The ingredients for sweet success in the most addictive music genre
By Javy Rodriguez
“The name is Simon, the game is P.O.P…” – Simon Curtis, “Laser Guns Up”It’s a cool Friday night in April, and it’s show time for Simon Curtis. The 25-year-old up-and-coming pop singer from Tulsa, Oklahoma is performing his first New York City show before a sold-out audience of 220. On stage is not the usual legion of back-up dancers or fancy set, but only a microphone stand. For Curtis, the minimalism renders the stage a blank canvas. He captivates the crowd with choreography that’s more Britney than Justin, with plenty of twitching, snapping, and strutting. His moves are topped by syrupy vocals that evoke Darren Hayes of Savage Garden. Just as much as Curtis evokes the past, he also serves up new twists. Over a pulsating beat, he belts out one of his latest songs, an alternative to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” called “Don’t Dance”:
I’m not gonna tell you to dance, just gonna keep on doing my thing
I’m not gonna tell you to move, just gonna keep on playin’ the way I’m playin’
Don’t dance, don’t dance, don’t dance!
The message, however, doesn’t keep the crowd from dancing. The setting is Superfraiche Pop Night in Brooklyn’s Galapagos Art Space, where the tables, standing on concrete lily pads, are surrounded by water. Curtis is one of four acts taking the stage. Superfraiche, a pop concert series launched in 2009, also has been held in Los Angeles and Atlanta. As the name, a French play on “super fresh” suggests, the show provides pop hopefuls with a platform beyond the Top 40 Billboard charts.
Curtis enters the pop music scene without a record deal, publicist, or manager. But, that hasn’t mattered as much as it would have in the past because of the Internet and the way the music industry has changed. The Internet offers free online exposure for savvy social network pros on Facebook and Twitter. He’s also breaking into the industry at a time when CD sales aren’t the primary source of revenue. Emphasizing ticket sales, record companies are now investing in entertainers who can sell both Madison Square Garden tickets and iTunes singles. That often rules out the simply talented singers in favor of “entertainers,” with a niche that sets them apart like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Ke$ha at the helm. Note that they are all women, which presents an obstacle for Curtis as a male pop singer, a rare species in music today.
Despite those obstacles, Curtis’ success suggests that a Twitter account can be a powerful promotional tool. Last March Curtis released his debut album, “8Bit Heart,” which has been downloaded over a million times through his website for free, thanks to a Twitter campaign. He’s had one million plays on Last.fm, more than 400,000 YouTube views, and over 21,000 followers on Twitter. Curtis opened for the Backstreet Boys’ A.J. McLean last May and, in January, for “Glee” actor Cory Monteith’s band, Bonnie Dune. He’s also loaned his vocals to the theme song for the CW’s weight-loss reality show, “Shedding for the Wedding.” This spring, he’ll release on iTunes his follow-up album, “RΔ” (pronounced Rah), named after his fan base, the Robot Army. Snippets of some of the album’s tracks can be found here.
Curtis’ flair for theatrics started at age 10 when he started performing in musical theater, including in the national production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Inspired by 90s teen pop acts Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys, Curtis recalls, “That’s when I said I want to be a pop star, so I’ve been working on that ever since.”
Curtis headed from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to tackle showbiz after high school. In 2009, after a tough audition process, he nabbed a leading role in Nickelodeon’s made-for-TV movie, “Spectacular!” Then, he appeared on “Hannah Montana.”
Despite the T.V. success, Curtis set his sights on a music career. “I love writing music, performing it, releasing it, and seeing people think. There’s something about creating music that’s just the most gratifying thing in the world.”
In 2009, after 13 days in a basement with producer Jeff “Jadion” Wells, Curtis wrote and recorded “8Bit Heart.” Inspired by his “love for science fiction, fantasy, and 8-bit video games,” “8Bit Heart” follows the story of a “Boy Robot” who becomes human when he finds love. In “Fell in Love with an Android,” for example, he lashes out at an unresponsive lover: “Try to play it like you think you’re something so hot, hate to say it, but I’d rather fu*k a robot.”
Throughout “8Bit Heart,” Curtis mixes elements of video game sound effects, opera, and pop-culture references. He’s optimistic that his music will catch on. “I think people want to hear songs that aren’t about clubs and drinking,” says Curtis. “I hope that I can make music that people find catchy, songs that people want to sing and think a little bit as well.”
Support from music blogs helped Curtis find an audience. Arjan Timmermans, the founder of ArjanWrites.com and Superfraiche, was one of the first bloggers to introduce Curtis’ music. The first credentialed blogger to cover the Grammy Awards and a pop-music connoisseur, Timmermans takes credit with helping introduce Lady Gaga to the masses in 2008, after nominating her for a category in Logo’s NewNowNext Awards, which led to her first televised U.S. performance.
Timmermans launched his blog in 2002 to share alternative types of pop music. “If you listen to the radio or look at the iTunes charts in America, you will see that a lot of the music is the same: the same artists, the same style of music,” he says, “and people are looking for alternatives and other types of pop. They look for more excitement and innovation in pop music.”
