Bon Iver (known to his friends as Justin Vernon) is a perfect example of how the music industry has changed, and how you don’t need the backing of a major label to find your audience these days.
Vernon’s journey as Bon Iver began with a self-recorded set of songs during a 4-month stint alone in a log cabin in Wisconsin. This year, with his self-titled sophomore record, Bon Iver was nominated for four Grammy Awards, two of which he won (Best New Artist, Best Alternative Record). By all standards, Bon Iver is an international success.
How did this happen? After all, Vernon is not an “industry insider” by any definition. Nor is Bon Iver really a household name—not yet, anyway. Even during the Grammy nominations, Nicki Minaj mis-pronounced the name as “Bahn EYE-ver.” (The correct pronunciation is more like “Bone Ee-VEHR.” It’s French—sort of.) But Vernon’s melancholy falsetto voice and haunting musical arrangements have apparently struck a nerve in the souls of a lot of people, apparently earning the respect of the Recording Academy, as well. There’s no getting around it: Bon Iver has come a long way, in a short time, from that log cabin in Wisconsin.
The beginning of Bon Iver’s journey is as captivating as the music itself. Vernon went to the log cabin built by his father, not actually with the intention of writing and recording a record, but to try and recover from a bout of mononucleosis, a broken relationship and the breakup of his band. It was a place to mourn and figure things out—and essentially it became a place of death and rebirth for him. The resulting album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is an unpolished recording filled with raw emotion. Without a major label to promote his music, Bon Iver turned to the blogosphere to spread the word about his songs, which found their audience quickly. As a result, For Emma, Forever Ago sold a whopping 30,000 copies within the first three months of its official release.
Forgive the triteness, but the rest is history.
Bon Iver’s second full-length record (titled simply Bon Iver) is a more polished studio recording, but carries the same kind of honest emotion in its sound and lyric that won audiences over with the first record. The name “Bon Iver” translates to “good winter,” and in my opinion, the best time to listen to Bon Iver is on a snowy morning with a hot cup of coffee.
Today, Bon Iver is a Grammy winning artist. And by the way, Bon Iver is still not on a major label conglomerate—his records are released through indie label Jagjaguwar. Not a bad outcome for a talented soul who retreated to a log cabin to lick his wounds, and came out with a record.
Best of all, for the rest of us, Bon Iver is proof that you no longer have to have the permission of the industry bigwigs to become a success in this business. Make good and honest music, find your audience, and be yourself. That’s the lesson we can take away from Bon Iver’s rise to the top.