Life after ‘Instant Star’: singer Alexz Johnson kickstarts her solo career

Imagine starring in a hit teen series, writing your own songs and being able to sing them on TV. Next, imagine being signed by a music label, and being about to finally release a CD when the company decides to end your contract. Imagine deciding that the only thing you can do to realize your dream is to start all over and go to the Internet for help.

That’s what Alexz Johnson, an actor, singer and songwriter from New Westminster, B.C., did.

On the now cancelled CTV show Instant Star,  Johnson, 26, played the role of Jude Harrison, a young singer who wins a musical competition and gets signed by a big record label. In real life, she had to go from being a signed artist to an independent musician.

“It was huge undertaking, but I learned so much and I’m so thankful for that because I feel like I’ve experienced both ends,” said Johnson in an interview at the Silver Dollar Room in Toronto, where she was rehearsing before her Wednesday, April 3 concert. “What it’s like to be signed and fly to London and also what it’s like to work hard, play shows every night and just hope that you can sell tickets at the door to cover your musicians’ costs.”

Johnson admits she was starting to lose faith in ever getting to sing on her own tour after Instant Star ended. The show, which was filmed in Toronto, ran from 2004 to 2008, and was produced by the same people behind Degrassi: The Next Generation. Instant Star was cancelled after its fourth season.

“I had some dark days here in Toronto. I remember just thinking I didn’t even know what was going to happen to me,” she said. “I was just thrown around for so long, writing music and then I thought ‘I’ll get my things together, move to Brooklyn, meet the best musicians I know and build from there.’”

So she did, and it’s partly thanks to Kickstarter, an American private for-profit company that helps raise money for people with creative ideas who need more then just bank loans and maxxing out their credit cards.

“It was something that was mentioned to me by a friend in L.A. I didn’t know if I should ask for money or not,” she said. “But I saw that there was a platform that existed where an artist could interact directly with fans. So I decided to start a campaign. It was $30,000 to tour the States with the full band, and I raised it in one day and ended up getting up to $70,000.”

She soon moved from Kickstarter to Pledge Music, which she’s currently using to raise funds for her new album, set to come out in 2013.

“[Pledge Music] is very music-focused and they help with the distribution of your album and kind of act like a label and they help you move it along,” she said. “They take a percentage of what you raised, they promote you and also you can pick charities to give a percentage to and it’s very interactive with the audience. It includes them and I think that’s why I chose it.”

Richard Flohil, a veteran Canadian music publicist and concert promoter, is familiar with Kickstarter and Pledge Music, but believes that crowdfunding online doesn’t always work.

“These websites work, but they only work if you’ve already got a fan-base,” he said. “I think that for the prerequisites you have to have a following before you can do a fundraising campaign and you have to have a distinctive solid reason to go to people.”

As an experienced publicist in the music industry, he knows how difficult it can be for musicians to “make it” in this field, especially on their own.

“It’s incredibly hard, on one hand the technology helps and on the other hand it becomes almost impossible,” Flohil said. “Now you have to prove yourself. But proving yourself is incredibly difficult. There is so much competition, and of the thousands that try, only a tiny handful do succeed.”

Flohil lists some of the traits a musician should have in order to be able to succeed on their own.

“A distinctive voice and really good songs and then the difficulty begins, because the way the industry works is that agents and managers earn a percentage of what an artist gets and if the artist doesn’t earn very much then there’s no incentive to take on this new artist. So musicians not only have to develop their art, but they also have to become business people,” he advised.

Toronto was Johnson’s second to last stop before ending her five-week spring tour in Boston, on Friday night.

Although she spent only seven hours in Toronto, Johnson describes herself as feeling happy and sentimental about being back in the city where she became famous.

“I feel like I’ve lived so many lives since I’ve been here, it’s also kind of nostalgic, it’s bringing back lots of memories,” she said. “I love Canada, I love being back in Toronto.”