He’s a global hit machine, dubbed the King of TikTok. Now music megastar JASON DERULO has penned a book – not your usual pop memoir, but a step-by-step guide for success. Here he opens up on his best-known gimmick, the painful truth behind his breakthrough hit and what he really thinks about social media.
The year was 2009, and I was about to release my debut single, “Whatcha Say.” I was still a kid, only nineteen years old, but I had already been singing and writing my own songs for more than a decade. So, to me, it felt like this moment had been a long time coming.
This was a pivotal time in my career – my chance to make it or break it. If the song flopped, my label would probably lose faith in me, and then it would be very difficult to get anyone in the music industry to give me a second chance – not to mention the listeners themselves.
“Whatcha Say” had to work, end of story. Failure was not an option.
Besides feeling all of this pressure about finally introducing myself to the world in a major way, the song itself felt really personal to me. Before I wrote “Whatcha Say,” my older brother, Joey, somebody I’ve always been close to, came to me and confessed that he had cheated on his girl, who was the mother of his first child. Of course, he felt horrible about the situation and incredibly remorseful. He wanted to earn her forgiveness and to do something to make things right.
“You’ve got to beg her to take you back,” I told Joey.
I tapped into the remorse that I knew my brother was feeling and wrote the song in his voice, as if I was the one begging my girl to take me back after a huge mistake. The beat drew from Imogen Heap’s brilliant song “Hide and Seek,” which was really cool and experimental. It was left field, but it had a pop sensibility with a big melody. So, it was different while still being grounded in what we expect from a popular song. That’s exactly how I like to create. There are established “rules” when it comes to writing pop songs, but if you want people to feel something, you have to add a unique twist. To me, that’s the essence of being creative – putting your own spin on a proven formula.
When I put it all together, I knew that “Whatcha Say” would make an amazing debut single.
But was it enough? I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to make absolutely sure that after just the first few seconds of the song, everyone who was listening would know and remember who I was.
You probably already know where I am going with this …
STOP BEING BORING: TAKE RISKS
I didn’t come up with this idea completely on my own. It’s actually a pretty popular device in rap for artists and producers to introduce a “tag” at the top of a song. But as far as I knew, it had never been done before in pop music and certainly never been sung.
I wrestled with the decision like crazy. I knew that this one little thing might get me laughed at or written off as corny. But it could also pay off and make it impossible for listeners to forget me. I played around with a few different melodies that I could use for my name, and I finally found the one that just clicked. You know it. You’re probably singing it in your head right now. Sorry if it gets stuck in there, but that’s also kind of the point.
Once I was confident that I had the right melody, I knew that it would cut through the noise, so I sang my name at the beginning of “Whatcha Say” and then again on many of my songs that followed.
For more than a decade now, everywhere I go, people ask me to sing my name for them, or to sing their name for them, or if they can sing my name for me. Yeah, it definitely gets old sometimes, but I have no regrets. Would as many people out there know my name and love
my songs if I hadn’t included that tag?
The lesson here is to take risks. In fact, this is me begging you to take risks. Stop being boring. Stop being derivative. Stop being scared. Please.
I have never seen an artist who was interesting or inspiring who didn’t take a massive risk — usually more than one. The stakes are high, and therefore, the excitement we feel when we consume that art is high, too. We can immediately sense that we’ve never heard or seen something like this before.
That said, some risks fail. Let’s be real, most risks fail. But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying to just take any old risk. If you’re going to put your art and maybe your whole career on the line, you want to make sure it’s for something you stand by and won’t regret even if you fall on your face.
This is why my number one rule for taking risks is to make sure that every risk you take is informed by as much feedback, consideration, and prior calculation as possible. This all comes from daily work and an incredible amount of sharing – and actually listening to and
incorporating the feedback you get.
This brings me to social media …
GET REAL ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA
It is popular these days to hate on social media. We are inundated by the message that social media is harming us, rotting our brains, and ruining our society. Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter all encourage us to be divisive, to promote fake versions of our lives that make us feel insecure about our realities, and to deplete our time and energy, making it harder to sleep, connect, and be present offline.
Okay, now that we have all of that out of the way (and for what it is worth, I agree with all of those statements to a certain degree), I want to tell you why social media is probably the greatest innovation to happen for artists since electricity, and why if you are a creator of any kind who’s alive today, you should be bowing down at the feet of social media and giving it your utmost respect, adoration, and attention.
