By now, it is no secret that TikTok can turn aspiring singers into the next big thing. Just a single upload of the right content on the video-sharing platform can catapult one into being a viral smash. However, what often gets left out from the narrative is the amount of hard work and time these “overnight sensations” put into creating content. And sometimes, these “overnight sensations” may have toiled for years to carve a career of their own before. This is exactly the case for rising country singer and TikTok star, Cooper Alan.
Alan rose to TikTok fame last year when his one-of-a-kind song mashup covers went viral. Fans started looking forward to subsequent videos of the ebullient, sometimes goofy series, most of which featured him mixing country with rap on an office chair in the living room. Alan now boasts more than 244k followers on Instagram and a whopping 3.2 million on TikTok, with several of his original tracks amassing well over 1 million streams on Spotify alone. While some might be quick to write him off as an overnight success, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina native’s story proves otherwise.
A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, Alan had been playing shows as an independent act for ten years at bars, college parties and any venue that would have him—long before the conception of TikTok. Although he has a college degree in business, the budding singer/songwriter admits that his “real education” came from “playing in those college bars and those four-hour sets and just grinding it out from 10 PM to 2 AM”—all of which prepared him for his eventual dream move to Music City.
Sounds Like Nashville got to chat with Alan recently about his musical journey, TikTok series, original music, signing a publishing deal with Victoria Shaw (Garth Brooks, John Michael Montgomery) and more.
Introducing the next artist you have to “Get To Know”: Cooper Alan
What was life like growing up in North Carolina? How did music become a part of your journey?
I’m biased, but I think Winston-Salem, North Carolina might be the best place in the world. I lived there my whole life until college. Music was always a really, really big part of my life. For my family, our thing is sports and music. And I’m the only one in my family that actually plays music. But, you know, we always were showing each other new bands and songs and going to concerts together. That just is something we’ve always bonded over.
Who were you listening to as a kid?
I went to my first concert when I was five. It was Tom Petty and I was asleep the whole time. I’m kicking myself now. You know, I like to think it started something for me. And then, through the years, I dabbled in all genres. I went through a big disco music phase with bands like ABBA in KC and the Sunshine Band, and then it was classic rock with Tom Petty, The Allman Brothers Band, Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet. Then it was the 90’s early 2000’s rock, you know, what everybody was kind of listening to, and then it got into country when I was in middle school and high school. So, because my family has an eclectic music taste, I developed that myself.
How did you end up playing music?
Eight grade was when I started my band. Actually, I started playing the trumpet in 4th grade and because of that disco phase, obviously I thought like, “Man, I’m going to be like KC and The Sunshine Band,” and then one day realized that girls probably like the guitar a little bit more than the trumpet, so I picked that up and it was after a Kid Rock concert in 8th grade. I didn’t know any of the songs, but I had never seen anybody captivate a crowd like that and put that much energy [into a show]. I mean, it was incredible. And it was in Greensboro, NC. So, if he was doing it in Greensboro, he was doing it everywhere. I [told] to my parents after that concert and was like, this is what I want to do. I want to have this impact on people. I want to come out and entertain rooms night after night and make people feel the way he just made me feel. That’s why I started my band in eighth grade and played all through high school. When I got to college, I ramped it up a little bit and started planning the college bar scene in the Carolinas, the fraternity and sorority stuff, to the point where I decided I needed to move to Nashville. This is exactly what I wanted to do. So, I knew that for a while, but just wanted to do college first.
What made you want to do college first? Was that your decision or something your parents advised you to do?
You know, my parents would have supported me with whatever I wanted to do. I’m very lucky to have really, really cool parents that, as long as I’m working hard, they’re behind what I’m doing. It was a personal decision. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to have those experiences. I wanted to grow up a little bit. My whole family had gone to the University of North Carolina (UNC), so I wanted the sports experience and all that stuff just to ‘get college.’ Some people are really ready to move to Nashville after high school, [but] I was not. I needed to learn and develop and learn how to entertain a room and learn how to really captivate an audience. I studied business in college and went to classes and all that stuff. But my real education was playing in those college bars and those four-hour sets and just grinding it out from 10 PM to 2 AM and learning how to do this whole thing. That’s the process that worked really well for me to the point where when I graduated college, I really felt like I was there as a performer and had a lot more of an identity as an artist than I did four years earlier. My writing was OK, but not ‘there.’ You got to move to Nashville and learn. But college was great for me! It helped me [by] leaps and bounds to be ready to move here.
You also landed a publishing deal with Victoria Shaw very early in your career. That is something that sometimes takes a long, long time to happen for songwriters. How did that happen?
