Fan Landers: How Can I Bootstrap My Way To Pop Stardom?


Are you a musician? Is your band having issues? Our advice columnist Fan Landers (a.k.a. Jessica Hopper) is ready to give you Real Talk about any problems your musical outfit might be having—whether professional, practical, or sartorial. Confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.

Hi Fan,

I’m a solo male pop singer and songwriter with a very mainstream/Top 40 sound. People often describe me as the male Katy Perry. However, having a mainstream sound in relative obscurity is proving to be a difficult thing to manage. From the indie/DIY standpoint, it’s hard to get gigs; no one’s really putting on a local pop concert. Few bars/clubs/venues cater to this sound unless they’re bringing in a major label act. And I’m getting the sense that, though my genre is massively popular across the globe, people will only start to care once I’ve become famous. I believe that most pop music becomes popular after repeat plays (thank you, radio), but how do you get them to play it? I’m feeling caught in a catch-22 in that many pop artists today become famous first (reality TV competitions, bedroom covers on YouTube) and then put out music.

Is there any hope for someone like me trying to do it the old-fashioned rock way (write, record, play, play, play)? Or do I need to go feign desperation on The X Factor or film myself doing my best “Someone Like You”? We know where the lives of a rock band, rapper, singer-songwriter and country darling begin; where does the life of an obviously would-be pop star begin?

Thank you,

Darling Nicky,
The first thing I thought of reading your letter was those picture that surfaced two or three years ago of Lady Gaga playing Lollapalooza, like lunchtime kids stage opener style, a year or two before she headlined. She had a DJ and boy shorts and maybe some backup dancers? I remember lots of mocking comments about how faux-Madonna and budget her set up was. You have my sympathies because our idea of pop star is so ingrained as being grand and magnificent it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Prince was wearing jeans and taking the city bus, or that Lady Gaga didn’t just hatch, clad in a meat dress. Look at poor Lana Del Rey, mocked for leaving a trail of ambitious evidence and YouTube-able moments of her playing A&R showcases, smiling big and wearing a blouse—hated for not maintaining our imaginings of what pop stars are.

I think it’s good that you are honest about the avenues to pop stardom are in 2012. Depending on how much time and self-respect you have, I would earnestly pursue both the YouTube covers option and, say, trying to get on X Factor or The Voice. For YouTube, think about what works—usually a newish song that people wanna Google up and they stumble on your flawless rendition. Why not assign yourself a one-year project of posting two songs a month? Pick pop hits that serve your range well, you can do something to make them quirky (for better or worse, the Karmin model), do something arrangement wise or you can be earnest and just WERK IT. Turn the new Taylor Swift song (or “Rooster in My Rari”) into a tear-your-face-off sensitacho he-diva ballad. Keep posting original stuff, but make reel-folks-in click bait at the same time. Promote it via Facebook and Twitter. People like songs when they know the words. (This can also serve as your demo reel for any sort of televised singing competition. Two birds, etc.)

If you are trying to court Top 40, you should be showcasing, trying to find a manager with some experience navigating that world, and living in a major metropolitan city with some music industry infrastructure. The industry is slowly rotting to death, but for some types of acts, the machine still works.
I think your most fruitful possibility is networking with producers and DJs. Hit up all manner of club nights and monthlies, big and small. Hit people—the kid in your town who is the dorm-room equivalent of The-Dream, some local DJ/production duo with a following who are ambitious and self-promoting—up online. All of those folks are very likely to be in need of someone who has a great voice and writing abilities, someone to sing the hook or demo a song. You might find someone you click with; you might make a song that gets blog traction. The DJ/producer folks will spin the song you make with them at all their regular gigs. I think finding people who are working within the pop idiom and who are invested and interested in moving forward—even if they may not be aiming for the mainstream—is key. Not only will you be not on your own with promotion, you can showcase your chops as both a writer and a singer.

How you get there is not so much the matter; it’s more about what you do once you get there. You look like you could be on a soap opera; you have really good hair and you sing in a style that is very popular with teenagers. Your prospects are better than a lot of people with your same ambitions.


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