Whether it is to laugh, cry, or dance, the New York City-based pop-rock-soul band, The Dirty Gems want to make you feel something. One of the keyboardists in the band, Mills claims “Often times, people have a hard time placing us into a specific genre because of how diverse our influences are, but as we continue making music, we have no doubt our own unique style will find its audience.”
The Dirty Gems began as a trio in 2007 with singer Raycee, bassist Ulises, and keyboardist Cam. They were members of a small jazz combo during their attendance at Hofstra University. Later, drummer Jack joined the group and they transitioned into a cover band called Pump Yo Brakes. They began to write original songs after graduating in 2010. The four-piece group furthered their music endeavor, and this led to the addition of songwriter Mills, and guitarist Gary. They returned to Hofstra for a Battle of the Bands in the Fall of 2011, which also happened to be the band’s first public performance.
“The incredible response we got at the Battle of the Bands was definitely a turning point where we thought, “Hey, maybe we have something here!” explained Mills.
The group won the Battle of the Bands, a moment which quickly led The Dirty Gems to open for artists such as Big Boi, rapper from the Hip-Hop duo Outkast, indie rock band from Seattle, Minus the Bear and New York City rock band, London Souls.
While this start-up band had tremendous success, the kind that might prompt an artist to pursue a record deal aggressively, The Dirty Gems choose to stay atop of their first priority – making great music for a growing audience. I am happy to welcome Mills from The Dirty Gems to a full-length feature interview right here on Music Historian.
Although one can argue that a band like The Dirty Gems should first focus on getting signed, Mills emphasizes that a successful group focuses both on their art and entrepreneurship.
“The music industry has changed so much that now, being signed to a label may not necessarily be the end-goal for a band like us, at least at first,” says Mills. “We look to continue growing our audience and making great music, and if that involves being signed to a label, then so be it. The distribution model [though] has changed so much due to the internet. If you have a Bandcamp page, good marketing strategy, and great music, you are already your own record label.”
As I recall a panel I listened to at the New Music Seminar called The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? A&R representatives at the panel assert that now, more than ever, musicians need to create a marketing plan and build themselves a fan base. Record labels want to see that the artist has pulled themselves up a lot. In regards to the music, A&R reps will positively affirm that good music rises to the top, and somehow, the labels will find that artist.
That is one “check” from the industry representatives. However, the same industry players who offered the advice above will also have their opinions and criticisms for The Dirty Gems. For example, at another panel I attended, which included some of the same A&R reps from the panel I mentioned above (please reference my review of the New Music Seminar for more information) called Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions, one of the panelists commented on the band’s newest track “Insomniac.” The person giving the critique said:
“While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”
I wondered how Mills handled criticism like this from industry players and his response has been humble.
“The panels have been incredibly insightful and informative,” he says. “We already have meetings set up from the connections we’ve made at the New Music Seminar, which has provided us an excellent experience. We are honored to be one of the Top 100 Artists on the Verge with several artists and we know and respect from the community of up-and-coming musicians around us.”
Additional experiences this band has favored includes representing Queens in the WNYC/WQXR Battle of the Boroughs at The Green Space; the KahBang Music & Arts Festival in Bangor, Maine; The Mountain Jam in Hunter, New York; and opening for Wynonna & The Big Noise at Alive @ Five in Stamford, Connecticut. The best experiences for The Dirty Gems though is really any show where they have been able to move someone with their music.
There must be something great in The Dirty Gems’ music for the fans who travel from their office on a hot night last Tuesday, June 10th to see this band perform in the darkened lounge called The Delancey located on the Lower East Side. It’s incredibly comforting see how people come together as couples or in groups, and they have an age range from 25-44, and 45+ and all of them crowd in a space in front of the stage, a space that is small and tight, and provides room only for standing.
In short, there was a great turn out for The Dirty Gems that night, and even the performance organizer for The Delancey, who was also part of the New Music Seminar staff, James Birkenholz, mentioned a handful of customers quickly filled up the performance space for their show.
On The Dirty Gems’ Twitter page, fans have Tweeted “Watching The Dirty Gems kill it at the Delancey for the New Music Seminar showcase, great job.” A few days later, the President of Imagine Music LLC Tweeted, “The Dirty Gems is the best new band I have seen for some time. Look and listen here” and concluded his message with a link to their Bandcamp website.
