How 2017’s Top Artists Made it Big, and How You Can Too
As of writing this post, I looked at Billboard’s top-selling artists of this year and they are, in order:
1). Taylor Swift
2). Ed Sheeran
3). Post Malone
5). Imagine Dragons
6). Sam Smith
7). Garth Brooks
9). Demi Lovato
10). Bruno Mars
If you’re wondering, “Wait, where’s (other huge artist)?” These are the top artists as of October 2017. Most of these shouldn’t surprise you, but there might be a couple who are unfamiliar. That’s okay, we’re going to get into each of them here! I’m going to break down how each artist made it big, and what lesson you can learn from their success.
2017’s Top Artists and Their Journeys to Success
When she was nine years old, Taylor Swift became interested in musical theater, traveling to New York City for vocal and acting lessons. She spent her weekends performing at local festivals and events. As a big country music fan, she wanted to move to Nashville to pursue her dreams. She traveled with her mother to visit Nashville record labels when she was 11 and submitted a demo, but was rejected.
She started taking guitar and songwriting lessons at age 12 and worked with a music manager. The manager got her a modeling job for Abercrombie & Fitch. I can’t post photos here for copyright reasons, but here’s a link to her photos and other celebrities who posed for the company. I wish I could post it for you, because it’s literally her crying while holding a guitar. Go check it out. The manager also had her song placed on a Maybelline compilation album, which I didn’t even know was a thing. She was given an artist development deal by RCA and moved to Nashville shortly after, at the age of 14.
Homeschooling through high school helped her tour and promote her music. She began working with experienced Music Row songwriters. After leaving RCA records, in 2005 she signed with Big Machine Records (interesting side note: she asked the label to allow her to bring her demo producer with her). The album peaked at number five on the Billboard 200 and included the singles “Tim McGraw,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” and others.
The Lesson: Get a manager if possible. From this brief story, it seems like the breakthrough really came from the manager arranging for placements and showcases. Also, if you’re a producer, take good care of your clients because you never know where they’ll end up (also it’s just nice to take good care of people).
Sheeran started singing in his local church choir at the age of four, unlike most famous artists who began singing at the age of three. He began recording music in 2004 and independently released his first album. In fact, most of his early years were spent releasing indie albums, collaborating with a lot of artists, and touring with other artists. He released four independent albums before his fifth, a collection of collaborations, went to number 2 in iTunes without a label. YouTube was also a major help in growing his fanbase.
After the success of the fifth album, Sheeran was signed to Asylum Records. “The A Team” was his first single from the album “+” (Plus) and entered the UK Singles chart at number three. An interesting note is that “The A Team,” while released on the first album for Asylum Records, was actually from one of his earlier independent albums.
The Lesson: Work with everyone you can. Sheeran toured and collaborated with a ton of people, which widened his fan base. Also, release your own music if no one else will. If your songs are good enough, you may be able to bring them with you when you’re signed.
Austin Richard Post began to play the guitar around age nine. He was first in a metal band, then moved into hip-hop and working on FL Studio (a DAW, if you’ve never heard of it before). He created his first mixtape at age 16 on Audacity (another DAW). After high school, he moved to Los Angeles and formed a music group. It was here that he would meet 1st Down of FKi and Rex Kudo, who produced Malone’s viral hit “White Iverson.” The music video has received over 477 million views to date. The video has received praise and criticism (as most videos do on YouTube, let’s be honest).
After the massive attention from “White Iverson,” he signed a deal with Republic Records. This led to collaborations with other major artists like 50 Cent. He was performing at Kylie Jenner’s 18th birthday party when he met Kanye West. They collaborated on West’s single “Fade.” Malone has since recorded with Justin Bieber and performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The Lesson: YouTube. Seriously, whether you love or hate this video, this is pretty much how he got his record deal. If you’re not cultivating a YouTube personality, get on it! Make a channel today.
Pentatonix began with Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying forming a group together at their high school in Arlington, Texas. They sang a cover of “Telephone” by Lady Gaga which got some attention on YouTube (although it’s hard to say how much attention they got back then, since by now people have gone back to it after their fame).
