How Pop Singers ‘Made It’

Photo of crowd in front of stage
Lisa Popeil shows how the careers of Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran relates to singers today.

Let’s review the histories of 3 male pop singers, Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, starting from childhood to their first hit. Each has a different and fascinating story to tell.

Bruno Mars

Let’s begin with Bruno Mars. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii, Bruno is one of six children from a musical family.  His father was a Latin percussionist and his mother, a hula dancer and vocalist.  The whole family formed a Vegas-style revue and performed doo-wop medleys and impersonations for enthusiastic crowds.  

When Bruno was 3, he became the world’s youngest Elvis impersonator egged on by his uncle, also an Elvis impersonator. At age 4, Bruno was performing 5 nights a week. No slouch there!

In 2004, Mars signed to Motown Records but was dropped a year later. But through Motown, he signed a publishing deal the next year with Westside Independent.  This is another example of how signing a publishing deal as a songwriter can result in a successful artist deal later on.

Bruno Mars’ early years were spent immersing himself in the art and science of writing hit songs.  He became skilled at playing drums, keyboard, bass and guitar while performing cover songs with his band around LA. 

Bruno met his future A&R manager at Atlantic Records in 2006, but it took the label three years to actually sign him since they felt he needed more time to develop as an artist.

He then went on to act as producer for several R&B acts, and he got his chance to sing as a featured singer on a couple of what then became Top Ten hits. Finally in 2010, he released his first album containing the single “Just the Way You Are”. Four years later, he was named “Artist of the Year” by Billboard and over his career Bruno has sold over 12 million albums.  

Lessons from Bruno Mars

So what can we glean from the story of Bruno Mars’ ascent?  Well, performing on stage constantly can create a level of natural comfort when performing.  Playing multiple instruments and dancing well can help position you as an all-around entertainer if that’s something you aspire to.  Having a catchy name can help you stand out.  And dissecting and analyzing what makes pop music popular can be a huge boon to your writing and performing career. 

Sam Smith

Sam Smith’s story has really stayed with me since I first learned of his career path. He’s a wonderful singer in my opinion who has had a number of serious challenges to overcome.  

Sam Smith started performing at the age of six and began voice and songwriting lessons when he was 8. As a boy, he belonged to several British musical theater and classical choirs and spent much of his youth and teenage years singing in musical theater productions.

Then it gets really interesting.  Sam’s mother had a high-powered and well-paying career as a London banker and used her energy and sizeable bankroll as a force in her son’s artistic ambitions.  When Sam was 12, he was being handled by several music managers, but with little success. By the time Sam was 16, his mother was fired at work for using her underlings to help promote her son’s career, which, despite all her efforts had not gotten very far.

But then serendipity raised its bountiful head and in 2012, while Sam was bartending at a London pub, he began meeting a variety of music people including songwriter Jimmy Napes, with whom he wrote the song “Latch”.  That connection led to the group Disclosure who featured Sam on their recording of that song.  Naughty Boy liked “Latch” which led to the co-writing of the song “La La La” with Smith. Those two songs led to sold-out shows in the US and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, all prior to the release of his first album titled “In the Lonely Hour” which was nominated for 6 Grammy Awards in 2014.  

Lessons from Sam Smith

What are some take-aways from the Sam Smith rise to success?

What seems like overnight success can actually take years of trial & error. Having someone, like a family member, who believes in you, can help to keep you on track, research opportunities and help you make connections.

Sam has confessed to suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and has battled with stage fright in the past but you may be surprised to learn that stage fright is actually quite common and shouldn’t stop you from wanting to perform. Stage fright usually does get better over time!

Ed Sheeran

The lesson I learned from Ed Sheeran is that you should never be too proud to perform anywhere, at any time, for anyone.  

Ed began singing at the age of 4 in his local church choir then went on to learning guitar and then started writing songs when in high school. At the age of 14, Sheeran recorded his first EP and went on to record another 5 EPs before signing with Asylum/Atlantic Records. Constant collaboration with a large number of other writers, singers and bands seems to have been a key theme in his rise.  After deciding that university was not for him, at 17 he left home and spent the next 3 years traveling throughout England, playing in clubs, pubs and busking on the street.  Technically homeless during that time, he sofa-surfed with his large circle of friends and sold CDs from his backpack to pay for train tickets and food.

In 2007, Ed was accepted in the National Youth Music Theatre school and got a side job as a guitar tech for the group Nizlopi for two of their tours.  They then asked for Ed to open for them the following year.  

Throughout 2010, Sheeran built his fanbase on YouTube and the United Kingdom music site SB.TV.  One of those fans was Elton John, who, as you’ll learn, had a hand in Sheeran’s later development. And even though Ed had no contacts in Los Angeles, he flew to LA anyway and began playing at open mic nights all around the city.  After playing at Jamie Foxx’s club, Jamie was impressed and not only invited Ed to record in his home studio and but also to stay at his house while Ed was in town.  

Once back in the UK, Sheeran performed constantly.  In 2011, he released an independent EP which led to an offer from Elton John’s management team.  His debut album “plus” which included the songs “The A Team” and “Lego House” was certified quintuple platinum in the UK in 2012 which led to a Grammy nomination as “Best New Artist” at the 2014 Grammy Awards.

Lessons from Ed Sheeran

What can we learn from Mr. Sheeran’s story?  As a songwriter, you should write constantly and with anyone whom you respect.  You don’t have to look like a model to be popular though sadly, this is not as true for females as it is for males. Having a great personality is always a good thing though! 

Sometimes taking extreme risks can pan out and finally, there’s no experience like experience. I think too many people hide behind formal music education and can be passed up by people out there making it happen.  It has a lot to do with your capacity for risk.

(feature image by Wolfgang)

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