thunderheads this weekend marked the end of a long wait for the new Celtic Thunder show album. The album, Mythology, comes out officially on Tuesday, February 19th, but of course some people have received their discs a few days early, and already the music of this new show is making its way onto tumblr and facebook. This weekend also marked the end of Celtic Thunder's second tour in Australia and New Zealand, which lasted 4 weeks and seemed quite successful despite monsoon-like rains that forced several cancellations due to flooding. Australia, like California, has seasons like drought, 'wildfire', 'flood' and 'mudslides', and of course Celtic Thunder's tour there started near the end of wildfire season, just as flood season began. Now that this tour has ended the lads are scattering for a short while. Keith is headed to California, where he has a show and other work to do in connection with his solo music career. Ryan is hanging out a bit longer in Sydney, and the rest of the group is gradually making their way back to Ireland and Scotland to rest before they head to the US for some promotional appearances at TV stations here in March.

While Celtic Thunder is apparently cutting back drastically on their youtube presence, and is no longer posting their 'sizzle reel' previews on their official youtube channel, they are still posting lots of videos on their webpage, probably still including a few previews of the new show, though the Celtic Thunder website is not quite as user-friendly as youtube when it comes to finding older materials. I was unable to find the Mythology preview clips in my brief browse through the Celtic Thunder webpage's videos, but the video of the week is one of the songs off the new DVD, Ryan Kelly singing "Carrickfergus". This was Ryan's audition song, if I'm remembering correctly, so he's been singing this one for a long time now, even though we Thunderheads only just heard him perform it on his Acoustic by Candlelight tour.

Some of the other exciting music coming out right about now is the new album from Catch Bees, called Narratives from a Factory Town. This 5-track EP is available now on the band's bandcamp site for $3. I sadly missed their CD release party (between my being a bit ill and the band not posting very often about their show in the days leading up to it), but I've listened through the album a few times before and since its release and it is fantastic, of course.

Thankfully, in my absence, someone else was at the CD release show and got some great videos. Here is one of these video clips, in which the new EP is introduced nicely before the group performs one of their new songs from the album, a lullaby-esque song called "On Dreaming".

Monday, February 4, 2013

Walled City Records Update 2/4/2013

While my focus in writing about music is on the songs and artists, not usually the labels and broader scale industry, there are always exceptions. Walled City Records, along with Audio Booth recording studio, make up one such exception. Thunderheads know, of course, that these companies are co-owned by Oran O'Carroll and Damian McGinty, and Damian is the lad who was the original youngest principal singer of Celtic Thunder. Glee fans know him as well, as Rory Flanagan, but at the moment Damian is involved in a new adventure, identifying, developing and promoting new and emerging musical talent in and around Derry, NI.

The newest young artist being promoted by Walled City Records is Eric Daugherty, a 22yr-old 'electro-pop' artist from the US who flew out to Ireland earlier this year to record at the Audio Booth studio with Oran. While no polished songs have emerged yet from this project for us to really get a good sense of this fellow, Walled City Records featured him this week on their youtube channel, an early introduction to Eric's music ahead of his in-progress EP. While these live session videos are generally acoustic so far, Eric's studio sound is most likely quite different.   Knowing the range of music that is occasionally referred to as 'electro-pop' in Fort Collins, it is anyone's guess what Eric Daugherty's new EP will sound like, but here (below) at least is an introduction to this young man's acoustic side.

The first of the artists announced as having signed with Walled City Records was Darrell Coyle, a very nice fellow with a musical style and voice that make him seem a bit older than he really is (he really is still only 19). While Darrell only has released one excellent 4-track EP so far (My,My,My) he keeps his fans happy by posting new demo videos on youtube quite regularly. He's covered all sorts of obnoxious pop songs, so far always improving on the originals by quite a bit, and also posts lots of original songs. His latest original song up on youtube is a more polished version of his "Love Song"; this is one that is just about ready to hop on an album tracklist.

And here's Darrell's latest cover video, of Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble". This one's still a bit rough, but Taylor Swift song or not, I could definitely hear the makings of another solid Darrell Coyle recording in this one.

The second artist to release an EP with Walled City Records is Gem O'Reilly, another teenage singer with lots of musical talent. This lady is an Irish variation on Taylor Swift, and does very convincing covers of Taylor's songs. Hopefully one of these days the two can meet and spend some time on the same stage, because they'd look and sound fantastic singing together.
In the meantime, Gem's new EP just recently came out and is doing quite well on the itunes charts. Her music, more than Darrell's appeals more towards a young audience, which sadly I am getting a bit too old to pretend to. I may still vaguely recall what being a teenager was like, but when I was that young cell phones didn't exist yet. Still, her songs are well-crafted and likable enough even for old people like me. Her style is a blend of pop, country and folk- in other words she sings songs that could blend in with contemporary pop and country music, but she has actual verses to her songs, and actually knows how to play her guitar, details a lot of teen pop-stars seem to skip entirely these days.

And in case anyone wants to compare Darrell's and Gem's versions of the same tune, here's Gem's cover of "I Knew You Were Trouble". Listening to Darrell's version I was envisioning it as a slow song for an alternative 4-piece rock band, but Gem channels more of the essence of Taylor Swift in her rendition.

Considering that Damian's Glee/Celtic Thunder fame brings in listeners from around the world, hopefully Walled City Records can evolve some sort of plan for touring their growing collection of talented young musicians throughout the UK, Ireland, the US and Australia. (I'm thinking of something along the lines of a Celtic Thunder style variety showcase at the moment, but I'm sure there are other models that would work too.) In any case a US tour will be ein order sometime so I can add some photo albums of their live shows on my facebook page for these lovely people.