You normally wouldn’t peg a tan, dimpled twentysomething as a poster child for the sea change that has occurred in the music industry recently, but that’s the world we live in today—one where a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Thousand Oaks can upload a few tunes to the Internet and become a star.
That’s what Colbie Caillat did, and that is precisely what happened. Her ascent is the definition of an overnight success, albeit the kind that could only have happened in this new age of democratized media. In 2005, at the insistence of friends, Caillat posted some of her breezily soulful songs on her MySpace page. Within months, the number of plays for those songs leapt into the thousands. Her friends list exploded, and before long she was the most listened-to unsigned artist on the site—all without any sort of preconceived promotional plan behind her. In the past, a band would have had to spend years crisscrossing the country in a dingy Econoline van playing half-empty clubs to build a fan base. Caillat did it in her pajamas.
Although her father is a well-known record producer with enough ties to the industry to perpetuate such a phenomenon, she insists everything happened organically. “It’s because of the music and because of people listening to it so much and spreading it word-of-mouth,” Caillat says over a cell phone from San Francisco, the closest she has been to her native Southern California in weeks; her last gig in the region was in October at the Ventura Theater, where she played for a nearly sold-out crowd. Tomorrow, she’ll perform at the legendary North Beach nightclub Bimbo’s before wrapping up 2007 with shows in Salt Lake City, Aspen, and Denver, cities not exactly representative of the warm, sunny vibe her music gives off, but where she is popular nonetheless. In fact, she is popular just about everywhere these days. After blowing up online, Caillat signed with Universal, and in July released her debut, Coco; four months later, the album was certified platinum. She has been on MTV’s flagship program TRL more than once, appeared on The Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The View, as well as in the pages of USA Today and Rolling Stone. Her current MySpace stats: 17,660,206 profile views; 331,441 friends; 2,120,890 total plays.
When Caillat says she finds all this to be “pretty crazy,” you believe her. She honestly never expected to become famous. Although, maybe she should have. Born in Malibu (she moved to Ventura County at age 5), she certainly grew up around enough famous people. Her dad, Ken Caillat, co-produced one of the biggest records of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were frequent houseguests. And she is undeniably attractive, in a way that is more Disney Channel than Maxim—a look perfectly suited for her sound: a relaxed, sun-splashed potpourri of pop, R&B, folk, and soft rock. If a record exec had spotted her strumming an acoustic guitar at a coffee shop, he probably would have offered her a contract right there, thousands of MySpace friends or not.
As it happened, Caillat didn’t need that particular bit of serendipity, nor did she lose any sleep wishing for it. In an accelerated culture where everyone is scratching, clawing, and YouTubing for their 15 minutes, fame snuck up on Caillat. Which is good for us—the last thing we need is another diva with a sense of entitlement.
But for the singer herself, the swiftness of her rise has posed some problems. Before the whole whirlwind started, Caillat’s experience performing in front of an audience was limited to school talent shows. She began singing at 11 years old, inspired by Lauryn Hill on the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly,” but didn’t start writing her own material until 19. Even then, she gigged only slightly, mostly at bars. Then “Bubbly,” a lilting ode to romance she wrote and recorded with Iowa-based songwriter Jason Reeves, took off online. Suddenly, she found herself on the road for the first time, touring large theaters opening for the Goo Goo Dolls. “It was insane for me,” she admits. “I didn’t know any techniques. I learned on the spot. I’m still trying to overcome that.”
Meanwhile, Caillat is also receiving a crash course in the marketing end of the music business. In a time when the most famous female singers double as addicts, criminals, and/or grossly irresponsible mothers, Caillat is a vision of wholesomeness, a gal-next-door parents can feel safe having as a role model for their tweenage daughters. This presentation has its advantages—12-year-old girls are one of the most powerful consumer demographics in the country, after all—but it has its drawbacks as well. For instance, in the UK, a place that prefers its pop stars drunk and disorderly, Coco is underperforming. In an effort to rough-up her image, Universal is pushing Caillat to do an “edgy” photo shoot and commissioning producers for hip-hop remixes. Perpetually even-tempered, there is a slight ripple of annoyance in Caillat’s voice as she discusses these plans.
“The music is selling as it is. You shouldn’t change the music to make other people like it,” she says. Caillat is also bristling (as much as she ever bristles, anyway) over the label’s recent decision to restrict the songs on its artists’ MySpace profiles to 90 seconds, a reaction against downloaders converting tracks from the site into MP3s and distributing them through illegal file sharing networks. As someone who owes her career to the massive virtual community, Caillat is disappointed with the new regulation, but says she is “trying to find a way around it.”
A tan, dimpled twentysomething has the sway to influence the decisions of a monolithic record company? That is, indeed, the world we live in.