Meet the Orwells, trying to make it big in a music industry turned upside down

From left: Matt O'Keefe, Mario Cuomo and Dominic Corso, of The Orwells, perform during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for the Washington Post)
From left: Matt O'Keefe, Mario Cuomo and Dominic Corso, of The Orwells, perform during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for the Washington Post)

Los Angeles — It'd been five shows in five states in the past nine days, and now Mario Cuomo and his band mates slouched in patio chairs outside an unfamiliar bungalow, giving no hint of the huge stakes of the backyard gig they were about to play. They sipped tequila and vodka from red plastic cups. They fiddled with their phones. None of them seemed worried that their bassist was missing, last seen earlier at the motel.

"He thought we were coming back for him," said Cuomo, the lead singer. "But nah."

Although they were playing it cool, Cuomo and the others knew this could be a pivotal moment in their careers. Most of the people pouring into the back yard were not ordinary fans. Some had probably never even heard of their rock band, the Orwells. But this parade of hip T-shirts, skinny jeans and untucked button-downs represented a powerful group: They licensed songs for films, TV, ads and video games. And in an era when few people buy music, a show such as this was vital, maybe even more valuable than a record deal.

"We've got to license some stuff today," Cuomo, 23, said to guitarist Dominic Corso as they watched the crowd grow. "It's business, Dom. L.A. is all business."

The Orwells were five friends from the Chicago suburbs grappling with what it takes to succeed in a music business undergoing dramatic change — one that has ramifications not only for music creators but also for the listening public. Last year, the U.S. music industry saw its largest spike in recorded music revenue in nearly two decades, driven by a surge in online song streaming. It was a remarkable reversal from just 10 years ago, when the online distribution of songs threatened to crush the industry. But this change in fortunes has created a new set of winners and losers.

Subscription and ad-supported streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music — which work like digital jukeboxes with unlimited repositories of songs — are the new industry gatekeepers. They contributed the majority of U.S. music sales for the first time last year, outpacing the money coming from CDs, vinyl and digital downloads. This shift to streaming has worked out well for musicians at the top — the Drakes and Rihannas of the world. But it threatens almost everyone else hoping to earn enough money to sustain a musicmaking career. With streaming's emphasis on individual songs and algorithms that reinforce already popular choices, the hitmaker's reward is skewed as never before.

Today, less than 1 percent of songs represent 86 percent of the music streamed, according to the market research company Nielsen.

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. A decade ago, industry insiders talked of digital distribution's "long tail," where any musician could be discovered through the sharing power of the Web, even if they didn't make it to the top of the charts or record companies ignored them. Now that's changed.

"That's the thing that baffled me about streaming: It was supposed to be any band can be the new 'it band,' " said David Bakula, a senior vice president at Nielsen. "It's actually turning out to be the opposite. The rich are getting richer."

Even in an industry long centered on superstars, the result of these shifts is a growing sense that musicians need to go viral right away or risk oblivion. Musicians have less time to hone their skills and develop their sound. This worries industry observers who see a new economic model that makes it tougher for acts such as the Orwells to survive.

"The middle of the market has collapsed," said Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist who studies the market forces in the music industry. "In the long run, there's a risk that the quality of the music — the ability of musicians to stay in the game — will be challenged."

And that's why the Orwells were about to jam in a backyard under an avocado tree.

- - -

It was nearly showtime when Cuomo surveyed the crowd and asked aloud, "Do all these people work on movies and sh--?"

A man standing by the brick patio stage worked for the production company behind the Netflix show "Love." Others were music executives from Apple, Warner Bros., Paramount and the CW.

"To get this much industry out to your show is literally impossible," said Ryan Kofman of the music publisher Kobalt.

A little after 5 p.m., John Katovsich walked to the stage. It was his backyard. Katovsich, a music supervisor at Lionsgate, puts on these shows several times a year. A few months ago, the acclaimed folk-rock act Dawes played here. Katovsich saw this as a way to support music he likes.

"I have no idea how any of these bands make money," he said.

