Meet the ambitious musician from the suburbs who's built an online audience 200,000 strong.
Despite the musical infatuation, White was by all accounts a very quiet, timid boy. “He had a small circle of friends, but he was not someone who would walk in and say, ‘Hey, look at me!’” Dorothy says. “But when it came to performing, it used to amaze me how this introverted boy, put him in front of an audience and he would sing.”
Elementary school administrators thought he might be autistic—a suspicion fueled in part by White’s precocious talent at the piano. “It was the only thing I was ever good at,” he laughs. “I boxed and played baseball until 10th grade. I was good at hitting, but I sucked at everything else.”
High school found White struggling with depression and emerging signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. By that point, he was taking lessons in both guitar and piano, and spent hours bottled up in his room, jotting down melodies and playing along with his favorite records. “I was kind of a ghost. But when I came home, all I had to do was listen to music. I suddenly felt better. There were a few albums that spoke to me and didn’t make me feel like a loser anymore.”
In the years since, he’s gained confidence and shed that shy demeanor, but White’s depression hasn’t totally gone away—a fact that he thinks fuels his creativity. And the OCD is even worse than it used to be. White is fixated on the number four and is utterly terrified of odd numbers. “I get this feeling,” he says, “like if I’m on an odd number on anything—if I’m in the car and the volume level is on 27—that something bad is going to happen. It’s insane. There’s no connection at all. Even at the gas pump, it has to be $30.04.”
White’s self-awareness about his mental health helps shed light on his academic career after graduating from Nazareth High in 1998: Over the next decade, he obtained degrees from Northampton Community College, East Stroudsburg University and Shippensburg University, where he earned a master’s degree in psychological science—all while trying to break into the music business. White’s academic background gives him some authority when assessing his OCD, which he believes may be a “coping mechanism, that things aren’t always perfect, and I’m facing an uphill battle.”
He also attributes much of his recent musical growth to this continued interest in studying psychology. “Songwriting is something that you create from your head,” he reasons. “If I can figure out how my own mind works, I may have a better song to write. It was a different way of figuring out how to extract the material. And I think it did have an effect, because I wrote some of my best stuff after I had learned about how the human brain works and functions.”
Over the past six or seven years, White’s career has seen quite a few ups and downs. He recorded a demo, “Baby’s Breath,” that was included in a 2006 compilation by the Australian record label Bamboo Bird Records. He also made it to the second round of American Idol in 2006, although he estimates he was only onscreen for “literally three seconds.” That was a big learning experience; White says the Idol tryouts forced him to face the reality that the industry “wasn’t all about the music ... there were people dressed as Wookies from Star Wars. Most of them were sent through [to the next round] to be humiliated.”
White played with several bands in Pennsylvania until recently—most notably alt-rockers KineticBlu, with whom he recorded the song “September.” That track was featured in 2009 on MySpace (remember MySpace?) to the tune of a million web hits: a key moment in the songwriter’s audience development.
In April of 2012, White released his first solo EP, Four Songs. It sold really well: 38,000 copies, mostly digital downloads. He’s received plenty of local media around eastern and central Pennsylvania, and in November played live on CBS-3’s Talk Philly. Still—when he says playing SNL is one of his objectives for this year, it’s hard not to have the knee-jerk response that he’s either incredibly naïve or brilliantly ballsy.
Maybe he’s a little bit of both.
That White has been able to build an audience of hundreds of thousands, with absolutely no support from a label, is indicative of the sea change in the music industry over the past decade. It’s also indicative of how good his manager, Jenna Gross, really is—specifically, when it comes to navigating the murky, ever-changing tides of social media.
White and Gross met in the summer of 2010 at a charity event White was playing. She started handling his social media in early 2011, as she remembers, because he was having trouble balancing his promotional duties with his musical ones. “I ended up liking it a lot—he’s great to bounce creative ideas around with,” says Gross, who’s worked in marketing for the past 10 years, mostly for restaurants and bars.
“One of the most important things in growing any social media presence,” she says, “is giving—and knowing what your fans want to hear, and catering to what they want, and not just self-promoting all the time. Figuring out what ... kind of posts they respond most to and optimizing your response. I see a lot of self-promoting. But to constantly promote yourself isn’t what social media is about. It’s about having conversation.” In practice, that’s why you’ll see White posting on Facebook about the Eagles, Stevie Wonder and the late Paul Walker (White’s a big racing fan).
There’s no hard science to it, she notes; it’s difficult to assess the degree to which White’s large social audience contributes to his record sales or concert attendance.
Gross, who’s never worked for a musician before, seems coy when talking about her strategies for growing a fan base. She says that at this stage of White’s career, “nothing that we do is a huge success. A bunch of little steps.” Perhaps, as a relative newcomer to the industry, she doesn’t realize just how coveted a televised performance on a major network affiliate is. Or selling tens of thousands of copies of a four-song EP with no label backing.
Or maybe she, like White himself, really does simply believe that the sky is the limit—that there are better things to come. That would explain her seemingly farfetched reply to a question about her 2014 goal: playing Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “Anything could happen,” Gross says with a laugh. “We have a whole year. It’s only January.”
Her optimism isn’t lost on White, who’s keenly aware of the complicated, mixed blessing that is the Internet age of professional musicianship. “There are some things I couldn’t do ten, fifteen years ago,” he says. “The gatekeeper was there saying, ‘No, you’re not good enough.’” He makes sure he’s being clear: “The gatekeeper was a bunch of major labels.” Stated that baldly, it maybe sounds a little obvious. But then, so do some of the catchiest songs of all time—so Jordan White may just be on the right track.
PW's Music Issue 2014