Neo-folk-rock singer/songwriter Sandi Thom generated publicity and controversy when she landed a major-label record contract on the strength of a three-week live webcast series beamed across the Internet from the basement of her flat. Born Alexandria Thom in Banff, Scotland, on August 11, 1981, she spent her teenage years in a cover band dubbed the Residents (not to be confused with the eyeball-masked avant rock eccentrics of the same name) before attending Aberdeen-based Robert Gordon’s College. While attending the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts — the so-called “Fame Academy” founded by Paul McCartney — Thom performed with the gospel choir Love and Joy; upon graduating in 2003 she returned to Scotland, working as a session vocalist and singing on commercial jingles.
A Glasgow gig brought Thom to the attention of the fledgling indie label Viking Legacy, and she issued her debut single, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair),” in October 2005. The record earned airplay on BBC Radio 2 but the singer remained virtually unknown, maintaining a relentless tour schedule that included a stint supporting the Proclaimers on a brief U.K. tour. According to legend, Thom was returning from a gig in South Wales when her car broke down, sparking the idea to temporarily retire from the road and promote her music via more unconventional methods — she purchased a webcam for £60 and began planning a series of 21 live gigs over as many consecutive nights, broadcast from the comforts of her Tooting flat and available free over her website, www.sandithom.com.
Launched on February 24, 2006, and streamed by professional hosting company Streaming Tank, the 21 Nights from Tooting series premiered to just 70 viewers — a night later, however, the total jumped to 670, and by the middle of week two the tally counted 162,000, with viewers hailing from the U.S., Russia, and the Middle East. The attendant media frenzy prompted major-label execs to begin literally knocking on Thom’s door, and in April she accepted an offer from Sony’s RCA subsidiary, airing the actual signing of the deal via webcast as well. But Thom’s seeming grassroots success brought with it a number of questions and controversies — after all, she was no unknown, with a manager, a PR firm, and Viking Legacy all working on her behalf prior to the webcast series. Moreover, it was later revealed that Streaming Tank executives were friends of Thom’s manager, Ian Brown, and agreed to cover the webcast production costs in their entirety. Some critics even charged that Sony orchestrated the event in its entirety, a charge the label denied.
RCA re-released “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker” that May, and on June 4, 2006, the single topped the U.K. pop charts, supplanting Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (not coincidentally the first song to reach number one purely on the strength of Internet downloads). Thom’s debut LP, Smile…It Confuses People, arrived at retail a day after “Punk Rocker” went number one, and quickly assumed the top spot on the British albums charts as well. Her second album, The Pink and the Lily, was released in 2008.