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- Posted on Mar 28th 2011 4:15PM by Kenneth Partridge
Courtesy Rolling Stone
In the spirit of March Madness, Rolling Stone has narrowed the field from 16 to 8 in its 'Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star' contest.
That leaves four rock bands (Empires, the Fictionist, the Sheepdogs and the Romany Rye), two indie-pop songstresses (Skyler Stonestreet and Lelia Broussard), one screamo-drummer-turned-hip-hopper (Mod Sun) and one "urban pop" collective (Tha Boogie) vying for the grand prize: their mugs -- or mug -- on the cover of the magazine, as well as a record contract with Atlantic. The winner will be announced on Aug. 1, after two semi-finalists have had the chance to battle it out onstage at June's Bonnaroo festival.
Home handicappers, adjust your brackets accordingly.
Like the NCAA tourney, this one's tough to forecast. In a sense, the remaining artists are all Cinderellas -- more Gonzagas than Dukes. They're hard-working, road-tested musicians who, despite representing a range of musical styles, share the kind of dogged determination that leads people to climb in and out of vans, suffer rejection from labels and generally try to succeed in a business very much in flux.
Take Lelia Broussard. Just 21 years old, the Louisiana native has already released four albums and performed for "just about every label there is," as she told Spinner in a recent interview. Still, she's kept at it, earning acclaim for bother her original music and viral-video cover of Beyonce's 'Single Ladies.'
"It's so much a numbers game and a business thing," Broussard says. "It's hardly ever about the music. You hear all these stories. You have to keep doing it and make the music you believe in. A lot of it is, "Oh we'll sign you if you do this kind of thing." I'm like, no -- that's not what I do ... You just have to be smart about what you do and be true to your music, because at the end of the day that's what counts."
Her fellow female competitor, Skyler Stonestreet, has traveled a similar path. She attracted interest from the majors, but it was only after going DIY that she was able to land a song on the soundtrack for a popular TV show.
"I had done this bigger, hyped-up record or whatever that didn't turn into anything," Stonestreet told Spinner. "It was the stereotypical musician story where they kind of screwed me over. Then I went on tour and came back and started recording in my friend's bedroom. Then the people from 'One Tree Hill' called me and said, 'Can we use this song for our show?' And I was like, "This song? The one in the bedroom? Um, yeah you can use the song!"
Stonestreet says reaching this point in her career has been a "long process," which means if she ever sits down for a beer with Luke MacMaster, frontman for the Romany Rye, they'll have plenty to talk about. MacMaster's previous band, the Colour, signed with EMI in 2005 but ultimately went nowhere, leading the California singer to quit, enlist a crew of Southern sidemen and start writing songs that would eventually catch the ear of Kings of Leon guitarist Matthew Followhill, an avowed fan.
"I'm very aware of the failure rate in music, and I don't pretend to not be affected by that," MacMaster told Spinner. "So I have very realistic goals for this band, and my main goal is to be a better writer. And as far as the music reaching people, I hope to tour the States this year and have the van not break down and interact with as many people as I can and build a modest following so I don't have to work a s----- job. That's really it for now. For anything beyond that, I can only be excited."
If MacMaster knows a good van mechanic, he might pass the name along to the Sheepdogs, proud sons of Saskatoon, Sk. They've spent the last six and a half years motoring back and forth across Canada, bringing Allman-style Southern rock to the Great White North.
"We certainly have had some luck, especially with this competition, but we've had our van's windows smashed out three times within six months, and we're on our third van now -- there's been lots of van troubles," singer-guitarist Ewan Currie told Spinner. "We've definitely had our share of lumps, but that's how it goes."
Chicago quintet Empires avoided some of those road troubles by focusing their early years on writing, recording and honing their dark stadium-ready sound.
"It became pretty serious pretty fast, holed up in the apartment writing songs," singer Sean Van Vleet told Spinner, explaining how cohabitating with guitarist Tom Conrad kick-started the Empires project. "I feel it's been a full-time band since pretty much the beginning. We all put in way more than 40 hours a week."
While Empires focused full-time on music, the members of the Fictionist worked various jobs around Provo, Utah.
"[Keyboardist] Jacob [Jones] taught sixth-grade band!" frontman and bassist Stuart Maxfield told Spinner. "Mr. Jones! I worked in a lumberyard; we've got guys who do data entry. It's an impossible balancing act trying to tour and not starve to death and not have the band break up just because everything's too difficult. But we love it enough that none of that's happened yet. We're not planning on breaking up any time soon."
Neither, one would imagine, are Tha Boogie, the Outkast-like California trio that cites everyone from Cream and the Kinks to Aaliyah and Missy Elliot as influences. The melting-pot popsters are gearing up to release their full-length debut, and while they understand why some have compared Rolling Stone's contest to 'American Idol,' they respect the magazine for letting contestants stick with their original sounds.
"They didn't try to change the bands," vocalist NuSchool told Spinner. "We are getting the chance to be put in front of millions of readers and be ourselves. We really appreciate that. We couldn't do it any other way."
While keeping it real is certainly important, rapper Mod Sun, formerly of the band A Day to Remember, says the key to success is thinking positive. He's a firm believer in the "law of attraction" outlined in the film 'The Secret.'
"The law of attraction simply states that you can make your mentality a reality," he told Spinner. "And I'd be completely lying to you if I said I didn't see everything that's happening in my career a year ago in my head. I would be totally lying to you if I said I didn't see myself making a movement and telling people I don't want them to be my fans, I want them to be my friends. You are not a fan base, you are a friend base."