Artist turns online popularity into an album deal

Adam Young had never seen the ocean with his own eyes, but that didn’t stop him from writing and recording an album called Ocean Eyes.

MINNEAPOLIS — Adam Young had never seen the ocean with his own eyes, but that didn’t stop him from writing and recording an album called Ocean Eyes.

The CD cover’s marine and coastal imagery gives no hint that Young — who performs under the moniker Owl City — recorded the whole thing in the basement of his parents’ house in Owatonna, a small Minnesota city about 95 kilometres south of Minneapolis.

“I wrote songs about places I’d never been because I’d never been there,” Young said of his breakout album. “That to me is the most wonderful reason in the world to write about a given thing — the unexperienced, the great unknown.”

For Young, who has leapt from the basement to the music charts, the list of things he never thought he’d experience is shrinking fast.

After cultivating a fan base by posting ringtone-ready electro-pop songs on MySpace and selling about 115,000 single-song downloads on iTunes, Young landed a deal with Universal Records, which has artists such as Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne and Kanye West.

Ocean Eyes has sold nearly 100,000 copies since its July 28 release. Owl City songs are climbing the U.S. Top 40 and alternative music charts, the video for Fireflies is in rotation on VH1 and MTV, and recent nightclub and theatre shows have sold out in across the U.S.

“Never in a million years was this where I imagined myself going,” said Young, 23. “It’s been surreal, to say the least.”

Earnest and a little awkward, the self-effacing Young makes an unlikely candidate for a pop star. But he’s an example of success in the post-Internet music business because he transformed online popularity into money in the bank.

“At the end of the day, all that online buzz means nothing if no one is buying the music, the T-shirts, the tickets,” said Steve Bursky, Young’s manager. “It’s great if he’s got a million friends on MySpace, but what separated Adam from many other online success stories is that the groundswell is translating into commerce.”

As a kid, the only child of a mechanic and a schoolteacher fantasized about music stardom. But he realized after stints in a couple teenage bands that for him, music was a solo act.

A few years later Young was in community college and working at a soda bottling factory, and he decided to give the solo thing a try.

“I was working a job I hated, just kind of a dead-end feeling,” Young recalled. He started fooling around with music software, and noticed that musicians were winning fans through social-networking sites.

Young put songs on MySpace and up for sale on iTunes, and quickly cultivated a following. He’s upfront about his strong Baptist faith, but avoided defining himself as a Christian recording artist. His lyrics never veer anywhere near objectionable territory, making Young a safe bet for parents (and perhaps why Rolling Stone’s reviewer dubbed the music “serious mush.”)

Aurora Simar, a 15-year-old from St. Paul who sat waiting outside a club before Young’s recent Minneapolis show, said she started listening to him about a year ago..

“He dances at his shows, and then he’ll sing into the mike and then he dances some more,” Simar said. “It’s like, he’s so silly. It just makes me like him.”

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