If you want to have a chance of huge success of any kind, you need to make creating content a part of your daily routine. I don’t care who you are; there is no way around this. If you are a poet, you need to write poems. Singers, you have to sing. Gardeners, plant seeds.
Comedians, you’ve got to tell jokes. Lawyers, take us to law school with you, teach us about the law. Creators, create. Invite us to the wonderful world of you, whoever that may be.
I know this all seems pretty basic, but it is critical to start at square one. There are no shortcuts to success. At least, not my definition of success. When I was coming up, I was writing songs every day and singing late into the night. There’s zero chance that I would have the kind of success I enjoy today if I hadn’t done all that.
I was an early adopter of social media as a place to post content, but now, the paths to success in all kinds of industries are blending and blurring and merging with social media in a crazy and exciting way. And content you may have thought was useless yesterday is
perfectly viable to share today. You have a platform with the potential to reach millions upon millions of eyeballs, where you can upload your work for free and receive invaluable feedback. That feedback may come in the form of likes or comments, or it might come in the
form of crickets. Either way, pay attention to what your audience is saying, or not saying.
FORGET YOUR ‘BRAND’ … FOR NOW
You’re already creating daily content. At least, I hope so. Now, start posting it. If you’re on the daily grind aspiring toward anything, put it out there. It doesn’t matter which platform you choose. All that matters is that you get it out into the universe for people to see, hear, and react to.
People will tell you over and over that you are a brand. Your brand has to have an identity, and therefore, your content has to be consistently this way or that way and always within the confines of your defined brand. That advice is meant to keep you scared, not to mention
limited. It is also meant for someone who is already successful, a known entity. That is the time to be diligent about maintaining a brand.
For now, worrying about maintaining a brand identity is putting the cart before the horse, as they say. If the work you’re creating is already pretty consistent, great. But as you’re growing, this is the best time to experiment and explore. Try something you’ve never tried
before, whether it’s in another genre or another voice, or it’s something that’s just plain wacky. You never know where you might find a spark. It’s a lot harder to get away with this once you’re more established and people have an expectation of your work.
Your first two jobs as a creator or simply as a pursuer of greatness are (1) to create content and (2) to put it out there. That’s it. If you created something that’s a little weird because your creative energy took you in a strange direction today, you might not be sure about whether or not you want to post it to your main account. Why not create a new account under an alias and post it there? Or, if you mainly use TikTok, upload something different to Instagram, or vice versa. Maybe you have thirty-five different accounts, and each of them has a separate point of view.
F**K THAT AND START NOW
As humans, we tend to wait until the moment feels right to do something. I’ll start my diet next week because I’m going out for my friend’s birthday this weekend. I’ll start putting my art on Instagram when it gets a little bit better. When I have enough money, I’ll be able to start my business. There’s always a reason to wait.
Well, f**k that! Start today. Find a way. There’s always a way. If anything, people will love to watch your journey and will appreciate the realness of the infancy of your art. One day, when you’re the beast that you want to become, you’ll be so glad you started when you did, and you’ll get to look back and see how far you’ve come.
As you accumulate feedback and learn to trust yourself, you’ll start to see opportunities pop up that allow you to take risks and break through. It’s important to find a balance between listening to those two things – your own opinions and the feedback you get from others. You’ll find that the more you incorporate that feedback and grow as an artist, those two things will become more and more aligned. Everyone who has succeeded at a high level in any medium has discovered their own magic and done it their own way. There’s only one of each of those people, and there’s only one Jason Derulo, and there’s only one of you. To be honest, that’s half of the magic right there.
With all of that being said, it is important to understand that failure is, and will always be, a part of risk-taking. As a creative, innovative person, you’re going to fail. It’s inevitable, and you’ve got to know this going in.
That said, no one wants to fail. So, how do you know when to take a risk and when to try a safer route? The best advice I have for you is to try and minimise the pain of a potential failure by always doing your research, and running toward things that you personally
enjoy. If you don’t like the risk you’re taking, if you don’t think it’s exceptional in every way, why take the chance? That failure will hurt ten times more and you’ll be kicking yourself for gambling on a risk you weren’t obsessed with from the beginning.