When Brett Young moved to Nashville in his early 30s, he was done chasing down the dream of becoming a musician. He'd already spent 13 years in southern California struggling to achieve that goal.
"I was burnt out at that point," the country music star told CNBC Make It at the Chase and Southwest Airlines' #BigDreamsStartSmall event in New York City on Wednesday.
Music wasn't originally Young's big dream. As a teen, he had a promising baseball career ahead of him and was drafted out of high school to pitch in the MLB. He opted to play college ball at the University of Mississippi and then Fresno State, where he transferred his junior year, but after a career-ending injury, he moved back home to Huntington Beach, California.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," recalls Young, so he turned to the one other thing he loved as much as sports: music.
Young began writing songs, playing them for his friends and eventually, "I started taking my guitar into bars and restaurants in southern California going, 'Can I talk to your manager?' Next thing I knew, I had five residencies a week," he says.
The gigs brought in enough money to pay the bills, he adds, but it was a grind: "I was playing three to four hours a night, five nights a week. I was tasting blood in my throat. It's too much to sing." While Young was making ends meet, it wasn't a sustainable career. Plus, "there was no chance that I had record executives walking into a bar in Huntington Beach or Corona del Mar." That's what prompted his move to Los Angeles, where the competition would be stiff, but the opportunities more prevalent — or so he hoped.
Since residencies and paid gigs were harder to come by in LA, he got a day job to make a living: "I was bartending in the day so I could sing at night."
After more than a decade of playing small gigs around southern California, Young was in his early 30s and, "still, nobody's paying attention," he says, adding he was tired of constantly performing.
That's when Nashville came into play. He decided to move to Music City to pursue songwriting rather than performing, Young told CNBC Make It: "I would go write, I would record a demo with my voice on it and then pitch it to labels: 'Do you have any artists that need songs like this?'
"The response overwhelmingly was, 'We like the song, but whose voice is this on the demo?' I ended up in meetings as an artist, which is exactly what I had moved there to give up."
Within a year and a half of moving to Nashville, Young signed a record deal with Big Machine Label Group. That was in 2015.
Today, at 38, he has five No. 1 singles and was named the new male vocalist of the year at the 2018 ACM Awards. He also runs a lifestyle apparel company, Caliville.
Young recognizes the irony of his career path: "I beat my head against the artist wall for 13 years but then the first year I decide I'm going to focus on writing, I get a record deal. I'm glad I'm here now," he says. But, no matter how many hits he writes, Young doesn't think he will never feel like he's "made it."
"I don't know that you ever get there," he says. "We go out and open for artists that are, to me, at the very top of the game who have aspirations and goals and feel like they still need to do x, y and z to get there — and to me, I'm like, I just need to get to where you are. "
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