by Jeremy Ames
Willy Smith and Jimmy White are drinking coffee at the Fifties Diner in Chicopee, MA. They’re home visiting their families in nearby Longmeadow. If there’s a “look,” they’ve got it with their sculpted hair and bright smiles. In terms of sound, they describe their band, Down Time, as “intelligent pop,” while excusing themselves if that sounds pretentious.
In one of their songs, “Island,” Willy croons that you “spend your time reaching for more than there is, looking for something better than this.” Those are deep lyrics for two 20-year-olds, but that speaks to their ability to craft a special song. Besides, most musicians, and humans for that matter, are reaching for something better. Which begs the question, what does the path to greatness look like, and what are some of the important factors in getting there?
Let’s quickly consider another artist of roughly the same age, Dua Lipa. Mind you, this isn’t a comparison of bands as they come from different genres (Dua is “dark pop”) and geography (she’s based in London). In August, 2015, she released her first song, “New Love.” Early in 2016, she was playing small venues, primarily in England. Then, she released “Hotter than Hell,” which took her to the next level. Later in 2016 she toured with Troye Sivan, opening for him and even playing at arenas in the U.S. By the end of the year, she was, in fact, hotter than hell with songs like “Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” and she began this year with “Scared to Be Lonely,” amassing 100 million listens in 2 months.
While a musician’s career can’t be judged solely on fame, most don’t want to play in a vacuum, and Down Time is no exception. They talk about artists they admire, like Bon Iver, and those whose level they’d like to reach in five years, such as Autograf and Oh Wonder. They claim that the attention one of their songs, “Home,” has received in recent months has lit a fire under them, but they’re quick to clarify that it was produced by Kevyn Smit and doesn’t exactly represent their sound. That said, they wrote and performed the original music, and they’re honored that so many people are enjoying it.
Here at Play Too Much, we explored some of the aspects of “becoming big” in the How Hits Made podcast, which tracked Great Caesar for over a year in their quest to produce a hit that would take them to the next level. (If you haven’t checked that series out yet – give it a listen) Here are a few more factors in the path to greatness.
“Sound” is so important in music, and uniqueness can certainly be a potential indicator of success. Early on, it was almost as if Dua’s vocals were moderately distorted in order to give her that individuality and rock star vibe, like she was either preparing for or accelerating what lay ahead.
Jimmy and Willy achieve their unique sound by playing all of their instruments and naturally creating the audio, unlike others in their genre who sometimes pull clips from elsewhere. “In My Head” contains dozens of clips of them scratching paper and even some audio of Jimmy drumming on his mattress. The result is a piece that’s uniquely them.
While they warn that “Island” was done when they were still in high school and less knowledgeable about music production, even that contained over 100 tracks and would crash Jimmy’s computer every time he opened it. The result was a song that you can listen to over and over.
Heightened creativity is a common thread in the best musicians, and those who are trying to make it big in their early 20’s need to have started at a very early age. This generation of musicians has the immeasurable benefit of technology to spur that along. Willy had his own YouTube channel as a young child in which Jimmy said he would “just do all sorts of creative things.” The guys learned Pro Logic in order to produce their own music while still in their teens and have been honing that skill ever since. The byproduct of spending so much time honing your creativity can be speed, and “Far Away” stands out, as Jimmy was able to write it in less than 24 hours.
Focus and Consistent Quality
One advantage a 20-year-old Dua has had over today’s Down Time is the ability to completely focus on music. Jimmy’s wrapping up his music degree from NYU (expecting to finish in December), and Willy plays hockey in Muskegon, Michigan, with the hope of becoming a professional. Amusingly enough, it’s Willy who claims that playing hockey and being in a band leaves plenty of time for music, while Jimmy says that he needs a new hobby because he turned his into a career. Whatever the case, passion and productivity can often overcome time.
As for quality, each song should do justice to the brand you’ve created. Down Time knows that they’re still early in their brand’s formation and that returning to their songs over and over get them tighter is crucial. The right amount of obsession over quality can be a good thing.
The Road Ahead
Having scratched the surface, it appears that Willy and Jimmy are poised for something exciting. As they drive away from the diner, it will be interesting to see where their road is heading.