Christopher Ford, who performs as Christopher the Conquered, has been through more than a few phases as a stage performer since 2006. The Des Moines, Iowa-based pianist and singer-songwriter has fronted a giant brass band. He's played soulful solo sets. He's received positive indie press. He's been ignored.
In 2013, after his band "fell apart basically," this Friday’s visitor to the Knickerbockers stage started writing songs for a record that would take the name of one of them, "I'm Giving Up on Rock & Roll."
“I'm definitely not giving up," he tells people who take the title literally. "This song is a statement about how I'm all-in now. But all-in means it's all me."
The record's not out yet, because finding a label to release it has been its own substantial undertaking. But things started to change gradually, then suddenly, for Ford starting on Aug. 2.
On that day, Ryan Adams tweeted a recommendation to his 700,000 or so followers about Ford: “You guys @ctconquered is the real deal. This record is blowing my mind!!!”
And what happens next will truly astound you.
He made $86.
Ford is as realistic as it gets when it comes to anything involving the music industry, including the impact of something big that happens on the Internet. ("Nothing will work out," he said more than once in the course of this phone interview.)
For him though, this was certainly a major Internet event. Adams, the respected singer-songwriter, had given an unsolicited public seal of approval for an album that had consumed the better part of Ford’s past two years.
And the album isn’t even out yet. Somehow, an advance copy of the CD found Adams.
The triple-exclamation point endorsement to a population the size of metro Detroit made Ford happy, sure. But the musician who co-hosts a regular podcast about the oft-comical agony of navigating the music industry also wanted to quantify, as best as possible, the “Ryan Adams bump.”
Ford let a week pass and assessed things on Aug. 9. Compared to previous weeks and months, the Adams’ tweet (and Instagram post to another 42,000-some followers there) clearly made an impact. Across the digital landscape of listens, follows and views where a burgeoning musician hopes beyond hope that someone will uncover his music in the bottomless yaw of online offerings, Ford's numbers increased.
There were 82 new Facebook page likes and 31 new Twitter followers. His Instagram (same as his Twitter -- @ctconquered) picked up 40 new followers and his YouTube videos were watched 1,653 times -- a 701 percent increase from the previous week. Twelve people even went to the trouble of signing up for his email list.
“The numbers aren't particularly impressive,” Ford said. “I sold 86 bucks worth of stuff. But I sold zero bucks the week before or like zero bucks online like a month before. It was just interesting. The numbers are obviously relatively important to me. And it's like, OK, 2,000 video views. That's nothing.”
After Ford calculated how much one post from one influential musician set digital wheels in motion, he wanted to see if this had happened to anyone else. So he dusted off his Reddit account.
His first post in 2014, a link to a YouTube video of his, got a grand total of two upvotes -- "likes" in Reddit currency, for those unfamiliar with the site. The one he posted on Aug. 11 was a straightforward rundown of his post-Adams numbers, including the good (701 percent) and the decent enough (hey, $86 is $86). He was grateful, but honest, about the Adams bump. It took about 15 minutes to write it.
And then the Reddit post exploded, getting 6,137 upvotes as of early this week. It reached the front page of the site based on the amount of interest it generated.
There were over 2,000 comments on it. Plenty complimented his music. Some appreciated the frankness with which he laid out the stats. One equated it to the day Old El Paso re-grammed a picture of his tacos and he got three new followers.
Many wanted to see how the “Reddit hammer” compared to the "Adams bump." The amount of views his most recent video, “What’s the Name of the Town,” has received (50,737 in its first 10 days after being uploaded on Aug. 7) would seem to confirm that Reddit’s influence is significant. When Billboard wrote about him last week, the article stated that data provider Next Big Sound tracked Christopher the Conquered receiving 60 times the online traffic that a similar-sized page would get.
On Tuesday, Ford posted an update on his stats, his press and his life a week after the Reddit post. Things seem to be going well across the board.
His social media account followers have multiplied seven to 15 times. His Facebook page likes grew by 1,900 percent. He's received two distribution offers and conversations with booking agencies. His online sales shot from $0 to $86 to $3,430.22 in the course of two monumental weeks in Ford's life.
"This is massively important to me," he wrote. "It helps me so much right now. It feels a little like winning the lottery."
And all of this began, Ford hypothesizes, through very non-Internet means.
Ford was producing a record for a collection of musicians in Omaha earlier this year, and during those sessions, they spent time talking music. One of them, Erik Jarvis, suggested that Ford would likely dig Natalie Prass, a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter.
Ford did like her music. And it turned out she had an Iowa City, Iowa, show on the horizon this summer.
"I knew the promoter, and I loved her album," Ford said. "I would never have known who she was except for those guys."
He asked the promoter if the Prass show had room for an opener, and said he thought he'd be a good fit if there was room. Two months later, he heard back: You're in.
"I played that show and I have advanced copies of the CD because my album was originally supposed to come out in the summer, but it got pushed back for a number of reasons until next year,” he said. “So I've been giving it to some people here or there that I thought would maybe dig it. I had a copy in my merch bin. She was really genuine and cool and I was like: 'Your album is amazing. I think you do really cool stuff. I put my whole life into this album and nobody's heard it and I'm really curious to see what people think.'”
Prass never got back in touch with him, and Ford thought that was that. But the Omaha musicians saw her on tour July 22 when she played here at Vega. They mentioned to some of Prass' band members that they knew her Iowa City opener.
"Her band told those guys they listened to the album in the van that day and thought it was really good," Ford said.
Prior to her run of headlining club dates this summer, Prass had opened for Ryan Adams on a European tour. The Internet rumor mill would suggest the two have some mutual admiration for each other. In Copenhagen, for instance, Adams put on a dress and performed heartfelt renditions of her songs as "Natalie Sass" when an airline strike prevented her from making it to the show.
“All I know is then it was two weeks or less after that (Prass) show, he posted that stuff on Twitter and Instagram,” Ford said. “For me, it was a big deal because it was validating. It was emotionally relieving to see that. Man that's so cool -- he has no motive in doing that. It's really cool that somebody that successful would post something like that. It really meant a lot to me.”
And yet, Ford said, some trepidation comes along with the Adams bump and Reddit hammer.
"It makes me a little nervous, to be completely honest," he said. "For the last couple of years, I've had a strong vision. And it's worked for different people, and people like it. Now it makes me a little bit nervous that people are gonna be like, 'Ryan Adams said this guy is good, so let's see what he's got.'"
With "I'm Giving Up on Rock & Roll," Ford said he feels like he's got something. And in Lincoln, where Ford's performance at 2012's Lincoln Calling drew raves and where he's performed to a few full rooms since, he's grown comfortable on the downtown stages.
"Lincoln is probably my strongest quote-unquote fan base of anywhere right now," he said. "My shows in Lincoln have been amazing and wonderful, and people have been so supportive."
On Reddit, many of the commenters wanted to support Ford, too. They found his videos and online tracks. They pre-ordered "I'm Giving Up on Rock & Roll." But they haven't heard it all yet. At Knickerbockers, expect to hear plenty of the album that proves Ford wants his music career to last far longer than a viral post online will.