No Deal? No Big Deal
June 28, 2016
When Monday’s Mediabase (6/27) add-board closed and all the numbers were crunched, some guy named Steve Moakler had racked up 18 station commitments for a tune called “Suitcase,” making him the week’s fourth-most added song. That’s a respectable start for anybody pushing a debut single, particularly in a suddenly tight environment for new music by unknown artists. And thus, another overnight sensation is born; well on his way to instant success and renown, right?
Well, not exactly. Success and renown? Hopefully. Overnight and instant? Um, Hardly. Steve Moakler is the best new artist you’ve never heard. Well, most of you anyway, unless you frequent SiriusXM, which anointed “Suitcase” its first “Highway Find” of 2016, and has since spun it more than 1,000 times.
Actually, like so many artists who are still young and just now earning some widespread attention, Moakler has been in this racket a while. Like, 10 years now. When I saw him during a May show at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley, I knew that part. And I knew he had strong songwriting chops – “Riser” for Dierks Bentley is just one example. But his sold out crowd was years ahead of me in knowing Moakler’s three previous independent albums, various singles, and words to songs I’d never heard of before.
“I can see how you’d be caught off guard by that,” said Moakler, during a phone conversation we recently had as he was driving through rural Pennsylvania in the midst of a radio promo tour. “It’s interesting; I have this group of people that have been supporting me for years – I mean eight, ten years. But there has been a little growth every year, and this is the first year where all of a sudden, half the crowd is brand new. It’s an exciting feeling.”
It was somewhat ironic to catch up with the friendly, easy-going Moakler as he motored through his home state. After all, isn’t every successful Country artist – or those who soon will be – automatically from Georgia, the unofficial feeder system for Nashville? Apparently not. Moakler grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town you might be somewhat familiar with – it’s a place called Pittsburgh. He first came to Nashville to attend Belmont University and has been based there since 2006. His profile thus far has mostly been that of a songwriter, and he describes his earliest music as “Diverse,” continuing, “I would say they were singer-songwriter records, if you had to put them in a category. The second record had a couple Country tracks. The one before that, some people would say was totally a Country record, but to Nashville, I was a Country songwriter on Music Row, so I kind of had one foot in each of those worlds. This record [The EP] is really the first time that both of those worlds came together. It’s been a sweet spot and totally natural.”
But he hasn’t been totally under the radar. Part of the sweet spot Moakler alludes to is being cited as an “Artist To Watch” in 2016 by the likes of Rolling Stone Country, CMT, Huffington Post, and other publications, a list to which you can now officially add All Access. But hey, no pressure there, right?
“I kind of got to a point where I was like, this isn’t about getting noticed. It’s about enjoying it – enjoying what you do and the fact that you get to make a living at it,” said Moakler, laughing off any notion of pressure. “That was not always my posture. For the earlier years, I wanted so badly to be noticed and to be signed, and it didn’t happen. I had to learn to just love it for what it is, be grateful, and stop wanting all these things that I didn’t have. Then, of course, as soon as I feel content and secure with that, the attention comes. It’s like going after a girl, and as soon as you get over her she’s like, ‘Okay maybe we should date!’ That’s kind of how this felt. But it’s very cool.”
Moakler got the girl, having married wife Gracie a few years ago. But the early traction he’s experiencing right now with “Suitcase” is happening with the help of the New Revolution Promotion team, yet minus the traditional path – i.e. record deal – something which is fine, thank you, and in fact, part of an overall strategy. “A record label can be an incredible thing,” believes Moakler. “If you’re the priority, and if the music is right, the timing is right, and your team is right, it’s awesome. But it could also be terrible. You could just wait in line until it’s your turn. The end result is not necessarily ‘let’s do a record deal.’ It might lead us to that, but to me it’s about continuing to build momentum, to reach new people, to keep on making music, to put on a better show every year, and have some resources to do that. You can do that without a record label. In this modern world – in the next 10 years – this might be something that’s really common. It already is with Pop and Rock, and singer songwriter music. Country has been a little bit behind in those trends, but it’s clearly starting to affect this genre. The artists are starting to have power again. It’s a very cool thing.”
