When one independent artist gave up the dream, the dream came true
You work hard trying to make your mark in music, but after much frustration with the business side of the industry, you quit.
Then, years later, something happens seemingly out of the blue, halfway around the world, and within 48 hours you’re performing in front of thousands of people in a distant country; you’re catapulted to #1 on the iTunes charts, outselling pop stars like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry in the region; and the record deal you’d hoped for long ago is finally within reach.
This is what happened to Kashy Keegan, a songwriter from London who (thanks to the Internet) had an unexpected success when a song he’d written years earlier found its moment during a protest in Hong Kong.
I asked Kashy about the whole experience, how he kept the momentum going, and the power of “the right song at the right time.”
An interview with Kashy Keegan
At the point at which your song “This Is My Dream” got noticed, you’d kind of given up on pursuing your music career, right? Can you talk a little bit about your life in music up until that point, and what led you to stop making music?
Before the song got discovered I had spent the previous 15 years working every kind of odd job you can imagine from cleaning nursing homes to telesales to working in a hospital for five years. This was all to get the money to record demos at a local studio. Songwriting has been an all-consuming passion for me since the age of 12 and I didn’t socialize as a teenager because every free moment was literally spent working on songs. However, I gave myself a deadline that I had until I was 25 to try and get a break. I turned 25 and was still nowhere nearer to achieving my goal.
I didn’t give up writing songs, because songwriting is my true passion, but I did stop knocking on the doors of managers and record labels trying to get a break. I was feeling forlorn and jaded with the music industry. It seemed like it was a closed-shop to outsiders like me. I was so frustrated and worn down and so I decided to turn to the next best thing which was music journalism. With a lot of perseverance I was able to get a job as an online journalist for a radio station and dedicated myself to that for a while. The irony is, that just as I let go and moved in a different direction, that’s when opportunity came knocking on my door.
How did “This is My Dream” get discovered?
I wrote the song back in 2006. I channeled all the obstacles and frustration I had experienced over the years of trying to get a break in the industry. It was a very raw and defiant song about not wanting to give up on my dream of becoming a songwriter. I uploaded the song online to a few social media sites and then it pretty much just sat there for six years and no one really listened to it except for my family and friends.
Then fast forward to 2012, I got an email out of the blue from Universal Music in Hong Kong who had received a request to use my song “This Is My Dream” as a theme song for the launch of a new TV network. They had found the song online and it led them back to me. I signed a publishing contract with Universal and then just over a year later the song ended up reaching number 1 on the Hong Kong iTunes chart and even outsold releases that week from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It was such an unexpected surprise but a beautiful outcome to all of those years of perseverance and struggle when it felt like no one would give my music a chance.
Once you’d licensed the song, did you start gearing up again to pursue music?
Not at first. The song was put on hold as the TV network was waiting to get a broadcast license from the Hong Kong government. However, everyone was extremely confident that they would get the license in a matter of months. There was already a huge local buzz surrounding the network.
Meanwhile, because I was working in London and on the other side of the world to Hong Kong I just kept my head down and focused on my day job. I’d had so many false-starts and so-called “big” opportunities in the past that never amounted to anything and so I didn’t want to get too excited.
What happened in Hong Kong that kind of threw a wrench in things? What were the protests about?
Fast forward to October 2013, several months after I had signed the publishing contract with Universal; all of a sudden the news broke that the Hong Kong government had given broadcast licenses to two other TV networks but had refused a license to the people’s favorite, a network called HKTV, who were the same network planning to use my song as a theme tune for one of their documentary series.
This license refusal by the government was seen as politically motivated and so it sparked a huge public backlash from the citizens of Hong Kong, which saw all ages and walks of life come together to stage public protests. In fact, tens of thousands of people took to the streets over three weeks of prolonged protests.
I was back in London at the time and completely unaware of the situation in Hong Kong. However, I started receiving all these alerts on YouTube that people were uploading my song. I logged onto YouTube one night after work and saw all the videos people had been uploading showing literally thousands of people in Hong Kong at a protest singing along to my song as it was being played on loud speakers. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was originally intended to be a theme song for a documentary series had now become the unofficial anthem to these large scale protests.
Can you talk a little bit about the experience of flying over there to perform, and how that changed your life and career?
It all really happened within the space of 48 hours and very much on a whim. I received an email from the TV network in Hong Kong inviting me to come and perform the song live. I had no idea what to expect. However, I went into work the next day and asked my colleagues about whether or not I should go and they all unanimously thought it would be a good idea. I booked my plane ticket that night and flew 13 hours to Hong Kong all by myself. I arrived in Hong Kong, met the crew from the TV network and was driven to the protest area.
My arrival had already made the local news before I’d even performed. I did my rehearsal in broad daylight. I’d never performed this song live before and had no clue how it would turn out. There was already an audience of a few hundred people gathered. I was thrown in at the deep end but fortunately it went well. By 9:30pm it was my time to go on, by this point the crowd was roaring outside and there were thousands of people gathered. I’d been awake more than 24 hours but I went out and the adrenaline kicked in and it all happened in a blur.
The audience seemed to really appreciate my being there and I performed the song again with several famous local actors from the TV network at the end of the night. After that, there seemed to be a never-ending queue of people wanting to shake my hand and take their photo with me. I got back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning and received the news that the song had gone to number 1 on iTunes. My head was still spinning and I was convinced that it was just a dream.
What steps did you take to actively parlay that attention into continued momentum?
