"The first time I dealt with a major label, I thought I had all the answers," recalls Tyler Ward. "I thought I was so good at what I did that they couldn't tell me what was going on. There were two or three offers on the table, and I said, 'I know better than you guys. You're trying to change me. You're trying to control me.'"
It was an audacious stance for the singer-songwriter/producer to take. The then-26-year-old was still making music in his parents' basement when the labels came courting more than two years ago. Working from a bare-bones studio in Aurora, Ward had quickly built up a rabid following online with his do-it-yourself approach to performance, music production and songwriting.
The buzz had come from seemingly menial moves — videos posted on YouTube, songs spread through Facebook, a savvy use of Twitter and other social media. He'd picked up thousands of fans with his heartfelt acoustic takes on tunes by Eminem, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and his original songs were easily cruising to the top of "most viewed" lists across the web. Ward was leading a fiercely independent ground campaign to get his music heard, a push with enough reach and depth to make any political strategist drool, and he didn't want to give it all up for the sake of a record deal.
"I don't regret that decision," he says now. "I got thrown into the deep end, and I had to paddle back to shore. I had no idea how to swim. But all of the knowledge I took from that experience made me a lot smarter in the decisions I'm making now. It's like growing up, man."
A few short years later, Ward has changed his tune in more ways than one. He's kept his independent streak, opting to remain unsigned in the wake of commercial success that includes landing a top spot on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart, as well as respectable showings across Billboard and earning a recent nod from Ryan Seacrest on his website for his take on Taylor Swift's "Red."
Most recently, he's been touring extensively in Europe and North America in support of the recent online release of Hello. Love. Heartbreak., a six-song EP that will eventually form the first half of a full-length album (the next six songs are due sometime next year). Ward calls the album-in-progress his best achievement to date, the realization of a childhood ambition to complete an entirely personal and original album. He's shifted away from cover songs, making a point to record, produce and perform his own material.
"Part of my dream growing up," he reveals, "was that I wanted to create an album for me, produced by me, recorded by me, mixed by me, engineered by me, one day when I had the skill set. This is that model."
It's a model rooted in fiery independence. Just the same, Ward has also realized that he's taken his career about as far as he can on his own. With that in mind, he's finally ceding some creative control, starting with bringing in professional producers and engineers and co-writing original songs with artists like Liz Rose and Katy McAllister.
"I'm getting to the point where there's only so much you can do as an independent artist. If you want to grow to the next level of radio, especially in the United States, you have to do some sort of major-label deal, to have that machine," Ward admits, citing Sony Germany as a potential fit for distribution in Europe. "After taking two or three years, I feel like I'm ready. But I'm at a point where I get to negotiate things that starting artists never get a chance to think about."
Ward has clearly earned his edge at the bargaining table. It's come through his own hard work and success, but also by virtue of a constant focus and demonstrated ability on his part to find new talent — sometimes in the most unlikely places. A wide range of local talent has found a forum and an audience through Ward's featured-artist series on YouTube.
"When I was playing bar shows in Denver every weekend, just trying to bring in a few bucks and living in my dad's basement, I thought, the best way to go about this from a career perspective would be to learn the tools and record people," Ward explains. "As a producer, I just tried to home in and focus on the skills. I've been able to work with people who didn't have a platform or means to get their music out there.... I've always felt like giving other people opportunities. That's what I love to do."
One such endeavor found Ward working with Jono, a then-unknown singer from Aurora, on a cover of the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun," a performance that naturally turned up on YouTube. The collaboration led to national exposure for Jono: The video attracted the attention of producers from E!'s Opening Act, who devoted an entire episode to the singer and his efforts to open for Jason Mraz in Hawaii.
But Jono's not the only protégé of Ward's to benefit from having worked with him. A stroll down the 16th Street Mall last year inspired an unorthodox partnership between Ward and Dred Scott, a homeless busker cranking out R&B covers on an acoustic guitar. "I literally walked down the mall at night after dinner," Ward remembers. "It was like 11 p.m. I walked outside and I heard this guy singing. I was like, 'This is great!' I gave him a few bucks and gave him my info." Ward found the busker again a few days later and ended up helping him produce an EP, fittingly titled Live From the 16th Street Mall.
Those are the kind of collaborations that Ward says he couldn't see easily budding from a major-label deal. And those connections have persisted as much as they've proven to pay off. As Ward's learned the ins and outs of carving a niche as an independent artist, he's built up a loyal cadre of musical colleagues and collaborators.
To that end, Ward is currently touring with a troupe of Denver musicians that includes former Tickle Me Pink guitarist Joey Barba, drummer Joel Burns and bassist Josh Corbett. Jordan Howard, Ward's manager of seven years, started out his duties as a buddy who agreed to send out e-mails. Vocalist and musician Alex G is Ward's neighbor. Such connections come from years spent making music at a grassroots level, Ward insists. "It's all been this family, this organic thing," declares Ward. "Earlier, we didn't know exactly what we were doing, but we knew we were going to make it work."
It was improvisation at its purest. Learning the music trade through trial and error has prepared him for the next level, Ward insists. It's given him the freedom to make important demands and keep his integrity intact as he's discussing deals with major-label reps. Ward is quick to point out that this freedom has stemmed directly from a perfect blend of circumstances, a mix of technology, access and the 21st-century tool of social media.
"Without Facebook," he concludes, "it probably would have taken me ten years to get where I am right now. It expedited the process 1,000 percent. Without that platform, without the Internet, I would probably still be in my dad's basement, trying to figure out what the next move would be."