From MySpace to Spotify, Shawn Mendes to ‘Vampire Diaries’ — Ron Pope recalls 2 decades as a full-time independent musician

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CINCINNATI, Ohio (WOUB) — Ron Pope is well aware of the breakneck volatility of the Internet age, from its dream-making innovation to its dream-crushing obsoletion.

The advent of social media, first popularized by MySpace, catapulted an unprecedented number of self-promoted entertainers to instant global recognition; but the newfound ease of becoming famous did not translate to decades-sustaining entertainment careers for most of MySpace’s new stars.

Pope first “went viral” on MySpace in 2007 with his self-released breakout hit, A Drop in the Ocean, leading to a performance on MTV’s legendary TRL just a few months later. However, Pope’s virality milestones continued long after the demise of MySpace.

TV placements, covers by A-list stars of the next generation, and the dawn of streaming are among the subsequent tailwinds for Pope’s long journey across the choppy waters of being a full-time independent musician. Pope’s success led to Ron and wife Blair Clark launching an independent record label and management agency for other independent artists, too — including Miko Marks, who was prominently featured in a PBS In The Making documentary last year.

This year, Pope embarks on A Drop In The Ocean Tour, celebrating the Platinum-certified song that first gave him mainstream success without a mainstream record label. In addition to highlights across his discography, Pope and his band are performing his 2008 Daylight album in its entirety.

The retrospective tour includes a swing through Ohio at Ludlow’s Garage (342 Ludlow Ave.) on Friday.

A press image of Ron Pope. He is standing next to a window in a dark room.
Ron Pope. [Photo by Nicole Mago]
Ron Pope spoke to WOUB’s Ian Saint ahead of his Cincinnati concert. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

Ian Saint: As an NPR affiliate, WOUB-FM plays a lot more independent artists than most other FM stations. You’ve been an independent artist for years. We saw you played A Drop In the Ocean on TRL on March 6, 2008. How did that come about? I didn’t even know that TRL featured indie artists.

Ron Pope: At that point, basically, I’d become the most popular unsigned artist on the Internet — the greatest metric of measuring popularity online was MySpace, and I’d just become wildly popular on MySpace. Then I had a friend interning at TuneCore, and he suggested we put my music on iTunes; so it put us in this incredible position where I’d grown this online audience, and then we were able to actually sell them stuff. That’s really where it started. And I just got a message, out of the blue, from someone at MTV asking if I wanted to guest on TRL.

What year did you start on iTunes?

Pope: My music got popular online in October, 2007; by December or January, we had music out for purchase. But I wasn’t a solo artist, really — I’d always been in a band, and it was never my intention to be a solo artist. It just happened; I’d made this separate project for some of the music that didn’t suit what my band is doing sonically, and that popped off. All of a sudden, I was a solo singer-songwriter, which was not my intention in any way. I grew up playing electric guitar, fronting the band, and running around — I had no idea that this quiet music, that I’d put together on a whim, would become something people cared about.

How did your MySpace popularity take off?

Pope: In October ‘07, I’d reached this critical mass of early adopters, that were all very excited about my music. Then, all in a row, I released several songs they really attached to: A Drop in the Ocean, You Are the Reason I Come Home, Fireflies… And these early adopters, they were the sort that wanted to share. They weren’t the sort of early adopters who were like, “oh, of course you don’t know about that”; they were like, “oh my goodness, you don’t know about this? I can’t wait to share with you. I want you to listen to these five songs in front of me, and I want to watch your reaction.”

So those people took this handful of songs, released in rapid succession, and spread it like wildfire — and it just exploded. On the first Monday of October, I was maybe getting 100 plays a day on MySpace. The next Monday, 1,000. The next Monday, 10,000. The next Monday, 100,000; and just kind of [skyrocketed] from there. Suddenly, we’d grown this audience of people who were preaching with the fervor of the newly-converted; and it really worked.

It seems …Ocean had several bursts of viral moments, over the course of several years?

Pope: Definitely. It’s been fascinating to watch; because at the time it emerged, I don’t know any other musicians who’d really become popular via the Internet. I had some contemporaries — Colbie Caillat, for example, got popular around the same time — but there was nobody who really stayed independent and continued having success. And we’ve been lucky in that A Drop in the Ocean, and so much of the music that I made in that era, has just continued to be consumed.

And then, yeah, something else will happen — a song will be on a TV show, or somebody will cover one of my songs, or someone who’d covered my songs five years ago will become an arena-level artist. That kind of crazy stuff happens, and continues driving interest in my catalog. I’ve been making albums for 20 years; so the continued interest in my catalog has driven consumption of different music from throughout my career, from the beginning and up through today. That’s been a lucky part of this journey.

