Otis McDonald

Songwriter Profile: Otis McDonald

With music featured on 3.5 million YouTube videos totaling 7.6 billion views, plus five million downloads from the YouTube Audio Library, the Bay Area songwriter, vocalist and instrumentalist dubbed Otis McDonald is a massively streamed artist in the digital realm, heard via social media accounts including the NBA, People Magazine and Comedy Central. Over three short years, he’s garnered 101K monthly Spotify listeners and 51K YouTube subscribers. Now, with his studio debut, People Music, McDonald presents 10 tracks chosen by his formidable fan base.

Otis McDonald is the alter ego of Joe Bagale. He chose his nom de plume when he envisioned a song for soul shouter Michael McDonald, as informed by the R&B psychedelia of guitar phantom Shuggie Otis. These classic strains are deeply etched in the artist’s first studio release, in quirky personality and esoteric sparks amplified by stellar musicality and greasy funk. Bagale plays all the rhythm instruments in real-time, abetted by live strings, a punchy horn section and a classic Linn Drum.

The youngest child in a musical family from upstate New York, he learned recording on his music teacher father’s Fostex eight-track tape recorder. A multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, bass, keyboards and trombone, the artist who would become Otis McDonald studied drums at Eastman School of Music.

He gravitated to the Bay Area, home to the sound that he loved. “All those funk records—Herbie Hancock, Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power—the linear style that was not about the backbeat so much as it was about syncopation,” enthuses the artist. He now has a room at Hyde Studios in San Francisco, where his favorite records were tracked.

In 16 years gigging around the Bay Area, he played clubs, recorded as a session musician, taught music, and, prior to his online emergence, was touring with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. “My dream job as an 18-year-old—playing in a jam band at festivals,” he laughs.

YouTube offered a gig creating music for their new royalty-free library. “In addition, they were going to give me credit. YouTube is the biggest streaming service in the world. I thought if the music was good and felt human, hopefully people would put it in their videos and a certain percentage of viewers would want to further explore the music.”

As the YouTube traffic exploded, the artist and his team migrated the tracks to Spotify to gauge the traction. “Within months it shot up,” he says, “because there were millions of videos with my music.”

The Otis McDonald persona was devised to mirror the music’s streetwise vibe. “I learned how to brand myself. My wife and I drew a logo and I put on those big sunglasses and a coat that was a tribute to The Beatles, with a Mandarin collar. I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my music very seriously.”

The Otis McDonald studio debut People Music is released via TrackTribe, a collective of musicians that is both a label and a talent incubator. “We have all contributed music to the YouTube Audio Library. We thought it would be cool to come together,” he says. “For the last five years we’ve been building a library of music, not with the idea of how we are going to distribute it, but knowing that it is valuable.”

Creating royalty-free music for Facebook and YouTube—the largest distributor of music in the world‚—affords tremendous visibility. “The power these companies have is far greater than radio, labels or TV networks,” says the artist. “The people choosing the music are the ones making decisions. It’s not millions of dollars spent to put music on the radio and forcing listeners to like it. It’s a new type of music industry.”

McDonald and his TrackTribe colleagues are envisioning how their artistry can form a charitable arm of the music business. Meanwhile, making feel-good music as Otis McDonald is the goal. “If there is one thing I’d like to do with the music it is to give people a little more joy than they had before they heard it,” he concludes.

Contact Jesse Cutler, JP Cutler Media, jesse@jpcultlermedia.com.

Experience Otis McDonald at otismacmusic.com.