So, what is it about this band’s music that makes their fans Tweet and comment about their performances and more? Simply put, their music has a personality. Mills explains:
“We call it [our music] pop-rock-soul. Our influences are diverse and we, as individuals, listen to all different kinds of music. We have just 2 EP’s out, our self-titled debut from 2011 and Vuja De released in 2013. With our most recent EP, that sound has started to coalesce into something uniquely our own.”
The popular single from Vuja De “Easy on Me” includes a very lucid and consistent vocal melody, with a slow tempo, sung by Raycee – a melody that is in a major key, and includes accidentals, almost making it sound like she is singing in both major and minor. In addition, the lyrics are simple and beautiful – I would fight all the mighty seas/ just to have you next to me/ cause you make it easy/ I would run across all the most dangerous miles/ Just to feel you smile/ because you make it easy.
Although the above lyrics are just to the verse, this enables Raycee to add many bends and trills in her singing, a style of singing that is very closely associated with the soul genre. The rock in this music is heard within the few tin-like and rough notes by the guitar. The pop lies within the driving rhythm of the drums.
In addition, the modulations and the entire composition of “Easy on Me” suggest the group created the music before the lyrics. I asked Mills about his thoughts, and he said:
“The basis of a great song is always an excellent melody. “Easy on Me” began with the chorus, and the verse melody, with the rest of the song, came from there. The modulations you’re referring to in the bridge came after the rest of the song was written. The constant beat that goes through the song has a lulling effect and we wanted to have an element that was surprising enough to make you really listen to the lyrics.”
In my opinion, The Dirty Gems accomplished this successfully with their Vuja De single. As for the single they presented to the Music Xray panel at the New Music Seminar, “Insomniac,” I felt a minor melody within the song, and the guitar, while still having the tin-like sounds, were now a little cleaner and crisper, and it played like an additional voice in a call-and-response manner with Raycee. Have a listen to the live version of the song here:
In addition the amalgam of musical influences that make their sound too diverse to fit one category; part of The Dirty Gems’ musical personality comes from Raycee’s voice, which right now, I cannot match to that of any singer I have previously heard.
Like many independent artists today, The Dirty Gems play music that is on the fringe of multiple genres. In addition, the band has incorporated their quirky sense of humor into their music videos, enabling them to create a funny and warm brand personality. See the videos for “Easy on Me” and “Your Name Here.”
Music videos, self-distributing music online and performing in the Battle of the Bands, opening for bigger artists and playing live as part of festivals and conferences, help The Dirty Gems spread their music to potential new fans and returning fans. The band just released “Insomniac” as their new single. They also plan to spend the summer in the studio writing and recording their next project – a third EP which will include “Insomniac” as a single. Afterwards, the group hopes to play in CMJ 2014 this fall at then SXSW in 2015.
As I stated in the beginning, The Dirty Gems act as their own entrepreneurs and artists. In today’s music industry, that is very expected. However, being your own artist and manager has its complications, because these are two separate roles played simultaneously by a single person or group. Thankfully, the musicians within this group don’t get lost in the hustle of all the business. Instead, they make it a priority to focus the most on those who matter the most to their business, their listeners.
“Out in the “real world,” your triumphs and failures are on stage for paying customers,” explains Mills. “College was an opportunity to play in the “sandbox” and learn from peers in a closed environment. At this point, we’ve been out of college for long enough to feel more like the “real world” is the sandbox, but that only motivates us more.”
Mills might be expressing that the real world of the music business is more experimental and less-structured than we are lead to believe. School offers a lot of structure and direction. In the business world though, whether it is in music or any other field, only you can give yourself the right type of structure that will work for you and all you must accomplish.
The Dirty Gems have found and secured a structure of doing business that works for them, a roadmap for their own songwriting, and the support of fans who positively receive their music. Whether or not this will provide sufficient reason for their right producer to connect with The Dirty Gems is tough to tell. Nevertheless, the group has an excellent foundation, and great discipline and practices. Like every band looking to make money with their music, these gems might just need a little refining. Aside from that, all the essential pieces for a successful business are in place.