by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
As I call Orlando DIY pop duo SALES, Hurricane Irma is beginning its ruthless assault on the Sunshine State. Of course, this timing wasn’t planned, since even meteorologists can’t perfectly predict the weather; the most destructive hurricane to hit Florida in a quarter-century makes art seem insignificant to discuss. SALES disagrees: “There’s no better time,” insists Lauren Morgan. “I won’t let a hurricane stop me,” adds Jordan Shih, SALES’ other half and Morgan’s musical soulmate.
For a band as absurdly hard-working and driven as SALES, these sentiments are unsurprising. Over the past four years, thanks to a sparkling debut EP and subsequent full-length, the duo has become a genuine cult sensation entirely without the help of a record label; only recently, with the release of new single “Talk a Lot,” did Morgan and Shih add a publicist to their minimal, close-knit team, which otherwise only includes a booking agent and a publisher. SALES has built a strong internet hype and national fanbase without engaging in the standard tricks and trades of the music industry, and they’ve done so with a sound that doesn’t quite fit the traditional image of DIY. Morgan and Shih aren’t crusty, punky kids banging out noisy, loud rock songs that harken back to the late 80s and early 90s; instead, their blend of soul’s relaxing atmospheres with the pop minimalism that the xx pioneered late last decade gives their songs a friendly charm that distinguishes them from their typically more aggressive DIY brethren.
As a completely independent, unsigned band that has aired across college radio and appeared on widely followed music websites, SALES surely has lessons to teach new artists, especially those aiming to retain full creative and financial control of their output. Over the course of our nearly hour-long conversation, which here has been edited and condensed for clarity and length, we only minimally discussed SALES’ music, instead focusing on the miracles of their wholly independent successes. Morgan joined about 45 minutes into our conversation; she had been helping board up her home to protect it from Irma. The storm almost stopped her, but her fearlessness, as expected, didn’t let that happen. She and Shih said it best: nothing gets in their way.
Max Freedman: Your shows routinely sell out at home. As you noticed that and began dominating the local scene, what are some conscious choices you two made regarding the band’s future on a national scale?
Jordan Shih: We were actually selling out shows out of state before we sold out our first show in Orlando. The conscious effort was acknowledging that there was a demand outside of our town, just based on the internet, and being confident in taking on headliner shows. On our first tour ever [up the east coast], we didn’t even have a booking agent. We decided to do that as a complete headlining act, not knowing what expectations there were. We really wanted to have the experience of touring, seeing what it was like to be a band people came out to see, [but] not a lot of people came out to those shows. That was a conscious decision, in terms of becoming the national act that the internet had already hyped us up to be. There was a lot of buzz surrounding us, and it was only a matter of time before people were expecting us to tour.
MF: Once the internet had hyped you up to be a national act, was that the main indicator that you were at the point when you could start touring the country? What else played into that decision?
JS: Seeing the statistics and our play counts rise. With the internet and a lot of platforms out there, you can analyze the data and see where people are coming from. The focus was, “Let’s try to play a show out in these major cities. Let’s see what’s going on. Let’s see if this buzz on the internet is actually translating into ticket sales.” Initially, it wasn’t. There were people that came out; that was the solidifying factor. It was like, “Oh wow, even though this is our first tour and it’s not like we’re going to sell out any shows,” there were people coming out to physically see a band from Orlando in Brooklyn. [laughs]
MF: How much of what you’ve been able to achieve, do you think, is due to your sound, which is, to me, way more sparse and soulful than your standard punk band that comes to mind when most people think of DIY?
JS: When we write songs, we don’t write a lot of riffs or a lot of parts. We try to brainstorm what feels right for this particular project. I was so confident in “Renee” when we wrote it. When we finished that song, that was the solidifying foundation for the whole start of the project, deciding to make the Facebook page, start the Soundcloud, and start inviting people to like our music.
MF: With songs coming to you two so spontaneously and naturally, how has the relative ease of arranging these songs for live shows played into your ability to tour and grow?
