Review: Julia Nunes' Settle Down

Julia Nunes is the future. A future where talented artists bypass traditional music publishing conglomerates and make their income directly from fans.

Settle Down was bankrolled by fans, for fans. That it's a great album is almost secondary to its importance as a tangible example of what this next generation of professional musician can accomplish.

Julia Nunes got her start making YouTube videos, in which she covered a variety of popular songs with her distinctive alto voice and trademark ukulele. As her videos got more and more views (and she got more and more fans), she started answering questions and talking to her audience at the end of each new video.

This personal connection, all too rare in the music world, helped increase her popularity further. Her various videos have been viewed more than 50 million times.

iTunes sales, and even a self-funded album, did well, and when it came time for a new album, she turned again to her audience.

Using the audience-funding power of Kickstarter, Nunes created a campaign adorably titled "Julia Nunes Would Be Nothing Without Me."

When the Kickstarter goal was met in the first 24 hours, Nunes smartly doubled down, offering items above and beyond the $10 for a CD or $50 for the CD and a t-shirt. For $1,000 she'd make a YouTube video of a cover of your choice. For $2,500 she'd play your party. And it worked. Every offering sold, and she took in $77,888. . . of a $15,000 goal. That's right, she made nearly $80 grand on an album she hadn't even started yet. That kind of enthusiasm in a fanbase is rare, and can't be bought.

What's clear is that beneath the bubbly exterior and charming, self-effacing humor is an extremely skilled marketer. Nunes knows that the personal, albeit largely digital, connection with her fans is what's given her such a loyal following. As she's become more popular, she has increased her contact, not distanced herself. You're as likely to see a Facebook post on something cool that happened to her that day as you are a mention of an upcoming show.

A logical comparison could be to Ani DiFranco, who hails from a similar part of upstate New York, and who also eschewed traditional music publishing. In Ani's case, the answer was to launch her own music label. Nunes is a new breed of enterprising, entrepreneurial musician. Where DiFranco toured relentlessly to build her fanbase, Nunes uses the Internet to reach an even wider potential audience. She tours, of course, but knows the Internet is where most of her fans live. This is a fundamental - some may say cataclysmic - shift in the way music is exposed to the world.

Of course, first you have to be good. Really good, and that core is where Nunes starts. Early YouTube videos have her playing every part of a song, harmonizing with herself and using random instruments in a multi-track extravaganza of quirky goodness. Ukulele, melodica, guitar, even toy piano, all get thrown in for good measure. The eclectic mix of timbres somehow blends into a cohesive sound that's familiar, yet different.

Thankfully, Settle Down continues this trend, adding a layer of professional polish that a real studio can add. Far too often, when an indie musician gets access to a larger budget, they lose sight of what made them popular. Slow Club is a good example of this - each new album has moved them further from the two singers-one guitar sound that got them their initial hits.

On Settle, Nunes hands over some of the heavy lifting to professional musicians, but her personality makes the transfer to bigger budget intact. The 18 songs - mostly new, a couple re-recorded - all exude a lively charm, even the ballads. The lead single, "Stay Awake" is an ode to "voluntary insomniacs," as she puts it. "Balloons" and "First Impressions," sound better here than in their initial incarnations.  

There's a genuineness to Nunes's personality that can't be faked, though scores of musicians and actors have tried. Settle Down captures that. Perhaps it could have been pared down slightly for a tighter album, but I don't think any of her fans would complain about its length. In fact, that's what this album radiates: a love for her fans.

With all the arguments about Spotify or iTunes killing traditional music distribution (and income), a new breed of musician, one that's a skilled marketer and adept at social media, YouTube, and so on, has found an audience and a way to make a successful living without the music publishing middleman. Here's hoping we see a lot more from Julia Nunes, and the countless other musicians like her all around the world.