In 2005, actor Zach Braff won a Best Compilation Soundtrack Grammy for the soundtrack to his directorial debut, Garden State a soundtrack that included a soulful ballad titled "Blue Eyes" by an obscure, unsigned artist named Cary Brothers. The singer-songwriter turned out to be Braff's college bud. But even though he was one of many breakout artists on a soundtrack that also included songs by the Shins, Frou Frou and Iron & Wine, Brothers opted to not sign with a label afterward. In fact, he hadn't even come out with an LP until this May's Who You Are (Procrastination), released almost three years after the movie's premiere. In that time, he's built up a fan base that dwarfs the one Garden State gave him, developed entirely via hard touring, some Internet savvy and a commitment to making people fall in love with his music ... one person at a time, if necessary. He recently took a few moments to explain his thoughts on how to achieve musical independence with a laptop.
On why unsigned artists shouldn't make scoring a label a priority
"I feel like you should do as much on your own as you can beforehand. If you go to a label and you don't have a fan base and you haven't sold a bunch of CDs, they have you by the balls and they'll basically tell you to do what they want you to do. If you don't, you'll get dropped. It's about proving that your music is viable, proving that people want to listen to it by bringing these fans with you. Once you have that fan base, you can find a label, you can get dropped by a label, but those fans are still there. They don't care if you're on a label or not. They found you because they liked your music."
On how the Internet has empowered musical artists
"Nothing's physical anymore. Everything's online. Everyone has an opportunity now ... unfortunately, because there's a lot of crappy music out there. But the musicians I know the ones who have no money at all but are great songwriters they sit at their computers. When they're not writing songs or playing songs, they're on their computer writing back to every single fan on MySpace and finding new fans wherever they can on the Internet. Unfortunately, that means spending a lot of time in front of the computer. But, hey, if you do the legwork, you get stuff done."
On the value of fans
"You have to start by building your career one fan at a time. It would be nice if everybody could come out with a Top 20 single. But that's so rare these days other than a handful of bands on major labels that get that kind of support. The truth of the matter is, if your music is good and you do this legwork, people will respond. That's the hard truth of it. Plus, people want to feel like they discovered somebody, that they got in on something before anyone else. It's that experience I had as a kid, finding a band before they blew up. They were my band. It's even more so now, because you can literally communicate with that band. That personal connection is a great thing."
On the power of a good personal Web site and buying a good laptop
"When you build a Web site and you have a Web store, anyone can do that and make it look like this big thing. [My Web site] looks like there's a real label or machine behind it, but no one knows I'm actually doing it in my room with boxes of CDs while I'm sitting around in my underwear. You can run this mini-empire out of your house. As for touring, you can run the whole thing on your laptop. In fact, my laptop has been my tour manager for the last couple of years. You don't really need much except a laptop and a willingness to do the legwork."
Saturday, July 28, at the Shelter, 431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-6358, with Priscilla Ahn & Jarrod Champion and Sleeps Till Dusk.
Cole Haddon is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]