Metro — LONTALIUS doesn’t know how to succeed in the music industry.

Jun 25, 2024 Music

The technological innovations of the past three decades have disrupted almost every industry. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen new plans to almost completely dismantle Aotearoa’s television news and current affairs landscape, the bloody result of an industry finally coming to terms with the digitisation of platforms, the splintering of audiences and the subsequent loss of advertising revenue. If there’s any way in which the music industry is lucky, it’s that it was the victim of disruption at a similar scale relatively early in this technological era. 

It’s a distant memory now, but in the early 2000s, file sharing threatened to bankrupt the entire industry. If what seemed like the entire history of recorded music was going to be available 24/7 via free mp3s, sourced from readily accessible and easy-to-navigate file-sharing platforms, why would anyone ever pay for music again? Musicians were encouraged to ‘pivot’ to touring to make money, selling t-shirts instead of the more lucrative CDs of the past. Record labels would take their share through ‘360 deals’ giving them a cut of everything an artist made, instead of just a slice of their records. The industry apocalypse was, we all believed, imminent. 

How wrong we were. 

Twenty years later, after the completion of a global shift to streaming platforms, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s 2024 Global Music Report says the music industry worldwide is (at least in nominal terms) making more money than ever. And yet (anecdotally) many musicians are finding it harder than ever to make a living out of their art, and those who are managing to do so seem increasingly disheartened about what’s required.

Late last year, Duncan Greive wrote an article for The Spinoff about the “near-existential dread” among many in the local music industry. The story was centred on an interview with artist Erny Belle who had just released her second album, Not Your Cupid, on Flying Nun. She talked about her love of making music but increasing despondency about the slog of releasing an album, a deflating process after years of work on her art. She felt her life as a musician was as much about staring at her phone, marketing herself on social media, as it was about songwriting and performance. 

Her story was set alongside similar tales of woe — an uninspired Troy Kingi; the decline of local music journalism; criticism of New Zealand On Air’s funding model for music. The story’s lone voice of optimism was musician Eddie Johnston, better known as Lontalius or, to a slightly different audience, Race Banyon. 

“I see people stuck in ways I used to be stuck,” he tells me a few months later, “and I just want to say, ‘It’s not as hard as you think it is. It’s not as serious as you think it is. You don’t have to make those TikToks. They won’t change your life. Just make music and have fun.’ 

“I don’t believe the current landscape is as dark as people say it is. The way that social media has changed everything is pretty fucked, but the music hasn’t changed. Music is as good as it ever has been. Every couple of weeks I’ll hear something and go, ‘Wow, this is fucking incredible!’” 

Johnston is in a particularly inspired mood when I visit him in February at a small studio he shares in Stebbing Recording Centre on Jervois Rd. He’s just come back from Camp A Low Hum, a three-day free-range independent music festival in the hills of Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt, which had returned after a 10-year hiatus. “It’s really hard for me to talk about it without sounding like I’ve been to Burning Man,” he says. “But it was really emotional. Like, this is what it’s all about — we all just love music and want to come together and experience it without all the bullshit.”

The festival was something of a full-circle moment for Johnston, who grew up in Wellington and who, since the last Camp in 2014, had moved to Los Angeles to take his shot at the big time, and then, in 2020, moved to Auckland, where he’s been based ever since. Fellow Camp performer Grayson Gilmour had once visited Johnston’s intermediate and helped teach the school band. (“He was the first person I met who knew who Wilco was, outside of my dad,” Johnston says.) A year or so after that visit, A Low Hum’s Ian Jorgensen (aka Blink) booked Johnston’s first show when he was only 12 or 13. A year after that, Johnston first attended the festival. “I was 14 and sober and didn’t really have any friends and I just watched every band. Just because I loved it. 

“And it was the same being back there [this February], watching these bands I’d never heard of and being like, ‘This is fucking sick!’”

Johnston first started making music as Shipwreck, choosing Lontalius as a song title from a randomly chosen Wikipedia article. He had a MySpace page and a YouTube channel where he recorded covers to a webcam. He taught himself how to record and produce music on his cheap laptop and was soon recording songs almost every day. “I was a gay teenager who was obsessed with music and didn’t care about anything else,” he says. “I had friends at school and stuff, but I felt pretty different. And I was on Coldplay forums, making online friends — to be welcomed into a community of people, that changed my life. I knew there were all these people out there that cared about music as much as I did and I wasn’t alone in the world.”

Initially, he made both electronic music and sadder, more introspective guitar music under the one name, but when he started to book shows, he thought it’d be advantageous to separate the two. Race Banyon became the name for his electronic music, which found success (and bookings) before his guitar-oriented music took off online. “The New Zealand music industry does this thing where it just picks someone — you’re going to get all the opening slots and all the festival slots and that was me for a while,” he says. “My last year of high school, I was going up to Auckland every few weeks and doing all the summer festivals. Lontalius was just me writing my sad songs on the side. But through doing the covers, and SoundCloud becoming a real community, it just got more and more attention and at some point it just overtook.”