Now Timmermans, showcasing Curtis’ music on his blog and in Superfraiche, has given Curtis his stamp of approval. “We don’t really have a good male pop star right now,” he says. “It’s all about the ladies. Where are the men? We need a great male pop perspective.”
Curtis offers that male pop perspective. Serving straight-up pop songs filled with emotion and infectious choruses, Curtis describes his style as “pure pop, dark pop, anything with the word ‘pop’ in it. I love pop music and that’s what I strive to make.” So if Curtis wants to be the next be big pop star, what does he need to do, according to the unwritten yet tried-and-true path to million-dollar sales and deals? The rules, in lyrics:
“Who run the world? Girls!” – Beyoncé, “Run The World (Girls)”
The challenge for Curtis is not only his distinct sound, but being guy trying to make it in a female’s world, with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Ke$ha running the show. “Pop music is definitely ruled by girls and it’s definitely a girl power moment,” says Jocelyn Vena, pop writer for MTV News, who points out that music has moved on from the boy band craze of the 90s.
Vena notes that a male pop artist faces more difficulty getting noticed because females can be more outrageous. Recent chart-toppers are dance-pop songs with themes ranging from overt sexuality (Rihanna’s “S&M”), science-fiction fantasy (Katy Perry’s “E.T.”), and self-acceptance (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R”). While these songs offer standard radio-friendly production, they become enhanced through larger-than-life music videos and live performances. “It’s harder for men to be engaging in that form,” she says. “Girls can have costumes and it’s easier for a girl to identify with the terms of pop music.”
Tanner Stransky, staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, agrees, noting that pop music generally appeals to young girls and gay men seeking a strong female role model. “They love a diva, a big female singer, and it lends itself because of the kinds of topics,” he says. “No guy is going to be able to do a J.Lo-like song or a Britney song because it’s a female medium to do trance/dance kind of stuff.”
But the absence of a male pop star from the scene might also be a plus for Curtis. Although many popular male artists top the charts today, none quite fit the bill as the full-fledged male star that Michael Jackson was. Usher and Chris Brown occasionally have dabbled in mainstream pop influences, but offer mostly smooth R&B. Not only is Justin Bieber too young, but he’s also following the crooner footsteps of his mentor, Usher. And despite Bruno Mars’ evocation of Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” in his hit, “Grenade,” his performances lack dancing, an essential for any performer seeking pop greatness.
An all-around entertainer, Curtis seeks the pop crown. “I definitely hope to fill that void and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.
“I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl…” – Britney Spears, “Circus”
In today’s music business, filling stadiums—and selling t-shirts and other merchandise – is more relevant than having an amazing voice. Although Curtis is a multifaceted performer with the potential to bring in large audiences, he says it’s difficult for him to tour without the support of a record label. With the industry valued at half of the $14.6 billion it was a decade ago, the four major record labels—EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner—are investing in foolproof acts that can sell tickets.
Sony, through Nickelodeon’s Nick Records, approached Curtis after his “Spectacular!” success. The offer involved a record deal, which Curtis described to Billboard as “one of those really big, scary contracts that included taking my publishing for the rest of my life.”
For the music industry, releasing albums has become somewhat of a formality, and touring is now the primary source of revenue. In 2003, Mitch Weiss, who most notably manages the Village People, wrote “Managing Artists in Pop Music” eight years ago, with an updated version due this summer. “In just seven to eight years, the music world has been turned upside down,” says Weiss. “Artists would put out records and tour to help sell the records, because that’s where the money was. Now, it’s the reverse. You put out a record for publicity, because you’re not going to make any money from it, and then you tour. You let your record help sell tickets to the concert.”
After the Internet brought piracy and created the digital music business, allowing consumers to buy singles, album sales couldn’t be counted on for profits. Only Platinum-selling artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna are making money on music alone, says Weiss.
By today’s standards, Lady Gaga, who hasn’t sold nearly as many albums as her predecessors, has become arguably the most profitable pop star to emerge during the 2000s because of touring. “She has managed to survive the technological transformation in music distribution from CDs to digital downloads,” says Dr. Mathieu Deflem, who teaches “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” at the University of South Carolina.
Gaga’s emphasis on visuals has paid off. Her theatrical Monster Ball tour, an opus of 200 shows featuring countless costume changes and a finale where she’s swallowed whole by a giant animatronic Angler fish, has grossed $227 million and drawn in 2.5 million people, making it the most successful tour ever by a headlining debut artist, according to Billboard Boxscore.
“Look at me (watcha starin’ at?)” – Lady Gaga, “Vanity”
How did Gaga attract that many concertgoers? Weiss says it wasn’t because of her voice, but because of her self-appointed role as pop’s performance artist. “Her music isn’t new, only her outfits,” says Weiss, who says most pop stars need a gimmick to market themselves. “There are plenty of artists who can sing well and make videos, but she has created an art out of the performance art: What do I wear? How do I look? How do I present myself? That is her art form, which is not necessarily being the best singer or dancer.”