JS: Something we’ve been saying lately is that SALES songs were never meant to be played out [laughs]. We never had any intention of touring. Myself, I had just learned guitar for the project, so even playing out was an intimidating aspect for me. It’s a constant learning experience, and I think we’re getting better at it. We’ll write the songs without considering how we’ll execute them live. It opens the creativity for us, not having to stress out about, “How are we gonna do this live?”
MF: That’s so interesting, that even though a lot of what eventually built you was touring, this was never the intention. It was just, “let’s just do this for ourselves,” and suddenly here you are, having a national fanbase.
JS: I’ve learned to love touring, but ultimately, it was all about writing songs and making music. I could be okay with being home and writing songs there and never going out [laughs]. When we write a song, now, we have to consider, “How are we going to translate this into a live setting?” Generally, we do use backing tracks to execute that. When we first started playing as just the two of us, prior to having a drummer, it would just be the two of us with guitars and two backing tracks. It was very minimalist. We’ve elaborated on that by having Malcolm, our good friend and drummer, [join us]. Because you have to compromise and the songs sometimes don’t get executed in the same way as you hear them on the recording, I’ve had someone walk up to me and tell me they thought we were a cover band [laughs]. The songs do sound very different live. I’ve had people say, “Wow, you guys are better live.” That’s usually the consensus. It makes me feel good. It took a while to get to this point, to have a live show we feel good about.
MF: That’s really funny, that people were saying you’re better live than on record, since clearly these weren’t songs you wrote to play live, and the initial hype on SALES started because you just went and put these songs out there. Do you have any clue how people found your songs at all? It’s one thing to see that people are listening; it’s another to know how they discovered you.
JS: It was really cool for you to tell me we were being posted on [music-sharing app Cymbal]. I didn’t even know about that app. Every time we talk to some fans, they’ll mention how they discovered us. It varies. YouTube helped for sure. The channel Majestic Casual was one of the many publications that just decided to put up our songs, and that generated half a million views on YouTube pretty quickly, just from their built-in subscriber base. When I’m talking to other artists, in terms of how this happened for us, I don’t know if this sounds condescending, I’m just telling them, “Hey, you just have to put out the music and be confident in it, and hope that there’s someone that feels the same way and decides to put you up there.”
MF: Did you reach out to Majestic Casual, or did Majestic Casual stumble upon your music?
JS: They just stumbled upon it. And what’s funny, to elaborate on the whole idea of reaching out: this most recent single we put out, publications that had written about us in the past decided not to.
MF: That’s really surprising.
JS: No shade on those publications, I totally understand, but it seems like the more you reach out about something over time—when they don’t know about you, just push it as much as you can, but once you get to a point when you’re not new, you don’t have that novelty anymore, and it gets a little harder. That’s what we’re running into…PR is really complicated.
We definitely did send [our music] out though. We had curated our own list of 400-500 blogs.
MF: Oh wow.
JS: To me, it was very straightforward. You just go on—and I still tell this to people, it’s no big secret—you just go on Hype Machine and look at all the blogs that are listed there and see which ones are relevant to what you wanna submit. To be honest, I’ve sent the same blog list to some people, and I don’t know if these people have actually used them. The root of what made it happen for us was just us feeling confident. I had this really big head about it [laughs]. I was shameless. I meet a lot of people that are constantly struggling with confidence about what they’re doing.
MF: Or maybe they’re just being overly humble.
JS: It’s one thing to be humble, but it’s one thing to be…not doing the work. There are certain things that literally are grunt work, or shitty work…we do a lot of stuff that is not related to writing music, and I enjoy every aspect of it. I think that’s what lost on some people: they’re so focused on the songwriting that they forget about the other stuff you have to do.
MF: You may be the first musician I’ve heard who genuinely enjoys the outreach and marketing aspect of it. I’ve seen that SALES has been written about in places, like Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan, that bands dream of. How much of that was entirely you, and how much of that was any sort of PR that you hired? Given that initial reaction, what made you decide that, for “Talk a Lot,” you were going to hire a publicist?
