How streaming has helped O.A.R. spread their jams and celebrate ‘XX’

The Audiophile: Chris Culos of O.A.R.

“Streaming brings new people out to the shows to discover new music.”

If you want to know how a modern band can successfully cultivate an ever-growing loyal and far-reaching fanbase amidst today’s fractured and fragmented music marketplace, you need look no further than O.A.R. These jam-band titans have long understood how to embrace the community that follows them by encouraging taping and trading from the very beginning, one of the many reasons O.A.R. stunned the music scene when the band from OSU (by way of Rockville, Maryland) first sold out Madison Square Garden in 2006.

To celebrate two decades of their escalating achievements, O.A.R. (which quite aptly stands for Of A Revolution) has dropped the double album X.X., available in multiple formats from Vanguard. The contents of X.X. are split between band and fan-favorite studio cuts (the heartfelt acoustified call of Peace, the know when to fold ’em bliss of That Was a Crazy Game of Poker), a full disc’s worth of live material, and two energetic new studio tracks, Follow Me, Follow You and I Go Through, the latter written under a tight deadline for a new Qello concent series, Evolution of a Song.

“It’s hard to put into words, but it always felt like this was the path we were on,” O.A.R. drummer Chris Culos admitted to Digital Trends. “It immediately felt like this was what we wanted to do as a band, and we were able to grow in a way we could sustain. Looking back, it’s been a 20-year overnight success. As opposed to getting a song on the radio, having it become #1 right away, and then maybe not knowing how to deal with that as an artist and as a business.”

During a recent tour break — a seemingly rare event for these seasoned road hounds — Culos called Digital Trends to discuss Evolution of a Song, how one integrates the drummer’s role into the songwriting process, and using streaming data to build a band’s brand.

Digital Trends: I loved seeing Marc Roberge [O.A.R.’s chief songwriter and vocalist] use an actual typewriter to type out the lyrics of I Go Through during Evolution of a Song.

Chris Culos: Did you know that typewriter was a gift from Tom Hanks? The song was co-written by Nathan Chapman, a producer/singer/songwriter friend of ours who’s one of the biggest songwriters in Nashville. [Chapman has also produced five Taylor Swift albums, including 1989.] We met him through Rita Wilson [Hanks’ wife] as she was pursuing her own music career.

It was fascinating to watch you guys essentially write a song on the spot that turned out to be a really great addition to the O.A.R. canon.

Thank you, man. Honestly, we are so lucky. We had no idea how that process was going to unfold when we started it. We thought it would be a really cool idea, but it was a little scary, because you really have no idea what will happen.

With Heaven, we were trying to play with the popular sonic trends at the time.

The band was under a lot of pressure. To have the cameras in the room like that — we’d never done that before. It’s hard enough to write a song when you’re completely relaxed — you’ve got to be vulnerable, and you’ve got to let the creativity flow — but that particular Nashville session was magic. For us, it was one of those moments where we felt, “Wow — we got here, and we did what we set out to do.”

Because some of Marc’s lyrics are so personal, I feel I Go Through is the 21st century version of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle [a #1 single in 1974].

Wow. That’s a huge compliment. When Marc writes something, he feels it’s completely honest about his life. He’s writing what he knows — and that’s when the best stuff comes out.

Especially for artists like yourselves, your kids have to understand that daddy’s going to be away 100 days or more every year. That’s just what your life is.

Yes. It’s a balance we’ve worked hard on for many years. It’s changed over time as we’ve adapted to being married and having children — and also wanting to grow as a band, as a business, and be out there on the road. If we’re being honest about it, we get enough support from family at home where we can go kick butt on the road, and then we can spend more time at home between those runs.

The way a lot of the songs on X.X. unfold is they start a little bit quiet acoustically, with you doing some light percussion or tapping a tambourine before really kicking into gear. Is that your general thought process — “I need to support what Marc is laying out here before we really get into it” — while you’re writing your parts as a drummer?

Thank you for asking that! I do think of it as part of the songwriting process. It’s something I have been studying for a while. Rather than just playing the part I think will fit the music — which is obviously still coming from a place of support — it comes from studying what my favorite drummers have done, and what has worked throughout history. Going back in time, I’ve studied Motown and R&B, funk drumming and jazz, and popular music from the ’60s through the ’90s, and how that all translates.

For me, it’s opened up a whole new way of listening to music. It’s not that it’s just a simple drum beat where you go, “Oh, I know how to do that!” It’s paying attention to what exactly was done there to support the song. Then you get into supporting the lyrics, not stepping on people’s toes, locking in with the bass player, and getting the foundation of the rhythm section. It’s also not just keeping time — it’s about getting that pulse.

