NEW YORK — If you’re a fan of singer-songwriter Jacob Whitesides and wondering when he next tours, who’s joining him on the road, how much tickets will cost and even the price of T-shirts, turn to one guy — Jacob Whitesides.
The Tennessee-bred rising star who started out posting simple covers on YouTube has refused to sign a traditional record deal and has created his own label, which he heads. He might be only 18 but the buck stops with him.
“I want to be able to have a say in that stuff,” he says. “It’s stressful and it’s very exhausting being a part of all of that. My email is constantly full and I’m constantly being called, like, ‘We need your decision on this.’ I get so mad whenever they approve something without asking me.”
That fiercely independent spirit has led Whitesides to build a grassroots social media following, put out two EPs and now a debut album, “Why?” that landed atop the iTunes singer-songwriting chart and earned him a spot on the “Today” show.
The 13 songs showcase Whitesides’ skill at heartfelt, romantic and lyrical songs, in the vein of Ed Sheeran and John Mayer. He wrote the album following his second European tour and in the midst of heartache during a breakup with musician Bea Miller.
“It was a very stressful time and a lot of the stress leaked over into my relationship, which was very difficult for me to handle,” he said. “I wasn’t making music for anyone but myself. I was making music that I thoroughly enjoyed.”
The songs range from the infectious “Focus” and flirty “Levitate” to the R&B-tinged and first single “Lovesick.” But Whitesides isn’t interested in a monster breakthrough single.
“I feel like a hit will come whenever it does but I don’t want to sit in a studio trying to figure out the magic formula and mixing spices and trying to come up with the perfect song.”
Whitesides’ co-writer David Spencer has cheered as the young artist charts his own course. “He’s always wanted to be a singer-songwriter, not a pop star, so the music has always been important and that’s really led all of his decisions,” said Spencer.
Whitesides’ musician-dad took him — forced is more like it — to a bluegrass festival in east Tennessee when he was 13 that changed his life. One of the bands was The Steeldrivers, led by Chris Stapleton, which left him in tears.
He begged to get his first guitar and his dad taught him some chords. Soon, Whitesides was joining his father onstage in bars and clubs. That gave him the confidence to sit in his room, turn on a camera and make music to post online.
His first videos would get 400 views and maybe 12 comments and Whitesides would contact those 12 people. “I still do that to this day. Although the views have gone up and the comments have gone up, I never drop a project and disappear,” he said.
Whitesides’ first EP, “A Piece of Me,” landed in the Top 10 on the iTunes Top Albums chart and he was soon on the move. He did two sold-out tours without any promotion, including having 400 fans waiting for him when he landed at the Copenhagen airport. He now has 400,000 YouTube subscribers, 2.1 million Twitter followers and 1.6 million Facebook likes.
The music industry took notice but Whitesides was in no hurry. He had been invited multiple times to audition for “The X Factor” but thought he wasn’t ready. When he finally caved, he got through an early round and took his first plane ride to the next round. He didn’t go further but learned a lot. He also learned what he didn’t want his career to look like.
“I noticed nine times out of 10 that the artist who made it far in the show and gained a following would kind of be forced into a major deal. Without any original music, they were signed to a record deal. I was like, ‘That’s odd. That’s really weird to me.'”
Even his ex-girlfriend, whom he met at “X Factor” and signed a major record deal after going further than Whiteside, was miserable. So he created his own label — Double U Records, partnering with BMG.
“The control game has just been changed. The artist has a lot more control than the label, which is special. I feel like the fans crave that. I feel like they can tell when it’s not genuine,” he said.