JS: Although it’s always been Lauren and I, it would be weird not to mention the other people that were involved. Alana Questell was doing our artwork and Guillermo Casanova—they were involved when we were making our [early] marketing campaigns. Up until mid-2016, it was [the four of us]; the ethos was “we’re good friends, we’re all equals.” They helped us a lot with everything throughout the project, but they slowly became less involved.
MF: How did this shift from a four-person team to truly just you and Lauren help you conclude that, for “Talk a Lot,” you wanted a publicist?
JS: We were pressured to go with a publicist. Our booking agent Joan, who is really awesome and would be weird not to mention, is a big part of our project in terms of advising us—she’s really familiar with how the industry operates, so it’s really cool to pick her brain about, this word I hate, the “industry standard” way of managing a music project. It’s really valuable. She was really adamant on us considering a publicist.
We had the hardest time finding a superstar publicist—our publicist is great, she’s amazing—but we were trying to find one of those publicists that’s doing all these super high-buzz bands. They weren’t really interested; we reached out to a few, and some didn’t respond. The ones that did respond, they always asked me, “Do you have the album?” That’s something that always threw me off. They always want a completed album before they can even work with you. That’s really just not how we work. We don’t really finish an album and decide to start promoting it. We’ll work on songs, finish the songs, then decide, “How are we gonna promote this song?” The way we work wasn’t compatible with how a lot of these publicists wanted to do it. It’s not even their fault; they call it the industry cycle.
MF: I can sympathize with what these publicists are saying; it says a lot about where the industry stands. I both see what you’re going through and understand why they’re reacting this way. This experience might be a big lesson for anyone reading this.
JS: I appreciate your insight. I totally believe that there is a publicist—ours is a great example—that believes in a band and is willing to do it the way they want to, or just is okay with promoting a single. All of the publicists that Joan helped us find were not interested or were not compatible, so we were like, “Oh, we’re just going to have to do this ourselves like we always have.” But then we went to New York recently and met up with our publicist, and we just decided to hit her up and see if she was willing to help us. I really believe in her, and the stuff she’s been doing is really awesome.
That’s mostly what it is: I don’t want to work with someone who has the name or credibility. I want to work with someone who understands our ethos and understands the complexities and that there’s not a right way to do things. To me, a lot of industry people are very set in the way they do something. It makes sense—it’s always worked for them—but I don’t believe in 2017 that there’s a right way to promote music or do anything related to art. It’s constantly changing.
MF: How, if at all, have Spotify playlists, and SALES songs being featured on them, factored into your growth? I noticed that “Talk a Lot” is on the New Indie Mix, which is a stellar achievement that people crave constantly.
Lauren Morgan: It’s absolutely frickin’ amazing. They’re this faceless gift giver. Spotify is my new God. We have no idea who they are.
JS: We have yet to meet anyone or know anyone from Spotify. We have no idea why we’re being put on those playlists, other than the fact that people want to listen to it.
MF: So you haven’t had anybody straight up reach out to Spotify? Some distributors do include that in what they do.
LM: We use TuneCore. They seem just as surprised as we are.
MF: It sounds like Spotify is genuinely noticing your music is picking up and choosing to include it in playlists.
JS: I have a theory about it. I don’t know how many independently distributed bands there are and how many plays they get. I don’t know how much they get from us, if that factors in, and what the politics are, but the artists that are on labels, the money that Spotify has to pay is different.
LM: We think bigger artists have a better deal. That’s just a theory of ours. That Taylor Swift thing, I think she just renegotiated with Spotify, because she has that leverage and that play count. I’m not sure what the trickle-down is for indie artists, but the theory is that we’re independent, and they take what they give us, and we’re very thankful.
JS: Yeah, we won’t be hitting them up being like, “Yo, what’s the deal? We need more money.” [laughs] That might be what big record label are doing. That’s my theory, that it’s in both parties’ interest to champion acts that don’t have any of those middlemen trying to mes things up.
