BETHESDA — Brenton Duvall is the big man on campus tonight. Up on the makeshift stage, he’s tinkering with his MacBook’s audio settings while red Solo cups are passed around the room. With a playlist full of party music and a hook up to the speakers, he’s got a captive crowd of Clemson students ready to rage.
But everyone’s far too wasted, and those speakers of authority aren’t even loud enough to fill out the whole room. All he can think about on this February night is ditching this crowded frat house basement and returning to his home studio to work on crafting the perfect song.
The 22-year-old producer from Potomac already scored big online in 2010 with his Taylor Swift and Wiz Khalifa-sampling remix, “Mean Planes & Taylor Gangs.” He watched from his dorm room desk chair as the song boomeranged around the Web, shooting up Hype Machine charts and ricocheting through the blogosphere. The track established him as one of Maryland’s freshest young producers.
“Absolute fire,” wrote one blogger describing the remix, in which Duvall layered the vocal tracks over a propulsive, descending synth pattern. Another blogger proclaimed him a “mashup whiz kid,” a label he’s struggled to disown ever since.
“Mean Planes” now has more than two million combined YouTube views. During the music industry’s heyday — when Duvall was in diapers — six-figure spins would have landed him a fat record deal and a slew of major tour dates. And even when he was in high school, a million YouTube views would have notched at least some long-term recognition.
But in 2013, when Internet stars are crowned by day and forgotten by night, and when two million views is more easily achieved, Duvall has had to sacrifice and compromise to transform his online success into a durable career.
He schlepps hundreds of miles to play shows with crappy sound systems and drunken teenagers because live performances are one of the only way he makes money. He’s stuck playing songs he can’t stand because of the high demand for generic dance music. And he must compete for attention with thousands of amateurs, all propelled by the same cheap software that lets him create.
Internet hype got him eyeballs on computer screens but no dollars in his pocket. He doesn’t sell music and streams songs for free on YouTube and SoundCloud. Without any reliable source of income, weekend treks to Tuscaloosa, Athens and other distant college towns have become a necessity.
“I’m just fortunate enough that being a DJ in 2013 is a really, really good job,” he said. “I don’t think I deserve what I make. I don’t think anybody deserves what they make DJing. People will eventually realize you shouldn’t be giving a DJ that much money.”
Yet they are, because Brenton Duvall, the moderate viral sensation, is a small commodity as a DJ at bars and campuses. It’s too bad then that he’s never been a party kid and would much rather spin some Drake than David Guetta.
Mainstream pop and hip-hop was the soundtrack of Duvall’s formative years. When learning guitar, his teacher would flip on FM radio stations so he could jam along to the chord progressions. At St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac, he was always the stubborn defender of the Top 40 songs his friends berated. To this day, his iTunes library is littered with Billboard staples.
He’s been to two Taylor Swift concerts — “unironically,” he’ll quickly add. He’ll namedrop Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco, two prolific pop producers, as huge inspiration. And he’ll proclaim Kanye West as having the ultimate mind in music because “he can make an amazing song and he doesn’t have to touch an instrument.”
“Once I left school, there’s been like 20 albums on repeat,” he said. “I listen to the last albums by Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake like every day. I just don’t get tired of those songs because they’re perfect.”
The sensibility towards perfect pop informs much of his own production. Duvall’s songs weave together simple, addictive melodies and many have the blissful optimism of Clinton-era bubblegum pop. When choosing vocal samples for his arrangements, he’ll often opt for recognizable hooks from megastars like Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z and Aaliyah and Passion Pit.
“He’s experimental,” said Beau Young Prince, a Washington, D.C., rapper who collaborates regularly with Duvall. “I can’t label him. I don’t want to label him. It could be rap, pop or anything else. It’s melodic, it’s groovy. He can take any sample and take it into any genre.”
He works strange hours. He’ll sometimes lock himself up recording and producing until 5 a.m., tinkering with snares or synth melodies. He might take a break by sending a flurry of tweets riffing on pop culture or he’ll hit up local friends and musicians.
“I expect to be woken up in the middle of the night for him to say, ‘Yo, get up!’” said Matt Sparks, Duvall’s close friend and collaborator. “He’ll say ‘Lets go on a cruise. We have to listen to this song.’”
Though he makes highly energetic and danceable music, he doesn’t seem like the creator of such work. Duvall wears oversized button-down shirts and khakis, and lounges around Indigo Studios in Bethesda, talking to friends and posting Instagram photos of celebrities.
He won’t run you over with conversation, but his eyes and demeanor open widely whenever he talks about the stuff he loves: music, sports, and his hometown.
