Pop Crave Exclusive: Terror Jr Interview
Meet your new pop overlords, Terror Jr! The music duo comprised of David Benjamin Singer-Vine and Lisa Vitale, who you might know as Kylie Jenner‘s secret music alter ego, have maintained a steady profile on the alt-pop scene since 2016 with the release of their first EP, ‘Bop City,’ and three follow up projects. With streaming hits already on the board and a strong fan base (Grapes) behind them, Terror Jr is ready to take their sound to the next level on new album, ‘Rancho Catastrophe’ – their first full-length project since leaving Atlantic Records.
The pair connected relatively fast when they first met in 2016 to form Terror Jr., but the two represent very different paths in the music industry. Lisa, originally from the metro Detroit area, was an industry outsider at the time when she left her day job at an animal shelter to sign with Atlantic Records. But for Bay Area native David, forming Terror Jr. is more of a passion project. While you might not know his name, David has already earned a #1 on the Hot 100 for producing Far East Movement’s “Like A G6” under his production group The Cataracs. He later worked as an executive producer on Kiiara‘s standout 2014 EP, ‘low kii savage,’ which spawned the Top 20 hit, “Gold.”
I had the chance to listen to ‘Rancho Catastrophe’ early, and TRUST that it’s worth the wait. Many will be quick to categorize the new LP as an “electropop” or even “hyperpop” project, but there’s more here than meets the eye. If anything, Terror Jr. joins a growing list of artists like Tinashe, Qveen Herby, Dorian Electra & many others who understand the importance of fan bases and their impact on the culture. David and Lisa are especially proud of their lyrics , which comment on everything from politics and climate change to homophobia and social justice – all the while delivering rave-worthy hits that are equal parts emo pop and sugary Top 40 goodness.
With ‘Rancho Catastrophe’ being Terror Jr.‘s first release post-Atlantic Records, Pop Crave caught up with the duo to dive deep into a very simple question: what does a major label actually do? While David and Lisa have nothing but kind words for the people on their former label, they admit looking back that the system just didn’t quite fit their style. As free agents now, they’ve made a concerted effort to promote their music on the internet and even interact with Pop Crave directly, proving they understand the influence of internet fandom culture.
Continue below for our full-length conversation, edited for conciseness:
This is your first full album since leaving Atlantic Records – how does the promotional campaign differ now that you’re independent, and in a pandemic?
Even in 2020, nothing really changes. Label or not, you still need to have a fan base. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people who signed to major labels and it ended a few years later.
Our team is a lot smaller now that we’re independent. It’s just me and Lisa. When you do it on your own, you live and die like on your own dime…you don’t have a big team to shuffle through to see if it’s a good idea or bad. Personally, I know why artists like it. If you’re going to fall on a sword, you want it by your own mistakes.
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What do you mean by horror stories?
It’s easy to get lazy when you have a team. You can coast if you want to. But if all of the personality is just on social media and manufactured through your team on a label, the artist’s personality and the music can easily get watered down.
With the internet these days, a label won’t make you the fan base. The artist has to do it. When a label makes a smart investment, it’s like they’re taking a massive asteroid that’s already on track to hit earth and just throwing more propane on it.
It proves that fans on Twitter and elsewhere have more power than they think
If you’re independent and the fan base is genuine with good worth of mouth on social media, you don’t necessarily NEED traditional media like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, etc. An army of Twitter stans is more valuable.
People still think of major labels as the white pearly gates, like this fantasy where if got in, you’d become a manufactured star. But the barriers to fame are dust now. We’ve come to the point where you’re just one TikTok away. Your cousin could be the next Lil Nas X.
New snippet of @TerrorJrMusic’s upcoming single, “Running From The Sun.”
Out Wednesday, October 22nd. 🍇 pic.twitter.com/2yehs9jT7X
— Pop Crave (@PopCraveMusic) October 21, 2020
You were with Atlantic from 2017 to mid 2019 – take me through the initial decision to sign
David: Lisa and I had very different perspectives. I had already done an artist deal with major label eight years ago when “Like A G6” went #1 and I worked with The Cataracs. I later formed a relationship with Atlantic Records when I produced Kiiara‘s EP, ‘low kii savage.’ I knew from my previous experience in The Cataracs that signing didn’t mean shit…if you don’t have hits, you’ll be off the label soon. Labels don’t keep artists without hits.