I’m very, very fortunate and very lucky. I got introduced to Victoria through mutual friends from Winston-Salem who had always come out to see my band play and believed in what I was doing. They knew Victoria through some charity work and were like, “We don’t really know what’s going to happen but, it can be a contact for you.” Victoria was nice enough to answer back when I reached out. I was actually living up in New York the summer after my junior year doing an internship selling beer for Budweiser, which I was not very good at. (laughs) Victoria was playing to show up there, so I went to one of her shows. She was so nice and said, “Let’s just get breakfast tomorrow morning and we can talk.” So, we did that and she was like, “Finish college. Do this last year in college and keep me as a contact. Keep me in the loop of what’s going on and let me know when you’re ready to move out to Nashville.” To that point, I wasn’t expecting a deal when I moved to town or anything. I just packed up and showed up at her door probably three days after I moved to Nashville. We talked a little more, stayed in touch, and she offered me a publishing deal a couple weeks later. I’m still kind of pinching myself. You really need your champion and mentor in this town, and there’s no better person to learn songwriting, the whole business, and frankly, just how to be a badass, than from her. We’ve been partners now for close to three years. I couldn’t ask for a better person to work with and learn from.
How has it been like launching as a new country artist over this pandemic?
It’s weird to say that this has been the best year of my career by a mile, and it’s because of social media and different ways to build an audience. You don’t need a record label to start building an audience. You need it at some point, but you don’t need a record label to start building an audience, you don’t need a big promotion budget to get fans to listen to your music—and that’s all changed because of TikTok. There were definitely a lot of negatives to the pandemic and not being able to play shows or write in person and all that stuff. But for me, I can’t complain too much because I’ve been very, very lucky.
I know your fan base really grew over this past year thanks to your TikTok videos and your song mashups. What was it like getting started on that app?
At that point, I had been doing TikTok for a while. When the pandemic hit and we couldn’t play shows anymore, I was like, “Well I need to do something. I need to find a way to keep making this work somehow.” My girlfriend told me about TikTok and I thought it was just people dancing. Then, Victoria told me about TikTok and I was like, “Nah, I really just don’t think that’s me.” I wasn’t comfortable with social media at that time. But finally, when the pandemic hit, I was like, “OK, we’ll give this a try.” But I tried it for a little bit, and nothing worked. So I studied the app and learned what worked on it, and finally something popped off! I started seeing followers come in and it’s like, “Oh my God, I just got more followers in a day on TikTok than I have on Instagram, you know?” So I was like, “OK, let’s keep this going.” So I kept on going and figuring out how things worked. With “New Normal,” my original music started doing well on it. It was converting to where people were loving these TikTok videos, but they were also streaming my songs on Spotify and stuff and following you over there, and following you on Instagram, and buying your music on iTunes. TikTok was one of my full-time jobs. I put in time every single day and really try to understand it because I knew that this could be a ticket to make things work and have people listen to my music and maybe come out to the shows once shows come back and all that stuff.
How did the idea of doing mashups come about?
That started back in college. We would play “All Star” by Smash Mouth in these bars. When you’re playing 4-hour sets, it’s like, “Oh my God, I don’t know that many songs!” (laughs) So we would play “All Star” and bang out 20 to 30 minutes time-killing mashups, just how many songs can we fit over these four chords. And people loved it because, I know my attention span is like 30 seconds. So, you hear a chorus of a song, and it’s like, “Next one! Next one! Next one!” So, I had always done it and I can’t believe it took me that long on TikTok to think, maybe I should start doing what I’ve always done with this. And when I did try one, it did really well and I was like, “OK, well I really enjoy this. This is kind of this is kind of my thing anyway.” I just kept going and did a bunch of different mashups to beats and started rewriting songs to make them sound country, which was a whole other thing, and kept going with the originals. So, TikTok has been very special to me.
How has the app impacted your career?
I’ve been doing this for ten years. It’s been ten years of really working hard. Not living in Nashville that whole time, but you know, I put in a lot of work. So, TikTok has been an avenue where people can finally hear me and I, as an independent artist, can get my stuff out there, which has never existed before, in that way, in that magnitude.
What’s one other personal silver lining for you this past year, besides TikTok?
