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Adii Pienaar

Family man, seeker and learner. 3X Founder: Cogsy + Conversio (acq by Campaign Monitor) + WooCommerce (acq by Automattic). Ex-Rockstar.

Ep9 - Megan Davies | Entering the Music Industry in the Age of YouTube

Summary

Megan Davies is a singer, songwriter, artist, and YouTuber. On her YouTube channel that boasts 1.5M subscribers and a quarter of a billion views in total, Megan posts videos of mashups, covers, collaborations with other artists, and her own original music. In this episode, Adii and Megan discuss turning music into a viable career, the importance of curiosity in refining a craft, artistic individuality, and being true to your own vision and holding yourself to a standard of growth and improvement in whatever you do.

Pursuing Music in Nashville

Posting her first video in 2013, which would jump start her career, Megan's success was unplanned. Megan grew up in Pennsylvania, and prior to YouTube she’d dreamed of becoming a guitar player. At 19 she would move to Nashville to pursue these dreams, attending Belmont University as a guitar major.

In her hometown in Pennsylvania, Megan was the best guitar player she knew—but that would change in Nashville, where there is a wealth of concentrated talent. And while she has tried her best to never measure success with external validation, Megan would have to ask herself what she was truly interested in and where she fit in.

At Belmont Megan would sign up for music business classes and internships, wanting to learn and absorb as much as she possibly could from her college experience. She forced herself to pivot, to question her initial dreams of becoming a guitar player. She began dipping her toes into new areas and learning new things instead of exclusively sticking to guitar.

Megan has always held herself to a standard of improvement. She always asks herself: am I writing better songs than I did last year?

Recently, during quarantine, Megan has started taking drum lessons. While she doesn’t have plans to become a drummer, she considers how this new experience can expand herself as a person and musician.

Megan graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Songwriting from Belmont and following graduation, she experienced the “post-college panic” of uncertainty. She began working temp jobs in the industry, but she felt lost.

At the time she was creating and posting online: she had a Tumblr account, a SoundCloud, experimental guitar videos, but she never really considered YouTube as a viable career option.

Breaking into the Industry

It’s hard to make a plan to break into the music industry, Megan says. She had so many different visions for what she wanted to do: become a songwriter for artists, play guitar, maybe even produce. However, there were many closed doors in her way and meetings with publishers that were uninterested in her.

All of her friends who are also in the industry have had totally different paths. The one thing they all seemed to have in common universally has been the focus on getting better in the craft and ultimately growing as an artist.

“I don’t have any control over so much externally that’s happening in the industry or whether or not people are interested in investing money in me or signing me… I have no control. A lot of that is subjective and who you are meeting at the right time.”

A Mashup That Would Change Everything

When her younger sister, Jaclyn, came to visit and asked that her sister record a song with her as a birthday present, everything changed…

Though the sisters didn’t know it at the time, this would be the start of something huge.

They took the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons and started mashing it with other songs. They eventually decided on creating a mashup of “Radioactive” and “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People. A few weeks later, while visiting home, their mother insisted on filming their performance. After a bit of editing, they decided to upload their Radioactive/Pumped Up Kicks mashup to YouTube.

Megan shared the video to her personal Facebook, as she did with a lot of her creative works, and soon enough it was being shared by friends and people she didn’t know. Eventually it was shared to an app she had never heard of and all of a sudden her phone was exploding with notifications that she was receiving comments on her video.

Looking back, Megan credits her recording class in college. If she hadn’t taken the class, she says, it probably wouldn’t have happened the way it did. She certainly did not intend to utilize her recording skills to become a YouTuber when she’d first enrolled in the course.

Uploading the Second Video

While not yet profitable, 15,000 views was a lot to be excited over for her first video. After seeing her first video explode in popularity, she called her sister to collaborate on another mashup.

Megan has always envisioned herself as the brains and background of the operation, as a producer more than as the recording artist up front and center. She began to meet up with friends who were also singer-songwriters and artists and had them as guests on the channel. At this point she was uploading around two videos a month, and gaining a steady flow of new subscribers. It was at this point that she began to realize she wasn’t truly in the background; this was her channel. She uploaded a video by herself, an original song, and her audience loved it.

