Nataly Dawn met Jack Conte in 2006, when she opened for his band at a coffee house on the Stanford campus— she was a freshman, he a senior— and they started dating soon after. While they adored both music and each other, they were certain that mixing the two would be a bad idea. “We dated for a couple of years before we decided to do anything musical together,” says Dawn. “We were very aware that working closely and intimately on artistic endeavors is a dangerous thing to put a relationship through. Even though we both knew that we were musical and loved that about each other, we were extremely reticent about working on it together.”
Those cautious first steps towards the musical partnership that would become Pomplamoose were seemingly the only tentative ones the pair would ever take. Since then, pretty much every moment of the genre-defying Northern California-based twosome’s six-year history has been marked by boldness. They carved a singular path—rejecting major label offers, eschewing constant tours—and built up a massive following across social media with handcrafted songs and videos that showcased their bubbling chemistry and multi-instrumental chops while simultaneously tapping into the Internet’s thirst for viral content.
The band has not only blazed a trail for free-media artists, but they also had a blast in the process. “One label that we definitely apply to our music is ‘fun,’” says Dawn, 27, on the phone from the couple’s home in Sonoma two days after completing their first tour in three years. “We have intentionally kept Pomplamoose very light and fun.” (Pomplamoose’s music is an unclassifiable mix of pop, alternative rock, jazz, soul, hip-hop, and pretty much anything else they have on hand.)
Actually for Conte, who has a passionate aversion to labeling, that may be a bit too much categorization for his liking. “We may stray away from fun, but even then we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Conte, 30. “Really if there is a single common thread in all of Pomplamoose, it’s trying new things. My single greatest fear is getting to the studio next week and doing something we have done before, or in the same way that we have already done it.” Adds Dawn, “Changing things up makes us happy.”
So, apparently, does changing how people make art over the Internet.
In 2009, after sinking $10,000 into a music video, Conte found himself staring into the financial abyss that has perplexed every artist, viral or otherwise. “I knew it was going to get at least 250,000 views and that that would generate me $18 of ad income [on YouTube],” says Conte. “I simply couldn't believe or accept that. I felt my contribution to the world and to my listeners was worth more than $18. It felt fucked up.”
So Conte conceived of a solution: what if you built a website that connected potential patrons to content creators? He called his college roommate, Sam Yam, who immediately got to coding; within months, their website, Patreon, was launched. “There was no current site that could do what I wanted to do, which was to accept subscription-type payments from people,” says Conte, who along with Dawn and their roommate, was the first creator to sign up for Patreon, “Immediately after conceiving it, I realized that it was something that all my friends wanted, too. It could be a homepage for every creator.”
Conte, who serves as Patreon CEO (relegating his Pomplamoose work to weekends, a restriction that Dawn feels has only aided the band’s focus), has seen the company grow to more than 125,000 patrons pledging over a million dollars to creators monthly. “There are so many genres that I was previously unaware of,” says Conte, whose startup has not just become the preferred venue for YouTubers, but also video game reviewers, membership organizations, and athletes looking for creative ways to get donations for their charities. “It has been extraordinary to see it take off.”
Pomplamoose—their name is an odd Americanization of the French word for grapefruit— has had an equally startling rise since they first started recording original video songs in Conte’s childhood bedroom. The band gained national attention in 2009 when they released their cover of “Single Ladies” on YouTube four days after Taylor Swift beat Beyoncé for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards (much to Kanye West’s chagrin). Their record started selling on iTunes, and by that Christmas they were featured in Hyundai ads singing holiday songs in the same quirky style of their YouTube videos.
While the commercials gave the pair a once unimaginable level of exposure, they also brought Pomplamoose some blowback. On their home turf of YouTube, commenters took issue with the ads’ ubiquitousness and what they felt was cloying cheeriness. The experience left them sanguine about the sometimes vitriolic opinions of strangers on the Internet. “Comments are and aren’t important to us,” says Dawn, who in addition to being lead singer and bass player in Pomplamoose is also their manager. “They can be a really cool way to interact with your fan base. But a lot of our fans, most of them in fact, never comment. Those people still come to shows and buy records, they just don’t feel the need to be really vocal about it. It is helpful to keep that in mind. Comments that you see are not the voice of the majority.”
Conte, whose girlfriend and bandmate calls him the band’s “visionary,” sees the positive side of inciting passion, no matter what shape it comes in. “It does matter to me that people don't like Pomplamoose, but at the same time a lot of my very favorite artists have grown a certain kind of polarized public appeal,” he says. “The way I have been thinking about things recently is in feelings and facts. To state that a lot of people don't like Pomplamoose is a fact. But that Pomplamoose also makes a lot of people happy is also a fact. That’s enough for me.”