A YouTube Pop Star: How JHAMEEL Turned Down Atlantic Records to Pursue Internet Success


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When I made DIG! almost ten years ago, the goal for every band was to get signed by a major label, so that their recording, distribution and livelihoods. I documented ten bands on the verge of getting signed who were clamoring for this opportunity, before zeroing in on the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.  My driving question was: Could they sign to a label and reach a mass audience, while maintaining their integrity? I wanted to know for myself, because as a young filmmaker I had just finished a film about a woman’s criminal case and her life, thinking the film would surely get her freed – but not too many people watched documentaries bach then.  In turning it into a scripted television movie to reach a wider audience, the agency and production company twisted and sensationalized the story.  Hence, my exploration of the collision of art and commerce, and the birth of DIG!

Today, with DIY recording and widespread digital distribution across all disciplines of entertainment, the industry is experiencing massive disruption. Some artists have been pessimistic about the web as a democratizing opportunity for musicians to cultivate a fanbase and make a living without the backing of a big record company. The reasons seem to be the level of noise online and the compensation model, which is still emerging. Spotify pays around $0.006 per stream, while YouTube pre-roll ads pay $5 for every 1,000 views, and banner ads furnish an estimated $0.80 cents per 1,000 views. Recently, David Byrne has gone on record bemoaning that, “the Internet will suck all creative content out of the world until nothing is left,” because discovery platforms like Spotify and Pandora don’t provide adequate revenue for artists. Yet, technology has liberated music from the expensive container of LPs and CDs so cherished by the RIAA, and artists no longer need to rely on record companies for physical production, inventory costs, or even studio time.  The connection between the artist and the fan can be direct and unfiltered, and that means the integrity of the art itself can remain intact. While David Byrne may have a point about streaming services, they are in fact starting to grow: Spotify was able to generate $500 million in payouts this year, equal to what it paid out to artists in the previous three years combined.  The reality remains that the only hope for 99.9% of musicians is cultivating a real direct-to-fan business model.  With over 2 Billion YouTube video views per week that are monetized, and the rise of artist services like Topspin, Gumroad, and BitTorrent, this is an exciting time for musicians to innovate their independence – IF they can hang in there until they get enough traction to survive off the meager artist royalties from pay per click or stream.

At a recent METal event in Los Angeles, I met Jhameel, the poster boy for a new generation of creatives who are leveraging technology to forge their own destinies. He plays each and every instrument on his records, produces his own albums, and keeps a constant dialogue with his fans through Facebook and Twitter, “Now I feel like people are starting to figure out the Internet, free streaming, free downloading, but back then, I was one of the only artists putting out my entire album completely free, doing my own PayPal store, producing my own videos, doing all this from the very beginning.”

In this week’s episode of CEA, we profile this talented and prolific performer as he explains how he ended up in the military only to change course, embrace music & technology, then almost get sucked into another institution, Atlantic Records, and find success on YouTube:

Jhameel grew up in Minnesota, the offspring of classical musicians, who pushed him away from an artistic career toward the military. He even studied Arabic in preparation, but quickly got cold feet, “I just had no idea what I was getting myself into. They basically try to brainwash you. And I always thought that was sort of a myth. But they really do. They don’t let you sleep very much, they verbally abuse you all the time, I had to get out of it.”

After hightailing it out of the service, Jhameel turned to music and found his true calling creating explosive, indie-pop, equal parts Michael Jackson and Prince. Initially, he distributed his work online to gain an audience: “It was out of necessity. Like nobody is going to pay for my music if they don’t know me, but I would download a free album from an artist I don’t know just to check it out.”

During that time, he built a team with fellow UC Berkeley grads, Ryan Rubin and Kaspar Smits, and his popularity quickly grew online, “We basically started ground up. It was almost like a startup if it makes sense. We were just analysing our environment.”

 The record companies soon came knocking, and Jhameel and his team were faced with that age old question of “selling out”, but unlike in the days of DIG!, it wasn’t a question of going corporate or being unknown: “We basically had an offer from Atlantic to bring me up as a top 40 artist. It was a big decision on our team, but we had to turn that down because we want our creative control. We want to say our message, we don’t want to come up like an employee at a record label.”

Without a record company breathing down his neck, Jhameel has been able to build and cultivate his following the way he wants to and at his own pace, “I am as good as I want me to be. Besides the art you’re making, the most important thing is your fans. And taking the time to not think you’re too important for them ever. Making sure that everyone feels like they have a personal connection with you.”

Things have certainly changed since the DIG! days – at a gathering to celebrate that very necessary disruption last Sunday in Los Angeles, A TOTAL DISRUPTION brought together a venture capitalist/pro-musician, Tim Chang, the “Mayor of the Internet,” Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit), a stellar graphic artist/DJ Shepard Fairey, and the musician/crowdfunding queen Amanda Palmer. Jhameel represented the YouTube sphere and convinced a rapturous audience that online musicians can pack a wallop in the physical word, too.


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