As a teenager, Johnston would record a cover after school, mix it and put it online after dinner and the next morning wake up to see who had commented on it. He was steeped in indie rock from a young age (his father had been a station manager at Wellington’s Radio Active) but had an intense love for pop music, especially rap and R’n’B. By merging the two, he developed a sound combining the market-tested melodic qualities of chart-topping songs with the sad sounds of a lonely white teenager singing over a droning Casio keyboard. “My initial idea was to just cover the hooks of rap songs — I really loved the melodic hooks of rap songs and I thought I could make it all sound really sad.”

Covering chart-topping songs quickly changed how Johnston approached his own songwriting, not just in terms of how the songs were written and made, but in their lyrical content. “I was an impressionable mind and covering a couple of pop songs a week changed my sense of melody and harmony pretty drastically,” he says. “I just loved all that music so much. Singing ‘Body Party’ — a very sexual song about a guy — singing that as a gay teenager was really validating and that led me to use male pronouns in my music as well, because of how good that felt.”

But the music he wrote and produced didn’t sound like the music he was learning from. As much as he tried not to, he was still basically making indie music. Johnston wanted to make pop music but didn’t know how. He couldn’t make a sparkling pop production on his secondhand Casio keyboard and his old laptop. The first song to bring him attention was ‘Gatorade’, a cover of the cult Swedish rapper Yung Lean, which was soon included on a Been Trill mixtape by Virgil Abloh (the polymathic fashion designer who’d go on to become artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton). Soon, Ryan Hemsworth started putting Johnston’s songs in his mixes and guest-appearing on another song, he was producing remixes for rising artists like Troye Sivan, and he was signed in 2015 to New York’s Partisan Records, home of artists like Idles and Laura Marling.

Signing with a label solidified Johnston’s growing ambition. “I wanted to graduate from being an internet artist to being a real one, with an album and instruments recorded in a studio,” he says. One of the demos for what would become his debut album, 2016’s I’ll Forget 17, was an unfinished song with one verse and one chorus called ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’. “I was trying to move away from just putting everything online because I was trying to make real songs and for some reason that one just never became anything else. And after I realised it wasn’t going to be on the album, I just put it online.”

It didn’t take off immediately, and there was no one share or celebrity shoutout that caused an immediate spike in plays, but over time, the song became a cult hit among sad teenagers around the world. There are bootlegged versions of it all over the internet. It’s currently approaching 100 million plays on Spotify, where it was uploaded only five years ago, a further five years and millions of plays after it was released. On YouTube you can play an hour-long video of the song on repeat (1.2 million views), the comments detailing how it helped people through dark times. “Ever just sit up at 4 am staring at the ceiling listening to a song like this and just think about life and how fucking sad and lonely you feel?” @Toast1121 commented six years ago. “I just laid in my bed and cried silently to this for 20 minutes. I really needed this. Thank you,” wrote @smalldarkfan. 

Johnston can’t read the comments — doing so would be too intense. “It’s equal parts fascinating and validating,” he says. “I could choose to be frustrated that this demo I made 10 years ago is my most popular song, but as a songwriter, you just want to make songs that connect with people and I made one that people really like. It’s different, but I always think about it, like, ‘Creep’ is always going to be Radiohead’s biggest song and nothing’s ever going to change that. 

“Most people who listen to it have no idea who I am. They don’t care. Of course, I wish 100 million people would listen to all my new music, too, but what are you going to do?”

The reason it took so long to put the song on Spotify in the first place was that Johnston’s label, his publisher and A&R thought that being tied to his old material would be detrimental to his new music. At the time, he was much more deferential to the received wisdom of music industry seniors. “I feel like I won the song lottery,” he says of the less-than-two-minute song that still pays his rent, even though (or perhaps because) he never got around to finishing it. “I got a song that worked and it has no signs of slowing down, so I will make the same amount of money for the next few years at least. And I’m very lucky, but it changed my entire perspective on the whole thing.” 

Johnston had a mutual break-up with Partisan Records in 2018, deciding he’d be better off releasing his music independently through distribution deals but without direct label involvement. “When I was signed and got all the press, and did all the things that people are so desperate for now, it didn’t change anything. It’s all nice stuff to have on your CV and it made people take me seriously in a traditional sense, but being in Fader magazine or whatever doesn’t pay my rent.”

Being an independent agent again changed the stakes — Johnston even told his publicists that their job wasn’t a real job. You’re just sending emails to a bunch of people, he told them, but this is my life. “If it doesn’t work, this is my money I’m spending,” he says. “I’m earning a living, but if I want to spend money, it’s my money, it’s not a label’s money, it’s not anyone else’s money. We always joke that if we just stopped doing stuff, I could have a deposit on a house, but I’m a freak and want to make music and have a career so I spend it.”

He still found himself questioning the received wisdom, even though his deal with the labels was now solely for distribution. They wanted to “spend a lot of money on marketing in America and do all this traditional label stuff”, he says. “And we did some of that and my albums have done fine, but now I don’t want to do that ever again. That’s one way of trying to make something that hits, that connects with people, but it’s never worked for me. 

