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EP 12: Justin Osborne of SUSTO
Episode 1221st April 2021 • Music Rookie • Sweetheart Pub
00:00:00 00:29:47

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A conversation with Justin Osborne, who is the lead singer and principal songwriter of Charleston, SC band SUSTO. Justin is going to discuss what worked -- and what DIDN’T work -- as the band progressed from “total DIY” regional success all the way to present day touring Europe regularly and a legitimate record deal with Rounder Records

SUSTO Official Website


SUSTO Interview

Frank Keith: [:

What was your vision? What were your goals and what were some steps that you remember taking that worked along the way and what are some things you did that you're like well, I would have done that differently. And that is a very broad question. I know.

Justin Osborne: [:

And I was fortunate to have parents that were supportive of that, which I recognized it's like a privilege that I had that kind of like still has repercussions today because it kinda allowed me to get started early on. My dad had a small construction company, so he actually built like a tiny venue in our backyard.

Cause my parents were religious and didn't want me playing in bars and stuff. So this like gave me a really early exposure to just throwing shows and a DIY kind of approach. And we would throw shows, we could fit about a hundred people in this, this place. And we started doing that in high school and I had a band I started and I got to test out my songs that way.

And so like in my second band, I started our first album had kind of certain amount of success. On, in the MySpace days we had like what I would call like up my space, semi viral hit. Like regionally, at least everyone was adding this one song we had like to their profile and things. So after my first semester of college, I came back home to play a show with my high school band and all of a sudden, like there were people there singing our lyrics.

That was very helpful because I kind of took that little nugget and try to grow it as much as I could with the extremely limited knowledge I had at the time at a time I was 19, 18, then like, Didn't know anything about the music industry. I've had dreams like, you know, like the kind that everybody does, who doesn't really hasn't really been in it.

And so I just started trying to book my own shows. I would pretend to be my booking agent I created a fake booking agency and a fake like booking agent name and would reach out to the news and be like, Hey, I represent blah, blah, blah, my old band. And eventually I got a certain amount of success from that before I ended it, which really helped me when I started Susto because I mean, I had, at least in South Carolina and then regionally a certain amount of following the kind of followed me from that band that I've been in for 10 years to when I started Susto and they're like, okay, well, this is a different band. Some people didn't, some people that liked my old band did not like Susto they didn't come over.

So I got to be straightforward. That that was very helpful. You know, like it's not like it just came out of nowhere. Like I had a background in do it yourself promoting and touring that started early on and was facilitated by resources that frankly just aren't available to everybody. I recognize that But when I started Susto I wanted to have more success because I had hit walls and kind of felt like I was spinning my wheels a little bit with my other band, even though we had like a certain amount of grassroots success.

So what I really focused on was trying once we kinda got a following in Charleston, Which happened actually at my, to my surprise, like pretty quickly, like within a month or two of putting our album out on our own, it kind of made the rounds in town. We were selling out shows and, you know it was a good response.

So I wanted to be, I wanted to do what I'm doing right now. Like be like a national international touring artist. It was very quickly that I started looking outside of town. Okay.

So I decided to focus on cities that had a major league sports team. To me that was like a marker of a market that was big enough to focus on, like, if it is a big enough place to have this, then there's enough people there that I should be able to find, put together a following. So I started focusing on DC and Raleigh, Charlotte and Nashville and Atlanta.

And and I also like started focusing on the other two big markets in South Carolina and Greenville at Columbia. I used a lot of contacts that I had made in the 10 years, previous with my old band, like to reach out to promoters, also used tactics that I developed. I started like looking for bands that I could pair with.

Like, I would look for a band from new Orleans, a band from Atlanta. And, and reach out to both of them and suggest like a three-band tour where we did Charleston, Atlanta, and New Orleans.

And that led to cultivating relationships and the Atlanta kind of I don't know if diaspora is the right word, but in Charleston, the Atlanta transplant to Charleston community is pretty big. So the word started getting back to Atlanta, from people who were living in Charleston. So that is one market really started to grow quickly. And then from that, it kind of spread out more and we were able to also we got lucky because like band of forces found the album because it was being played at bars in town. And Ben Bridwell from that band reached out to me and it was the first you know, like person who I would consider "made it" to like reach out and really try and mentor and take me under his wing.

Him putting us on some shows led to us kind of like getting the attention of a booking agency and then coming down to see one of the shows and signing us. And then we put out two records independently. The first record I put out completely independently. I didn't have a lawyer. I didn't have a manager.

I didn't have anybody, we just put it out. I did what I said about trying to focus on these markets. I also just would follow any lead that I got, anyone who saw me at shows like, Oh yeah, I think we can help you do this. Do that. I would follow up. I would every day I would make a list of things I could do to try and break the band.

And I'd just work my ass off to try and bug people. I mean, one thing was getting on South by Southwest and I, I think maybe that was the year we were touring together when you were in Tedo Stone. That was the tour we booked DIY. Like I booked some of it. You and Tedo booked other parts of it.