Lisa: Signing with Atlantic thing was biggest whirlwind of my life. I was working at an animal hospital for my day job, and the deal with Atlantic happened very quickly. It all happened within couple months of meeting David and the start of Terror Jr.
For Lisa, what was the incentive to sign?
You get an advance amount of money when you sign, enough money that it was enticing for me to quit my job at the animal hospital. In reality, it’s not that much money for the label. But someone like me, though, it’s a reason to sign.
I was at work when it happened, and I just told my boss, ‘Hey, I’m probably going to quit in a month if I sign.” So much was on the line. It wasn’t THAT much money, but it was more than I had ever had. And it was freedom.
What’s it like walking into Atlantic Records on your first day?
It looks like any other office with cubicles, but there’s some records on wall. It’s very sterile, like a business. That’s what it was for me.
I always imagined there’d be a cute water fountain – did you have to sign contracts immediately?
Oh, they have those – they’re at the label heads homes. The office is all plexiglass. At the beginning there’s a lot of in-house lawyers, as well as lawyers you hire. Everyone passes around a contract for two months, it’s this PDF with like 52 or 72 pages – I don’t even know. A record contract is a cluster-fuck of possibilities. You’re never going to understand your contract.
There’s lots of horror stories with young artists who signed a contract they didn’t understand, but it sounds like even industry veterans don’t completely get it
You’re never going to understand your contract, that’s why there’s controversy. You would have to go to law school to understand. No one understands! A lawyer will simplify what they can, but capitalism is such a vague beast. It’s just about making money, money money – everyone keeps going.
They will give an advance that feels like a lot. But a lot of people in music aren’t math whizzes. And it’s in your manager’s best interest to sign because they get a piece of that advance. Sometimes people don’t look at the bigger picture. But now there are artists saying ‘fuck you, i’m not signing.’ And there will be more of that.
What was your experience working on Terror Jr. at Atlantic for those two years (2017-2019)
Atlantic is massive, a good chunk of warner music. The big three are Warner music, Atlantic and Sony. But, once you meet everyone at a label, and you witness them frantically making it through their days, you see the humanity. The facade of a major label dies really quick. The people at Atlantic are great, though, and I have to give them credit for when they signed Terror Jr. They were making moves alongside us when we had the Kylie Jenner buzz. There was a rumor spread online that Kylie Jenner was actually the person behind Terror Jr., so we became something of a novelty mystery. Everyone knew it couldn’t be Kylie, but there’s still that 1 percent lingering.
Signing with a major label is almost like taking a drug and waiting a year for it to kick in. When you’re independent, you just fail and succeed and it’s a quick hit. You’re doing it by your own goddamn will. But with the major label system, it’s a little slower – they say, “this worked for Madonna, surely it’ll work for you!” The label wants to slow it down, translate it to a language for mass consumption instead of hitting people directly. They want to expand it and water it down.
Video credit: Hollywire
The truth about being on the label, though, is that it’s basically a big bank with marketing people – but they don’t make the product, you do. The difference between being indie and on a major label is in the budget and amount of people behind desks pushing buttons.
Upon signing, was there an immediate pressure to prove you could make hit songs?
The day we signed to label, our managers hit us and were like, “OK, we need hits. You have an equal playing field now that you’re on Atlantic.”
Were you actually in the office a lot?
When you have a song that’s a big streamer, you meet a lot of new faces in the office telling you they believe in you. But when you don’t have a song that’s a big streamer, you’re not invited to the office as much. You might be signed, but you’re still uploading your shit at home just like you always did without a label. And you’re still stuck with your own brain for your own ideas. You have a few more cooks in kitchen and industry OGs, but at the end of the day, we’re in a marketplace where no one knows what a hit is.
It sounds like labels are mainly monitoring the success of an artist’s music without contributing, and if they start putting numbers on the board, the label swoop in to provide necessary funding.
