As music’s retail presence withers, MTV and VH1 turn ever further from music video programming, and radio continues hacking away at itself, searching for the one vital organ that will finally bring about its own richly deserved death, we’ve been increasing our coverage of artists who find success with alternative methods, either via Internet outreach, or innovative commercial deals, or — in the case of singer/songwriter Sanders Bohlke, “a manager, a booking agent, and a lawyer, but that’s about it.”
I first heard Bohlke’s work when I was working on my interview with One Life to Live music supervisor Paul Glass. Though our discussion focused mainly on the artists Glass has booked to perform on the series (a list that will expand to include Lionel Richie in September), Glass also uses a fair amount of songs for the show’s ever-popular musical montages. Most of them are by artists who, if they aren’t exactly established, still have some kind of label backing, but that changed when Bohlke’s “The Weight of Us” popped up on One Life‘s May 22 episode:
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It’s a hauntingly lovely song — and one that, in contrast to a lot of similarly moody, montage-friendly ballads you hear on TV, rests heavily on an acoustic guitar and understated lead vocal. It isn’t without its melodrama, particularly toward the end, but it reaches its crescendo sensibly and honestly. Television music placement has increased to the point where probably a fourth of the press releases I get say something about how the artist’s music has been featured on an episode of some show or other (usually The Hills), but most of those songs sound like they were made for TV; in contrast, “The Weight of Us” sounds like a stark personal statement that just happened to find its way onto the screen. Once Glass told me about the song, I was intrigued, and set about getting Bohlke’s perspective on his unorthodox career.
Since getting ahold of “The Weight of Us,” I’ve played it for a number of people, and they almost always say “I think I’ve heard this before.” This isn’t a case of mistaken identity; as it turns out, the song has been used by more than one ABC show: It has also been heard on Grey’s Anatomy and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and made enough fans along the way to inspire a number of YouTube mashups. It’s the kind of cross-promotional bonanza that artists like U2 spend months planning and pay out the nose for, but for Bohlke, things came very differently.
“I was overwhelmed,” he says during our phone conversation. “I wasn’t expecting this at all. I thought it was just a nice little song I was putting out. It just got into the right hands at first, and it was all — it was a lot of phone calls, where someone would say ‘Hey, you want your music to be on this show?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah!’ So it was really kind of a fortunate thing.
“It wasn’t as planned out as it may seem,” he adds, “or as I probably would have liked.”
Of course, it didn’t all happen by magic. It helps that “Weight” is a drop-dead gorgeous song, and one whose mysterious sadness lends itself well to the tear-soaked travails of your favorite television characters, but there are lots of unsigned artists making plenty of wonderful music; the key ingredient, in Bohlke’s case, was working with the right people — and doggedly following his muse after releasing his self-titled debut in 2006.
“I’ve been on this journey to find the next record for three years now,” he says, “and have recorded all sorts of demos with different people, and it wasn’t coming together. None of it was cohesive, it was all different pieces, and part of it was a result of not having enough money to just go into a studio for a solid couple weeks or month, or whatever.” He eventually started demoing with a songwriter named Chris Keup, and those sessions produced “The Weight of Us.” “We gave it to the guy who’s producing my quote-unquote ‘record,’ and he turned it into what it is now,” Bohlke says. “Chris’ publisher got it into the right hands, and all these people latched onto it. It was one of those things where we have our little ways of getting it into the right hands, but we weren’t overly pursuing getting it onto TV. It was like ‘Okay, here’s a couple of songs, if you like ’em, use ’em’ — and it ended up being awesome.”
Part of what’s fascinating about all this is that it wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago — partly because the technology wasn’t in place for artists like Bohlke to give themselves free distribution, and partly because no serious performer wanted his music used in a commercial or as part of a serial drama. It’s a change Bohlke is acutely aware of. “As an artist, you don’t want to be the guy people remember as, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the dude from The O.C.‘ — I know I don’t, really. But at the same time, it’s great. It’s a great avenue for people to hear your music, and I’m for it. But you want people to buy your music because it’s great, and it does something to them, and buy the whole album and be a fan for life. And TV is a good way to do that, but it can be used in different ways, and you never know how it’s gonna be…people could see it on something that’s ‘not cool.’
“I think it’s a great way for people to hear it when they wouldn’t necessarily go find new music,” he concludes. “I put the first record out and thought it would be a stepping stone to the next album, but I never hired anyone to go and push it. We wanted it to be real grass roots. I like that way — people get attached to the stuff that they find on their own, that isn’t shoved down their throats. I like music that I find, more than music that comes through an outlet.” And along those same lines, Bohlke isn’t using his TV-derived success to try and attract the attention of the major labels. “We haven’t really been seeking a record label,” he tells me. “When it comes along, when people are interested, then that’s great, but it hasn’t worked out that we’ve had that. I’ve had some mild success without a label, and it’s been kind of neat not having that. The right label would be great — instead of just having people with a lot of money. Not a lot of labels have been pursuing us, which is fine, but we’ve just been able to do what we do and make a little bit of money at it.”
That “little bit of money” — which will no doubt multiply as the residuals from “Weight” start arriving in Bohlke’s mailbox — has been accrued through regular gigs, as well as the steady stream of downloads of his first album. Assembling a satisfactory full-length follow-up, however, has been problematic.
“We just continue to record music, and it keeps changing,” says Bohlke. “My style keeps changing, my writing — what I like and don’t like changes.” In order to give his fans some new music, and to make sure the strongest tracks actually saw the light of day, Bohlke decided to start releasing a series of digital singles (such as “The Weight of Us”) and EPs. Next up is a pair of songs, “Somewhere” and “The War,” that were written with former Remy Zero guitarist Jeffrey Cain. “We thought these songs needed to be put out, and I was getting afraid — with all the songs I’d done with Jeffrey — that they weren’t going to come out on an album,” Bohlke explains. “Because I lose interest real fast. If I record it and I’m real excited about it, a month later I can change my mind, and that’s what’s been happening. This way — you know, people are buying one song at a time now anyway, so this is a way to still have a cohesive EP or whatever you want to call it, while keeping people happy with short attention spans. The plan is to keep pumping out songs this way — this hodgepodge of songs that doesn’t fit, that are just songs.
“I haven’t really done anything else that sounds like ‘The Weight of Us,'” he adds, “and it would be kind of hard to put that on an album, so now it’s just a single — you know, ‘The Weight of Us’ is just ‘The Weight of Us.'”
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Visit Sanders Bohlke at his MySpace page.