“I love D.C. I love Maryland. When we were growing up, I was thinking, ‘What is there to represent?’ But it’s just the little stuff. Like Juan Dixon being the best basketball player of all time. D.C. got a baseball team. Wale was coming up…When certain people started putting D.C. on the map, I was really happy.”
He’s a DMV denizen who reps the city and collaborates with local artists whenever he can, but his success as a producer finally bubbled up once he moved away from the nation’s capital.
Though he wrote and recorded music throughout high school, he started devoting much more time to the craft once he got to the University of Colorado, where he’d isolate himself inside recording while everyone else on campus was out partying.
In the comfort of his own dorm room, he could download vocal samples, cut and paste them into the software, combine them with drum and synth patterns, and upload the finished product online.
In April 2010, he sent one of his creations, a Lil’ Wayne and Passion Pit remix, to the prominent blog Pigeons & Planes, which featured the track and started posting all the songs he sent over.
His tracks started bouncing to the top of Hype Machine and bloggers were anointing him a rising star as a mashup artist. He released “Mean Planes” to smashing success and his fate as an essential mashup whiz kid was cemented. Splendid, right?
Not quite. He argues that the “mashup artist ” tag bloggers stuck to him fundamentally mischaracterized his music. It implied that Duvall simply blends two tracks together without adding any of his own sounds. It’s incorrect and the label put him in a box, he said, and he’s struggled to quash the misconceptions throughout his young career.
“I used to correct people. There’s this whole beat they’re missing. Nowadays, I don’t put a capellas on the tracks because I don’t want people calling them mashups. I think I’m at a point where if I did something and someone called it a mashup, I might flip.”
Either way, people were listening. Lots were. After he got enough exposure online, concert promoters, assuming he was a seasoned performer, were offering him money to play live sets.
“People were emailing me, ‘How much for a DJ set,’” Duvall said. “I’d be like, ‘I’ve never DJed. I don’t know what a DJ set is.’
He met Eric Miller, a Boston College student at the time who would become his manager, who set him up with gigs on the East Coast. Before long, he was flying almost every weekend to perform thousands of miles away.
“I had some homework or some paper to do. I finally called my mom and told her, ‘I just can’t go to school anymore,’” he said.
He returned to Potomac and started to study music creation full-time. He needed to learn not only how to expand his style but how to actually make money with something he always considered a hobby.
To do that, he’s often forced to playing music he loathes because that’s what’s hot these days. EDM, which started as a largely European thread of electronic music, has erupted in the U.S. in recent years as superstar DJs like Avicii, David Guetta and Tiesto carried the torch across the Atlantic.
The genre has climbed in venue-flooded Baltimore and in Washington, where young people flood into the city’s new 4,000-capacity Echostage and its U St. Music Hall to hear the loudest, trendiest party music.
Duvall considers EDM “disco for the 21st century” and hates how artificial and calculated the music sounds. He’s tired of hearing the same type of beats by the same artists night after night and thinks the music lacks a crucial sense of humanity and spontaneity.
“You can tell when everything is perfectly lined up, and at that point you’re just using a computer. It would be such a travesty if in 30 years, all music is all aligned on some grid… Jimi Hendrix wasn’t using ProTools,” he said.
Though he now has the chance to shape a unique style, he has to keep performing to make money. Miller, his manager, realizes performing EDM-centric shows is a necessity at this point in his career, even when Duvall feels apart from the culture.
“I think he’s doing a good job trying not to get pigeonholed,” Miller said. “But yeah, the kids want to hear that kind of music. Wherever he plays, the demand is always for him to play electronic and bass music.”
The future does looks brighter for Brenton Duvall. Last week, he moved out of the parent’s basement and up to an apartment in Brooklyn, where he hopes he can perform nightly at bars around the city.
He’s currently working on his biggest project yet: producing four songs for Brooklyn rapper OnCue’s newest mixtape, due out this summer. The record is executively produced by Just Blaze, a hip-hop production legend who’s worked with Jay-Z, Eminem, T.I. and Kendrick Lamar.
Having production credits on a big mixtape like that could send a lot more work his way. He’s been networking in New York, trying to market himself and his work. And he said he hopes to release a full batch of original music by the end of the year.
But for the near future at least, he’ll continue to perform in stuffy venues, playing repetitive music to drunken kids. He’ll make music utilizing technology he worries will strain his creative impulse, and make money performing music he said he can’t stand.
All of it is just part of the necessary grind to build himself lasting place in the music world.
“EDM is going to go away,” he said. “People are going to stop saying EDM. Those DJs who run EDM are going to go away too, because that’s what they know how to play. When you want a DJ to start playing something else, will David Guetta be able to spin that?”