Toni Braxton waves as she arrives at the 100th Anniversary Gala International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees & Moving Pictures Machine Operators in New York City in 1993.

How 25 major artists were unconventionally discovered

Written by:
August 9, 2021
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How 25 major artists were unconventionally discovered

Some of the world's most famous musicians held regular jobs while trying to make it in the music industry. In recent years, thanks to the digital era—especially with the advent of social media—artists have used creative methods other than record labels to get their music out there. Whether dropping original songs or covers on major streaming and social media platforms or being in the right place at the right time, these musicians demonstrate that you never really know who's listening and watching.

Stacker delved into music history spanning different time periods and created a list of 25 music artists from all genres, utilizing news, biography, and entertainment reports. Whether it's playing an instrument outside a railway station, being discovered while pumping gas, or simply gaining adoration from followers on social media, these musicians managed to pursue their dream in unconventional ways.

Read on to learn how these entertainers, despite the challenges of breaking into a highly competitive industry, cultivated their own unconventional lane to success.

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Toni Braxton

The R&B legend, known for her deep sultry sound, was discovered by songwriter William Petty at a gas station of all places. Braxton was pumping gas when Petty had recognized her, as she'd been performing at various talent showcases in the area. Petty invited Braxton to record a demo at his studio. The then-budding singer was hesitant at first but decided to take the chance and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Braxton was not actually singing at the gas station when she was discovered, as many sources have stated.  

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Drake

From his beginnings as a former child actor from Toronto, Canada, to going on to win four Grammys and boast more number-one hits than The Beatles, Drake hasn't done too badly for himself. In 2001, he landed a role on the popular Canadian teen drama series, "Degrassi: The Next Generation." Drake then started writing lyrics and was eventually discovered in 2007 on Myspace by Jas Prince, a Houston record executive who played Drake's music for the one and only Lil Wayne.

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The Weeknd

Born Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd quickly went from underground anonymity to major pop star. He started out releasing songs on YouTube under the name "XOXXXOOOXO," which drew fans to the mystery of this new, eclectic musician. After uploading just a few songs on YouTube, The Weeknd released the free mixtape, "House of Balloons," which caught the attention of fellow Canadian native, rapper Drake, who tweeted the download link, stirring even more buzz for the enigmatic artist.

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Jewel

Hailing from rural Alaska, the "Pieces of You" folk singer Jewel moved to San Diego when she was a teenager, performing at bars and coffee shops while living out of a van. Jewel eventually developed a local fan base, which prompted several record label reps to go to The Inner Change coffee shop one evening to watch her perform. After she was presented with multiple offers from labels while still being homeless, Jewel signed with Atlantic Records and shot to superstardom soon after.

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Katy Perry

Raised by pastor parents in a strict Christian household, Katy Perry completed her GED requirements at age 15 and set off to pursue a music career. Her singing impressed rock artists Jennifer Knapp and Steve Thomas, who invited her to Nashville, where Perry improved her songwriting skills, recorded demos, and learned how to play guitar. Despite record label setbacks, Perry eventually signed to Capitol Records in 2007 and rose to fame in 2008.

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Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga formed a band with some friends from New York University, where she attended before dropping out to pursue music full-time. They played gigs across the city and at a songwriters showcase, Gaga met a talent scout who recommended her to some producers. She eventually landed an internship as an apprentice songwriter and, before she knew it, was writing songs for New Kids on the Block, Britney Spears, Fergie, and the Pussycat Dolls.

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Kelis

Kelis attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, where she was part of an R&B group with her friends called BLU (Black Ladies United). The group caught the attention of hip-hop producer Goldfinghaz, who connected Kelis with a guest slot on Wu-Tang Clan member RZA's side project. Kelis found success as a solo artist and, over the next couple of years, developed notable contacts within the music industry, collaborating with artists such as The Neptunes and Diddy.

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Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman started her music career performing in Harvard Square. Chapman's college friend, Brian Koppelman, was so impressed with her that he introduced her to his father, who ran an independent music publishing company. It wasn't long before Chapman was signed to Elektra Records.

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Shaggy

Grammy-winning reggae artist Orville Richard Burrell, better known as Shaggy, moved to the U.S. from Kingston, Jamaica, with his family when he was 18 years old. He went on to serve in the United States Marine Corps. In 1987, he took singing lessons in Brooklyn and shortly after found success with two singles, "Mampie" and "Big Up." Shaggy would later see success with his highest-charting song to date, 2000's "It Wasn't Me."

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Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber is a huge YouTube success story, having started out uploading videos of himself on the platform before going on to sell millions of records worldwide. Record executive Scooter Braun came across one of Bieber's YouTube videos and arranged for Bieber to fly to Atlanta, where he was soon introduced to R&B singer Usher, who was an instrumental influence early in Bieber's career.

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Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart, known for carving out a legendary music career, especially in British rock, had a humble beginning. He'd worked jobs as a fence erector and a laborer at Highgate Cemetery before one day, in January 1964, Stewart performed "Smokestack Lightning" on his harmonica outside a railway station after seeing Long John Baldry. Baldry invited Stewart to sit in with the group and soon discovered that Stewart could sing as well.

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Mandy Moore

Mandy Moore was only 13 when she started working on music by herself. While in an Orlando studio one day, she was overheard by a FedEx delivery man, Victor Cade, who also worked part-time as a talent scout. Cade sent his friend, an A&R at Epic Records, a copy of Moore's unfinished demo and the friend flew to Orlando to meet Moore and hear her sing in person. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.

