JT Boehme

Usually, artists are independent, maybe even for years, before they hit a certain level of success and then sign with a major label.

For Max Frost, he actually signed with Atlantic Records early on in his career, thanks to the success of his breakout single "White Lies." But apparently, it wasn't meant to be. Until recently, he was still on the Warner offshoot's roster. So recently, in fact, that as of this writing, his profile is still listed on the label's publicity page.

"I was living in a very old school world," he says, speaking with Variance ahead of the release of his new independent EP, Flying Machines, which is out Friday. "Even the record deal I signed with Atlantic was very old school. It was a deal that had happened before streaming was a thing—right before! We were worried about iTunes when I first signed."

He adds: "I signed to them when they had never even seen a show. I basically signed with them because 'White Lies' went viral, and then I put out a lot of music with them for a few years. And all of a sudden, I'm out of this very old school label world and now I'm using cryptocurrency to fund my EP, and I'm marketing on TikTok. The evolution has happened fast."

While it seems a number of artists are scrapping their past label deals in recent years (and the pandemic probably only added to the shakeups and uncertainty), Frost says his experience is too fresh. But he says it's very "freeing."

"If there's artwork I like, I can say, 'Alright, that's the cover art. That's the single. This is the music,'" he explains. "Instead of it being like passing a bill through Congress. I can say, 'That's the song. Let's do it!'"

Frost says with this new music, he has allowed himself to experiment more and be "a little more left" than in the past. "It's more 'live,'" he says. "And there's a lot more organic instrumentation than anything I've done before. In the pandemic, you sort of have time to reflect on your life, and the energy of the EP is definitely coming from this celebration of  youth and a celebration of my past ... in a way, it's also getting back to what I love, and why I love the art, and not caring about what people think."

But it's not just what others think which Frost has had to put aside. He's also had to adjust his own thoughts about the music industry and technology, pointing to the greatest example in TikTok, which he initially thought was useless.

"It's actually a vital thing," he says, referring to the app's omnipresence in culture and most definitely in the music industry. "I've seen changes happen in this business, but I've never seen something so sweeping as when this app reared its head and basically took over. I remember, it was like 2017, someone at the label sent me Musical.ly and they said, 'They're taking a few shots with this app. Would you use it?' I said, 'Sure.' I didn't really get it."

He continues: "I was like, 'So, it's this app where you lip sync to music.' I didn't understand. And then it kind of went away. And then suddenly I was hearing about TikTok, and my management sat me down and they were like, 'So, just an update for you, Max. This now runs the entire business and you are going to have to be on this thing.' And that would have been in 2019, right before the world exploded."

Frost says he slowly began playing around with the app, but it was when a TikTok of him zapping spiders with a large, electric fly swatter generated millions of views that he began to take notice, although immediately doubting how it might advance his actual career.

"TikTok is the most Andy Warhol thing that has ever existed," he insists. "It's literally the definition of, 'Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame.'"

Aubree Estrella

He compares the rise of TikTok to the surge of reality TV shows in the early 2000s, nodding to Paris Hilton's meteoric fame simply for being famous. 

"It's not that I love what you do, it's more just, 'I know your face because of technology,'" he says. "I don't quite know how to measure it yet with TikTok, but that kind of seems to be what's happening. Unless the algorithm or this machine that they've built is actually putting up your art in some way—if your art is going viral on it, that has a value. But these magical numbers out of nowhere, I'm not so sure about." 

While he continues to sort out his feelings on TikTok, it's worth noting, he seems to be having fun on the app, where he regularly posts mashup "covers" of unusual artist pairings (i.e. Pink Floyd covers Billie Eilish or Tame Impala covers Al Green). And his fans seem to be enjoying it as well.■