A press image of Ron Pope. He is looking backwards and he is bathed in stage lights.
Ron Pope. [Laura Partain]
In 2009, you signed with Universal Republic Records.

Pope: Oh, they didn’t do a single thing. They didn’t add one dollar of value, or offer one minute of assistance — because I was [already] selling so much music. It was like I owned an ATM, and then I rolled my ATM into their office and let them use it. So I spent less than a year signed there, and thankfully was able to get myself out and get my recordings back.

What did the full-band version of A Drop in the Ocean spring from?

Pope: That’s from my [2011] Whatever It Takes album. I’d always imagined […Ocean] as a big, fully-produced thing with strings, and it’s very cinematic. The acoustic recording was a demo I’d pitched for someone else to record, and they decided not to cut it — so my friend said “just put it online.” So that’s just one take of me playing the keyboard, and one take of me singing it, that we just cut to show somebody. That’s the first thing that [went viral]; but in my head, it was always this grand production.

The cinematic, full-band version was then featured in The Vampire Diaries.

Pope: Yeah, I was in the studio making [my 2012] Atlanta album, and we got the message that they wanted to use …Ocean on Vampire Diaries. Somebody there was a fan of my music; they sent me an email, and here we are. Still, to this day, when people tell me that how they came to know my music, that’s one of the top reasons: that particular placement — which is wild, because it’s one scene in one episode.

I had a bunch of placements on dancing shows [such as FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance] because different choreographers would get excited about my songs. They would dance to them, and share them with their students; and then those students would go audition for the various dancing competitions, and that’s how I ended up on those dancing shows. So it was all person-to-person, much like the rest of my career; all organic.

Shawn Mendes, a then-14-year-old YouTuber, covered …Ocean. He’s now a global, blockbuster superstar. Shawn’s cover was early in his YouTube posting; when did you become aware of that cover, and what level of celebrity was he at the time?

Pope: I heard that one pretty early on, considerably. Before he was super popular, there was a whole bunch of people in the same era, who all were in his sort of draft class. One of the Five Seconds of Summer guys covered me; plus James McVey from The Vamps, Shawn, Cody Simpson, and a few other people in that same general age range of pop artists. It’s always surprising to hear somebody cover my songs, and then become gigantically, unbelievably popular.

So yeah, watching Shawn’s journey was really fascinating. The Vamps, I watched go from each being solo artists online, and then put the band together; within a year, it was enormous. Cody, same deal watching him, he was kind of shot out of a cannon; Five Seconds of Summer also. And I’m always shocked whenever anybody knows who I am, or sings any of my songs; like, “get out of here, really?”

So the luster of being covered never diminishes.

Pope: No, it’s great, because there are so many songs. You could’ve sung a Bob Dylan song, every time you chose to sing one of mine; you’re not singing Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, or Whitney Houston. You could pick one of the most popular songs ever recorded in history, and instead you pick one of mine; that feels nice. It makes you feel like you’re connecting with people in a meaningful way.

On this tour, Taylor Bickett is opening for me. When I first interacted with her, I wrote her a message just to tell her I really liked her songwriting. She wrote me back, “OMG, the first song I ever learned to play on guitar was A Drop in the Ocean.” And I was like, “You’re an adult; don’t tell me that. That means you were a child, and my music was already out. That means I’m 80 years old.”

You penned a Huffington Post op-ed, 10 years ago, titled An Independent Artist Take on Spotify. What are your feelings toward Spotify — or general streaming services — today, versus then?

Pope: The kind of career that I have wouldn’t be possible without the emergence of streaming. I sold millions of digital tracks for years, and that was wonderful; but what that really did, usually, was expose people to one to two songs. People would give me a dollar or two, or maybe buy a whole album and get 10 songs. But at that point, I’d been putting out albums for 10 years; so there was a ton of music they could’ve been consuming, but weren’t going to buy all at once. Just because somebody heard a single, they weren’t going to buy eight albums at once

With Spotify, people were able to [browse my entire discography]. They heard A Drop in the Ocean, One Grain of Sand, or one of my songs that’d had a viral moment on the Internet — and then they were able to go and listen through my entire catalog. I was lucky in that I had been an independent artist and broken on the Internet, but didn’t have the sort of mass marketing saturation so that every person who might be interested in a song had already heard of it — so as streaming took off, it was a perfect storm for someone like me.