In college (2011), Hoying learned about an acapella singing competition called The Sing-Off. Grassi and Maldonado joined him, but they were encouraged to add a bass and beatboxer to the group. (Side note: The person who encouraged Hoying to audition to The Sing-Off and also to find the two new members is currently their arranger, producer and sound engineer).
Bass singer Avi Kaplan and beatboxer Kevin Olusola joined the group to audition. They met the day before the auditions began. The group won the Season Three competition and have been immensely popular on YouTube and on tour ever since.
Recently, Kaplan left the group and was replaced by Matt Sallee, although his permanence in the group is unknown.
The lesson: Again, network. Work with everyone and don’t lose contact with former collaborators. Also, singing contests are controversial but definitely can help singers get attention if you want to try out.
Lead singer Dan Reynolds met drummer Andrew Tolman in 2008, then added Andrew Beck for guitar, Dave Lemke on bass and Aurora Florence for piano. They released an EP that year. Several members left and were replaced, as tends to be the case with bands. They gained a large following in their hometown in Utah before moving to Las Vegas. The band released three EPs while in Vegas before getting a record deal.
In 2009, they were called to fill in for Train after their lead singer was too sick to perform for the Bite of Las Vegas Festival 2009. They performed for over 26,000 people and received positive reviews. However, it wasn’t until 2011 when they signed with Interscope Records. Several other members left the band and they worked with Alex da Kid, releasing two EPs. The song “It’s Time” peaked at 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The video was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award and has now been certified double platinum.
The lesson: Don’t give up. There was a two-year gap between their big festival show and signing a deal. They released two albums with the label before getting a hit. That may be a long time to wait, but the payoff was worth it, no?
Born in London, England, Sam Smith started his musical career in jazz bands and the Youth Music Theatre UK. On MTV News in 2014, Smith stated, “I had my first manager when I was 12, went through some ups and downs, and a lot of false promises and as making music all through school, so, in a way, I feel like I’ve been doing this for a long time.” In 2012 he was working at a London bar and met co-writer Jimmy Napes. Together they wrote the debut single of his first album, “Lay Me Down.” He also met Guy and Howard Lawrence of Disclosure at the same bar. Their collaboration on the song “Latch” was Smith’s debut into worldwide radio.
Smith released the album In the Lonely Hour though Capitol Records and came in second in sales in 2014, outsold only by Taylor Swift.
The lesson: I feel like I’m repeating myself on a lot of these, but that’s good because they’re important! Don’t get discouraged, and continue to meet and work with other people.
If you’re surprised that Garth Brooks is on this list, don’t be. According to the RIAA, he is the best-selling solo artist in the United States, second only to the Beatles in total album sales. Crazy, right? Here’s how he got started:
Troyal Garth Brooks (no joke, his real name is Troyal, you guys) was born in Oklahoma. His family hosted weekly talent nights and he learned to play the guitar and banjo. However, he didn’t care much about music initially. He was big into sports and got a college degree in advertising, before finally playing music professionally in 1985. Starting in Oklahoma clubs and bars, he focused on rock music until he heard George Straight and fell in love with country music. While playing the club scene, an entertainment attorney offered to produce Brooks’ first demo. He traveled to Nashville to pursue a record deal. However, it didn’t work out and he returned to Oklahoma. He didn’t return to Nashville full time until two years later.
In 1988 he had an audition with Capitol Records and they declined to sign him. A few weeks later he was performing at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. The Capitol Records agents who passed on him happened to be in the audience. They were there to see another singer, who didn’t show up. Brooks went in his place and the agents reconsidered. He signed with Capitol Records in 1988 and released his self-titled debut album the next year. It reached number 13 on the Billboard 200 chart. He also went on his first major tour as an opener for Kenny Rogers.
The Lesson: Say it with me – Don’t Give Up! How many times could he have been too discouraged to continue? Yet look how successful he is now.
P!nk (Alecia Moore) started writing lyrics in her early teen years, performing in Philadelphia clubs around the age of 14. At this age, she auditioned and was accepted to a female group called Basic Instinct, but the group broke up without releasing any material.