“Last year, my realisation, putting out an album that I was really proud of [Life on the Edge of You], was that I let everybody else handle it. They all convinced me that the music is great, so we’re going to spend all this money and do all this stuff and it’s going to do really well. And I was like, ‘I don’t really believe you but, sure. We haven’t spent that much money on an album before but let’s do it!’ And they did it and none of it worked. I mean, people listened to it and liked it but none of the stuff moved the needle in a meaningful way. 

“It was a big wake-up call for me. I had a bit of a breakdown about it. Why am I wasting my life doing it? I’m an artist that likes making things. That’s the only thing that matters. The actual product can be anything. Growing up recording things and putting them on SoundCloud, I’ve never gelled with spending three years making an album and perfecting it, because you change so much in three years. You become a different person with different things to say and the greatest blessing of this time is that we’re living in a time where people can respond to things quickly. That’s exciting to me. Why wouldn’t you want to live this? I’m feeling sad so I’m going to write a sad song and release it. Releasing an album on a label did not feel like that.”


In photos, Johnston looks shy and retiring, cast in shadows, averting his eyes. Even if you’ve engaged with his earnest, brash and opinionated social media output (his private account on X/Twitter is probably the best source of music industry analysis in New Zealand but is only shared with 50-something people), you might assume he’s one of those keyboard-warrior types who finds courage in the distance social media provides. But, in person, Johnston is anything but. He’s taller than you’d expect and speaks with a clarity and conviction that stands in contrast to his vulnerable singing voice. And refreshingly for New Zealand artists, who typically don’t want to cause ripples in their small pond, he’s not shy about his opinions — not because he wants to be a spokesperson as a music industry techno-optimist, but because he feels like he’s been through so much in the past 15 years (even though he’s only 27) and wants to share the lessons he’s learnt from his (and his contemporaries’) rises and falls in the industry. 

“No one should ever sign with a major label in New Zealand” is one such lesson. “They don’t know what the fuck to do with you. Because no one knows what to do. They’re just, ‘Let’s make a hundred TikToks and maybe one of them will work.’ There’s no strategy any more because you can’t just dump money into something and have it work. There was a period where it really worked but now, no one knows what to do.”

I ask him what he thought about the interview with Erny Belle — whether he empathised with her dilemma, or whether that position was akin to being a horse enthusiast when automobiles finally took over the streets — sure, you can still ride your horse as a hobby, but it’ll never again be a dominant form of transport. “It’s a shame that Erny Belle put herself out there in a way that has made her a target, but my feeling is that some people don’t want to live this life,” he says. “Some people just want to make an album every few years and tour it and that’s it. Which is totally fine! But if you really want this, if you really want music making to be your life, to connect with people and have a life in music, you have to do more. But that doesn’t mean making TikToks — that’s bullshit! Call me old-fashioned, but the only way to get heard is to make great music and to make lots of it. Make more music, and play more shows. Be active, be out there. 

“Signing to Flying Nun is an insane thing to do in 2023, but hey, we’ve all made mistakes. They’re not going to help you. If you’re looking out into the crowd and all you see is 50-year-old white men, c’mon. Shouldn’t you want more than that? They’ll buy the records maybe, but once. When I make music, I want to be part of the conversation. 

“I listen to new music every week, I love new things, I want to be a part of culture. I don’t want to be part of the old ways of doing things — I want to be a part of the central thing.”

While Johnston is grateful to have ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’ providing a financial backstop for the foreseeable future, he’s under no illusions that he has unlimited time to work at the capacity and scale he’s working at now. He’s as ambitious as he’s ever been, and wants to make as much music as he can, that connects with as many people as possible, however and in whatever form they find him. 

“There are no rules,” he says with palpable excitement. “It’s been difficult for me to get to that point where I don’t give a fuck any more about wanting a career that looks like my hero’s career in the 90s or whatever. We all want to achieve what we had in our dreams since we were kids, but nothing works like that. You can’t replicate the past.” 

Johnston has at least two albums of material due for release this year. Heavy was recorded in a proper studio in the United Kingdom and, while closer to the length of an EP than a traditional album, fits in with the more flexible format approach Johnston is comfortable with these days. The sound is a progression, with a bit more Wilco-esque studio wizardry than he’s used for a while. Another album, as yet untitled and much longer, is due for release later in the year. It’s self-produced and has more of the lonely DIY sound longtime followers of SoundCloud will be more familiar with. But he won’t be spending much money to promote the albums. 

And what if they fail? I ask. Algorithms are great when they’re putting wind in your sails. But what if they just pass you by? It was only the day before our interview that I saw that he’d put out a self-titled Race Banyon album last year — the algorithms had assumed I would not be interested.

“It’s gutting [when that happens],” he says. “You put out a song and it gets a couple of plays. How can you feel good about your art if there’s no one listening?”

But as Johnston has done throughout our conversation, he quickly turns to the positive. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been as a creative person, because I don’t really care,” he says. “If I write one great song, I know I can write another one. 

“With ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’ doing so well… It’s annoying in some ways that a song I wrote when I was 17 is the thing that people know, but what I see in that song and the stuff I made around that time is not youth or those experiences, but just that I was free and creative and I didn’t care about anything else. That’s what I’m trying to recapture now.” 

This story was published in Metro N°442.
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