I was actually panicking about what to do next because I really didn’t want to put any foot wrong or waste this big opportunity. The next day, after my performance the night before, I started contacting record labels sending them links to all the news articles trying to leverage the attention I had received to try and land me a record deal. It wasn’t easy and most were hesitant at first. I think the political undertones to the protest didn’t help my case but the experience had reignited that fire in my belly and I was determined not to take “no” for an answer.
I finally convinced the managing director of a local record label in Hong Kong to sign me and, after much perseverance on my part, he relented and gave me a shot. Meanwhile, I returned to the UK and crowd-funded the money to stage my first full-length concert in Hong Kong. Early the following year I returned to Hong Kong for the concert and then finally decided to leave London and relocate to Hong Kong full-time a few months after the concert.
What about maintaining your fan relationships? How much time are you spending on average on social media? Were you able to use that initial burst of attention to build your email list?
At first it was crazy. Before coming to Hong Kong I had about 73 page likes on Facebook. After that one night when I performed, the next day it had shot up to over 8,000 page likes. It really was a sudden burst of attention and I did build an email list and launched a crowd-funding campaign to stage my first full-length concert in Hong Kong. However, my experience has taught me that an initial burst of exposure is not enough – you need a machine behind you to keep interest up. You need to be performing regularly or appearing on TV or radio. Social media growth works best when it’s a reaction to an outside event. For instance, if you’re playing live and people like what they hear they will often find you on social media to hear more. I still don’t think trying to build a following through social media alone is a good strategy. It’s a great tool for staying connected to supporters but you can’t rely on it as your only means of promotion. It’s too saturated.
How about the infrastructure around you: did you then work with a manager, publicist, booking agent, etc?
I continued to manage myself but I worked with a local record label who funded and distributed my next album. Promotion was minimal but I did lots of interviews with local press and an in-store showcase at HMV’s flagship record store in the center of Hong Kong. The album reached the top 20 in the rock/pop category. I also finished second overall in MTV China’s songwriter of the year competition. That was also a complete surprise because I was the only western artist and the only English language song in the competition.
I’ve heard quite a few stories of musicians who found recognition only after they’d stopped searching for it. What’s the lesson there? Any philosophical thoughts on the matter?
It’s a tough one. There was definitely a certain irony to my situation, but in some ways I felt that it was those 15 years of prior dedication and perseverance finally paying off. I’m all for making your own luck in life and believe that there is a lot to be said for perseverance. If you keep on persevering something has to give eventually. However, I think, as for most things in life, you have to strike a balance. The best opportunities usually find us and not the other way round.
I think you have to knock on doors and make yourself known, but bear in mind that if someone is genuine about wanting to use your music or sign you then they will come knocking on your door. I think perseverance will increase your chances of getting a lucky break, but there’s no forcing it. You have to make sure your music can easily be accessed and then let people know it’s there. If someone is genuinely interested they will come knocking.
Also, at CD Baby we hear quite a few stories about particular songs finding their moment long after their release date… sometimes decades later — especially in the world of sync licensing. Do you have any thoughts on if and how the Internet really empowers audiences to connect with the right song at the right time?
There are those rare instances in life when the stars just align for you. I think that’s what happened for me. After 15 years of what felt like an uphill struggle, things just clicked and it was the right song at the right time that captured the spirit of the moment. It didn’t matter that I had written the song six years earlier or that it had sat there all that time with no one really listening to it. The whole experience has opened my mind again and taught me that life really can surprise you when you least expect it.
For so long I was convinced that the music industry wasn’t open to people like me who didn’t know anyone on the inside. Still to this day, the best part of the whole experience, for me, was that I’d received hundreds of rejections over the years; I literally came from obscurity with no manager, no label, no publicist or anything like that. Yet, because someone on the other side of the world believed in my song enough to use it and give it a decent amount of exposure, I was able to defy all the odds and score my first number 1. It was very validating and immensely surreal at the same time.
A lot of the time people will write a song and want an instant reaction. It doesn’t always happen when we want it to, but once a song is recorded, there’s no saying how or when it might become the next big hit. I would say that you just never really know… you might have already written your biggest hit without realizing it yet.
What are you up to now, musically speaking?
I’ve just released my third album through CD Baby. It’s called Inner Song and it’s a collection of 11 songs, all self-written and self-produced, which chart the massive changes in my life over the past few years of moving to the other side of the world and having my first taste of success with my music.
There have been so many highs and lows and sources of inspiration and I’m really looking forward to sharing the new music that I have been working on. My intention for writing songs has been the same from when I first started writing them 20 years ago. That’s to try and write songs with a message of encouragement and empowerment, as those are the type of songs that inspired my deep appreciation for music and what have kept me going over the years. I think it’s really important, especially in current times, that music helps us get from day to day and gives listeners hope.
Any advice for young independent artists just getting their start?
For years nobody wanted to give me a break and people in the industry gave me every excuse under the sun as to why my music just wasn’t ready yet. However, an unlikely series of events led to my song getting some exposure and once people actually got to hear my music it didn’t do so badly after all. It taught me that, in spite of what anyone says or how some might try to discourage you, the thing you really need to focus on is getting yourself heard by the music-buying public. Let them be the judge and not some so-called industry expert.
In a way, writing songs is the easy part, getting them heard is where it gets a lot more tricky. You might have written the next “Imagine,” but if no one gets to hear it then it will just remain a great song that nobody knows. I think 30 percent of a songwriter’s time should be spent on writing songs and the remaining 70 percent of the time should be spent on finding innovative ways to get your music heard.
For more information on Kashy Keegan, check out his website.
Have you had an unexpected or “overnight” success? Let us know about it in the comments below.