There are a lot of ways to break into the music industry. Some people get their start in acting or modelling and then use their reputation and connections to cross over into music. Other people always knew that the music business was where they wanted to be, but that didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to put out their own album and be the one on stage. Luckily there are plenty of jobs that are outside of the spotlight and more behind the scenes.
Some musicians, like Dr. Dre, are multi-talented, but after trying out the spotlight thing, have actually had a lot more success as a producer. Other musicians started out as a songwriters, or producers before deciding they might want to try their hand at their own music career. With the connections they made behind the scenes, and the proof that they knew how to write and/or produce a song that will sell, they were able to start making their own music.
Here are 10 famous musicians who started out their careers behind the scenes.
10. David Guetta
David Guetta started out as a house music DJ, hosting his own club nights in the late 80’s. He started collaborating with singers to create music that was considered part of the electro genre but that included vocals. In 2001 he founded Gum Productions and released his first single, “Nation Rap” a hip-hop collaboration with French rapper Sydney Duteil. His debut album Just A Little More Love was released in 2002 by Virgin Records.
It wasn’t until his fourth album that Guetta found international success through collaborations with Kelly Rowland, Akon, and Kid Cudi. He continued to produce music and lend his talent to other acts, helping them create extremely successful songs, like The Black Eyed Peas’ hit single “I Gotta Feeling”. As a DJ, Guetta has always been part-producer, but he also tours the world solo, headlining plenty of his own shows.
9. Meghan Trainor
Between the ages of 15 and 17 Meghan Trainor self-released three albums that she wrote and produced herself. She started attending songwriting conventions and it wasn’t long before she signed a publishing deal with Nashville-based company Big Yellow Dog Music. She worked as a songwriter-for-hire, writing music in the pop and country genres while she was still a teenager. She was still interested in recording her own music but didn’t have the confidence to continue to put herself out there.
She recorded some back up vocals for artists and wrote some songs for country artists like Rascall Flatts, Hunter Hayes, and Sabrina Carpenter. She originally offered the single “All About That Bass” to Beyonce and Adele, who both declined, so she decided to record it herself. It became a viral hit and went to number one in 58 countries, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. Her major-label debut album, Title, was released in early 2015.
8. Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams started out as part of the producer duo The Neptunes with his friend Chad Hugo. Together they worked on music for Blackstreet, and Mase, and gained their first number one hit with Britney Spears‘ “I’m A Slave 4 U”. He released his own music with group N*E*R*D and continued to work behind the scenes with songs like “Hot in Herre” and work on Jay-Z’s The Black Album.
As a solo artist, Williams was featured on Snoop Dogg‘s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004. He released his debut solo album, In My Mind, in 2006, and continued to produce and work with other artists. It wasn’t until 2013 when he wrote and performed “Happy” and wrote and produced “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” that he reached true international fame. As an artist and a producer, Williams has won a total of 10 Grammys.
7. Ryan Tedder
You probably know Ryan Tedder as the lead singer of One Republic, but he got his start as a songwriter for a wide range of other artists. While he was working with Timbaland to develop as an artist, he was also writing and producing music on the side. He’s a prolific songwriter, having written songs for Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, Adele, and many more.
One Republic’s debut single “Apologize” was written by Tedder, and it went on to be the number one most played song until it was de-throned by Leona Lewis‘ “Bleeding Love” which was also co-written by Tedder. He has a record company and his own music publishing company and he continues to perform with One Republic while also writing and producing award-winning music for other artists.
In 1993, when Sean Combs was known as Puff Daddy he launched Bad Boy Records. The company produced and released Notorious B.I.G‘s debut album Ready To Die which was a huge hit. Diddy went on to sign and produce albums for artists like Mase, Usher, and TLC’s CrazySexyCool.
In 1997, as Puffy Daddy, Combs released his debut solo album, No Way Out, with the lead single “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”. The second single “I’ll Be Missing You” which was dedicated to The Notorious B.I.G after his recent death, was the first rap song to ever debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The album also won the Grammy for Best Rap Album that year. He’s now reported to be working on his seventh studio album entitled, No Way Out 2.
5. Bruno Mars
Today Bruno Mars is one of the best-selling musicians of all time with five of his songs counted as best-selling singles of all time. But when he first moved to L.A from Hawaii to pursue a music career, record companies weren’t jumping at the chance to sign him. He signed a deal with Motown in 2004 that ended up going nowhere, and he was dropped from the label less than a year later. Mars still wanted to be an artist himself, but ended up having to sell his songs to others in order to stay in L.A.
He wrote and produced songs for Travie McCoy, Adam Levine, Brandy, and Sean Kingston before finally getting his own artist deal at Atlantic Records in 2009. After serving as a guest vocalist on hit songs like Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”, Mars finally released his debut album Doo Wops and Hooligans in 2010 with the lead single “Just The Way You Are”. He’s since won two Grammy’s and his Superbowl Halftime show with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2014 was the second most watched of all time.
In 2005, when she was 18, Kesha was signed to Dr. Luke‘s record label and publishing company, although she didn’t release her debut album Animal until 2010. During those five years she was busy writing songs and singing backup vocals for other artists. She has written songs for The Veronicas, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus and she considers herself a songwriter first and foremost.
Kesha wrote or co-wrote all the songs on her debut album including the hit lead single “Tik Tok” which became the second best-selling digital single in history. She has continued to write music for other artists as well as herself, and is reportedly working on her third studio album.
3. Lady Gaga
Before Lady Gaga was who she is today, she attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She dropped out in her second year to pursue her music career, and was signed to Def Jam Records in 2006 only to be dropped by the label three months later. After working on her onstage persona for awhile she was signed to an imprint of Interscope. She also signed a music publishing deal with Sony and started writing songs for Britney Spears, Fergie, and the Pussycat Dolls.
After working for a long time on her debut album, The Fame was finally released in 2008. Her first two singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” were both sleeper hits, with the latter earning her a Grammy for Best Dance Recording. Lady Gaga has since gone on to headline four world tours, and win countless awards for her music.
Ne-Yo was signed by Columbia Records in 2000 but the label dropped him before he could release his first album. Instead, one the of the songs he wrote for himself “That Girl” was recorded by Marques Houston. After that he contributed songs to albums for Christina Milian, Mary J. Blige, and Faith Evans. But his big breakthrough came when he wrote the hit “Let Me Love You” for Mario. The song’s success inspired Def Jam CEO Jay-Z to sign Ne-Yo to a solo artist deal.
In 2006, he released his debut album, In My Own Words, which spawned successful singles “So Sick”, and “Sexy Love”. Since then he’s collaborated with many top artists like Mariah Carey and Pitbull. He’s continued to write for other artists and in 2012 was awarded the Hal David Starlight award from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame which recognizes young songwriters who have made an impact on the industry.
1. Kanye West
Kanye West dropped out of college to pursue his music career when he was 20, but he didn’t go straight for stardom. Instead, he started out making beats for local artists in Chicago, where he lived with his mother. He did release one album with local group the Go-Getters, but returned to producing soon after. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s he racked up producing credits on songs for Foxy Brown, Nas, Janet Jackson, and most notably for Jay-Z‘s album The Blueprint.
Although record companies were reluctant to sign him as a rapper, he finally signed an artist deal with Roc-A-Fella in 2002. His debut album The College Dropout was released in 2004 and has sold 4 million copies worldwide. West has now won a total of 21 Grammy’s and is considered one of the most influential artists of all time.