Tiny space becomes the launch pad for a global online phenomenon
START-UP NATION/BalconyTV:Figuring out how to make money from this budding broadcast operation has been a long-term learning curve for the three founders, writes JOANNE HUNT
IF YOUR city centre balcony is home to some wilted pot plants, old running shoes or a washing line, then you’ve missed a trick. For three Dublin flatmates, the founders of BalconyTV, those few extra feet of space have made all the difference.
“It was a sunny day and I came in from our balcony on Dame Street and said, ‘We really should use our balcony more’, recalls Stephen O’Regan of a chat with housemates Pauline Freeman and Tom Millett six years ago.
When Millett, a musician, jokingly suggested to his two radio broadcasting graduate housemates they set up a television station there, the idea struck a chord.
“The next day, without any thought, we just grabbed the camera and microphone and invited our friends up and filmed the first ever show,” says O’Regan. “Our idea was we were going to film two minutes of anything each day, put it online and call it art.”
The trio used the then nascent platform YouTube to share their mini-movies. From early programming featuring traffic on the street below to a “wild life special” on a visiting bird, to the steady stream of musical performers that have since become the station’s staple, BalconyTV is now produced from balconies in 35 cities around the world.
An early convert to using the quirky video medium to reach audiences was singer-songwriter Paul Brady. “He phoned us up about a month after we started and said: ’I think I might come up and do this.’ That was a big moment for us, and that video has been watched over 100,000 times. He’s come back and played a few times since,” says O’Regan.
Outflanking more monied rivals to win Best Music Website at the Digital Media Awards in its first year in operation, BalconyTV was flooded with emails from bands wanting to perform. A 2007 performance by Dublin band The Script, on the cusp of their big break, has since been viewed 2.5 million times.
“I remember afterwards going ‘Wow, they are really tight together, they were brilliant.’ I always say, ‘If you can’t play on the balcony, you can’t play.’”
Requests from cities around the world to set up their own BalconyTV projects flooded in. “We said, if you want to do it in your own city, do us a couple of test shows. If they’re OK, we’ll work with you to make the shows better and give you the production rights to produce BalconyTV in your city.”
The St Petersburg balcony of Russia’s prima ballerina became the latest Balcony TV location last week. The dancer herself fronted the first show, an event that grabbed headlines across Russia.
While BalconyTV started out as something fun, O’Regan says learning how to make money from it has been an ongoing learning curve for the trio.
“I thought it was the kind of thing that we’d get a phone call from Coca-Cola someday saying, ‘This is great, well sponsor it’, but that’s not what happened,” says O’Regan. “And when we started to approach sponsors ourselves, they just didn’t really get it.”
Continuing with the project for years while working day jobs, O’Regan says by September last year things had come to a head. “I was literally pulling my hair out with the situation, because it’s very strange to be running a website which at that time was in 22 cities around the world and was going viral and getting positive energy, but not having any kind of support mechanism for it.”
An invitation last year to join Start-Up Bootcamp in Copenhagen, an accelerator programme for high potential start-ups, has brought new impetus. BalconyTV was also invited by Dogpatch Labs to take up residency in its Dublin incubator. “Things are looking quite positive,” says ORegan. “We are trying to raise funding and I’d be quietly optimistic at this point. Hopefully we’ll have an announcement in a short while.”
While the three founders said goodbye to the balcony of their Dame Street house-share more than a year ago, BalconyTV in Dublin is currently broadcast from a balcony above a bar on the same street. O’Regan feels their work is bringing a certain democracy to music. “One day you’ve got the band that plays in The Globe on a Sunday night, and the next you’ve got Mumford Sons,” he says.
“For the small bands, it makes them feel really great because they’ve been on the same platform as Mumford Sons, while the bigger bands get to come down to street level.”
BalconyTV is now producing 6,500 shows a year, and O’Regan feels it’s probably too many. Instead, he wants to see BalconyTV become more of an arbiter of musical taste.
“Success for me would be that we are the promoters of the best new bands,” he says. On a business level, he thinks the brand may have potential to stretch into music festivals and event ticketing, and the company is also looking at developing its mobile web presence.
“We could do all these things but we just can’t do them all at once, so that’s why the investment is important to us right now. We want to build the right team around us so that we can push forward correctly.”