As DIY music scene grows, rising star Jay Som talks about making it on her own
The do-it-yourself movement in music has been on the rise since the inception of social media. Back in 2007, David Byrne pointed out that “an album can be made on the same laptop you check your email.” Years before, in 2003, MySpace offered a platform for unknown artists to upload their music to the masses; pop star Lily Allen was one of its successes. YouTube, meanwhile, gave rise to a small-town Canadian artist named Justin Bieber.
Today, D.I.Y. artists — who make music cheaply and largely on their own — are increasingly able to profit from their music. More independent music sites, including NoiseTrade, Pledge Music, and notably, Bandcamp, now give artists their own platform, often with a way to ask fans to pay for the music they hear. Bandcamp, which has a pay-what-you-want model, has paid more than $100 million to artists on its site. While the returns from streaming services such as Spotify and SoundCloud for artists are notoriously minimal, those services have also increased many independent artists’ exposure.
Among the artists who have seen success from this model is Melina Duterte, who performs under the stage name “Jay Som.” In 2015, Jay Som put together a collection of songs in her bedroom, uploaded it to Bandcamp as an untitled album and expected little to come of it. In an interview with Rookie Magazine last fall, she described the collection as “songs I didn’t want anything to do with anymore.”
But through Bandcamp the album reached the ears of Chad Heiman, an agent at Salty Artist Management, which represented rising singer-songwriter Mitski. After Jay Som joined Mitski’s tour as an opener, she quickly attracted media attention and started headlining venues across the country.
Video by PolyvinylRecords
Despite that success, Jay Som says she is sticking with the small label, at least for now. And she continues to sing, write, mix, produce, play and record her own music. When Jay Som came to D.C. for a show last week, PBS NewsHour caught up with her about how she’s making it as a D.I.Y. artist — and where the D.I.Y. music scene goes from here.
This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: What does it mean to be D.I.Y.-er right now? Do you see yourself as D.I.Y.?
JAY SOM: I guess I am D.I.Y. because I wear multiple hats for this project … I am the songwriter and producer; I do the mixing, and recording and all instruments. It really is a do-it-yourself kind of project, only because I’ve been doing that for a long time and I save money that way. And also I like to work by myself. I really like retaining control. There’s something very nice and independent about it.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: How did MySpace, Facebook, Bandcamp or other independent music sites help you launch?
JAY SOM: I think it was pretty integral to why I am here today. MySpace and Bandcamp and SoundCloud made my music accessible, especially during this time, this age of music. It’s so easy to just put your music out by yourself. And Bandcamp allowed that. If I didn’t have any of those streaming services, I don’t think anyone would ever hear my music. I wasn’t actively showing it to people. I wasn’t making physical copies or making tapes. I was just literally just putting my music up on these sites and that was it. I wasn’t sharing them anywhere. And what happened was it was spread through word of mouth and also pockets of listeners online and it just kept spreading that way. It’s a very positive thing. It also shows how many bands there are.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: How does a smaller label give you autonomy as an artist?
JAY SOM: Polyvinyl [my label] was probably one of the only labels that said, “Yeah, we’re okay with you doing your own [music] by yourself. That’s fine.” Other labels said, “Yeah, we’re going to put you in the studio. We got to do this and like work with other people.” And I said no to that.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: How has D.I.Y. changed since you’ve been doing it or in the past few years? Can artists make more money doing it on their own now?
JAY SOM: For me personally, my work ethic and foundation with music is still D.I.Y. since I wear multiple hats for this project. But I do have a wonderful team of people that have been helping me every step of the way. In general, it’s pretty easy to be strictly D.I.Y. since the Internet makes music, shows and publicity so accessible. [And] there are so many services and sites online where you can set up your own shop to be in direct communication with people that want to buy your music/merch. A lot of people also start their own labels to retain more control.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: You write about personal subjects, but also like to be alone. How is music bridging that gap? What are you trying to get across?
JAY SOM: I think as the months have been passing by and the more tours I do, I realize that I’m not just making music for myself, anymore. That’s been a big realization — that these people are listening to my music and making some sort of connection. And that’s really one of the only things that I want, is that anyone just can listen to it and find something that they like. And if they don’t like it that’s fine. But hopefully people like it.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: You sold out this venue. People are listening.
JAY SOM: Yeah it’s really been crazy. Every show has been sold out — almost every show.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: Even though you are independent, has anyone tried to shape your look one way or the other?
JAY SOM: I think that’s more of a — I feel like there’s some people that like want to token-ize my life and on the surface level where it’s like: I only want to talk about how you’re a woman, you’re an Asian American woman. Someone wants to talk about the struggles that I went through rather than talk about how I’m a human. But at the same time it’s important to talk about these stories. I went on a tour with Japanese Breakfast [a solo indie rock project] and Mitski [a singer-songwriter based in New York] last year and that changed my life. That tour was three Asian American women billed for one tour. If I had that, when I was a kid, I’d probably cry because that’s so rare. At every show there were young girls and young girls of color coming to the show. … There aren’t enough women in music. I think with women in general but especially women of color in music, you have to work like five times harder to be taken seriously.
DAYANA MORALES GOMEZ: And has living where you do shaped your sound?
JAY SOM: Yes. Oakland and San Francisco really showed me the beauty of the arts and music community in big cities. There are so many hardworking people there that have been working way harder and longer than I have to keep the D.I.Y. arts scene thriving. It’s so hard to live there and be a musician but that doesn’t mean that the music scene is dead.