So that was the same kind of thing that our experience together is case in point where I'm describing like, you know, the show trades. But on that same run, I had secured us an official South by Southwest. And that was that's a lot of work I had to, like, I made a list of people that I thought might, could help me get an official listing on South by Southwest.

And cause I had like applied, but. It can be political. Yeah. And ultimately ultimately got on it. Then we you know, went to South by thinking, Oh, maybe we'll find a label and a manager and all this stuff! Went to South by, and all it did was, you know, like it was a good thing to put on the resume, like featured South by Southwest artist.

But shortly after that though, that people did start coming around and we had managers started inquiring. We signed with the same lawyer as Band of Horses. He was like the first member of our team, which was really important because once you have like a bad-ass lawyer, everyone else is like, Oh, okay, well, if this dude's working with them, that's legit, especially managers and stuff.

Cause they know they're going to have this person's expertise and reputation to fall back on. So, pieces just started coming together, but it was like a culmination of walking through a lot of doors and trying to look for other open ones and really just like working a lot and and being on the road. When I could afford it with a full band, but also when I couldn't like solo and that, you know, I had never done much solo touring.

I'd been in a band before. And like I had to kind of develop that skill and also write in a way that was conducive to me, going into being the, you know, the weight of the song with just me and a guitar.

Frank Keith: [:

Justin Osborne: [00:08:13] Definitely, I mean, I realized that that was what I was having to do in the U S right. To me, it was obvious that that was what I would need to do in Europe. I wanted to do it differently. Like I thought, I thought about maybe trying to go as like a duo or something, because like, that was a question I kind of asked Ben from Band of Horses because they had, they have, you know, just as much success in Europe as they do in the U S if not more. And I knew that, so I asked his advice. Cause I really wanted to have a presence in Europe. I wanted to be an international artists, you know and it really started with this one guy in Sweden who reached out to me and was starting this little festival in a small town in the South of Sweden. And he just wanted me to come. He found me through the algorithm or something on Spotify, and he was willing to bring me over, but he could only pay a certain amount. So like, I, I can only go solo. So I went solo, but then also like Ben helped me get in touch with some, some folks in London to like book some shows in London.

So I could also turn, turn into a bit of a showcase for Susto so I like went to Sweden, played the festival. The same guy, like booked me another show, in his town, outside of the festivals, I did like two shows in Sweden and then, and I'd never even been to Europe, so it was like an amazing experience.

It was just lost. But then I went to London and played a few showcases And that was just kind of a foot in the door . Then, actually that really like we were talking before you started recording about the Cordovas Joe Firstman, the bandleader of the Cordovas, was very instrumental in helping me get to Europe with a full band.

And even before that, like solo again to kind of lay groundwork because I I later after that first little jaunt where I went and did the Swedish festival, about a year later Band of Horses was doing a tour. I had reached out to Ben and I was like, Hey man, cause I hate asking too much.

He's already, you know, very good to me and generous with his advice, but I hate asking. Just everybody's going to look out for themselves. Right. So I hate being like, Hey, put me on this. Please put me on this. He already does enough of that. But like, I really needed a foot in the door in Europe.

So I asked him if I could open their tour. And he agreed. I was still only able to go solo, but it was still good because I, I, at that point I developed a compelling solo set. So I toured with Band of Horses, but they were on a festival circuit. So I was only playing their clubs shows, which was like every Tuesday, Wednesday.

So every Thursday through Monday, I would fly out and go play every single day of the week, somewhere else. And that was through this company in Scandinavia called Rootsy who I've been introduced to by Joe Firstman cause they had already been touring over there with Rootsy. And so I would like do two nights with band horses, ride on the bus with them and then after the second show, I would leave immediately go to an airport and try and get up to Scandinavia. To play a show the next day, drive myself. Sell my own merch, do all my stuff for like five whole days, then I run back to it again, this happened like three weeks. It was the most exhausting tour I've ever been on my entire life.

I was carrying everything on my back, like merchandise and everything and my guitar in my hand. So it was like, I got no rest. I'd be exhausted when I got to them and I'd be even more exhausted when I left. But it was helpful because then less than a year later, we were able to get a booking agent in Europe and we went back with a full band and And that was a long tour, even that, and that was an investment. Europe is it takes a while to turn a profit or even break even. But people have told me, it's just like, you have to do it. We're finally getting to the point where we get like festival good festival offers and stuff from here that make it worth it financially.

But. It was an investment, you know, like even the first full band stuff, we went, we had to go stay over there for like two months just to make it worth the plane tickets and we had to play almost every day and slog through the cold to play to people when nobody else will be out on the road playing. And it was hard, depressing, but it paid off, certainly.

Frank Keith: [:

And, you don't have to disperse, any classified information here, but the release with Rounder Records came a little later on. So anybody I talk to that has a label affiliation, I like to feel out how that came about what that deal looks like. I'm asking, you know, what, what went into that for you and what have you gotten out of it? And is that something you would seek out again?

