A Brief History of Nate Ruess & Fun – The Underdog Finally Winning in the Music Biz

Fun at the Greek Theater Berkeley Shot by Jason Miller @jasonmillerca-2

Fun. It’s not only the name of the band, it’s more like a mantra. But it hasn’t always been this easy for the Phoenix native Nate Ruess and his band Fun who seemingly broke out from obscurity with the world-wide smash hit “We Are Young”. It’s an interesting story that many artists face but most do not have this sort of fairy tale happy ending. I first heard of Nate Ruess when I worked at Sony Music back in Dallas around July of 2006. One of our college marketing reps brought this CD into my office called Dog Problems by a band called The Format and was raving about how great the record was. I put this thing on and heard something I hadn’t heard in over a decade. Remarkably well written indie pop songs that fell somewhere between ELO, Jellyfish, and Cheap Trick. These being three of my favorite bands, I was hooked.

Fun at the Greek Theater Berkeley Shot by Jason Miller @jasonmillerca-11

Dog Problems would be released that year on Nettwerk records which was distributed by Sony Music. Being that Nettwerk wasn’t an owned label, my involvement in its promotion would be limited even though I was a HUGE fan pretty much overnight. I did what I could through general word of mouth and playing this thing for everyone under the sun. This was a magical record in the sense that each time someone heard it, they fell in love with the songs and the sound. That doesn’t happen very often anymore, not too mention the fact that the record was a masterpiece from start to finish.

Fun at the Greek Theater Berkeley Shot by Jason Miller @jasonmillerca-19

Fast forward several months and the record goes pretty much unnoticed, but the band continues to tour and sell out clubs. Their show was simply stunning as Nate is one of those rare vocalists who can actually hit every single note from the record in a live setting as well.

I used to get pretty upset when a record of this magnitude would go unnoticed, but to be honest it happened so regularly that we just sort of accepted it in the business and moved on. With that being said I was pleasantly surprised when a record showed up on my desk in 2009 by a band named Fun. It was on the same label and the rep played the song “All the Pretty Girls” in a conference room for us telling us how excited Nettwerk was about this record. I immediately recognized the sound and the vocals and could tell that they had something very cool.

Fun at the Greek Theater Berkeley Shot by Jason Miller @jasonmillerca-9

Funny enough, even though that record was just as amazing as the previous release from Nate and company, this one too seemed to be pretty much ignored by the media but embraced by a cult like following of Format fans now converted to Fun fans. This is the year that I would move from Texas to beautiful San Francisco. I was so excited about this move because this is where the digital music revolution was taking place, oh and Twitter was there as well.

Fun at the Greek Theater Berkeley Shot by Jason Miller @jasonmillerca-21

So I had seen The Format several times but it would be in San Francisco where I first saw Fun. I remember that day in particular because it was also the first time I met Nate Ruess. Twitter was starting to toy with the idea of bringing by up and coming bands to play for their staff. Since the smart folks at Nettwerk saw an opportunity there I was asked to escort the band over for a short performance at the Twitter office. I had a flip cam and you can see one of the performances below.

So there I was along with Nate and the rest of Fun in the reception area at Twitter waiting to walk in and set up to perform. The small talk was pretty much nil, until I started talking about 80s heavy metal. If there’s one thing I’ve found that amuses musicians, it’s talking about 80s Hair Metal. Nate sort of perked up and joined in the conversation. He was a really nice guy by the way and very unassuming. To be honest it sort of looked like another day in the life of a touring musician. Riding around the country in what I used to call the “standard issue white van”, and sort of looking for opportunities to keep busy during the day before the shows at night. This can be really challenging when radio is ignoring a band which was the case here.

Twitter was still in its “early” days and had not broken through to mass adoption. There were about 100 or so employees there who would be watching the band’s performance and (hopefully) tweeting about. I was a huge fan of both Fun and Twitter so I was really just excited to be part of this whole thing. Fun played 3 or 4 songs then we got up and left. There really wasn’t a meet and greet of sorts but they were gracious hosts.

Fun were to play a venue that evening called Slims which held a few hundred people, a far cry from two sold out nights at the Greek Theater which happened last week from where the photos you are viewing in this post were taken. I think the reason I wanted to tell this story is because I saw Nate on Good Morning America shortly after the band’s song “We Are Young” became a crossover hit. I think it was Matt Lauer who asked them what it was like to be an “overnight” sensation. Nate paused for second and politely said, we have been doing this for a really long time. That moment made me really proud that I was associated with the early days of Fun/ the Format and I wondered if what I had done to promote the band had anything at all to do with their success today. I have no idea, but the point I am trying to make here is that an amazing musician, that being Nate Ruess, never gave up making music on his terms. He didn’t change to write music that was “hot” at the moment and he never compromised, as far as I know. So chalk one up for the underdog and don’t call Fun an overnight success. And for those of you who think they are a one hit wonder, hold your tongue and see what they do next because I am sure it will be amazing. Congrats to Fun and especially Nate, and hats off to Fueled By Ramen and Warner for recognizing great talent and introducing it to the masses.

Oh, and my review of the show that night? It was f**king amazing. Here are the pics.

Were you at the show that evening? Please join the conversation in the comment section below.

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Jason Miller
Jason Miller

Jason Miller is a leading digital B2B marketer, who’s held senior roles at LinkedIn, Marketo, and ActiveCampaign. Before entering the B2B space, he spent ten years at Sony, developing and executing marketing campaigns around the biggest names in music. He is a prolific keynote speaker, digital marketing instructor at UC Berkeley, and best-selling author. Also an accomplished rock concert photographer, his work appears in books, magazines, and album covers.

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