These licensing deals — called "syncs" — are an increasingly important moneymaker for performers, worth $3.2 billion last year, according to MIDIA Research. Musicians once considered this "selling out," but few can afford to pass up the opportunity today. The Orwells' previous albums generated more than 20 sync deals, helping keep the band afloat. They included ads for Chevy in Thailand and Peru, plus the video games "Guitar Hero Live" and "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5."

Now, Katovsich took the microphone and introduced a band he said he first heard a few years ago - "one of the most punk-rock things I've seen."

"Here's the Orwells!"

All five members of the band — including the bassist, who finally showed up — walked onto the patio. Their playlist had been culled for the moment. Earlier, the band had decided against playing a complicated, seven-minute song called "Double Feature" that would have showcased how much they'd grown as a band. They worried it wouldn't work in this setting. It was scrapped. Instead, their songs were short, loud and fast. Cuomo vamped and shimmied as he sang, tossing about a mane of long blond hair that he would soon dye black.

After the first song, Cuomo teased the crowd, "If you're really into licensing our songs for a movie, then, well, it's good to be here."

In the back, Jack Steven, one of the band's managers, laughed.

In the early 1980s in London, he helped sign huge acts such as the Eurythmics and Sade. Now, at 62, he was smoking a cigarette and sitting in a chair because his back ached, recalling how the industry had changed.

Yes, he said, record sales are over. But the making of music isn't over. It's just that music's role in an artist's career has changed. So if you're not selling physical copies of music, you've got to be selling something else.

"There's all these other areas of income," Steven said. "We just need to find them."

- - -

Like so many bands, the Orwells got started in a basement.

In 2009, when the boys were 14 and 15 and living in the same neighborhood in Elmhurst, Illinois, they began meeting every Friday night at guitarist Matt O'Keefe's parent's house. Henry Brinner on drums. His fraternal twin brother, Grant Brinner, on bass. Corso played guitar. But they needed a singer.

Although Cuomo was Corso's cousin, it was Henry Brinner who asked Cuomo during science class one day whether he wanted to give it a try.

"I just kept coming back," Cuomo said. "Every Friday and sometimes Saturday, we just did that for the entirety of high school."

Influenced by rock acts such as the Strokes and the Black Lips, the boys forced themselves to write a new song each week. The songs had catchy hooks and lyrics that focused on girls and the trials of a suburban teenager's existence.

They stole the name the Orwells from another band in town. Then that band broke up. And the new Orwells took off, scoring shows at parties. Two years passed before O'Keefe's older brother emailed a handful of music blogs to beg for attention. One blog that responded was connected to a small, independent label called Autumn Tone Records.

A few months later, the Orwells were signed.

Cuomo rushed home to show the contract to his parents. His dad was impressed. His mom cried. Annalisa Cuomo loved Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. And now her oldest son was standing in her kitchen with his own music deal — even if it was for just one album, no money up front, with a split of any profits.

"He just looked so happy," she recalled.

Freshly signed, the Orwells headed to Austin to play a music showcase. In the crowd that day were the two men who would become their managers: Jack Steven and Larry Little. The two industry veterans were blown away by the high school kids. Little felt moved by their energy. He knew he had to work with them.

Things started happening fast. The band signed with Canvasback Records, part of the major label Atlantic. In 2014, they played their high-cardio rock anthem "Who Needs You" on "Late Show with David Letterman," Cuomo writhing on the floor in a red Chicago Bulls jersey and black leather jacket.

Letterman sounded smitten.

"Oh that was wonderful! Thank you very much. The Orwells," the late-night host said, turning to his bandleader, Paul Shaffer, "What do you say, a little more of this?"

"Yes! Crank it up!" Shaffer said.

"A little more," Letterman said. "Have you got anymore in you? Here you go."

Cuomo shook his head.

"Come on, do something!"

"One more time! One more time!" Shaffer chanted.

Cuomo and the others smiled awkwardly. O'Keefe had broken all six of his guitar strings. They couldn't play more. Shaffer was unfazed. As the credits began running, his house band started playing the Orwells' song. And then Shaffer, in gray suit and sunglasses, pulsated on the floor in an uncanny imitation of Cuomo.

The moment blew up online, racking up YouTube views. The song was picked up for an Apple iPad ad. And the band returned to Letterman's show later that year to play that encore.

