In 2006, five bluegrass musicians living in Nashville, Tennessee, got together to drink too much and commiserate over their failed relationships and middling careers.
They put together a jam session a few days later and eventually recorded their debut album – How to Grow a Woman from the Ground – later in 2006. The band is called The Punch Brothers, and while you may not have heard of them, they are an extremely successful band that fills large venues all around North America and sells hundreds of thousands of records.
While the Punch Brothers’ style is certainly not what you could categorize as pop music, they’ve somehow maintained a degree of commercial success. The band’s instrumentation consists of mandolin (played by lead singer Chris Thile, who moonlights performing Bach trios with Yoyo Ma), violin, banjo, guitar and standup bass. Despite the fact that they are known as a bluegrass band, their strange process yields a music that is similar to bands like Radiohead and Grizzly Bear at times.
How, you ask, did such a strange band achieve success? The answer is twofold. The first part relies on community, the second on digital and social media.
Part One — Community
If you’ve ever talked to a Nashville musician, then you know that the city is basically a Mecca for musicians of all stripes. It is comparable to Hollywood, but for musicians and songwriters, rather than actors and film-makers.
Bluegrass is already a niche that is difficult to make a living in; trying to make a living playing as an experimental bluegrass band seems downright impossible. The strength of being based out of Nashville, however, is that there is a strong and supportive community of musicians there.
The Punch Brothers are the ultimate musicians’ musicians: they are absolute virtuosos and their artistic vision pushes the limits of what is possible with stringed acoustic instruments. Their label (Nonesuch Records), has other incredibly talented niche artists on its roster, such as Bill Frisell, and Nonesuch famously put out Wilco’s masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when the band was dropped from Warner.
Part Two — Social Media
In an era where major labels hold less and less power over the musical industry, social media is a tool that bands can rely on to get their music out and promote themselves. Social media is so vital to succeeding as a band that if you’re taking music lessons for any instrument with the aim of starting a music career, you may as well start familiarizing yourself with all major channels of social media, as well as sites like Bandcamp and Youtube, which provide a free platform for you to promote your music.
To give you just one more parting example (just in case you are not a fan of Bluegrass music), Chance the Rapper is another “self-created” artist who has used the platform of social media to launch his career. He hasn’t even released a proper album for retail – he only releases music through streaming services – and yet he won the 2017 Grammy for best rap album. He is also massively active in the troubled communities in south Chicago, promoting education and art programs and advocating against gang violence.
Building a career by developing community connections and accessing a wider community through free digital is a savvy, viable method of building a music career in what is, by all measures, a turbulent time for the music industry.