The music business is a roller-coaster ride at the best of times, but these days everyone’s barfing. One minute your Youtube views are up, the next your Soundcloud likes are down, then it’s a slow climb of tours to the headlining spot, before a free-fall in audience attendance. More avenues exist today than ever before to get your music out there with a dizzying array of music production tools now accessible to anyone with a computer. Online numbers vet acts for music labels, with Youtube stars emerging from their bedrooms only to ink a record deal.
But what about those bands who grew up playing in the garage, postering the streets, touring in an old van, enduring the sound of crickets in empty clubs, surviving the underground—Are they better prepared for the grind of a music career? Are they more entitled once they make it?
Ranging from self-proclaimed “bedroom stars” (Megan and Liz), to old-school veterans (Eve, LP), and many in between (Atlas Genius, Capital Cities, Kerli, The Maine), 10 artists from around the world give us their views on this spectrum every musician sits on—and has an opinion about.
With an overall “to each their own” sentiment, every artist we spoke to offered a unique and thoughtful perspective, but we did notice some trends.
Different equivalents existed before
I think they had different equivalents back in the day, there were bands that toured, and then there were pop stars that were made and given a song—a lot of times by the bands that toured! [laughs]… I appreciate the work, you know. I was so much luckier than most people. I got to work and make my living in music. I think that’s the value to both perspectives.
LP has worked as a professional musician for well over a decade, and has written some major hit songs for big acts, such as Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink To That)” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful People.” It was only in 2012, after her song “Into The Wild” was picked up for a CitiBank commercial, that her own voice was audible in the mainstream spectrum.
It’s a daily grind for everyone
We definitely have so much respect for artists who still do it that way, who still go out and play to four people every night in a crappy van with no showers, I mean, it’s hard. Touring even now is hard, even if you have a social media following. Getting people to come out to a show is hard… I think either way you look at it, all of us are on a daily grind, it’s all hard, but if you enjoy it, it’s worth every second of it. So I think, to each their own, whatever path they wanna’ take. For us it just happened to be the bedroom route.
–Megan Mace of Megan and Liz
Twin sisters, Megan and Liz, posted their first YouTube video in 2011 while they were still in highschool. In just a couple of years, the girls amassed a Youtube following of over a million subscribers and were signed by Collective Sounds.
The underground prepares you
I had to tour, gain respect, do the underground/street kind of thing…The underground is still there, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot of artists today that haven’t gone through that. There’s superstardom before they leave the bedroom. I appreciate that I had to work for it—and that’s what I’m still doing.
There is that great thing, like wow you can make it on your own, you know, get yourself out there on Youtube, but I do think there is an element for a lot of people who make it that way, that you get prepared by building your audience and going out and having do to shows and things like that before you blow up. I think it prepares you for the whirlwind of what eventually happens. And I think there is an element of a lot of these kids not being prepared for what’s going to happen.
Eve has sold millions of records and worked with some of the biggest in the biz (like her Grammy-winning 2001 hit featuring Gwen Stefani). She recently left Ruff Ryders/Interscope to start her own label (From The Rib) and re-launch her career with a new album coming out next year.
A level playing field and an abundance of music is a good thing
It’s amazing that technology now is so developed that every kid with a laptop truly, actually, can have a career. You can make the music on your laptop, you can upload it, you can shoot your own music videos, edit it… You can actually do anything…Every kid in the world, if they really, really want it, they can make it, in their bedroom, without ever even leaving their house…It all comes down to how much you want it. So that’s what ‘Can’t Control The Kids’ is about.
Coming from a small town in Estonia, Kerli was originally discovered after winning a talent-show. She has amassed a huge online following she terms “moon children.” In addition to success with her own music, she’s written major hits for other artists such as “Skyscraper” for Demi Lovato.
