Everybody loves an underdog. They are the artist whose career started as a local opener with huge dreams to make it big. They worked for years to build a fanbase, growing it from their local area to the entire U.S. market and suddenly a major label wants to sign them. But is signing to a label always the best path for these artists?
Barcelona started as a solo project, but lead singer Brian Fennell quickly realized he needed a full band. Soon after, Barcelona’s music was noticed by several labels. “In 2006, we flew out to New York a few times right off the bat,” says Fennell. “About four months into being a band we were talking about signing to a label and it was an intense whirlwind.” On the day of their label showcase, half of the prospective label was laid off, including their potential A&R representative. After this happened, they had second thoughts about signing to a label and decided to tour and self-record an album instead.
In 2009 Barcelona signed with a major label, Universal Motown, to have their album Absolutes re-released. “In hindsight, we don’t see signing to Motown as a regret. It gave us an opportunity to extend the shelf life of our album and see what else it could do,” says Fennell. “We thought it would be a plus to sign to Motown because there was no one like us on their label.” This led the band to believe they would get special attention, but in fact, quite the opposite happened. Artists like Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Drake, and Shiny Toy Guns received all of the label’s attention and Barcelona was left with nothing.
Paper Route is a band that has followed a similar trajectory as Barcelona. After independently releasing a few EPs and an album called Absence, Paper Route was signed to Universal Motown to have their album re-released. Having toured with artists like Paramore, Owl City, and Switchfoot, Paper Route has played for a myriad of crowds with different musical tastes. “I’ve been shocked opening for certain acts and seeing the crowds react,” says Daly. “I’ve learned to never judge a crowd.” Unfortunately, the crowds have't been nearly as large once they became a headliner.
House of Heroes can certainly relate to this problem. Having been together since 1998, lead singer Tim Skipper knows about the blessing and curse of always being the opener. “It would be great to be the band carrying the draw. When we try to do that, we don’t get a whole lot of people at shows,” Skipper says. “Doing tours with bands like Relient K, Silverchair, William Beckett, and MXPX has been a huge blessing. If we can get in front of more people, we believe we will win them over.”
Living as a band under the radar is never an easy thing. While some Top 40 artists seem to have sprouted onto the scene overnight, these artists have been working hard for years with little to no sign of forward progress. For Barcelona and Paper Route, the fact that they wouldn't be doing a second album with their label was tough to swallow.
“Being told that your label doesn’t want to make a record with you at first felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath us,” says Barcelona’s Brian Fennell. “Since we simply sold our first record to them, we were stoked to actually make a record with them. And that feeling of the floor falling out from underneath us was quickly replaced with hysterical laughter and going to get whisky.” It was nearly three years before a proper release after Absolutes, but Barcelona finally came around to releasing a new album, titled Not Quite Yours, in 2012.
“The lowest point in our musical career was firing our manager at the same time that we are finding out our label was going under at the same time as writing the best songs we’ve ever written,” says Paper Route’s JT Daly. “The last thing you ever want to think about is business, numbers, and commerce in the middle of the writing process.” They eventually buckled down, headed to their personal studio, and wrote The Peace of Wild Things three years after the release of their major label debut.
House of Heroes has been signed to a small Christian label, Gotee Records, for nearly ten years, but they still have trouble pulling in fans. While a little over 25,400 Facebook “Likes” is not a nominal sum by any means, it’s simply a speck when compared to Muse [13.6 million], Blink-182 [7.5 million], and Jimmy Eat World [1.2 million]—just a few bands in the same genre as House of Heroes. “The people who do it really well are really successful,” says lead singer Tim Skipper. “The pros of doing it are really cool — direct access to fans, and they have direct access to you. You can really set yourself up for success doing it right.”
Whether it’s the major label signing or a hugely successful headlining tour, we as fans believe we know what it means for an artist to be successful. What do the artists themselves believe it means to be successful? “Success is so relative,” says Barcelona’s Brian Fennell. “What’s keeping us going is growing up as friends and individuals and realizing what that means to us.” Paper Route’s JT Daly agrees, saying, “Success is the heartbeat of the band. What we have done already is a success to us. And we’re still going.”
At the end of the night, we can count the money from merchandise, the amount of ticket sales, how many records were sold, and all of the Facebook “Likes.” However, if the artist isn’t playing their hearts out and putting every ounce of blood and sweat into their careers, then nothing else matters. “It’s important to make music that has integrity, good musicianship, and good lyrics,” Skipper says. “At the end of the day, hopefully it inspires somebody to make good music themselves.” If you’ve been inspired by bands like Paper Route, Barcelona, and House of Heroes, or any other group that has lived under the radar, let them know. Your feedback can honestly make or break a band, and sometimes a little motivation is all an underdog needs to come out on top.
Matthew Moore currently runs his own independent booking agency, Green Means Go Productions, and writes freelance about the music industry.
[Photo credits: Flickr]