03: Tori Kelly – How To Cultivate Your Own Fan Base

Creativity, Full Time Hustler, Hobbyist, Mindset, Podcast, Seasoned Professional

Hey guys, welcome back to another episode of ONKEN RADIO, the podcast where I bring you inspiring guests to dive underneath the hood of the creative entrepreneur lifestyle to bridge the gap between art, commerce, and inspiration. 

Do you have big dreams for your creative career, but you’re not sure where to start? My guest today knows all about starting from the ground up, and you’re not going to want to miss her journey to becoming a musical sensation. 

Today, I have the pleasure of bringing you one of the most talented musicians in the business: Tori Kelly. There are very few musicians that I could just sit back and listen to for hours on end, but Tori is definitely one of them. The first time I heard her perform live, I was completely mesmerized. 

On top of her musical talent, Tori also has some great advice for developing your creative career and drawing inspiration for your art, so let’s get into it!

Who Is Tori Kelly?

Tori Kelly is an incredible singer-songwriter currently on the rise toward immense success and acclaim. If you haven’t already heard her voice, you have got to check out her performance of “Rocket” on my show. Her voice is absolutely captivating, and I never get tired of hearing it. It’s no wonder how she’s accumulated such a wide fan base over the years. 

Tori started her music career at a young age. She was featured on the shows Star Search and America’s Most Talented Kids and was signed with the record label Geffen Records when she was only 12. After working with the company for over a year without releasing an album or an extended play (a.k.a an EP), Tori split with the label. 

Tori’s split turned out to be a great move for developing her creativity. After claiming her independence, she discovered her passion for writing her own songs: 

“That’s like when I discovered songwriting because now I had something to say. … I was bummed, but at the same time now I had … a little bit of hurt to be able to write a song. … It’s so cliché, but literally everything happens for a reason. And that was a really defining moment in my career.”
Tori Kelly

Since her split with Geffen Records, Tori has released two successful EP — one self-released EP and one through Capitol Records — and has cultivated a growing following through social media. After recording this episode of ONKEN RADIO, Tori went on to release three studio albums and was featured in the film Sing. Tori also won two Grammy awards and a Billboard Music Award for her album Hiding Place

Whether or not you’re a creative professional, you’re not going to want to miss Tori’s journey and what she’s learned in her rise to stardom. Her advice for living in the moment and being passionate about what you do is something that we should all strive for!

When I first heard Tori’s voice, I was mesmerized and I still am. I have a very short attention span with singer-songwriters, but Tori is one that I could listen to for hours. You’ll get to hear her sing an exclusive little diddy on today’s episode!

Developing a Fan Base

Tori’s musical career largely began on social media. Even though she had been previously signed with Geffen Records, she started from the ground up after leaving the company. She started accumulating listeners through posting song covers on Myspace and YouTube.

“It didn’t get crazy amount of views. It was like a slow build, but something about being able to create something. And even though it wasn’t my own song, just being able to post something that I did and kind of that sense of freedom, like I could do this, and people are actually going to watch it.”
Tori Kelly

Tori felt empowered by drawing in listeners through social media rather than a record label. This time around, everything was in her control, and while the numbers were small at first, the views kept growing. She slowly developed a social media following:

“That kind of started the chain of gaining these YouTube followers and subscribers. And then that led to people finding my Twitter, and all of a sudden, I had this handful of people online. … I wanted to utilize that as best I could. Then something kind of clicked in me. … Like in a way, social media was like my record label because I was kind of promoting myself through it.”
Tori Kelly

Tori became a viral sensation with her cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You.” Soon after, she performed her first solo show at a small coffee shop. 

“I think it was like 75 people fit in there, and I could not get over that that many people wanted to see me live. … That’s kind of when I remember thinking like, ‘I could do this.’… I got like a whole other type of fire inside of me. I was like, ‘Okay, this feels right.'”
Tori Kelly

The iconic manager Scooter Braun discovered Tori at her first show and eventually signed her with Capitol Records. Scooter actually attended the show because someone forwarded him Tori’s cover of “Thinkin Bout You.” 

After her success with cover songs, Tori wrote and recorded her first EP from her bedroom. The EP titled Handmade Songs by Tori Kelly became so immensely successful that it reached the Top 10 Pop Albums list on iTunes. 

To this day, Tori continues to attribute her success to social media. She pointed out how social media creates a personal connection between artists and fans:

“I think social media had a huge part in it. … They feel like they’re on the journey with you. Like they feel like they’re right next to you. … Not only do people want to feel connected to your music, but they want to feel connected to you as a person too. Like I want people to know that I’m a real human and not just someone up there on stage who’s untouchable. … I want them to feel like we can just hang out, which it does.”
Tori Kelly

Tori became incredibly successful by following her passion and never giving up. Even though she had the setback of parting with her original record label, Tori continued following her dreams and used the tools at her disposal to create something amazing and built a creative career out of it through social media. 

How can you be using the tools at your disposal to advance your creative career? Maybe you need to expand your viewers or customers through social media apps like Instagram, Twitter, or even Snapchat! There are so many modern-day tools at your disposal that you can use to promote yourself and your work.

