If you want to know the best way for an independent artist to put their music out and find their own audience, without the help of a label, look no further than Kina Grannis. Over the last couple of years, the singer-songwriter from California has pretty much set the gold standard for truly independent musicians. From her YouTube channels to her Instagram account – rarely will you find another musician who consistently shows this level of quality in anything they put out. It might be the most well-rounded online presence of a musician that isn’t made by a marketing department of a major label. Of course all of that would still count for nothing if it wasn’t for a whole lot of dedication, talent and years and years of hard work. Kina Grannis is an independent artist to look to when trying to figure out how to do things, but it hasn’t been an instant success for her either.
► You recorded your first album while you were in college. How did that come about?
The music industry school at my college had just started a project called the Thornton Protégé Program. A music industry student was assigned to find a musician on campus, record an album and help them release it. His role was basically to act as the producer of the project. I wasn’t actually in the music school at USC, although I spent a lot of my time there, and somehow he heard about me and approached me about it. Up until this point, I’d never made a real album, so it was a great opportunity for me. It was the first time I recorded in a proper studio, worked with other musicians and had my songs produced. So thanks to Thornton, I made my first EP, Sincerely, Me. On top of that, it gave me the recording bug – I made the album my sophomore year, and then within the next six months, I recorded the next two albums at home in my garage.
► That was back in 2005. In other words, Twitter didn’t exist yet, Facebook and YouTube existed but weren’t a thing yet. I’m guessing you had a MySpace page. But I’m also assuming that, at the time, your thoughts about a music career were more conservative or traditional.
They were, definitely. You guessed right, I had a MySpace, which I was very active on then. At that time people could still find you on MySpace, but not a ton of stuff could come out of that. My mindset was that I would just keep writing as many songs as I could and playing every open mic and every show that I possibly could because I ‘needed to get discovered by a major label’. In those days, that was kind of the only way. You were a starving artist or you were on a major label and making it big.
► Didn’t quite happen like that. But when you didn’t get discovered, you forced people to discover you, through a contest…
(laughs) You could say so. The Doritos Crash The Superbowl Contest. I entered right after college, when I was living in Austin, Texas. At this point, I still had never made a YouTube video. For the contest you needed an original song and video, so I figured that it would be a great excuse to force myself – for as long as I would be in that contest – to put every ounce of my energy and my being into trying to put my music out there. I wasn’t too concerned about the outcome of the actual contest. I didn’t think there was any chance for me to win. I was thinking, “Ok, I’m in this thing for two weeks to two months (however long I’ll be in the voting) and I don’t want to annoy people by asking them to vote every day, so in exchange I will start a YouTube channel and I will put up a YouTube video every day that I am in the contest as a little thank you to the people who voted.” In my mind, YouTube was just a hosting site. I’d only sent the links to the videos to my friends and family, and that’s who I assumed would be watching them. But all of a sudden the view counts started growing, there were people commenting I didn’t know, and I started to see a community build. I was posting through a website called ‘twoweeksforkina’, and in the blog section I kept seeing the same names over and over. They were from Finland and Poland and Australia and all over the place – my first core of supporters. And they became my friends, my online family. That’s when it started to dawn on me that I’d stumbled over something special in YouTube and the internet. Thank goodness for that contest. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have gotten there.
► By the time the contest is over – and you win it and with it a record deal – has your mindset changed insofar as you didn’t think you’d even need the deal anymore?
Well, here’s how it went: The contest runs for two months, I post a video every day during that time, I’ve found supporters online, people are excited for the new album… then I win the contest, I’m signed to a major label, I’m on the front page of iTunes – the old-fashioned part of my brain is still there and it thinks, “Here we go. It’s all going to change. I have a label. I’ve just been played on national television.”
But then months go by during which we can not get a hold of the label. When we finally do and sit down with them, they tell me what they see me as and that they want to put me together with songwriters to write an album. I told them I already had an album of songs I’ve written that meant a lot to me. The label still wanted me to co-write a new album, at which point I had a little freak-out. I just couldn’t imagine sacrificing the music I love and that was true to me for a label – especially after discovering online that I might not even need them. In the end, they said I could stay with them and do things their way or I could leave. My answer: Thank you! Bye!