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Megan Thee Stallion

Megan Thee Stallion's journey to stardom all began when she joined a cypher on a rooftop in her hometown of Houston, Texas. The cypher began making its rounds online, with viewers commenting on the video in awe of the budding star's skill. She went on to release a mixtape in 2018, which scored major streaming numbers and led to her inking a record deal with 300 Entertainment.

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Ed Sheeran

Before Ed Sheeran became the Grammy-winning artist we know today, he was a struggling musician working as a guitar tech and playing open mics and small bars. After constant rejection, Sheeran decided to try a new approach and purchased a one-way ticket to Los Angeles after booking a gig at a club there, which led to him meet Jamie Foxx, who let the rising pop star sleep on his couch.

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Gloria Estefan

In 1975, Gloria Estefan and her cousin Merci attended a wedding where they performed two Cuban songs impromptu. The Miami Latin Boys, a band that was also performing at the wedding, was so impressed that they invited the ladies to audition for them. The ladies were hired and shortly after, the band changed their name to Miami Sound Machine, and later, with Estefan's star attraction, became Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Emilio Estefan, Jr., the group's keyboardist, would eventually become her husband.

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Sheryl Crow

Before reaching megastardom, Sheryl Crow worked as a music teacher during the day and played in bands on weekends. Crow was later introduced to a fellow musician who would use her voice in advertising jingles, such as a back-to-school spot for the department store Famous-Barr and eventually for McDonald's and Toyota. This led to her touring with Michael Jackson as a backing vocalist during his 18-month "Bad" tour in the '80s before going on to have a successful solo career.

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Tori Kelly

Tori Kelly struggled for over a decade to launch her music career, and she even auditioned for "American Idol," but didn't make it to the top 24 round when she competed on the show's ninth season. Kelly didn't give up, though. She recorded her first EP in her bedroom and went on to grow her YouTube channel to over 2 million subscribers. Her big break came in 2013 when she was discovered by Justin Bieber's producer, Scooter Braun, who's had a good track record with finding YouTube talent, and who attended one of her shows.

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2 Chainz

Born Tauheed Epps, 2 Chainz was part of a hip-hop duo called Playaz Circle with his friend Earl "Dolla Boy" Conyers. The duo released an independent album in 1997 and was later introduced to fellow Atlanta rapper, Ludacris, when he moved into their College Park apartment complex. Ludacris would soon become a chart-topping artist and signed 2 Chainz to his record label Disturbing Tha Peace. 2 Chainz gained notoriety as a solo artist when he was featured on Kanye West's "Mercy" in 2012.

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Cardi B

Born and raised in the Bronx, rapper Cardi B started out as an internet star on Vine, Twitter, and Instagram, where she unabashedly discussed her career as a stripper, captivating fans with her unfiltered approach. Cardi's internet stardom landed her a spot on VH1's "Love & Hip Hop: New York," albeit her stint on the show was short-lived. She departed the franchise to focus on her music career, and has since become one of the biggest female rappers of this generation.

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Shawn Mendes

The short-lived video platform, Vine, served as the springboard for Shawn Mendes' budding career as a musician. Mendes started out by uploading six-second videos to Vine and also posted content on YouTube, which caught the attention of a music manager who would play a major role in Mendes signing with Island Records. Today, the superstar has earned several number-one albums and has sold out arenas worldwide.

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Beck

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Beck started out performing roots and folk music and played music wherever he could, from bars to coffee shops. His experimental style, which involved unique hip-hop sounds, country, and other genres, would gain influential supporters who happened to work for BMG Music Publishing. Everything has gone uphill for the then-struggling busker since then.

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B.B. King

A legendary blues musician, B.B. King was born on a plantation to a sharecropping family. In 1946, he moved to Memphis and began playing his guitar on the streets. Two years later, he created a string of chart-topping R&B hits and averaged more than 300 shows annually for several years, which earned him the title as The King of the Blues.

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Bill Withers

Bill Withers' musical legacy consists of hits that have resonated across generations, from 1971's "Ain't No Sunshine," 1972's "Lean on Me," and 1977's "Lovely Day." Before achieving stardom, Withers left the Navy in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 to start a career in music. There, he self-funded a demo and shopped it to major labels with zero success. Then, one day, Withers landed a meeting with Clarence Avant — an executive who had just founded the indie label, Sussex Records — who offered Withers a record deal.

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Baby Ariel

Ariel Martin, known professionally as Baby Ariel, was featured as one of the most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine in 2017. Her online stardom began in 2015 when, out of boredom, she downloaded the Chinese app, musical.ly (now morphed into TikTok), where she first started uploading videos of herself singing Nicki Minaj songs. Baby Ariel has since released her own single, "Aww," as well as the collaboration, "Say it" featuring Daniel Skye.

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Dixie D'Amelio

Dixie D'Amelio and her sister, Charli, certainly represent a shift in celebrity culture, having been discovered on TikTok after posting now-viral clips. Dixie, a social media sensation, has over 20 million followers on Instagram and over 30 million followers on TikTok. In 2020, Dixie caught the attention of music executive L.A. Reid, who signed her to his HitCo Entertainment company, where she joins labelmates like Jennifer Lopez and Big Boi of OutKast.

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