Expressing Yourself Through Art and Songwriting 

Tori and I also dove deep into discussing the creative process and how it relates to personal experiences and the emotions felt in those memories: 

“I think the amazing thing about writing your own stuff is it becomes real for you all over again like whatever emotion I was feeling when I wrote a certain song. When I’m on stage singing it live and seeing other people sing it too, it’s almost like you go back into that emotion.”
Tori Kelly

The art you create bridges the divide between what you’re currently feeling and how you felt when you created your art. It’s a beautiful way to re-experience memories and share those experiences with others.

Tori also noted that the inspiration for your art doesn’t have to be from your own experiences:

“You can even write about a friend’s experience, and try to find something in that or like a story that you don’t even relate to, but you’re just trying to find something in it to grab onto. And then it’s like, ‘Okay, now it’s mine,’ and then you can write about it. So there [are] so many different angles that you can approach [songwriting]. And that’s what’s really exciting.”

A theme that I absolutely love in Tori’s music is the importance of living in the moment. She detailed how her song “Confetti” is all about appreciating the current moment rather than waiting for the future to be happy:    

“I started thinking of all my goals and where I wanted to be and how I was going to get there. And I just kept thinking I can’t look at those goals and think, ‘Oh, if I get that, then I’ll be happy.’… I feel like so many people have that mentality. … The song is just about not waiting for those things to happen, but to live in the moment. … And you find the happiness in the moment you’re in right now.”
Tori Kelly

Tori is so right. You need to appreciate where you are right now. Don’t think that you’ll be happier in the future. Focus on being happy in this current moment!

Tori also stressed the importance of being passionate about what you’re creating:

“I think of why I really love to do it. … It all leads down to like your true passion, and I’m really doing it to make art and to express myself, and the fact that there’s people out there who can relate to what I’m saying, just makes it even more awesome.” 
Tori Kelly

Are you passionate about your art? A major key to being successful is to be truly passionate about your craft. If you don’t love what you do, it’ll just seem like another job rather than living your dream.  

Getting Your Art Out There Takes Baby Steps 

I asked Tori to advise how people can get their art out to the world and how they can grow their audience. She stressed the importance of taking your creative career one step at a time: 

“For me, it was always baby steps, you know? And the back of my head, of course, I knew my big goals. … but for where I was at that moment, I had to take all the resources that I had and just go, and at the time it was like, YouTube was all I had. So I just did it.”
Tori Kelly

Don’t get too caught up in focusing on the big picture. Focus on the steps that you can do right now to advance your creative career. Maybe that involves starting a photography Instagram or a YouTube channel where you host your creative content.

Tori also had advice specifically for musicians wanting to develop their careers: 

“The internet is kind of like our life. … Social media played a huge part in how I got to where I am now. … Just start posting videos. … Pick up an instrument and teach yourself how to play and start with covers because that’s what’s easiest. And then try writing a song, and see what happens, and just post, post, post, like post videos plus videos. … You gotta take each step at a time.”
Tori Kelly

Like every creative alchemist, you need to take your artistic career one baby step at a time. Don’t get too caught up in your dream of selling out huge venues or touring the world — focus on what steps you can do right now and be happy with what you’re doing creatively. 

Be a Creative Alchemist with Tori Kelly 

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens of which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes, but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemical processes.

Tori Kelly is the perfect example of a Creative Alchemist, and it was such a pleasure to talk to her. Her passion for music and love for her supporters is absolutely inspiring. If you want to hear more about Tori’s journey and more advice for making it in the music industry, check out the full episode! 

My final question for Tori was what “live inspiration” means to her, and her answer was something that, as creators, we should all be striving for: 

“I think to live out inspiration is what I want to do. Like that’s the main purpose of why I even want this career of being a musician is to be able to inspire people on a daily basis. … When someone comes up to me and says how I’ve inspired them, I would hope that they can take that and then inspire someone else after that. … So I think to live inspiration, that’s the whole point of doing this.”
Tori Kelly

Definitely keep up with Tori Kelly and check out her music on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook!

And if you felt inspired by this episode, share it on Instagram and tag me, @nickonken, and Tori Kelly, @torikelly. Also, if you find my podcast helpful, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. I appreciate each and every one of your reviews, and they help the podcast grow and reach more creative entrepreneurs like you! 

Thank you so much for checking out this episode. I hope it inspires you to use your resources to take baby steps towards your creative goals and be happy in this moment of your life!

Talk to you guys soon —

Nick Onken

In This Show We Discuss:

  • How Tori came up as a singer, songwriter, and guitar/piano player
  • The dream of getting singed by a label…. not such a dream
  • How she grew her own revolutionary record label
  • Finding the balance between publishing covers and original songs
  • About the first concert where she realized, “I can do this…”
  • How to cultivate a hardcore fan base
  • The life events that shaped Tori’s successful songwriting career
  • How she started working with Scooter Braun
  • Strategies for hitting top 10 in iTunes without a record label
  • Lessons from a successful new media EP launch
  • Opening up to trusting a production team and another songwriter
  • On the power of declaration and the audacious grand vision of Tori
  • What it’s like playing Madison Square Garden
  • Going deep with the role of passion in creative inspiration
  • Tori’s advice for someone trying to get somewhere with their music
  • Where Tori gets her inspiration


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