But in the decade since I wrote that article, streaming services have slashed their rates — and that is an enormous problem for all artists, not just indie artists. Labels all across the board are struggling with this. Back then, I think we were getting around two thirds of a cent per stream — and that’s not what you’re getting anymore. Artists can go out and get tens of millions’ streams, and make one third of the money they were making just a handful of years ago.

It’s important to recognize that these are giant tech companies, and their job is to get eyeballs and ears. They’re not music companies; they deal with music, but these aren’t music companies. They’re giant tech companies; I think we have to deal with them [as such], and must regulate their actions in a way we aren’t currently. Because if you’re a corporation, it is your job to make as much money as possible for shareholders; so of course they’re going to pay us the least amount possible to utilize our IP — that’s their job. It’s incumbent upon us, then, to regulate how it is that they pay us. I have a very positive relationship with many parts of streaming, and it has really helped my career in a lot of ways; but I also believe we can’t let these streaming services make it so that no one can make any money with music.

I feel the same way with TikTok. TikTok can be an incredible value to people that don’t want to pay any money for the use of music. My friend, the mighty Jake Collins — who has played saxophone in enormous projects with Gregg Allman, Levon Helm, Donald Fagan, and others — often says, in response to “you should do it for exposure,” you can die of exposure. People freeze to death; you take enough jobs for exposure, it’s just like getting stuck outside — the word “exposure” has the same [outcome]. You have to pay people.

I absolutely see there’s value, of course, in sharing your music via TikTok — I’m making TikToks every day, it’s part of my job, and I dig it. I’m excited to be a part of the conversation; but the idea that anybody wants to utilize people’s IP and not pay them, that’s insane. If you had a pizzeria, and I came in and was like, “oh, I’m just going to take one garlic knot” and walk out the door, you’d scream at me. You couldn’t get away with that. And a garlic knot probably cost you a nickel to make; well, these records cost me a fortune — I’ve been spending almost all the money I make my whole life, making and promoting these records.

A lot of people argue, “well, you can make money on the road,” but it’s increasingly difficult for people to make money on the road.

Now, venues want cuts of your merch sales.

Pope: Oh, my gosh. Some places want a 25 percent merch cut across the board, and you can’t say “no”; they’re just like, “okay, then, you can’t come here.” And there’s only so many rooms in every city you can play; there’s only so many promoters. So in an ideal world, yes, you could go on the road and make a living — but it’s expensive to travel, and it’s expensive to hire musicians. Every part of touring is expensive.

I’ve toured in just about every way imaginable: all alone in a car, doing solo “fly dates” where we fly from gig to gig, in a tour bus with a seven-piece band and crew, and everything in-between. And, yes, you can tour solo in a Honda Civic around the country — but there’s only so many times you can put on that show, and then you’ve got to find something else, because people [lose interest in you] playing solo on every tour.

They’re talking about inflation everywhere; but I haven’t seen that translate into me being able to get paid more for my gigs, or being able to sell my merch for more. So I think we’re all trying to figure out the same thing: how do I make this sustainable in the long term? I’m a career artist; I’m 40 years old, I’m a father, I’m a husband. I’ve been working at this a very long time; I’m just trying to make sure that I can still do this, and not go out of business.

Tell us about your band. Who is playing Daylight with you?

Pope: There are seven of us. My best friend, and often songwriting partner — who co-wrote A Drop in the Ocean, Shoot Out the Lights, and a bunch more — sings lots of the harmonies on Daylight, and also helped to record the album: Zach Berkman. So Zach is singing all of the harmonies that he cut all those years ago, and playing a bunch of different instruments — mandolin, banjo, keyboard, guitar, etc.

Matt Scibilia plays drums; and sometimes he plays banjo, and sings some harmonies. Heather Gillis plays bass. Monica Valli plays lead guitar and dobro. Emily Anne VK plays tenor saxophone, keyboard, and accordion. Kaitlyn Raitz plays cello and violin, and maybe mandolin — I forget at this point, because they’re all running around. They’re throwing an instrument in the air, then one of ’em catches and plays it.

So it’s a cool group, and the harmonies are really fun — we all sing. It’s like being in the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, except none of us want to kill each other. [Editor’s note: check out WOUB’s recent interview with former Eagles guitarist Don Felder.]

 Ron Pope’s A Drop In The Ocean Tour plays Ludlow’s Garage (342 Ludlow Ave.) in Cincinnati on Friday, March 8. For tickets, and a full list of tour dates, visit Ron’s official website: