WinterKids came charging out of Surrey during the indie explosion in the mid-noughties, immediately creating the kind of industry buzz that every band dreams of. Their guitarist, Bradley Osborne, remembers one biz type congratulating them, “’you’ve done really well guys,’ he said, ‘you’re in the top one percent. Now you just need to be in the top one percent of that top one percent, then you’ll have a real career on your hands.’” Unfortunately for WinterKids, despite all the favourable reviews and predictions of stardom, it was precisely this leap that they failed to make. To find out why, we’ll have to go back to the start.
WinterKids were formed in 2004 when Bradley, a Grade 8 guitarist, met singer James Snider at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. Within a matter of weeks they had written some songs and recruited a band, which included James’s sister (also Grade 8) on keyboards. They entered a rough demo into the National Student Musician Award competition shortly after, reaching the final and coming second overall.
After such promising early success the band set about promoting themselves online. It was the beginning of the Myspace era, which would reach its apotheosis a year later when online buzz helped the Artic Monkeys’ debut single enter the charts at No 1, confusing the shit out of the industry in the process. WinterKids too were at the forefront of the trend, aggressively finding new fans for their music (even going as far as to buy software that added people according to a pre-set demographic) and soon they had an enviable list of fans from around the world.
The power of self-promotion was proven when WinterKids received an email from a German record label aware of the buzz around them, who offered to put out a single and fly them to Germany for a run of shows. The band set up their own label upon their return to England, and then went out on tour, playing to venues packed with fans they’d gained through the internet. Their name started to appear in the press as their self-released singles garnered rave reviews. Steve Lamacq even played them on his radio show, championing them as the “first band he’d found on Myspace.”
The band were flying, and they didn’t want the momentum to slow down. “We were asking ourselves, ‘what next?’ We needed something to get us to the next level.” Taking the initiative, they managed to get the money together to record an album, and their manager, Dan (who James had met on a cruise holiday a few years before), started handing it out to industry people.
“There was lots of talk,” Bradley remembers. “Half of it may have been rubbish, but there was lots of ‘Sony are interested, EMI are interested.’ We did have a few meetings, but nothing ever came of it.” The reasons why the band failed to get a deal at this critical point are unclear, though there are several contributing factors, including bungled negotiations by the management, and an essential difference in vision between the band members. “Personally I would’ve bit the hands off of any of the major labels,” Bradley says, “but the band were less interested, and wanted to keep with the DIY spirit.”
The album was eventually picked up by Columbia Japan, and the company flew the band out to Japan to sign a licensing deal and perform a series of shows. The few weeks they spent there was perhaps the highlight of Bradley’s time with the band. “I was totally amazed with Japan,” he says, “it’s completely vibrant and futuristic, just another world.” As in England, the shows were packed out with fans they’d accumulated through their efforts online.
The band then went to Texas, having been selected to represent the UK at The SXSW festival, one of the world’s biggest industry showcases. “Lots of meetings and lots of hanging with other rock stars was the essence of that trip.” Despite industry interest, the band once again failed to find the deal they were hoping for and they returned to Europe to continue on their punishing touring schedule. “For a good year we were in a foreign country more than we were at home. We were constantly touring, going all over Europe, especially Germany. It was cool, but it really wore us down.” As well as the pressures of the road, the band were facing an uncertain future and the fear that they had missed their chance. “The momentum had tailed off. We weren’t this buzz band anymore.”
The few years that followed saw a gradual dwindling of the band’s energy. Having fired Dan, the band were briefly managed by Porcupine Management in Liverpool, where they also recorded with an in-house producer. “Looking back the music we recorded there was atrocious. There was this underlying dullness around the whole thing. It was just so sad.” They then signed with another management team called Freedom, as well as bringing in a branding expert from outside to help out. They became involved in several projects, including a Top Man ad campaign, and a TV show, but they all failed to re-ignite the buzz they had once had. The thrill was well and truly gone. “We used to sit in these endless meetings,” Bradley says. “We were thrown about a lot, thrown into lots of different things, and then creative decisions started coming from the business side.”
One day the Snider siblings shared a new vision – rebranding themselves as a duo, with the others relegated to being backing musicians in their own band. The origins of this vision was unclear, and to Bradley it all seemed very underhand. “Someone was lying. The management said James and Hannah were dead set on doing it, while James said it was all the management’s idea.” WinterKids split up shortly after.
“We were always a band that should’ve been massive,” Bradley says. “I don’t mean that in a big-headed way, we were just always that package. Nothing overly credible, nothing ground-breaking, but very poppy, very sellable, very slick. In our case, we needed to be there at the top, that’s where we belonged. You take a band like Interpol – they’re where they want to be. They’re not pop – they have a loyal fan base and a level of success that’s right for them. I don’t think our band would hold weight in the same way with that fan base because we weren’t credible enough. Bands hate being pigeonholed, but it happens for a reason.”
Bradley is understandably disappointed by how things turned out. “If we had got a deal with EMI or Sony, we could be sitting on something very pretty now, and have a very different kind of life. As it was I lost money with the band.”
WinterKids may never have made the big time, but they did have a wealth of experiences that money can’t buy, from playing shows in Japan to being played on the radio. It may not seem much compared to megastardom, but really, what more could any band wish for?