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Drew Alexander thought he had it made.
At only 19, the local electronic-tinged pop singer/songwriter and keyboardist, fresh out of high school, had secured a major-label record deal with Geffen Records. The Los Angeles suits snatched him up after hearing three tracks and seeing a few pictures of his tousled hair, setting him up with a ProTools rig he had no idea how to use, and expected him to start pumping out the hits. He was one of the biggest musicians out of Arizona — contractually, at least — as no one had actually heard him perform much in public.
But it's hard for a guy with no formal training, no veteran management team, and no extensive touring experience to put together his own act. That's what labels are for — or so Alexander thought.
"The label was correct in thinking that I didn't have a really sure idea of a direction myself. [I didn't have much] of an identity," Alexander, now 24, says. "I really thought the label was going to have a magic wand and touch various things." But instead of providing Alexander with the marketing know-how needed to coax him into music stardom, they sat back as he recorded his full-length debut, then did, well, nothing.
Alexander waited and waited, as Geffen said his work needed re-tooling. Alexander had received a six-figure advance, but after more than a year of waiting for the world beyond his MySpace following to hear his music, he started a job at Borders to make extra cash — not exactly something you'd expect from someone signed to the elusive major-label deal. And a couple of years later, with no album on stands, Alexander was dropped from Geffen.
That ProTools rig? He's a whiz with it, and he's turned toward production, slowly regaining the confidence to start writing again. There are no outrageous advances coming in, but Alexander is starting to get a sense of what he wants to do.
He didn't always know he wanted to be a professional musician. He never took piano lessons and only started playing seriously as a student at Saguaro High School, when he formed screamo band A Red Light Tragedy. The rock band was fun, but he was most at home with his computer, making his own kind of music, far more pop-driven than the emotive vocals and distorted guitars of A Red Light Tragedy. It was his solo music, that he'd never performed in front of others, that got him noticed by Arizonans and beyond, that transformed him into a successful "MySpace artist," back when musicians were highly sought out on the social networking site. He scored a local manager and a Los Angeles producer, and his music soon ended up in the hands of Ron Fair, then chairman of Geffen.
Without having met Alexander in person, Fair and Geffen signed him in 2006, with the expectation of an album but no solid timeline for how things were supposed to work out. Alexander recorded tracks with producer Tommy Henriksen, a recommendation from his manager, but even though the tracks were reflective of the electronic sound that got him signed, they didn't resonate with Geffen.
"When we thought we had a finished version of the record, it just led to input of people at the label," Alexander says. But the input never resulted in concrete, imperative actions — Alexander describes his time being signed as more of a giant waiting game. Being dropped at least felt like something.
"It was like I wasn't signed anyway, so it wasn't surprising," Alexander says. "It was actually a weight off my shoulders — a pretty big weight."
Leaving Geffen meant Alexander could regain full creative control over his music and his career — no more sitting in his basement recording studio waiting for label contact while working a low-paying retail job.
"Once I was dropped from the label, it was like all of a sudden, I'm actually in control of my destiny again," Alexander says, "whereas before, I was waiting for someone to give me a call and say, 'You know, we're going to actually make your dreams come true,' or whatever it was I was hoping for.'"
Those 11 songs he recorded for his debut still haven't been released, and Alexander isn't sure he wants to revisit them. He's been producing for other artists (Alexander has a knack for writing catchy tracks perfect for female pop singers), and he's devoting more time to his project Square Eyes.
Square Eyes started out as a full band, comprising Alexander and some of his friends from high school, after he parted ways with Geffen. The band fizzled out, but Alexander still had an album's worth of songs — which he recorded with the original members for his album, Build Up the Breakdown.
But while moving on from Geffen lifted Alexander out of the depression he had been feeling while stagnant at the label, he was hit with another emotionally taxing blow shortly after Square Eyes dissolved: His father died of emphysema. His dad's passing was difficult for Alexander, but it ultimately served to inspire him to follow his passion.
"If you have any kind of misgivings or disagreements with the people who you spend so much time with, not having them there to have that day-to-day interaction really crystallizes the way you know you feel about them," Alexander says. "Since then, it's also clarified what I see for myself and what I hope to get for myself, because a huge part of my relationship with my dad was him wanting the best for me."
Alexander still is working a day job, at Hi-Health, but he still considers music his career. With his friend and business partner Gerald Tennison, the duo run Outer Space Jams, a digital music production and publishing company. Alexander has produced for other singers, but Square Eyes is Outer Space Jams' main focus.
"I think Drew's just kind of made to make music," Tennison, 21, says. "If Drew wants to do producing full time, he could be the next Dr. Luke, the next big producer writing for people."
Alexander also has been in the studio with MTV Hype Music production team Midi Mafia, who have expressed interest in producing his upcoming album. He says he feels he finally has a strong identity, which is reflected in the slick music video clip for the song "All Night," and his personality is showcased in other videos made by Alexander and Tennison for their site.
Despite his new-found confidence, Alexander has no desire to ever get on a major label again. Another local music professional, Tim Kirch, owner of 8123 Management, which represents Sire Records/Warner Bros. act The Maine, agrees major labels are losing more clout every day.
"I think the overall system is sort of screwed up in a way," Kirch, 24, says. "With music sales collapsing, I don't think these big labels could fund a team or put all their focus into a specific artist. A lot of bands chase labels, and musicians just need to go after a fan base that's already listening."
Indeed, Alexander is more focused on creating music he's proud of than pleasing labels, and he feels stronger now about his musicianship than ever.
"At this point, my misgivings about being an artist and being able to follow through on everything that entails — and continuing down this path and knowing what my identity is and knowing what I want to be to people and what I want people to see me as — has never been more clear," Alexander says. "Any misgivings that I had about that in the past are completely gone."