The music industry is 100 percent the lottery. It’s the wild west. When you sign, you have to ask yourself, “are you down to play the game and take a few shots?”
Unless you got a massive hit moving, they aren’t going to give you a massive team. They might assign you an intern if your music isn’t popping. You’re on a major label, but you’re working for someone who isn’t even being paid.
Labels used to be the ultimate gatekeepers, but it seems like a lot of their methodology is outdated thanks to the internet
The days of artist development is dead. It died a long time ago. Labels used to manufacture a personality for the masses, but social media killed that. The kids today are too smart, they can sniff out what’s real and what’s fake.
The purpose of a label used to be finding that rare talent who needed an audience. Today, the internet has democratized it all. The internet is telling you if they want more, and if an artist has the magic touch, they’re the ones who generate hype.
You went from having a massive #1 hit with “Like a G6” to working on a smaller passion project with Terror Jr – it’s cool that you’ve witnessed both sides of the industry
I was riding high early in my days with The Cataracs and “Like a G6” in the old days when there was no promotion on Instagram and stuff like that. I remember getting all my plaques for “Like a G6” delivered by my managers, but when it came time to work on Kiiara, I ended up having to order and pay for my own plaque from a third-party vendor (laughs). I didn’t know these people had been ordering plaques for me the whole time! I had this fantasy that Republic Records hand-engraved it for me.
Back then, when I was a brand new signee, they assigned me an A&R named Wendy Goldstein. The A&R used to be the master curator of an artist, they were supposed to connect you with producers and understand the artist more than anyone. She was a legend and at the top of the world – she’s responsible for linking The Weeknd with Max Martin…But when we were with Terror Jr. on Atlantic, we didn’t have a Billboard charting song. That meant we shuffled through like five different A&R’s – one of them was on their second semester of Sociology! (laughs)
Pop Crave has a big audience, but you’re one of the few artists to actually do some independent research and reach out. A lot of other artists could do that for promotion, but they don’t, because they’re in a machine that values legacy titles
Does it even help when marketing teams chase these dated media publications? People know when the article write-ups are ordered from label, and when they’re not.
Who the hell needs press when you can be the next Billie Eilish and all you have to do is make a fit check selfie? No one cares about these weekly publications, the best PR an artist can do is be themselves.
Graphic design is our fucking passion
!⃝ 𝗧𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗰𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗺 𝗶𝘀 𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗶𝘀𝗽𝘂𝘁𝗲𝗱 https://t.co/hcadjQwDPf
— Terror Jr (@terrorjrmusic) November 17, 2020
The industry is changing so fast – it feels shortsighted to sign a contract right now when the internet is evolving at warp speed
Exactly. Lil Nas X is an example of an artist who stood against so many things. He was a reset for the industry. As “Old Town Road” started generating hype, Lil Nas X got in a bidding war with labels and signed with Columbia. He made the smart move of signing to a label AFTER he created his own buzz. A label can’t build buzz, they often capitalize on artists that are already hot.
Would you ever go back and sign with a major label under the right circumstances?
Hell yeah! You just have to know yourself as a person. If you’re the type of person where $5 MILLION is different than $6 MILLION, then you might not want to sign. You will be paying a lot more people. There will be money you’re suspicious of. More money more problems. Kanye West got this idea in people’s heads that a record contract is a Pandoras box of pure evil. But not really. It’s just a front-loaded business contract…it’s business.
“I compare what’s happening in the music industry to the ‘Me Too’ movement.” pic.twitter.com/ElhaQHL6NV
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) October 24, 2020
Post Malone, for example, isn’t going to leave Republic Records. He’s making SO much money, so he will likely sign again. Drake just re-signed with Universal Music, he’s been with them for years. If it’s such a bad deal, why are they still there? Meanwhile, Björk is independent and probably doing her own taxes, counting her pennies and nickels.
Being independent is the right move for us at the moment. Signing with a major label isn’t really up to you – the impact of your music decides that. If a song is big, and you need a bank to give you a ton of money to build stadiums and what not, THEN you sign. But when you’re not in that zone, there’s no point.
Stream Terror Jr‘s new album, ‘Rancho Catastrophe,’ on Spotify: