On a cold winter morning in 2008, a scruffy 17-year-old with a thatch of strawberry hair and an oddly-shaped guitar stood on a balcony overlooking Camden Lock in London.
“What’s this contraption you’ve brought with you?” presenter Layla Anna-Lee asked, nodding towards the skinny musical instrument the guest cradled. “It’s a backpacker guitar,” baby-faced Ed Sheeran replied. “It’s carried in rucksacks.”
With night settling in, Sheeran performed his goosebumps ballad The City. His cheeks were rosy, his voice crackling with teenage passion. Three years later, the track featured on his debut album +, a record that would go on to sell four million copies. But the first many fans encountered the song was on BalconyTV, a plucky music start-up which had gone international after it was established in Dublin in 2006.
It was 2006. I was in the apartment, above The Oak pub on Dame Street. I was a wannabe filmmaker
“I filmed the Ed Sheeran show. It was one of our first in London,” recalls Stephen O’Regan, who began BalconyTV with his Dame Street flatmates Tom Millett and Pauline Freeman.
“Layla Anna-Lee went on to be the opening presenter of the London Olympics. We were there in the cold. I can’t express how simple our production was. This guy with a guitar comes along. He played a song. When he left, I remember thinking, ‘that was a bit s**t wasn’t it?’ Only a few years later, I realised ... did I actually film that?”
Sheeran is one of a host of future stars who graced BalconyTV, which operated in 100 cities around the world before flaming out in a white heat of ambition, frustration and corporate indifference. Mumford & Sons, Kodaline, Una Healy, The Script and Joss Stone are among those to have appeared on the platform – built on the simple concept of an artist singing from a balcony.
Now, the story of BalconyTV’s rise and fall is to be told in a three-part documentary by Mark Graham, a music lecturer at South East Technological University in Waterford.
There is a lot to unpack. After truffling for investors for years BalconyTV was acquired in 2013 by the Orchard, a New York-based music and entertainment company owned by Sony. Six years later, it was effectively closed, its co-founder O’Regan shut out. Many of its videos have since been delisted from YouTube, though others – such as Sheeran’s Camden Lock performance – can still be viewed in all their dewy-eyed glory.
“l have been making this Irish music industry podcast for the last four years. I teach BA music students in SETU University Waterford. And I thought that this was an extension of that. That I got to cover things with people in the industry that I wouldn’t get to cover in the class,” explains Graham, who releases The Untold Story of BalconyTV on February 1.
BalconyTV is a classic music morality fable feels Graham. Having started it as a lark while hungover in 2006, O’Regan expanded the company into a global brand, with operations from Cork to Mumbai. His ambitions for the project eventually led him to the Orchard. Unfortunately, it regarded BalconyTV as a platform to be monetised rather than a showcase for musicians. BalconyTV, in the end, fell victim to that age-old tension between art and commerce.
“Any artist, anyone even in business, if they become successful might get to face the decision: ‘here’s the thing I made and here’s somebody making me an offer for this thing that I made’,” says Graham, formerly of techno group King Kong Company.
“Will I accept that offer? What should I do? Here we have three people who did that thing .. What led them to those decisions? And would they make those decisions again?
BalconyTV’s early years are a story of hustle, chutzpah and flying by the seat of one’s pants.
Overheads were low – but O’Regan was putting his heart and soul into the project and needed to make it pay for itself
“It was 2006. I was in the apartment, above The Oak pub on Dame Street. I was a wannabe filmmaker. I was working in the Dawson Lounge at the time,” says O’Regan. BalconyTV was a natural calling for the Dubliner. His father was the late publican and hotelier Hugh O’Regan, who built up the Thomas Read chain in Dublin at the height of the Celtic Tiger.
“One morning I woke up extremely hungover. We had this little strangely-shaped balcony. I went out gasping for air because I was dying. I suddenly realised we had a great view up and down Dame Street,” O’Regan continues.
“We’d never gone out to our balcony before. We just used to throw junk out there. I came back into my flatmates, who were at the time Tom Millett, who is a jazz player, and Pauline, with whom I’d done radio broadcasting in Dún Laoghaire. I jokingly said we should do something funny on our balcony. We never go out there. Let’s do poetry readings or something. “BalconyTV” popped into my mind. It just had a little bit of a ring to it.
It grew from there. O’Regan’s brother, Adam, composed the BalconyTV jingle (he went on to play with Little Green Cars and Soda Blonde). Traffic to the channel was never stellar (performances averaged 5,000 views). Still, BalconyTV quickly built a following on the Irish music scene, as O’Regan discovered when receiving a call from Paul Brady.
“This was about a month and a half in. He goes, ‘how you doing Stephen – Paul Brady here’. He was like, ‘I’ve checked out this BalconyTV thing you’ve been doing. I think I might like to come up and do a song. I was like, ‘sure Paul – when would you like to do it?’ And he was like, ‘could I come up in 20 minutes? I’ll pull up outside, maybe you grab the guitar and I’ll park the car’. I ran in to my flatmate Pauline and I was like, ‘We gotta clean this apartment’.”
Two years later, a baby-faced Mumford and Sons were on the Dame Street balcony for their first Irish performance. Marcus Mumford, their songwriter, was extremely shy so O’Regan yelled at him to repeat the title of the track they were about to play. Around the same time, English new-wave veterans The Buzzcocks agreed to appear – not quite appreciating what they’d signed up for.
“One of the most iconic punk-rock bands of all time. They obviously didn’t make it that successfully as they were bringing up their own guitars,” says O’Regan. “They were these 55- or 60 year-old-men, with rather large beer bellies. I remember them coming up. They just looked at the balcony and went, ‘where the **** are we playing? And I was like, ‘there’. I could see the anger on their faces.”
I would argue BalconyTV was the best documenting of ultra-independent music around the world for 10 years
Desperate measures were called for. “I said to Tom [Millett], who was supposed to present the show, ‘you better run down and grab a few pints from the Oak down below’. Tom ran down and brought up the pints. If you watch the video you can see the pints delicately perched on the balcony.”
By that point, BalconyTV had gone international. O’Regan’s then-girlfriend was from Germany. She went home and started BalconyTV Hamburg. A Cork spin-off followed. Soon more and more popped up across the world.
Overheads were low – but O’Regan was putting his heart and soul into the project and needed to make it pay for itself. He hustled for investors. He met Chad Hurley of YouTube, with whom he went on a bender during Dublin Web Summit. There was a more formal sit-down with former MTV executive Judy McGrath. Her enthusiasm increased dramatically after Bono put in a good word on BalconyTV’s behalf.
Still, try as he might – and despite a venture capital injection of $750,000 – O’Regan couldn’t find a way to turn the start-up into a viable business. In desperation, he randomly emailed figures in the industry, hoping someone would take a gamble. He secured time with the Orchard, a start-up owned by Sony.
“One of the guys in that meeting leant forward. He said, ‘You seem like you’re so passionate about this’. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve done it for eight years’. And he said, “I tell you what we’ll do then. We’ll pay off your investors. We’ll give you a good salary. You’ll come to work for us. We’ve got offices all around the world. We’ll back you to make it into whatever you have always wanted it to be’. That’s paraphrasing but that’s essentially what was said.”
Shortly afterwards BalconyTV was acquired by the Orchard for an undisclosed sum. The assumption was that O’Regan did well out of the arrangement.
“I realised that if I did this deal people would think that I sold it for millions,” he says. “To this day people think I sold it for millions. I didn’t. I just got a job out of it, essentially. If you look at the headlines from back in the day, ‘The Orchard Acquires BalconyTV’. People think, ‘they must have sold it for millions’. Of course, we put out that press release. It was in Billboard. The people making the shows around the world, they all think that I ran away with the bank.”
It was not a happy marriage. O’Regan was laid off in 2017. BalconyTV was rebranded “Balcony” – and now the videos were filmed in a warehouse in London. Two years ago, the channel stop posting new content altogether. Recently, the BalconyTV domain name was allowed lapse.
“They told the producers [around the world] don’t make any more videos – disillusioning them,” says Graham. He reached out to Orchard for comment on his podcast. They were initially friendly but then went quiet.
“They delisted the videos. The artists who bought into it, they were now out. They were disillusioned with it as well. And then they let it go dormant – and then let it die.”
O’Regan lives in Portugal, where he works on a video series People of Lisbon. “Every week I make a short documentary about a different person living in the city,” he says, explaining he is keen to expand the format to Dublin. He is proud, he adds, of BalconyTV and its legacy.
“I would argue BalconyTV was the best documenting of ultra-independent music around the world for 10 years. There were other internet music shows – for instance, the Black Cab Sessions. They only dealt with a certain level of artist. They were having on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing an acoustic set. We were having Colm Lynch who plays in the Ha’penny Inn. Colm Lynch is great. But that’s who we would have. When we had Mumford Sons on our balcony they were nobodies. Deleting those shows, it felt like book burning.”
The Untold Story of BalconyTV is available on all major podcasts platforms from Wednesday February 1st. Mark Graham’s Irish music industry podcast can be heard at irishmusicindustry.libsyn.com