John West, singer and songwriter, at 3rd St. Promenade in Santa Monica. (Francine Orr )
On a recent breezy Saturday, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is, like most days, packed with tourists meandering and snapping pictures as the sounds of street acts — claps and chants from an army of break dancers popping and locking, traditional Middle Eastern music with belly dancer accompaniment, and the giggles of pedestrians clamoring to get a handshake from a tiny monkey — compete for attention.
Surrounded by it all is singer John West.
He is perched on a stool and focused on his guitar. Accompanied by a percussionist who pounds away at the cajon, West attracts a crowd with his soft falsetto and heavy melodies while his merchandise guy/manager passes out promotional fliers and peddles EPs.
For the last four years, the 28-year-old Baton Rouge, La., native has been a mainstay on the promenade, where he's fine-tuned his brand of acoustic/urban alternative pop that suggests Justin Timberlake and Jack Johnson. West has sold more than 35,000 copies of three independently released EPs while performing twice each Saturday and Sunday. Those impressive sales recently landed West a booking deal with Creative Artists Agency and a record deal with Mercury/Island Def Jam records, where he is at work on his as-yet-untitled debut.
After two songs he's amassed a crowd of nearly 100 onlookers, including a stable of starry-eyed girls with big hair, gaudy baubles and cutoffs. His easygoing persona and boy-next-door charm certainly help.
"Let's make a circle of community and friendship … and bare midriffs," West said, clearly taking notice of his new fans.
"I used to sell 40 to 50 CDs on a good day and on a slow day maybe one or three," said West during a break. "I took a hiatus and these huge crowds showed up when I came back. I thought, 'Oh, we're on to something.' We started developing that sound out there and were moving about 100 CDs a day."
Opting for the hustle of street performing in lieu of playing club gigs was a calculated move; he wanted to avoid the hassles of venue red tape. Plus, permits to perform on the promenade are only $37 a year — an investment he can make back, if he's lucky, in less than 10 minutes.
West choose the promenade over other street performance hotspots such as Universal CityWalk, where slots are doled out through auditions, and the Venice boardwalk, which is crowded with, as West says, "people who blow fire and run around in their underwear in roller skates."
He views the promenade performances not only as a way to sell copies of his work but as a way to get the word out about the occasional club show. "Shows are a way to work yourself up," said West, who sold out the Roxy last year and did the same at the Key Club in April. "The promenade is a great promotional angle for the shows themselves."
After various label meetings, his last came with David Massey, president of Mercury Records.
"He started telling us his vision of how I fit in today's music. He seemed excited," West said. "We walked in the next day and they said, 'We'd like to sign you.'"
West is especially proud of one perk he brokered into his deal: the freedom to play at the promenade for as long as possible.
"There's an authenticity to him … he had grown organically," Massey said. "He learned in street performing how to captivate an audience, how to be a compelling performer. We wanted him to continue to perform and build that base. He wanted to make an incredible album and for that he needed the time and the space."
Massey said the label is interested in nurturing West rather than pushing him to break immediately — though such proclamations can be a double-edged sword; there's still no decision on the first single, although it's a likely tossup between "Right Now," a retro soul midtempo produced by the Stereotypes (who have worked with Justin Bieber and Chris Brown), or the Top 40 ready "Already There."
Massey used film parlance to describe the label's intention: "On this level he's a wonderful independent movie. But we're going to take him to that next level."
West has already opened for a chart topper, B.o.B., and his album is being helmed by hit makers including Benny Blanco, the Stereotypes, Jerry Wonda and Ari Levine of production trio the Smeezingtons.
Levine, who enjoyed Grammy-nominated success with Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green and B.o.B., has long championed West and in return crafted songs tapped to make the project.
"He has a voice that has a very unique sound to it," Levine said. "He performs on the promenade, and if your songs are good enough to get you fans just by playing on the street, then you will be fine."
West even caught the eye of Randy Jackson of the Jacksons, who has come to see him a few times.
"This industry is political, and guys like him do have less of a shot now. It's harder, but he's certainly talented," Jackson said. "You can see by the crowd around him the success he will have."
Ben Ricciardi, West's manager, said he hasn't seen other street performers match West's profile.