I think it’s great. Technology has allowed the entire world to have the opportunity to make music and also to disseminate that music, so it definitely levels the playing field. And of course that also means that…basically art is saturated now with too much material and I prefer it that way than the opposite. I’d rather have too much and have the best make their way to the top, than have too few materials, the way it was years ago… Of course back then there was filtration with the big record labels, so you had a lot less clutter and that was a good thing, but I think I’d much rather have clutter and chaos in the art world.
–Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities
Sebu has worked in music production for many years. He and Ryan Merchant wrote jingles for commercials and ad campaigns in LA for three years before they formed Capital Cities and launched their #1 hit “Safe and Sound.” The track was picked up for several commercials including a major German phone company. In 2012 the band signed to Capitol Records.
Being a good musician and being a musician who writes good music, are separate things
If the songs are good enough, then that’s all that matters. It might take you a long time, and you may never get there, like I remember, when Alabama Shakes came out, reading that a bunch of musicians in that same scene were getting really bitter, like ‘They didn’t pay their dues, they’ve only been around for a little while, we’ve been slogging it out for 20 years…’ Yeah but, you haven’t written one decent song, not one of your songs is connected… Just because you’ve spent the time doesn’t mean you’re entitled, there’s no entitlement. You can be a musician for 50 years, doesn’t mean you’re any good, or you may be a great musician but you’re not capable of writing a song that connects with someone.
–Keith Jeffery of Atlas Genius
Australian brothers, Keith and Michael Jeffery, come from a musical family (their dad is an audio engineer). They were still in university when they put their unmastered song “Trojans” on Triple J Unearthed Website, SoundCloud, and for sale via TuneCore, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify worldwide. It was downloaded over 45,000 times. They were signed to Warner Music shortly after.
Being skilled musicians isn’t the point really, it was about making great records… We are one of the first generations that can make an album in their bedroom that sounded good. And we are lucky, because that allows us to be bad musicians.
–Thomas Mars of Phoenix, via Q on cbc radio.
The French quartet Phoenix started as a “garage band” and have released many albums over 13 years. Their hit single “1901” is certified Platinum, and their most recent track “Entertainment,” is getting dizzy from heavy rotation worldwide.
A Happy Medium
I would like to think that we’re the perfect balance of the two. We worked really hard and wrote songs and recorded them like a band, in an extra bedroom in my mom and dad’s house, and went on the road, toured in a suburban, playing in front of two kids a night. But then we also gained a lot of fans via the internet, as far as people being exposed to us for the first time on the internet. I’d like to think we’re kind of the happy medium.
–Pat Kirch of The Maine
The Maine left a record deal with Warner Bros. Records in 2011 to independently produce their fourth album, Pioneer, which debut at #11 on the Billboard Top Alternative chart. They created a documentary about the process called Anthem For A Dying Breed. Their latest album was released in June 2013, titled Forever Halloween.
Just make music
Any way you can get your music out there, and any way you can express yourself, and any way you can be creative, whether it’s on Garage Band, or playing your own instrument, or whatever you have to do—I mean, it’s kind of a personal thing to whoever is making it—but, I think however you can, create something that you’re proud of.
–Sam Katz, of Youngblood Hawke
After eight years of hard work, Sam Katz’ band Iglu & Hartly was seeing international success, culminating with a show at Coachella 2010. But clashes within the group let to the band’s dissolution. Youngblood Hawke rose to public consciousness after gaining traction in the Silverlake community of LA, eventually getting the attention of Republic Records’ A&R man.
To me, good on ‘em, they’re doing whatever makes them happy, or I hope they’re doing whatever makes them happy, being an established touring act and touring musicians makes me happy. So I’m doing what I want to do, so they can do what they want to do.
–Joseph Dunwell of The Dunwells
The organically-formed UK band, The Dunwells, have slogged through their fair share of crappy tours on both sides of the pond. Early 2013 saw the group get their shot on The Tonight Show. Their hit “I Could Be A King”explores the idea of pursuing whatever you desire. Learn more about The Dunwells in our interview with them here.