Who would you consider your benchmark drummers when it comes to supporting a song?

I’m going to start getting totally drum-nerdtastic on you! Off the top of my head, there’s Bernard Purdie, the most recorded drummer in history — he did Motown, funk, Steely Dan; just music all across the board.

Currently, one of my favorites is Rich Redmond, Jason Aldean’s drummer. Rich is a guy who is able to play both live and studio stuff, and there’s a big difference between studio and live. It’s a whole different beast, especially in a place like Nashville, where the recording world is an industry where only a handful of guys are getting the top work, day in and day out. And there’s a reason for that, not necessarily that what they’re playing is intricate, but it’s the way they make it feel. The way they play for the song is perfect, and consistent. I love watching these guys from afar and thinking, “Oooh, what can I take from them? What are they doing that I can work on and practice?”

Guys like that really speak to me, because I consider myself a live drummer in the sense that we’ve been on the road for 20 years. We’ve made a handful of albums, so I feel I have a little bit of experience, but I don’t consider myself a session drummer. It’s not what I do for a living. I’m lucky I’m able to go in the studio with the band and learn and learn, and try to get better each time we do that. That’s part of the learning experience of being in a band that has this history.

To me, the best example of how you pull off that level of support is on Heaven, with the shaker and the snare work you do at the beginning.

Oh, thank you! Yeah, that’s just a bunch of different, layered percussion. On that song, we also used a bunch of different drum samples.

Drumming isn’t just about keeping time — it’s about getting that pulse.

When the song first came out [on 2011’s King], we were looking at what was going on at radio stations, in terms of what our song would be played after, and then what would come on next. It’s always been a challenge to get your songs on the radio, but I think it’s an important part of our business to try and reach the audience through radio. At that time, we thought, “Well, if radio is full of P!nk and Bruno Mars and Katy Perry, let’s record this in a way that makes a little more sense next to that, rather than go with the organic thing, a little bit of a reggae vibe, or a more vintage sound.” It was us trying to play with the popular sonic trends at the time.

There’s also an art in learning how to support melody and song structure, rather than dominate the thrust of a song.

That’s a great point. I’ve been trying to get away from being a drummer to being more of a musician. Think of the drums as one instrument, even though you’ve got four limbs and multiple drums, and you’re throwing your arms and your legs all over the place. How does that one instrument fit into the music? Yes, you are keeping the time, and yes, you are playing a beat — but how do you play that musically?

Obviously, the way a lot of people listen to your music has changed over the course of the time X.X. spans. If we pop on over into the Spotify universe, we see O.A.R. has many multimillions of listens. As an artist, how do you feel about streaming as a listening method?

As a big fan of music in general, I’m a big fan of Spotify. The band’s view on it is it’s all about awareness. We’re excited we’re able to get out on the road and tour year after year and find a new audience. When we first started, we came through the days of dubbing cassette tapes, to burning CDs, to ripping files to Napster for file trading, yet still having physical products. And now, it’s completely flipped around to where there’s zero album sales on CD, but vinyl’s through the roof!

The thing is, we’ve continued to adapt, and we view streaming as a way to keep finding a new audience. It’s bringing new people out to the shows, and discovering new music. In that sense, it’s great. I love being able to go online and listen to all that music at my fingertips.

Some bands work with Spotify to find out where people are listening to them in the world, and then they tailor their touring to the cities, regions, and countries where they’re most popular.

Absolutely! You do that through all the analytics you can look at — not just Spotify, but the information you collect through your website, ticket sales, or merchandise. For example, we’ve noticed when we go to Milwaukee, it’s a much younger crowd, like high school and college-age kids. And when we go to Minneapolis, it’s like date night for parents in their 30s and 40s.

That’s not saying there isn’t a variety at all of our shows, but we did see a huge difference between those two cities. Having that information going into it, we can promote those two shows differently. We can have all kinds of different ideas ahead of that, knowing what the audience is going to be.

And like you said, through Spotify, we can find out exactly where songs are streaming. We also find out how much merch is being sold in certain parts of the world, how many views we have on YouTube, and how to grow it all. Even the Billboard charts are not just about how many albums are sold, they’re also about how many streams you get. All of that stuff pulled together is really what’s making an impact on our business.

I love the scope of the Live O.A.R. site. It really shows how fan support on the road has always been your bread and butter.

Oh, absolutely. We grew it very organically. Literally, from a street team putting up posters on campuses and passing out CDs and cassette tapes, in order to build an audience. That audience is still here today, and it’s the best thing ever.

So when you get to year 40 of the band, you’ll have to call that release X.L., right?

Doesn’t sound as sexy as X.X., but I guess so! Can’t wait!

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