Jack & Jack’s new EP, Calibraska, is no one’s idea of groundbreaking music. Over the course of four songs and 12 minutes, Jack Gilinsky's fossilized autotuned R&B clichés alternate with Jack Johnson's sprightly, denuded raps, as they tell you to ignore the haters and boast that they can do anything they put their minds to. Johnson's occasional curse word isn't so much dangerous as eager; a five-year old displaying the smelly mess he's made. Jack & Jack make Taylor Swift look edgy, and Iggy Azalea authentic. To call them anodyne is an insult to blandness.
But Calibraska did break ground last week in one way: It was the top album Friday on iTunes, ahead of major-label acts like Future, Jill Scott, Rihanna, and Swift. Unlike all of those big names, Jack & Jack are independents: Calibraska was self-released. As a result, the teenage duo is collecting 100 percent of the royalties on their album (once Apple takes its 30 percent cut).
How did two kids from Omaha, Nebraska, achieve such a feat? The answer, inevitably, is via social media. The band has 14 million followers across its many accounts—including Vine, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook—and they’ve harnessed that popularity online to sell more than a million songs leading up to last week’s release.
Without a label, Jack & Jack release their music through DistroKid, a company which charges artists $19.99 annually to distribute their music to iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and other music services. DistroKid is essentially an interface coded by founder and CEO Philip Kaplan. The company has only a few full-time employees, but 25,000 users. And because DistroKid charges a flat rate rather than a per-song fee, Kaplan says, "There's a lot of music that might never have been released that gets released."
Major labels have long had a death grip on who gets to be successful, and on which artists get that marketing push that allows them to find a mass audience. But the internet has scrambled that calculus. Artists now can reach an audience without any middlemen. Through DistroKid, musicians can take a chance on a song for very low risk, which means there's lots more music that has a chance to go viral, or just to find an audience. "You can put out things you're unsure about, and oftentimes there's a viral hit,” Kaplan says. “We enable hits that might have never been released." Royalty checks come to him, which he passes on to the artist; he says he pays out more than $200,000 in royalties every month. The music industry isn't dying, Kaplan says; it's been democratized, so that less famous musicians, who never would have made any money from their work in the past, now can make a small profit—or occasionally a large profit.
As Kaplan says, that's exciting and inspirational. But as Jack & Jack proves, independence from the music industry does not guarantee music that’s independent from convention and cliché. Not that the duo are talentless, their skill is just marketing, not music. In interviews and Vine videos, Jack & Jack are relentlessly on-brand. Basketball, girls, gentle ribbing—their safely jocular dudebro act never wavers. In a masterpiece of obsequious fan-service, Gilinsky recently expressed gratitude to his fans for accepting his relationship with fellow teen pop star Madison Beer.
In a world without major labels, then, the most profitable artists are likely to be those whose main genius is for self-promotion. Jack & Jack use their artistic freedom to be more mainstream than the mainstream, turning R&B and hip-hop into bland, hearty cheer, suitable for consumption by middle-American tweens of all ages. Performers who are more focused on music, or whose music and image doesn't so thoroughly occupy the middle of the road, are unlikely to duplicate Jack & Jack's commercial success.
Mobley is an Austin, Texas, artist who mixes indie rock and R&B into complex orchestral pop, with a sinuous, acid edge. He also uses DistroKid. He praises the company as "very artist-friendly," but other than his choice of distribution service, he has little common ground with Jack & Jack. "I don't know of any independent musicians actually working who think that social media in and of itself is really helping them," he says. Mobley makes half of his living as a musician, most of it from touring; iTunes sales are more a promotional tool than an income stream in themselves. "A lot of musicians just want to be musicians," he says. "I say with no bitterness and 100 percent sincerity, more power to anybody who can [market themselves as Jack & Jack have]. But if we broadly care about hearing from people who aren't interested in being personal brands, the system as it's currently set up is skewed against them."
The internet, including services like DistroKid, allows artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers, who limit what can be heard and have historically tied artists to unfair contracts. But in bypassing those gatekeepers, artists are also bypassing the industry expertise—and marketing budget—they offer. Yes, any musician can make a little money on iTunes now. But if Jack & Jack’s success is any indication, independent superstars need to be more flavorless, and more single-mindedly entrepreneurial, than even their major-label counterparts.