LM: That’s just a theory, just a conspiracy theory.
MF: Leading up to your debut album, you spent ten months releasing new songs via Soundcloud. Besides the obvious goals of getting your music out to the world, for what reasons did you do something so against the grain of, to use Jordan’s despised phrase, the industry standard?
LM: SALES is the first serious band either of us has ever had. I didn’t start to understand industry standards and record cycles until a month ago [laughs]. We just released things when they were ready. We’ve always been on our own schedules. When we were releasing the albums, we were both working pretty much-full time, just working when we could to make sure songs were ready. When you write, produce, mix, master, do everything, it takes a little longer for things to be in order. No one’s behind the scenes polishing what you’ve done. It wasn’t a strategy, necessarily, but it worked.
JS: We did what we felt like was the only thing we could do. We finished the song and put it up on the platforms that would let us. Other genres of music have been doing this for a long time: hip-hop, trap music. I pay attention to how those acts are able to blow up.
LM: We’ve always had the ethos, “we need to make sure each song is the best it could be. This could be the song.” We both think it takes just one song to make your entire career.
JS: We gravitate towards writing singles, just songs that are gonna be the song. I’m still growing as a musician; I’m still learning the idea of conceptualizing albums, songs in series. But my preferred way of writing songs is just thinking of that one song. How great can we make this one song?
MF: Why did you choose Soundcloud over a space like Bandcamp that’s more frequently associated with DIY?
LM: We released all the songs on all the platforms, but Soundcloud has been great, because number one, blogs use Soundcloud to embed. I don’t know what blogs are gonna do when it leaves. It’s like a listening community, whereas I still don’t really understand how Bandcamp works.
JS: I’ve always felt it was dumb to put up your stuff only on one thing, or allow exclusivity. That’s why we’re not huge on premieres. We’ve always put it up on everything; we just noticed that Soundcloud did the best on exposure and play counts. Bandcamp has been amazing for us on merchandise sales, and it’s really valuable in that regard. The virality of the song—you never see a song going viral on Bandcamp, but you always see it coming from Soundcloud. It’s just the nature of the platforms. We prioritized what we felt was doing the best for us.
MF: If you had any piece of advice for a band looking to have full creative control of its music while expanding its reach and its fanbase, what would you say to them?
JS: Be confident. Be prepared to be challenged in the way you approach things. Even if you’re confident and think what you’re doing is correct, someone will come along and not feel that way. You’re just gonna have to stick to your guns. It’s really nothing about music at all. It’s just general advice.
LM: What I would’ve liked to say to myself [at the start] was, “Fuck the haters, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t fucking do anything because they’re losers. Just do what you need to do. Put it out there. Go forward. Everything is your job. Everything is your responsibility. Just step up. Do it.”
JS: Having what we have…it’s like we’re working five jobs. You have to be okay with it to have the creative control. If you wanna have creative control, you’re going to have to work five times as hard as the other person who’s willing to sign a record deal and have the label handle everything. If you wanna keep 100% of what you make, you’re gonna have to put up 200% of effort.
LM: You’ll make major, massive mistakes, and it’ll be fine.
JS: I’d rather own 100% of nothing than give up 50% of nothing. Whoever reads this really has to understand themselves and see what they want. It’s not for everybody. Not everybody wants to be responsible for everything.
LM: Most musicians we talk to don’t want to do that.
MF: It’s a lot of work.
LM: Jordan and I have only been doing this seriously for two and a half years, so we’re still learning too. It’s weird doing interviews, because I don’t want to look back and be like, “Why did we say that?”
JS: “Oh shit, we fucked up!” [laughs]
LM: We could sign to a record label one day. We have no idea. We’re just trying to do what’s best for the project in the moment.
JS: Do the math. Any deal you get offered, just do the math on it. Nothing’s really worked out mathematically in terms of what people have offered us. We’ve done this out of necessity.