There was a buzzy energy around this young band. And they rode their popularity to play festivals and shows around the world.

But the music world was changing.

- - -

Three years ago, when the Orwells released the album that got them on Letterman, the band was still touring mainly to boost compact-disc sales and digital downloads.

At the time, people were still buying music, despite U.S. music sales already having collapsed from their 1999 peak. Apple's iTunes remained popular. Streaming services were unproven and just picking up steam, contributing not even half of the revenue that still came from CDs, vinyl and digital downloads.

Then, thanks to the explosion of ever-better smartphones and big bets by big technology companies and upstarts, streaming took off. A new business model emerged.

People today consume more music than ever, thanks to streaming services that have put seemingly every track just one click away for a price that's close to free. A mind-boggling 1.2 billion songs a day were streamed last year in the United States, according to BuzzAngle Music.

Music fans can choose from a range of streaming services that allow people to listen to songs while not owning the music. The services were a response to the early-2000s explosion in digital music piracy. The services pay fractions of a penny each time a song is played, supported by ads or monthly subscriptions. Last year, that added up to just under $4 billion of the $7.7 billion in U.S. music revenue.

The Orwells have seen the change on their tour for their new album, "Terrible Human Beings," which came out in February. No one talks about album sales anymore. The focus seems to be on boosting the band's presence on social media and Spotify.

"It's all about getting your numbers up on the Internet," O'Keefe said.

But the band looked warily at the constant demand for social-media posts and new followers. The band shared posting duties. Some music festivals spelled out their social-media obligations in contracts.

The band also got weekly emails about their online performance — how many new followers they gained on Instagram and Twitter, how often their top single, "They Put a Body in the Bayou," played on Spotify.

Cuomo refused to open these notes. He was put off by the focus on how well they tweeted rather than on whether they put on a good live show.

"I don't get it," he said.

"I guess it's not totally useless," he added. "But there's nothing like a great album or something that could actually make an impact on somebody."

- - -

With the release of their third studio album, the Orwells were nearing the point in their career when, in times past, artists often have broken out.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers went big with their fourth album, "Mother's Milk." Green Day did it with their third, "Dookie." Smaller acts such as Kings of Leon and the Black Keys also took several albums to reach the level of success needed to sustain a career. Patience has a payoff.

The problem facing the Orwells and other musicians in the middle, though, was that streaming has made breaking out so much harder.

The problem for artists, said Bob Lefsetz, a music-industry consultant, is the abundance of choices that listeners have. No one can keep up. Spotify alone adds about 15,000 new songs each week. Anyone can post a new song to sites such as Bandcamp or SoundCloud. With so much competition, musical acts are quickly forgotten unless they surge to the top.

"It's easier to get in the game," Lefsetz said, "but it's harder to win."

The old gatekeepers — radio and record labels — were far from perfect. Labels pushed only a limited number of artists. Radio had only so many hours of airtime. That limited the amount of music that people were exposed to, making music a relatively scarce commodity. This gave some acts time to grow. It was not a perfect system, but it had certain advantages compared with today.

"When there were fewer people in the game, there was more of a middle class," Lefsetz said.

Lefsetz pointed to Jason Isbell, an acclaimed alternative-country singer, as an example of an artist who thrives outside the mainstream.

"Is he making money and having a career? Yes. But there's no one behind him," Lefsetz said. "In years past there might be five or 10 acts like Isbell in his orbit."

Streaming favors superstar acts in a way physical albums don't, said David Lowery, a singer best known for fronting the early-1990s rock band Cracker and who today teaches music business at the University of Georgia.

Just a few years ago, fans reliably spent $10 to $15 for a CD. A song played online today pays roughly 0.7 cents a spin. That's a haul for pop singer Ed Sheeran, who set a Spotify record this year with 56.7 million streams in a single day — worth almost $400,000. But that rate does not compare with lost album sales for acts such as the Orwells, whose most popular song on Spotify has racked up 11.5 million streams over three years. That might bring in $80,000, before it is split with the record label and then divided among five band members.

Fifteen years ago, more than half of an artist's revenue came from selling music, on average, according to MIDIA Research. Today, that has fallen to one-third.

