BETHESDA – Brenton Duvall is the big man on campus tonight. Up on the makeshift stage, he’s tinkering with his MacBook’s audio settings while red Solo cups are passed around the room. With a playlist full of party music and a hook up to the speakers, he’s got a captive crowd of Clemson students ready to rage.
But everyone’s far too wasted, and those speakers of authority aren’t even loud enough to fill out the whole room. All he can think about on this February night is ditching this crowded frat house basement and returning to his home studio to work on crafting the perfect song.
The 22-year-old producer from Potomac already scored big online in 2010 with his Taylor Swift and Wiz Khalifa-sampling remix, “Mean Planes & Taylor Gangs.” He watched from his dorm room desk chair as the song boomeranged around the Web, shooting up Hype Machine charts and ricocheting through the blogosphere. The track established him as one of Maryland’s freshest young producers.
“Absolute fire,” wrote one blogger describing the remix, in which Duvall layered the vocal tracks over a propulsive, descending synth pattern. Another blogger proclaimed him a “mashup whiz kid,” a label he’s struggled to disown ever since.
“Mean Planes” now has more than two million combined YouTube views. During the music industry’s heyday — when Duvall was in diapers — six-figure spins would have landed him a fat record deal and a slew of major tour dates. And even when he was in high school, a million YouTube views would have notched at least some long-term recognition.
But in 2013, when Internet stars are crowned by day and forgotten by night, and when two million views is more easily achieved, Duvall has had to sacrifice and compromise to transform his online success into a durable career.
He schlepps hundreds of miles to play shows with crappy sound systems and drunken teenagers because live performances are one of the only way he makes money. He’s stuck playing songs he can’t stand because of the high demand for generic dance music. And he must compete for attention with thousands of amateurs, all propelled by the same cheap software that lets him create.
Internet hype got him eyeballs on computer screens but no dollars in his pocket. He doesn’t sell music and streams songs for free on YouTube and SoundCloud. Without any reliable source of income, weekend treks to Tuscaloosa, Athens and other distant college towns have become a necessity.
“I’m just fortunate enough that being a DJ in 2013 is a really, really good job,” he said. “I don’t think I deserve what I make. I don’t think anybody deserves what they make DJing. People will eventually realize you shouldn’t be giving a DJ that much money.”
Yet they are, because Brenton Duvall, the moderate viral sensation, is a small commodity as a DJ at bars and campuses. It’s too bad then that he’s never been a party kid and would much rather spin some Drake than David Guetta.
Mainstream pop and hip-hop was the soundtrack of Duvall’s formative years. When learning guitar, his teacher would flip on FM radio stations so he could jam along to the chord progressions. At St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac, he was always the stubborn defender of the Top 40 songs his friends berated. To this day, his iTunes library is littered with Billboard staples.
He’s been to two Taylor Swift concerts — “unironically,” he’ll quickly add. He’ll namedrop Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco, two prolific pop producers, as huge inspiration. And he’ll proclaim Kanye West as having the ultimate mind in music because “he can make an amazing song and he doesn’t have to touch an instrument.”
“Once I left school, there’s been like 20 albums on repeat,” he said. “I listen to the last albums by Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake like every day. I just don’t get tired of those songs because they’re perfect.”
The sensibility towards perfect pop informs much of his own production. Duvall’s songs weave together simple, addictive melodies and many have the blissful optimism of Clinton-era bubblegum pop. When choosing vocal samples for his arrangements, he’ll often opt for recognizable hooks from megastars like Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z and Aaliyah and Passion Pit.
“He’s experimental,” said Beau Young Prince, a Washington, D.C., rapper who collaborates regularly with Duvall. “I can’t label him. I don’t want to label him. It could be rap, pop or anything else. It’s melodic, it’s groovy. He can take any sample and take it into any genre.”
He works strange hours. He’ll sometimes lock himself up recording and producing until 5 a.m., tinkering with snares or synth melodies. He might take a break by sending a flurry of tweets riffing on pop culture or he’ll hit up local friends and musicians.
“I expect to be woken up in the middle of the night for him to say,