Two years later, she joined two other teenage girls to form an R&B group called Choice. Their first demo was sent to L.A. Reid, who flew the girls to Atlanta and signed them to a record deal. Their parents had to cosign as they were not yet 18. The girls relocated to Atlanta and recorded an album that was never released. However, you can hear their song “Key to My Heart” on the Kazaam soundtrack here:
L.A. Reid saw potential in only P!nk and had her go solo in 1998. She signed a deal with LaFace Records and began working on her debut album with producers like Babyface and Kandi Burruss. Her debut single was “There You Go” and was her first top ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number seven.
The Lesson: Okay so this might be controversial, but I’m just going to say it: Loyalty is relative. If she had remained loyal to her girl group, would we have any idea who she was? Possibly, but who knows? I still think you should network as much as possible (without them she might not have made it to Atlanta) but when faced with hard decisions, sometimes you just gotta do you.
Demi Lovato was raised in Dallas, Texas and began acting in Barney & Friends as Angela in 2002. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video of her and Selena Gomez:
She began playing piano at age seven and guitar at ten. She also began dancing and acting classes at this time.
In 2007 and 2008, Lovato played Charlotte Adams on the Disney Channel short series As the Bell Rings. She also auditioned for Disney’s TV film Camp Rock. During the audition, they asked her to sing on the spot. Hollywood Records’ senior vice president was at the auditions and was so impressed with her, they signed her to the label. She also got the lead role in Camp Rock, playing aspiring singer Mitchie Torres.
The reviews for her performance in Camp Rock were not great. Entertainment Weekly said that her acting skills were underwhelming and the film’s soundtrack was known as a worse version of High School Musical (if you can imagine that). Lovato sang four songs on the soundtrack.
However, she was also working on her debut album at this time, co-written and produced by the Jonas Brothers. She toured with them before the release of the album, which debuted at number two on the Billboard 200.
The Lesson: It sounds cheesy but, ignore the haters. Honestly, whenever I get a negative review I want to change my name and move to another country, but you really have to just keep going. Everyone gets bad press, but only the ones who keep working overcome it.
Last we have Peter Hernandez, known as Bruno Mars. He began performing on stage at the age of three, and let me just pause here because this is one of my musical pet peeves.
Every artist claims they began performing at the age of three. This is because all three-year-olds perform. Some of us grow out of it, some don’t. The fact that you were performing at three is not proof that you’re a better performer, it just means you were a normal three-year-old. Moving on…
Mars was from Hawaii and became known for his impersonation of Elvis Presley. He performed in the halftime show of the 1990 Aloha Bowl. He credits his impersonations as having a big impact on his performing techniques.
His sister lived in Los Angeles and played his demo for the A&R of Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment. He moved to L.A. after graduating high school. He signed with Motown Records in 2004 and was dropped less than a year after being signed. An attempt to sign with Will.i.am’s management also went nowhere. However, he signed a music publishing deal in 2005 with Westside Independent. He also played cover songs around the L.A. area.
He had “many rejections from labels” and considered giving up, but was offered $20,000 for his song “Lost” which allowed him to keep working.
In 2006 he played some of his songs for Atlantic Records and they wanted to sign him but did not do so for another three years. During this time, Mars became a noted music producer and songwriter, mostly working behind the scenes for other major artists such as Sean Kingston, Adam Levine and Brandy. He finally got attention as a solo artist by getting featured on B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire.” After this, he released the album Doo-Wops & Hooligans with Atlantic Records.
The Lesson: Work however you can. If it’s not working out for you as a solo artist, what can you do in the meantime? Also, again, forever: Don’t Give Up.
So, let’s recap what we can learn from these ten artists:
1). Network like crazy
2). Get on YouTube and social media
3). Collaborate with many other artists
4). Ignore haters and keep working after negative reviews
5). Do what’s best for you and your own career
6). Get a manager or some type of PR if you can
7). Keep in touch with old contacts and connections
Most importantly, because we’ve seen this so many times:
Never Give Up!
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Which artist’s story inspired you the most? Let me know in the comments!