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"How often do 'maybes' get used?" she mutters to no one in particular.
"Never," he shoots back. "But they take the pressure off."
Pomplamoose is dealing with more pressure now than Conte or Dawn ever imagined. The project began as an accident: About a year after they met and started dating in college, the couple made their first video song. (Both had, and still have, other musical projects.) The combination of accessible pop, rich instrumentation and the chemistry between Conte and Dawn found an enthusiastic viewership on YouTube. The project grew as they cultivated their songs and personalities into a signature style — one that involved disheveled, pajama-clad performances in Conte's childhood bedroom. Their popularity exploded in 2009, after they hit upon the unoriginal but savvy idea of recording covers of big-time pop hits. Up until then, Pomplamoose's catalog had been all originals and lesser-known covers. And, after the epidemic popularity of their version of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," came the biggest surprise of all: Fans wanted to buy Pomplamoose's MP3s in large numbers — large enough for neither of them to need a day job, and for Conte to buy a house while still in his mid-20s.
Soon major labels came calling, and industry professionals were trying to drag Pomplamoose into the machinery of the music business. Other artists who found fame through YouTube, such as OK Go and Justin Bieber, had assimilated into the world of the major labels, and Pomplamoose got offers to do the same. But Conte and Dawn said no, thanks. They didn't want to work with big-name producers at major studios. They didn't want to share their income with a record company. And, most importantly, they didn't want anyone messing with how they made music.
"I've dealt with a record label in the past," Conte says. "The label breathes down your neck, changes your stuff, changes your vision, changes your direction, hires your producer, picks your studio, picks your instruments, picks your sound, picks your freaking guitar strings."
So Pomplamoose didn't sign a deal and in the process became something other than a regular pop band — and something different from the daily viral sensation. Offered a chance to join the crumbling empire of the recording industry, Conte and Dawn instead decided to pioneer an alternative to it. They ended up forging a new path to a sustainable, independent career in music.
"It shows that there's another way that an artist can be successful outside the traditional way," says Tom Silverman, a former record executive and label founder who has studied Pomplamoose. "They're thinking out of the box. They found a way to generate enough revenues to live comfortably doing what they want to do."
Yet for all their idealism, neither Conte nor Dawn believed that merely selling MP3s online — and getting some revenue from YouTube each time a video was watched — would finance a career for long. Other revenue streams would have to be found — ones that wouldn't force them to compromise their vision.
Most musicians, especially up-and-coming ones, depend on touring to make a living. But Pomplamoose isn't set up well for live shows. The band has only two members, and its songs use dense arrangements that would require many more instrumentalists to reproduce onstage. Pomplamoose also lacks live experience — a gap that was glaringly obvious at its third-ever live show on New Year's Eve in San Francisco. Adding three members helped fill out the instrumentation, but Conte and Dawn lost much of the quirky character and sonic dynamics that illuminate their work. Onstage, with Dawn seated and Conte standing behind a keyboard, their attention was largely on playing their songs, rather than performing them, as an experienced live band learns to do. Pomplamoose seemed to try to please existing fans, not seduce new ones. It didn't make the band seem any more exciting that it was followed by the Dresden Dolls, a cabaret-punk outfit whose two members are masters of live theatrics.
Bringing enough musicians on the road to fully perform Pomplamoose songs would greatly dilute Conte and Dawn's tour income, anyway. But another revenue stream presented itself last fall when automaker Hyundai contacted the band about doing some TV commercials. Company executives had seen Pomplamoose's cover of the '50s classic "Mr. Sandman" and wanted similar-sounding versions of Christmas songs for a series of holiday ads.
Neither the car company nor the pop band had any idea that they were planning one of the most successful — and infamous — TV ads of the 2010 holiday season. The deal would give Pomplamoose a chance to increase its fan base and make some real money. But the ads also put its DIY image at risk — and, for some, cast the inborn frivolity of Conte and Dawn's relationship in a terribly unflattering light.
"Everyone tells me to put a ring on it," Conte quips, tossing a look at his girlfriend. They are standing in their kitchen on a recent afternoon, warming up leftover Chinese food while trying to sort out their personalities from the popularity of their band. Conte and Dawn aren't married or engaged, and that frustrates a great number of Pomplamoose fans — especially since the group's best-known cover is a treatise on the pitfalls of failing to propose.
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