In a world where millions of songs from millions of musicians around the globe are available to stream at your fingertips, how are musicians hitting high streaming numbers, building strong fanbases and creating a sustainable income to make a living? The formula to getting it right seems nearly impossible – and those of us who are not the best in the math department (cough cough, me) it seems like attempting to hit it big as a musician is a shot in the dark nowadays. But despite the odds, there ARE lots of musicians who are finding their niches in the industry – but that can bring positives and negatives.
Artists who decide to sign record deals and work with labels to distribute their music may face difficult choices in terms of what their music will sound like, when and how it will be released, touring, all of it. Fortunately there is an alternative option for artists to release music – by doing it independently. Being an independent musician means not having the support from a music label (big or small) to help fund projects, whether that’s producing albums, creating promotional material for said albums, or other fun things that labels may help develop for a musician. Many independent artists still build teams that help them promote their music, create touring schedules, etc. – ultimately giving all of the power to the artist to pick and choose how they want to craft their images. This can be difficult to maintain of course, but it is done and can be done well.
If you’re able to successfully release music independently, you must be pretty damn talented. Your listener can X out of your Spotify profile with just a click of a button and forget they ever listened to your song to begin with. I do this all of the time. Harsh? A bit. But the music industry continues to expand and has become oversaturated in the streaming age – there are a lucky few who are able to break through the mold and not only find success as independent musicians, but are able to have strong streaming numbers, a decent social media presence and a fanbase active enough to allow artists to tour and perform for a living. You’re probably wondering who these mysterious artists are – but they are definitely out there.
Foreign Air is one of them. The duo is comprised of Jacob Michael and Jesse Clasen, who started creating music in the 2010s and released their first single “Free Animal” in 2015. Foreign Air is a prime example of an artist finding viral success – “Free Animal” currently has over 23 million streams on Spotify alone. Nine of their 14 released songs (64%) on the same platform have over one million plays and their entire discography has nearly 60 million streams altogether.
Jacob and Jesse met over 10 years ago after performing with different bands and ending up on the same lineup at a show in North Carolina, according to an interview with Huffington Post. They stayed in touch, sent music to each other via DropBox and created a friendship that ultimately turned into the two recording and performing music as a duo. They continued to release music back and forth and recorded in studios across the country from New York to North Carolina, D.C. to California and ended up releasing their debut “Free Animal” on Soundcloud and led to the band meeting with a handful of labels and ultimately releasing their debut EP, For The Light, in 2016. The rest of their story has been a whirlwind of success: Foreign Air toured significantly in 2017 and have played shows with the likes of Phantogram, SHAED, Bleachers, Bishop Briggs, Alice Merton and have played festivals like Firefly, Hangout Fest and Shaky Knees.
Foreign Air’s music reminds me of Foster The People, Catfish & The Bottlemen and Cage The Elephants (in terms of rock and vocals) but also has the electronic sounds reminiscent of Glass Animals and Alt-J. They have played a handful of shows in Chicago and I unfortunately was not able to make ANY of them (they were here with Bishop Briggs last June but it was, of course, the same evening as one of Taylor Swift’s two Reputation Stadium Tour stops at Soldier Field). I knew that I couldn’t miss my chance seeing Foreign Air perform a headlining show at Schubas, a venue that I’ve visited 4 times out of the 9 shows I’ve seen in 2019 so far.
Foreign Air’s sound is a mix of indie rock with electronic – with hip-hop influences that Jacob and Jesse listened to growing up in the 90s. This was even more evident in the live performance as the band not only was performing on live instruments (guitars, keyboards and drums, etc). but they also had the instruments that create that electronic-infused sound that really makes them unique. It was cool to see this feature as a focal point to the show – I tend to usually go to shows with more of a traditional set-up with just the drums, bass, guitar, etc. It really gave the audience a feel for the ridiculous amount of work that goes into producing music that sounds how Foreign Air’s does. The pillar of LED lights in the center back of the stage also helped that vibe come to life, too.
My favorite moments were hearing “In The Shadows,” probably my favorite of the older tracks, and two newer ones “Everything Is Good Now” and “The Therapist.”
Another one that I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy even more live was “Caffeine.” This track is so effortlessly sensual, mysterious and intriguing – as if the song is inviting you in to pull the curtain back to see what’s going on. It reminds me so much of the Arctic Monkeys and I didn’t realize that until I heard the song live – like I said earlier, it’s cool to see how your perception on a song can change after you get to hear it performed in person.
We also were treated to hearing a couple new, unreleased songs that have been in the works for awhile – but recorded have been shipped away in boxes after Jesse moved across the country – so releasing them has been delayed just a bit. It’s always fun to hear a sneak of what an artist is working on and it felt particularly special knowing that they’re tucked away in a storage box somewhere.
While there are a lot of artists that I’ve said deserve to perform on bigger stages in larger venues, this really is a sentiment that rings true for Foreign Air. It’s obvious that Jesse and Jacob both have a lot of experience in creating and performing music from previous projects – their ability to create music that fits perfectly in what’s “cool” in 2019 but being able to set themselves apart is a dynamic that is incredibly hard to maintain. They had a great balance of performing and creating banter with the crowd and it seemed like lots of audience members have been longtime fans.
It’s clear that independent artists are making their own paths to success in the music industry and artists like Foreign Air are true examples of how it really is achievable.
All photos shot for Chicago Haze by Jack Corry.
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