On an improbably sunny midwinter day, amid green pastures and meandering cows, two unassuming musicians are waging a revolution against the established order of the recording industry.
Here, inside a dim shed formerly used as a dog kennel, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn are recording their next album as Pomplamoose — a musical project that is half traditional band, half social media experiment, and entirely an insurrection against how things are normally done in the music business.
This insurrection, by the way, is often prosecuted in pajamas. That's just one of the many perks that come with working according to your own rules and working at home. The central theater of Pomplamoose's campaign, the renovated shed and nondescript ranch house in which Conte and Dawn record their music, sits on a spread in rural Sonoma County in Northern California. And aside from the sprawling collection of musical instruments housed here, and the youthfulness of the residents, this property stands out in another important way: It was purchased with money earned by selling MP3s on the Internet.
Yes, despite what you may have heard, it is actually possible to make money — a living, even — by selling songs online. That is, in fact, the only place you can buy the music of Pomplamoose, a band as striking for what it doesn't do as for what it does.
Pomplamoose doesn't release music on CD or any other physical media. The group has no deal with a record label. It also doesn't tour — in three years, it has played only three live shows, all in San Francisco. The band has no publicist or traditional manager; the only outside professionals it uses are a lawyer and an accountant. Conte and Dawn handle every other aspect of Pomplamoose themselves: arranging songs, recording and mixing tracks, editing video, posting new songs online, and even marketing to new fans. And they retain a sense of humor through most of it.
Any list of Pomplamoose's appealing aspects would have to begin with the teasing, sarcastic, and flirtatious relationship between Conte and Dawn. Their deadpan jokes and natural banter make viewing the band's "videosongs" — which show all the instruments used in the song and no lip-synching — feel like more than just watching two talented musicians in a room. Filmed at home, the videos are two-thirds performance and one-third messing around. There's no psychedelic footage or legions of writhing dancers. There's just Conte and Dawn recording, and flashing homemade signs, eating cereal, and making faces.
Yet despite the levity — or, actually, because of it — Pomplamoose has attained a level of success that is rare for any independent artist, and unique in the way it was achieved. The band's releases have found their way onto the Billboard charts and major television networks. Its videos have been watched millions of times. And it sells digital songs at a rate that provides Conte and Dawn with a desirable lifestyle: instruments galore, a spacious home and studio set among rolling hills, and the freedom to do nothing but write and record their music — just the way they want to.
An immense blue sky is begging for attention, but inside the darkened studio, today's work is grinding along slowly. Conte's long, narrow frame is bent over the keys of a black Bösendorfer grand piano that seems to take up the entire room. He's trying to nail a small piano part for a new original song. And he's been trying for about half an hour now.
"Euugh!" A bellow of frustration booms through the room after Conte misses another take. The passage he's recording is only about 15 seconds long, but it requires a complicated series of notes played with precise timing — slightly behind the beat, to underscore the jazzy poise of the song. Last time, he played too quickly, so he hops off the piano bench and dashes over to a laptop connected to the videocamera recording him. He hits three buttons on the laptop's keyboard and looks across at Dawn, who is sitting, her doll-like face placid, in front of another laptop that serves as an audio recording console. With the camera rolling and the recording gear ready, Conte yanks his headphones back around his head and plays the passage for yet another time.
As he pounds the keys, Conte launches his neck out over the open guts of the piano. Its bronze strings, as thick as adult fingers at the lower registers, consume the room with a giant sound, barely under control. The veins raise up on Conte's neck as he sticks out his jaw and tightens his mouth into an oval. His head tilts mechanically in time with the swinging groove of the song. When Conte finishes muscling through the take, he launches off the bench, slightly out of breath.
"Oh, that feels great!" he shouts, rushing over to Dawn. They lock eyes, her sitting, him standing, as the take plays back. But at the end, neither of them is satisfied.
"Let's keep it as a 'maybe,'" he says, already heading back to the piano and videocamera for another try.
"How often do 'maybes' get used?" she mutters to no one in particular.
"Never," he shoots back. "But they take the pressure off."
Pomplamoose is dealing with more pressure now than Conte or Dawn ever imagined. The project began as an accident: About a year after they met and started dating in college, the couple made their first videosong. (Both had, and still have, other musical projects.) The combination of accessible pop, rich instrumentation, and the chemistry between Conte and Dawn found an enthusiastic viewership on YouTube. The project grew as they cultivated their songs and personalities into a signature style — one that involved disheveled, pajama-clad performances in Conte's childhood bedroom. Their popularity exploded in 2009, after they hit upon the unoriginal but savvy idea of recording covers of big-time pop hits. Up until then, Pomplamoose's catalog had been all originals and lesser-known covers. And, after the epidemic popularity of their version of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," came the biggest surprise of all: Fans wanted to buy Pomplamoose's MP3s in large numbers — large enough for neither of them to need a day job, and for Conte to buy a house while still in his mid-20s.