Weiss says it’s more difficult to get noticed today because of the Internet, which can explain why the last three years have brought us an assortment of characters such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, each with her own over-the-top traits. “Someone that wants to be famous has to give us a reason to look at them when there’s so much to look at,” says Weiss. “You turn on the television or the computer, and you can’t keep up. YouTube changes every second.”
An up-and-comer has to be able to make headlines in the press to break through the noise. “The most important thing is not even necessarily in terms of voice,” says EW’s Stransky, who explains that a publicity stunt and/or a signature look is key for pop superstardom today. “You have to have a point of difference and some originality; something for her to talk about when she goes on ‘The View’ and ‘Good Morning America.’”
Because today’s most popular songs can be traced to a small circle of producers like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, RedOne and Stargate, segmentation of pop stars then depends on the package, not its contents. If style could be regarded as a flavor, Katy Perry might taste like candy tinged with sour punch. Merging the retro pin-up look of Bettie Page with “Lisa Frank” kitsch, she came on the scene with “I Kissed a Girl,” igniting the media to discover whether she was a lesbian. For those who want to do some damage, there’s Ke$ha, who conjures the taste of Jack Daniels. A distinguishing trait might be as simple as a dollar sign in your name, which will have audiences curious about its meaning. The symbol, paired with her perpetually hung-over look, cemented her place as pop’s party girl. Finally, there’s the mystery flavor of Gaga, who has everyone eager to uncover the real girl behind the outrageous costumes. “That’s why Ke$ha and Gaga are fascinating – they have something to talk about,” says Stransky.
Vena agrees that audiences are captivated by persona. “They’re looking for someone with a strong personality and a very defined look that is singular to them,” she says.
“I’m gonna tell you a little story about a boy and his beats and how he made an army…” – Simon Curtis, “Get In Line”
Curtis doesn’t need a wild persona to distinguish himself, because he stands out as a male in pop music, and has mastered Twitter as a promotional tool. Dr. Deflem notes that the most successful pop acts are social-media savvy, noting, “They share an ability to connect with fans, mostly influenced by the use of new communication technologies such as social networking, while at the same time being visible in the more traditional media such as radio and TV.”
To create buzz for his album, Curtis tweeted a new song each time he gained 800 new Twitter followers, and the entire album for free once he reached 8,000 followers, the octave numbers tying in to the LP’s title, “8Bit Heart.” “I was thinking about ways to get people excited about hearing it and that was the plan I devised,” he says. Once Curtis reached that number last March, he released his album to critical acclaim on music blogs and 150,000 downloads within the first two weeks. References to Gaga earned him support from the fan sites Gagadaily.com and Gaganews.com.
Not to be outdone by Gaga and her “little monsters,” Curtis generated his own custom-named admirers, the Robot Army and his own cyber-shrine, Simondaily.com. This caught the attention of Billboard magazine, which usually showcases established popular acts with record deals. “His music is compelling and he has a huge following,” says Jason Lipshutz, the editorial assistant at Billboard.com, who wrote the feature that revealed the title of Curtis’ new album “RΔ.” “We saw that he has a fan base, and he’s performing pretty well in terms of social media.”
Lipshutz points out that social networking also is essential to remind audiences of artists’ existence: “It lets everyone know, ‘Hey, I’m relevant, I’m around, and this is an important thing to check out in terms of my music.’”
Reminders are especially important online, where a record deal doesn’t guarantee getting noticed. “It’s a more crowded field because everyone’s trying to get you to listen to their music,” he adds. “It used to be that someone is an established artist because they have a record deal, but things have changed so much that you have to fight for people’s attention online.”
Timmermans notes that fans expect their favorite artists to be accessible through social networking. “Nowadays, with Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, fans want to be able to reach out to the artist and get a response. They want to be part of their journey and success.”
On Twitter, the three most followed people are all pop stars. Lady Gaga – with over nine million disciples – leads this trinity, according to Twitaholic. Hot on her trail is Justin Bieber and eight million followers, followed by Britney Spears with seven million fans. On Twitter, musicians combine self-promotion with fan connection, letting fans know about the day’s happenings and the release date of their latest single on iTunes.
Even as pop music is shifting, Curtis is determined to succeed. He continues to cultivate his fan base and this time will charge for his music, expecting to release “RΔ” on iTunes. At the moment, he’s not worried about getting a recording contract. “If anything comes my way and it’s the right deal, then I’m willing to explore,” he says. “But right now, I’m not looking.” On May 14, he will perform at EQ Live in London.
Back at Superfraiche, one of the highlights of his performance is his rendition of Britney’s inaugural hit, “…Baby One More Time.” “All of you know this is a special week in pop music,” says Curtis, celebrating the recent release of Spears’ seventh album, “Femme Fatale.”
It was a special week indeed. Taking on the classic song a capella, Curtis advanced one more step in his quest to become as big as Spears. “I’m really excited about the prospect of being a successful independent artist,” he says. “I think I can do it.”