When Ryan Oakes gave up his sports scholarships to pursue a career in music, everyone told him he was “crazy”. In his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia people didn’t do music, they became doctors or got a corporate office job – but Ryan always knew he was destined for more.
“They thought I was embarrassing myself,” recalls the 27-year-old alt-rock musician. “People were mean when I first got started. I once walked into a classroom at high school, and there was a poll on the board – it said: ‘Is Ryan’s music good?’ and everyone had voted ‘No’.”
It only made him work 10 times harder to prove them wrong, and he did. Exactly 10 years after putting out his first track, this talented creator has recorded over 200 songs – releasing four EPs and four albums in the last three years alone – boasts 1.5M monthly listeners on Spotify, and more than 300M streams, all whilst being a completely independent artist.
Part of Ryan’s success so far is down to his knack for mixing genres. Most recent EP The American Dream is the perfect blend of rap and pop-punk, with his love for the latter beginning in childhood when, aged just 10, his band performed Fall Out Boy songs at their school’s graduation party.
But Ryan is a rap artist at heart. It was NF that inspired him to write the raw, vulnerable tracks his fans gravitate towards due to their relatability (he lyricizes about everything from mental health, to abusive relationships, to struggling to fit in growing up), and it was freestyling ‘frat rap’ at parties that led to him actually making music. After a friend suggested he put out a mixtape, 17-year-old Ryan bought a 30-dollar microphone, put a sock over it, and began recording in his mum’s closet.
He kept creating throughout college, too, where he was studying Health and Human Performance. “I was going to my classes,” he remembers, “working a job to pay for beats, then coming home, recording every night and getting just four hours of sleep… for like a year.”
He later realized a “real job” wasn’t for him (whilst working as an apprentice personal trainer to NFL players) and flew to LA with nothing but a suitcase, unwavering confidence and enough money to tide him over for three months.
Just one week later, Drinking About You inexplicably blew up on Spotify, became his biggest hit to date (it currently has 40M plays on Spotify) and has been one of the tracks funding his career ever since.
What sets Ryan apart from other artists is his tenaciousness, and refusal to give up, not only when friends were telling him he wasn’t good enough, but industry execs as well.
“For 10 years record labels were telling me my music wasn’t good enough,” he says. “And I was like, ‘It is though.’ So I put it out myself, figured out how to market it, and here we are, with streaming numbers a lot of record labels can’t get. My work ethic sets me apart by miles.”
Having only just taken on a manager this year, everything up until this point Ryan learnt at ‘YouTube college’. He’s as autodidactic as they come.
“I genuinely learned more from YouTube than my degree,” he says. “From how to record a song in your own home, to how to run Facebook ads… I would just search whatever I needed and dive in for a few hours, take some notes, and just see what works and what doesn’t.”
One thing Ryan learnt from his many hours of research, is streaming sites favor prolific creators who post regularly, so he became one. Releasing one song a week helped him grow his audience initially, but now he has a dedicated fan base, he drops one new track every four weeks. Once released, the songs come together to form an EP. His second planned release for 2022 is due to begin releasing in August/September and, understandably, acts as a huge “middle finger to the music industry”.
While still fully independent, Ryan has begun experimenting with catalogue leasing, with a distro deal set up to release the seven tracks on the forthcoming EP but also revisit and work select songs from his catalogue.
“It’s like investing in a stock,” he explains. “If you believe the stock – the song’s streaming numbers – are gonna go up, you give the person an advance. You’re basically just betting on them to blow up, which is cool.”
With the healthy advance, he plans to shoot his “coolest” videos to date, spend more time in the studio, tour the US in the fall, and keep getting bigger and better.
“My mission is to just be the best artist I can be,” he explains. “And the end goal is to see how far I can take it independently, compete with labels and have a career as a thriving musician. I would love to drop my own label one day and show people who aren’t given a chance by the music industry exactly how I did it…”