For the Orwells, it's even less: Only about 20 percent of their income comes from selling music.

That's the same amount flowing into them from sync deals, a sign of the rising importance of selling songs to advertisers and filmmakers.

The Orwells, like most musicians, today earn half their income from touring. And those live shows are where the band sells most of their T-shirts and vinyl records, contributing 10 percent of their income.

Streaming plays a pivotal role in all of this - it's often the performance on streaming services driving whether musicians get booked and how much they get paid.

"Things have changed on such a deep level," said Lowery, 56. "I'm not exactly sure what the way back is to a middle-class band life that existed just five years ago."

In 1993, Lowery made his name with Cracker's breakout album "Kerosene Hat." He earned a gold record. The band played 7,000-seat venues. He still gets royalty checks.

But that was his sixth album. He had been playing in bands for 10 years by then. He thinks his career would be different if he were starting out today.

"We probably wouldn't have made as many records as we did," he said. "And I don't imagine getting to that album where we broke through commercially."

- - -

The night before the L.A. backyard show where they jammed for the music industry, the Orwells were in nearby Santa Ana getting ready to play in front of a more typical audience. Cuomo had just stepped out of a shower inside the club when it was time for sound check. He walked straight to the stage, a white towel around his waist and another around his head. Little snapped a photo and posted it on Instagram.

Little and Steven, the band's two managers, had not seen the boys in months.

"What's up with this party tomorrow?" Cuomo asked. "Are there going to be porn stars there?"

"It's going to be music supervisors," Little replied.

Cuomo said it still sounded cool.

Little updated the band on new tour dates and music festivals — part of his plan to push hard. The Orwells had stopped touring for almost two years until recently. They'd needed time to relax and write and record a new album. Little now realized that was a mistake.

"Never again," he said. "We're going to just keep working."

"Going around the country?" O'Keefe asked.

Little nodded.

"You get out of their playlist and you get out of their heads," he said.

He told the band he'd just struck a deal for them to play Chicago's Riot Fest in September. In October, they would be in Europe opening for Weezer. In December, opening for the Pixies. The band would also hit summer festivals in New York and Tennessee and then Spain and Portugal, plus London with Green Day.

Little felt the Orwells were on the cusp of something. If the band could move up to playing larger clubs and get slightly better billing on the festival circuit, "that's where you can make a profitable life," Little said earlier. "We're knocking on that door."For now, the boys were earning enough to pay their bills. They had their own apartments, some with roommates. They were each making about $40,000 a year. But Little knew they were still young.

They didn't have families or real obligations. They would want more. And while he was proud of the tour dates — the backyard gig they played earlier this year hadn't yet led to any syncs — it all came back to streaming and social media. Those were the numbers the talent bookers looked at. A band blowing up on Spotify might get tiny song payments, but the bookers would be clamoring.

It was two hours before the 9:45 p.m. stage time, and the band were hanging out in the club's green room.

"How many tickets have we sold?" asked Henry Brinner, the drummer.

"We were at 629 at 6:30," O'Keefe said. "So we're probably at 700 by now."

The final tally would be 847, just shy of a sellout. They would gross $1,785 from selling T-shirts, vinyl records and CDs at the show.

The show started, and Cuomo came alive. The mosh pit by the stage was filled with frenzied teenagers and 20-somethings. Fans mouthed along to the lyrics, their smartphones out to capture the moment. Someone threw a shoe on stage. The band played "Body in the Bayou," and Cuomo — his hair sweaty, his face flushed — sang a line about how "good songs can make you rich." And, for a moment, it seemed true.

Then Cuomo dove into the mosh pit, disappearing into the crowd, rising again on a sea of outstretched arms.

 

 

From left: Grant Brinner, Mario Cuomo and Dominic Corso, of The Orwells, mingle during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
From left: Grant Brinner, Mario Cuomo and Dominic Corso, of The Orwells, mingle during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
Mario Cuomo, the vocalist for The Orwells, performs during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
Mario Cuomo, the vocalist for The Orwells, performs during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
One of The Orwells' manager, Jack Steven, center, during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
One of The Orwells' manager, Jack Steven, center, during a house party in Los Angeles in March. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

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