December 3, 2015


How Twenty One Pilots Created Their Own Pop Empire

Steve Granitz/WireImage
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Success for new artists in the pop music world often happens quickly and organically. Look at acts like 5 Seconds of Summer or Halsey: Young stars create their own empire, usually via some social media platform like YouTube or Vine, and then the major label A&Rs come calling. These artists have already fostered a loyal and growing fanbase, and the bigwigs typically step in to co-pilot and deliver you to the mainstream. 

Twenty One Pilots' story is a little different.

Before Twenty One Pilots became the dynamic duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, the project was a trio, the brainchild of TJ and his college bros Nick Thomas and Chris Salih. Tyler wrote most of the songs, and the three dudes released their self-titled album in 2009, when they began touring their native Ohio.

Two years later, Thomas and Salih would leave the band and Josh Dun would take their place. It was in 2011 that the duo signed to Pete Wentz's Fueled By Ramen label, now a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, and released the album Regional at Best. The album was largely more experimental than the pervious one, and more percussion-heavy, due in large part to Dun's influence.

In 2013, the band released Vessel. It was the first album that seemed to resonate with a large audience, the record we consider their best. It's dynamic and ambitious, chaotic but not cluttered. The album debuted at No. 58 on the Billboard 200, and led to the band opening for Fall Out Boy on their Save Rock and Roll arena tour. They spent the following year on the road playing festivals and building more of a name for themselves.

That brings us to 2015. In March, the band released Blurryface, a concept album of sorts that found the guys expanding their sound in a more dynamic manner. It worked: The album debuted at No. 1. Later in the year they'd perform with A$AP Rocky at the MTV Video Music Awards and announce a show at New York City's famed Madison Square Garden that would sell out quickly, forcing them to add an extra date.

The reason for all this back story? It shows that Twenty One Pilots' rise to prominence wasn't immediate. It wasn't until the group's fourth record that they became the success story that we know them as--an old-school way of seeing it is that they had to pay their dues! 

The equation isn't that simple. Working your butt off and touring the planet doesn't guarantee mainstream prosperity. You have to have something special, or you have to fill a space in music that has a built-in fan base. Twenty One Pilots have done both.

Twenty One Pilots' music largely operates like a rock band, but neither of them play guitar; instead, they rap and embrace big pop hooks. That innovation is enough to inspire affection when packaged with an inclusive social media presence. 

Like Fall Out Boy and Paramore before them, they were signed to Fueled By Ramen and continued to find themselves supported and loved by youth culture. They're bigger than that world now, but they haven't ignored it. Their trajectory is very much upward, but they're still turning back to their longtime supporters.

So what does the future hold? Joseph and Dun have made a career off of being radio's weirdos, which affords them the luxury of experimentation without isolating their earliest fans. They could become the biggest band in the world, or they could turn Twenty One Pilots into some bizarro art project. There's a certain freedom and spontaneity to Twenty One Pilots that is intrinsically appealing. Whatever's next, one thing's for sure: A lot of people will be watching.