Playlists At Work: Huron John
After boosts from key placements, the genre-defying DIY artist seeks longevity.
In this series, we talk to artists about their experiences pitching music for playlist consideration via Spotify For Artists (learn how right here), and how landing on them has affected their music career.
When Belmont University student John Conradi saw his 2019 song “Friendzone” on New Music Friday—one of Spotify’s most popular playlists, with 3.7 million followers and counting—he was sure it was a mistake. “I woke up in the dorm and my friend was like, ‘Yo, look at your phone. Is that a glitch?’ I thought someone must have pushed the wrong button, like, Somebody’s going to get in trouble for this, you know?” he says.
At the time, the genre-blending, multi-talented Chicago artist, who records and performs as Huron John, had about 3,000 listeners a month. He had pitched the song through Spotify’s New Music Pitch program. “It felt like a very direct and legitimate way to get your stuff actually heard by curators,” he says. “There’s no price tag, no ‘catch.’ I loved the accessibility of the concept.” Suddenly his first official single—“some goofy kind of juvenile bedroom-type stuff,” he describes it—was sitting next to artists as massive as Future. “I always thought you could only get on platforms like this if you’re already ‘a thing,’” he adds. “I wasn’t a thing. Nobody really cared except people that I knew in real life.”
Now, the number of people who do actually care about Huron John—whose name is a reference to the Great Lake he grew up near—continues to grow exponentially. His songs have landed on myriad playlists: Bedroom Pop, Lorem (where he occupied the cover image for a few weeks), POLLEN, Fresh Finds, All New Indie, idk., Front Left, and again on New Music Friday. Nearly every track from his 2020 debut album, Apocalypse Wow, has been featured on an editorially curated Spotify mix, a rare feat for an up-and-comer.
That his music sits comfortably among hip-hop hits, pop cuts, and underground indie experiments points to John’s omnivorous musical appetite. For influences, he cites ’70s jazz-funk, Steely Dan, ’80s punk, Stereolab, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tame Impala, Death Grips, and Tyler, The Creator, who gets a shout-out on Apocalypse Wow tracks “Death by Flying Saucer” and “Andy.”
“I’ve always been into those people that have created their own universe,” he says of the IGOR mastermind. “You can tell that everything—the ideas, production, songwriting, cover art, music videos, merch, whatever—is coming authentically from them.”
Omnivorous from day one
This ambition to control all these aspects and keep it DIY stems from John’s growth as a musician. He picked up every instrument he could lay his hands on as a kid and turned to production at age 13 after discovering Tyler, The Creator’s Wolf in 2013. “I instantly fell in love. It opened up a whole new musical world for me,” he says. “It was this huge mash-up of all these different sounds: hard-hitting drums, R&B breakbeats, guitar, piano, strings, and the most beautiful jazz chords on top of it.”
That moment inspired him to invest in synths, start making beats, and eventually write, record, mix, and master his own tracks, with their genre-defying sounds and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that run like unabashed diary entries. “Doesn't it piss you off when you like someone/And they still call you buddy?/When you try to flirt and they say/’Oh you're a good friend, you're so funny,’” he deadpan raps on “Friendzone” over a plunky, lo-fi, electro-pop groove.
On Apocalypse Wow, he discusses random topics like longing for the simplicities of a flip phone, but gets also gets deeper into his emotions and anxieties, ruminating on a painful breakup, the costs of higher education, being a bad friend, the death of Mac Miller, and the consequences of gaining followers while losing one’s sanity. His time-stamped nostalgia—channeled through a breezy blend of hip-hop, electro-R&B, indie pop, psych-rock, and soft jazz—is meant to fuel the listeners’ too. “It’s like a sampler of all your favorite genres and the lyrics are thoughts you’ve had but never said out loud,” he explains.
A jack of all trades, John creates his own cover art and collage-style videos, designs his own merch, and is planning a magazine to accompany Apocalypse Wow that includes photos, sketches, and behind-the-scenes details about each song. “I wanted to use it as a sort of page-by-page time capsule for the whole project,” he explains. “My plan is to create a magazine to go with each one of my projects as another element to bring the music into a more physical medium rather than just something traveling from speakers-to-ears or screen-to-eyes.”
At this point, maintaining creative control of his career is most crucial for John, especially with record labels doing their best to woo him. “You’re constantly in attack mode,” he admits. “I'm always thinking, ‘I’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. How am I interacting with fans in a unique way? How am I displaying my music in a unique way? How am I going to make it seem more personal? How am I going to keep my music on the cutting edge and not alienate old listeners while simultaneously attracting new ones?’ It's this constant laundry list of stuff that you’re at war with internally.”
Mostly, John is aiming for longevity. “Spotify has played a role in reaffirming that my art is not just some kid making music in his dorm room,” he says. “It's not really about chasing the massive hit. I want people to still be listening to a certain album I make [after] six or seven years. I want people to make memories to the music and have that music define eras of their life, just like my favorite albums have defined eras of mine.”