Instead of the usual method for breaking through as an artist, Moakler is part of Creative Nation, the music publishing and management company formed by songwriter Luke Laird and his wife Beth. His connection to both was, “years in the making,” he explains. Moakler has known Beth since his early days in Music City, as a songwriter with BMI, and while she was an artist rep. “There’s no one that I have ever met in Nashville that doesn’t have great things to say about Beth, because she really cares – and cared about every person that came into her office,” says Moakler.
After years of being acquainted with Beth and Luke, a management change for Moakler helped them circle back to each other on a professional level. “Jeff Skaggs had been my publisher for years at Kobalt, and he was my champion in town. He went to Beth on my behalf and said, ‘Would you be interested in managing Steve?’” That led to an offer to for both Skaggs and Moakler to join Creative Nation so they could all work together. “I’d written with Luke a few times, and he always believed in me,” added Moakler. “He’d send me a text after we’d write and it’d totally make my day, because he’s one of the best people – and writers – in town. I think they’re the best company in Nashville; it was a no brainer to me.”
And so Moakler joined an impressive roster of songwriters that includes Laird, Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean, and others. Hanging out with those heavyweights, Moakler gets to hear all kinds of demos of some pretty amazing songs. And that’s how it came to be that “Suitcase” is the first song he’s ever recorded which he didn’t write. Out of an entire album’s worth of material, it’s the only outside song – one that had been sitting around for four years – penned by Luke Laird, Barry Dean, and Thomas Rhett. “It really stood out to me, partly because of what I was doing when I heard it,” Moakler remembers.” My wife and I just got married, bought this ’72 Winnebago camper, and did this tour called the ‘Home Grounds and Camp Grounds Tour.’” During a 50-day, 40-show grind, Moakler says he played a demo of “Suitcase” every day. “It was an amazing time. She had just quit her job; we were going through a lot, and we were just getting used to being married to each other, cramped in this little camper. It kind of became our anthem. You know how you go on a road trip sometimes, and you end up having a song? And you don’t necessarily plan it, it just goes perfectly with where you’re at and what you’re doing – that’s what that song was to both of us. So when I did sound check and was tired of playing my songs, I’d just sing that song; it just felt so natural to me.”
I’ve been familiar with “Suitcase” for months now and have been absolutely wearing out the rest of Moakler’s EP, too. It’s loaded with songs that perfectly fit mainstream Country while providing an ever-so-slight edge, too. The song “Steel Town” is an ode to his hometown, and the sound reminds me of something off Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” album. “Love Drunk” is a fun, rollicking summer smash. In fact, in a year when so many songs can rightly compete for a “Song Of The Summer” crown in Country – something usually only Top 40 and Pop radio hold an annual derby for – “Love Drunk” would have to be considered, if “Suitcase” weren’t already gaining ground.
I said this in a spotlight track of “Suitcase” that appears on our Cool New Music page, and I mean it: It would be a shame if Country radio missed this song – and this artist – because they don’t see a major label affiliation. Ignore this at your own peril, and deny listeners – and you – of a legit musical discovery. Moakler’s combination of singer-songwriter profile, his years honing a craft among the Music Row songwriting community, and early music exposure – his dad turned him on to plenty of 70s, 80s, and 90s Rock – serve him well.
And, after just over a decade working on a career, Moakler appears to know exactly who and what he is as an artist. His self-awareness reads like a well-crafted mission statement: “I’m from a steel town, and I grew up with Rock and Roll. I’ve been a singer-songwriter for 10 years singing in clubs … all those things formed my sound. But at the same time, I’ve been on Music Row, and I have appreciation for new and old Country music; it inspires me. I think my sound is my own, and one of my goals as an artist is to find that – and for it to sound more and more like me, and less and less like everybody else.”