I’m sure this sounds like a broken record with everybody saying this, but just getting to slow down a little bit. I’ve still been putting in a lot of work, but from March to May, I moved back to North Carolina to be home with my parents. I hadn’t gotten that time with them for four years, since pre-college, and it was awesome. We got to do things, have conversations and just have fun that we wouldn’t have had together if it weren’t for the world shutting down. I was spending time with my parents and girlfriend more, just because I wasn’t playing shows late at night, so we could hang out more and have those memories. Honestly, for my family, we were lucky because we had all that time together, but then my brother also got married, and my other brother [and his wife] found out they were pregnant. It was February or March, and they told us over Easter during the pandemic when we were all home. I almost feel guilty saying this, but it was a really exciting year for my family. There were so many silver linings. And now, I’m an uncle. I got a new sister-in-law. I got to hang out with my parents. I got to spend more time with my girlfriend. It’s all been really cool!
Your song, “Tough Ones,” is just a beautiful, stirring love song about weathering both the good and bad. What was the inspiration behind this song?
I met Matt Nolen and Skip Black for the first time in February. The idea for “Tough Ones” was from an Army football coach who used to always tell his team, “Let’s show them why we’re the last of the hard ones.” I was like, “There’s something there, there’s something to that.” And you know, your inclination is like a hard country song, kind of Eric Church-driven, some good old boy thing, which is awesome but not totally authentic to me. I was like, “Well, let’s make this concept a love song. I brought that to Matt and Skip, and they said, “You know, let’s be the tough ones. Let’s have a strong, tough relationship where we make it through the hard times because love isn’t always perfect.” It was about that, but also about all the tough, strong people that really, really showed themselves especially in the past year with all the negativity that’s been going on. There have really been a lot of people doing a lot of really cool stuff, whether it’s essential workers, medical workers, frontline workers, or just people straight up being good people to each other. So that song was a testament to that.
You teased this one on TikTok too, didn’t you?
Yes! So we got a demo of the verse and chorus, and I teased the chorus of “Tough Ones” on TikTok, and it blew up. People were using it in their own videos to show what the song meant to them. That was really cool and special. So, sensibly, I felt we had to put this one out as soon as possible. Two days later, we started recording and two weeks later, it’s released. It was like a three to four week turn around and everybody wanted to kill me, because this is not how it goes [in the business]. But they crushed it! They did an awesome job and got the song out, and it went Number One on iTunes and streamed really well. It was very special to me. Even the UNC Children’s Hospital used it in a little music video they put together highlighting patients. It’s just reactions like that have been so special to me because when you’re in it, a song means something to you but, it also just feels like a song. When you see people react and feel what they feel when they listen to it, that’s when it really gets cool and real and the water works start going when I’m alone in my room and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is awesome.”
“Too Soon” recently amassed over 1 million streams! It’s such an amazing, catchy love song. And you wrote this one with Matt Nolen and Skip Black as well. Can you tell us about that song?
I think it was the next write or the write after [writing “Tough Ones”] with Matt and Skip, we wrote “Too Soon” and did a demo of it. It was all the people that Victoria connected me with. I was like, “Guys, knock on wood, I know we just put the other song out, but this is really catching. Just let me try this.” And so, I teased the demo on TikTok again and it did really well, and I said, “OK, we gotta put this out now!” So we did it, and it was another three to four week turnaround, and everybody was pissed off at me. (laughs) But we did it and amazing people that can do way more than I could made it work. People love that song and I love it, because it’s an upbeat, cool love song. That song is how I felt when my girlfriend and I started talking and dating three years ago. We had been really good friends for a long time and then we’re both living up in New York, had a little too much tequila one night, started talking and realized that we liked each other a little more than we thought. I’ve always been a person that’s like, “Let’s just pump the breaks a little bit, let’s see what happens and not move too fast.” But with her, it totally changed like a flick of a switch, which I think a lot of people go through where it’s like, “Man, I’m seeing big, big things. This is awesome, let’s keep this going, I want to spend as much time with you as possible and all that stuff.” That’s where that song came from. We’re still dating today. We’re about to move in together, which is awesome.
To wrap things up, what is one thing you want fans to know about Cooper Alan both as a person, and as an artist?
As a person, my big thing is to not take myself too seriously. I take what I do very seriously and take how I treat people seriously. But I’m always going to laugh at myself or make fun of myself a little bit. I don’t think I’m ‘hotshot’ when I walk into a room or anything. […] I think humility is so important and is core to me. My parents raised me that way. I’d like to think that with my roots and how I was raised out, I’ll always stay humble and treat everybody the same with that respect everybody deserves. As an artist, if you come out and see my show, it’s gonna be a really, really good time. It’s going to be fun, you’re going to want to sing along, dance along, drink some beer, and slap five with the people you’ve never met before. It’s a big old party. That’s always been my thing. It’s just a really fun, banging live show. I’m really excited to get those back and get people back in seats and start doing what I love more than anything about this business—and that’s performing.