Justin Osborne: [:

The band still hadn't really reached certain levels yet. I thought we had a really great second record and people bought it too, but we needed to put it out sooner than later, because by the time we got it made, it had been like almost three years since my first album had been out. So we ultimately put out our second record independently, but we had like proper distribution and stuff through Missing Piece. But there was already starting to be label interest then, and then that album, even though we put it out independently, it ended up doing really well. A lot of that was aided by the fact that we landed like a, a tour opening for the Lumineers all across North America.

So like the press opportunities, which just started coming out of everywhere. We got to be on television and things like that. So we rode that wave and it was actually great because, you know, we had complete control because we had self released it. But then after that, the band really grew and really became like a national name.

And also at the same time international, because we had also been simultaneously trying to build in Europe. So one at a time the third record was getting. Made and written, we were lucky we had a handful of labels that were interested and had several deals on the table.

And it was going to be hard to choose between. I really couldn't make up my mind, but I was happy. Cause it was like, cause to me it was like a stamp of approval from the industry. It's like, okay. Yeah, we're doing something that like seems viable .

I was excited to sign a record deal. Rounder kind of came to the table late. They weren't even really on my radar, but they had just got a new president and he and I hit it off. He came to Atlanta to see us play and basically convinced me to sign with him over other two labels that were on the table with really great offers.

Because I, I, I need guidance along the way. You know, I'm not super strong minded person. I am particular about how I like to make albums, I don't like a lot of stress and pressure but I also need input whenever I can't decide. Cause you know, I get too close to the project sometimes I was really hoping to have that.

And rounder and and I guess I got it to a certain extent. Overall, I would say that it was a positive experience working with Rounder. They're very helpful. You know, they help, like, because of having a label support, like all, because we released our second album as best as we could, like it was on a label.

We were able to secure some outside funding. We hired a press team hired a radio team. My manager had worked at record labels for a long time, so he was really good at project managing the album. Like it was a label, I just like subcontracting out the label services. So it saved him a lot of that headache whenever Rounder was there, because Rounder is a label, they have all that stuff in house. Also a label is a bank basically paid for the record would be recorded and because of rounder, we were able to work with grammy award-winning producer who had just come off of the recent golden hour for Kacey Musgraves.

So that was really cool. And we got to record in this dream studio of mine, Echo Mountain in Asheville and, you know, Rounder facilitated all that. But at the same time, like that's all sounds like, you know, The model for the music industry, like get a record deal, they'll pay for a producer . It, that hadn't been the model that we'd been before we'd been making records on our own with Wolfie who, you know, produces we'd been making records in his local studio, in a DIY kind of fashion .

So it was almost like a departure for us being on a label, but it was also because I had never been on one. I was just trying to do the right thing. And I think we got a good outcome out of it, but it was just like a learning experience about how that works and also where I'm comfortable. I feel like every album, every album cycle I've learned lessons or learned what not to do, what to do more of what to focus on as a business owner, as an artist and as like, you know, someone in the music industry who's trying to grow a thing.

We had success before we had a label because we had a good team and you still can do that, but but you have to get really lucky. We were really lucky to have the team we had when we did and also really lucky to be able to secure outside funding. It's just hard to get all the things together that you need to do a record label can do. You know, there are experienced people working with record labels. They can help give you advice. Then also the practical business side of it, just like, you know, utilizing the label's infrastructure. So I'm not anti label.

I think we got really lucky also with that Lumineers tour that was like, you know, that was those things don't come all the time for bands.

Frank Keith: [:

I think that's, that's a good point that I try to make as often as possible to people is you mentioned luck a lot and you do have to get lucky, but. You got to put yourself in a position to get lucky .

Justin Osborne: [:

I think, you know, so it's like without being out there, mixing it up and really put work in to create those opportunities, to get lucky. And then also trying to be as prepared as you can be to take advantage of those opportunities. You know, the luck doesn't matter if you're not doing all that and you can do all that still not getting any luck. That's what I feel bad about. I've seen that happen to people. I've also seen people get really lucky and not take proper advantage of it. Doing the best I can just keep it between the lines.

Frank Keith: [:

Is there anything that you obviously you would tell, okay, don't do this.

Justin Osborne: [:

I don't have to work anymore. Then I realized. Wait. Yeah, I do. Now there's a lot more work. I need to do. Same thing when we get a label or we get a booking agent like the work's never done and nobody's gonna do it for you. Don't wait for your moment. create a bunch of different moments and then at the end, after a few years you'll look back and like, wow, this is a career. This is a path. And I could see how I got to where I'm at right now. And then you use that to keep going forward. That's that's the only way I know how to do it. That's what I would impart on people.

It's not the only way to have a career in music, but it's, it's the way that it's happened for me.

Frank Keith: [:

Justin Osborne: [00:19:48] Yeah, it's great to hear her voice.



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