This experience boosted her confidence as a creator and artist, as she’d sometimes had trouble calling herself an artist in the past. More often than not, she’d just call herself a guitar player. In Nashville, Megan explains, an “artist” means a singer usually—like an actor in Hollywood. It’s the person in the forefront.

YouTube as a Viable Career

Megan would grind for the next year, working on a regular job during the day and going home to work on her videos in the evening. Each new video would get a bit more traction, and soon it snowballed into something that she could consider a viable career option.

It took around 2 years to quit her job, Megan says, though she blames some poor career choices for making it take so long. She’d been putting her music on SoundCloud for free download, with the mindset that she simply wanted her music exposed to the world. She hadn’t considered how she could be earning an income from her music—which was clearly being sought after based on the high volume of downloads on SoundCloud. Eventually she moved her music to profitable platforms like iTunes and Spotify.

Branding and a Personal Journey

“From the outsider’s point of view if you come across a video of me and my sister you might just think these girls sat down and recorded this and put this on YouTube and boom… but there is a lot more story behind that.”

Megan doesn’t feel the need to promote the story of how hard she worked in the past. She isn’t trying to sell that struggle. When she makes her videos, that journey isn’t part of what she wants her audience to feel. She doesn’t think the struggle is necessary for her viewers to feel or experience. The audience doesn’t need a backstory to feel something or experience her music, she says.

Staying Consistent and True to Yourself

Working in the industry for so long has helped her cultivate her personal tastes and what she likes and does not like in both the music she listens to and that she creates. Megan has found that instinct is key, rather than trying to emulate what you’ve done in the past or what someone else is currently doing or has done. When making music she leans into gut feelings.

In general, Megan says, there is a standard format for songs. They’re usually around the same length and have some kind of rhyme or reason to them. But despite this fact, each song seems to hold some kind of individuality. When using personal tastes and gut feelings to make decisions, you can create something totally new and unique.

Getting to the End of the Metaphorical Creative String

When she’s working on a song, it’s like following a string from one creative point to another, expanding and unraveling ideas. But at what point does that string run out? Does it ever?

It can be hard for artists, especially if they’re a perfectionist like Megan, to know when a project is finished. Sometimes it feels like you could keep working forever. Some songs never quite feel totally finished, she says. It takes practice to know when to step away, when something is finished and the string has “run out.” Once it is, you must begin looking for a new string to pull, a new influence.

“You can sit down with a song or anything and try to work on something and maybe nothing happens, and it’s the most frustrating experience… I like to think I follow a string: I have an instinct about something and I follow it.”

Changing and Growing as a Brand

As a musician, there is a certain image to uphold, and certain expectations from a lot of people—including fans and often labels and managers. Most musicians have an overarching brand. However, Megan holds a personal philosophy that brands can and should change over time and that change is healthy.

Megan understands that she’s a different person now from when she was 25--she is older and has grown, having just turned 30 this month. As a female in the entertainment industry, she looks toward other female artists who have had long careers. She notes Aimee Mann and Sara Bareilles, who have transcended their age as they’ve continued to push forward in the industry.

Over time, she says, Megan has gotten better at saying “no” to things now than when she was 25. After so many “nos” in the industry, when doors open it’s hard to refuse an opportunity at first. Now she only sets herself up to succeed by approaching things that she knows are good for her mental health.

Many people have this idea of the music industry as this big hustle. However, Megan says, it’s more like a long haul marathon than a sprint and you will certainly burn out if you try to sprint.

In time, Megan hopes to create a life outside of her career. She hopes, however, that with her music she can continue to impact people in the long run. Asking yourself what you’re contributing to the artform in the long run can be a lot of pressure, which can ultimately mess up your craft, Megan says. She hopes that whatever she’s communicating will continue to be communicated in the same way years from now—regardless of where she is in that moment.

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