It’s the stuff of legends: as a teenager living with his parents, Will Toledo was too sheepish to record vocals in his house. Instead, he would go out to his parents’ car and record vocals leaning his head against the headrest in the front seat. Before he could even legally drink, Toledo built an Internet following by posting hundreds of scrappy demos on the website Bandcamp, where musicians can post and sell their music and promote live shows. It’s not surprising that Toledo’s success and popularity grew and spread before he was even signed to a label; the urgency and intelligence of his vocals and lyrics (which are arranged into lush melodic tapestries) are simultaneously charming and haunting. As his reputation and fan base steadily grew larger and larger, Matador Records – a massively influential, taste making record label – negotiated a deal with Toledo, sorting through the twelve hours of music he’d released for free on Bandcamp and picking the best of the best for a tight album that was released as Teens of Style. Teens of Denial, Toledo’s first album recorded in a studio, came out a couple years later to critical acclaim.
This story should serve as an inspiration to anyone who is trying to build a career in the current climate of the music industry, which has been undergoing a radical transformation for years. There has been a shift towards a streaming model (in keeping with the overall trend of how the millennial generation consumes media) and also a revival of vinyl records. The bottom line is that if you have the talent and the vision, there are channels out there through which you can be heard. Social media can be a great tool – but it can also be distracting to the point where you focus on crafting your image more than you work on crafting compelling art.
Musicians like Toledo put their noses to the grindstone and churn out a huge amount of material, with some sort of faith that their music will find an audience. Toledo seems like a slightly introverted young man who found solace in the musical process, rather than compulsively posting on Twitter. This is an important lesson for young musicians: work hard, hone your craft, teach yourself with YouTube tutorials – maybe even sign up for music lessons – whatever it takes to achieve your vision without compromising your integrity. If you find yourself posing for too many stylized Instagram posts in a fedora and a leopard-print vest, you’ve probably taken a left turn.
If you can build a fan base through word of mouth, then you can start touring, selling out shows and making a career out of your art. It’s true that being a musician is challenging and frustrating, so anyone who undertakes this quest should understand that it will take determination and perseverance. It’s easy to get discouraged, but if you really believe in what you’re doing and you work hard at it, you may eventually attract the attention of an awesome label like Matador or Nonesuch.
Don’t expect anyone to hand you a record deal – that’s not how it works. But if you do the work and utilize the right channels, you will eventually find your fans.