Six weeks ago, a group of music executives threw seven Gen Z influencers in a mansion on a 40-acre estate for a live competition that would pit the fledgling artists and songwriters against each other, with the promise of a path to fame and fortune for a sole winner. What could possibly go wrong? To the kids’ credit, the 24/7 livestream of the competition, which is called Song House Live, doesn’t seem to have caused any psychological damage yet, perhaps because the TikTokers are already used to shooting content ’round the clock. The contestants have a combined 16 million social-media followers.
The seven of them — Alec Chambers, Caroline Carr, Attis, Diego Fragnaud, Tyler Brash, Olivia Boeyink and Klondike Blonde, all of whom knew they would be competing for a major music deal from the start but were not told much in the way of specifics — are nearly done with filming. They’ve spent the last month and a half partaking in weekly musical challenges, which are overseen by fans and the show’s judges and co-creators, Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Billy Mann and A&R executive Benton James. By next week, the champion will be crowned, winning, as showrunners will reveal later today (July 29th), a recording contract with Capitol Records.
When the partnership opportunity first arose, Capitol President and COO Michelle Jubelirer was intrigued by “the pedigree of Billy, Benton, and the entire team involved,” she says, referring to the show’s behind-the-scenes collaborators, including film financing company Rainmaker Holding Group’s Clay Pecorin, Russell Geyser, Jason Halio, and Zak Tanjeloff. “Ultimately, it’s a groundbreaking partnership that kind of solidifies Capitol Music Group’s position at the forefront of the rapidly evolving landscape of artist discovery and development,” Jubelirer says. “It’s one big experiment, really.”
It’s true that A&R executives have their work cut out for themselves these days. Gone are the days of basing a signing decision off a killer live concert: Instead, label representatives are looking at streaming numbers, social media influencers’ tastes, and TikTok challenges. Just last week, TikTok said 75 percent of its users discover new music on its platform. But A&R is still “a balance of data and gut,” as Jubelirer puts it. “You have to feel something when you listen to music” — and those feelings come from an artist’s charisma and the character of a true performer.
Song House Live‘s “house” concept is not new, but it may feel that way to kids who didn’t grow up during the frenzy of MTV’s The Real World, which started in 1992 and ran for 33 seasons. When the Hype House — TikTok’s unofficial Los Angeles headquarters — was born at the end of 2019, a trend was reborn, and it’s actually kind of surprising that a reality show didn’t materialize sooner. (To be fair, life itself has felt like a reality show since then.) In some ways, the competition strives to answer the tough question A&R reps are facing: Does huge data around one song always translate to a career as a superstar artist? Billie Eilish’s discoverer, Justin Lubliner, made a similar point last year: “TikTok breaks songs by taking the songs out of context,” he told Rolling Stone. “Some of the biggest songs don’t get [artists] the visibility they need. If you look at some of the biggest playlists on platforms, a lot of the artists are not superstar artists. They’re artists who are having a viral moment with a big record.”
“I love how this cuts to the nerve of a critical debate in our industry between the importance of data versus the alleged ‘dark arts’ of A&R,” co-creator Mann tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “The best part of Song House Live is actually the not knowing what will happen with these artists who collectively entered the competition with millions of fans before any of us arrived. Some of these contestants have already been signed and dropped. Some of them have kept their musical dreams quiet while amassing millions of fans around niche lifestyle posts. Some have been posting covers for years to build a base and felt stuck. Rainmaker and Capitol Records together means that we have top shelf story-telling and record making available to these talents and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.”
The first time I opened my laptop to check in on the Song House Live cast like the overly caffeinated, pajama-clad “big brother” type I’ve apparently become, the house was quiet. The only contestant I could find — a shirtless, bed-headed young man wrapped in a blanket around noon — was curled up on the couch in “main studio one,” a bag of Sour Patch Kids and partially full Gatorade bottles strewn around him. Expensive recording equipment, a Yamaha drum kit, and Marshall amps traced the perimeter of the room, but pillows and platinum-record plaques lay haphazardly on the ground of his aura. Eventually, he got on the phone with a woman who was having difficulty deciding if getting on the train to Bushwick to pick up a juicer was worth the effort. (She, after a few minutes of out-loud pondering, decided it was not.)
Maybe this image is a metaphor for the state of the modern music scene, or maybe he’s just more of a night owl. When cameras film for all hours of the day and night, they’re bound to capture many mundane moments. That’s part of what makes the experience “real,” and it’s what keeps onlookers hooked, waiting hungrily to spot the first instance of excitement like they’re detectives with something to prove.
There’s also a lot to be said for the magic of editing, of which a 24/7 stream has none. But this was just the warm-up for Song House Live. Sources close to the situation tell Rolling Stone that the show is in the process of being developed into an episodic series; its creators are just looking for the right home. When asked if celebrity mentorships and other opportunities to collaborate with the already-established artists on Capitol’s roster will become a part of the process, Jubelirer says there’s nothing finalized yet and it’s “something we’re talking about.”
In addition to awarding a record contract to the victor of Song House Live, Capitol will release all the challenge-winning tracks from the show, representatives tell Rolling Stone. At the start of the show, contestants were blindfolded and spun around in front of a map to find out which country they’d have to write a song about. Those winners, Brash and Boeyink, were given the opportunity to finish their songs, “Thunder Bay” for Canada and “Dead Sea” for Turkey and Israel; the tracks were professionally produced by Kato On The Track (Tyga, Snoop Dogg), sent out for mixing and mastering, and were released last night in advance of the announcement of the Capitol deal. These songs will also be included on a compilation album Capitol will put out later this year.
Says Jubelirer: “Given where we are in the world today, we thought, why not engage in this innovative campaign that is a combination of all the various concepts that came before — with a twist — and see where that gets us? And, ultimately, we do this because we’re passionate about music and we work in a business that should be a little bit of fun.”