Start Me Up: how these music legends got their big break

In partnership with Amex Gold Unsigned

There’s no single route to success and no sure-fire way to get your big break. Musicians from all walks of lives have found success in unlikely ways.

As American Express relaunches its Amex Gold Unsigned initiative, which this year, in addition to supporting emerging artists, is shining a light on the importance of grassroots venues, we look back at some of the origin stories of the biggest names and how they got their big break.

The Beatles

The Fab Four’s origin story is etched into rock history. Paul and John were in rival skiffle bands in Liverpool in the late ‘50s, and their mutual friend George Harrison auditioned for the group on the top deck of a bus. After cutting their teeth in Hamburg’s raucous music scene, they caught the eye of music manager Brian Epstein, who shopped the band to various record labels: Decca Records rejected the band saying that “guitars were on the way out”. George Martin, who would become the band’s producer, confidante and “fifth Beatle” snapped them up for EMI Records and recorded an early demo.

The Rolling Stones

Decca Records jumped at the chance to sign the Stones in 1963. Two years earlier, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met on a train platform in their native Kent, Jagger’s armful of blues records piquing Keef’s interest. The duo pulled together a group and played their first gig at the Marquee Club in London and attracted the eye of manager Andrew Loog Oldham. As remembered by Jagger at a recent press conference, they celebrated the release of their modest debut album – full of covers – with two journalists at a Denmark Street pub, one from NME and the other Melody Maker. “The reviews were… mixed, but it sold well,” Jagger laughed. 18 months later, they’d write the hit single ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’.


Madonna’s first career goal was to be a dancer: she won a college scholarship to study dance, but dropped out and moved to New York with “$35 in my pocket”. She played in a band called The Breakfast Club and made appearances in dance troupes. She then began making music as a solo artist and took her music to the clubs and lobbied DJs to play the records. She eventually landed a meeting with Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records [The Ramones, Talking Heads] and released her self-titled debut album the following year in 1983.


At first, Oasis – or The Rain, as they were then known – were decidedly Liam’s band. Older brother Noel, who had worked as a roadie with Inspiral Carpets, needed convincing to join, though saw it as an outlet for his love of songwriting. With the help of a contact he’d made on the road with Inspiral Carpets, they pieced together the ‘Live Demonstration’ demo tape, and distributed 10 copies to the industry. They eventually got invited to open a show at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut in Glasgow, where Creation Records’ Alan McGee was attending: he was so impressed with their show, he offered to sign them on the spot before hearing the mixtape.

Lady Gaga

Stefani Germanotta learned the piano at the young age of four and kept up music and performing throughout her childhood. Her early career was full of fits and starts: she was turned down for theatre shows in New York, performed at open mic nights and had the occasional acting job in The Sopranos. When the Lady Gaga persona took shape, she caught the eye of the industry through her songwriting. Eventually, Akon heard a reference vocal she put down for one of his tracks in the studio and convinced music mogul Jimmy Iovine to sign her as a performer. A year later in 2008, her debut album ‘The Fame’ was released.

Justin Bieber

Bieber’s origins are etched into internet lore and would be a path many acts would follow thereafter. In 2007, Bieber’s mother uploaded a video to YouTube of him singing Ne-Yo’s ‘So Sick’ for his extended family to see. Music manager Scooter Braun clicked on the link by accident, but was intrigued by the youngster’s performance. He eventually took him to meet Usher and became his protégé, and would become instrumental in his early success; in 2010, ‘Baby’ became a worldwide smash.

The Weeknd

Like many emerging musicians, Abel Tesfaye – aka The Weeknd – had to make his own luck. With the rise of YouTube, he used the platform to anonymously share music under the pseudonym ‘xoxxxoooxo’. Fellow Toronto native Drake caught on and shared Tesfaye’s music with his followers, and his music was played over the stereo during his shifts at American Apparel, his colleagues were unaware of his mysterious side project. Eventually the world at large came to know who he was and he launched his own record label XO to share his debut mixtape ‘House of Balloons’ in 2011.

Billie Eilish

Since becoming a generation-defining figure, Billie has stayed true to her beginnings. She was homeschooled alongside her older brother Finneas, who was writing and recording music with his own band, and the pair would record music for fun in their bedrooms. Billie took a shine to ‘Ocean Eyes’, a song Finneas had originally planned to record with his band The Slightlys. It was uploaded to SoundCloud in October 2015 initially so that Billie could use the song in a dance recital, but caught the ear of listeners worldwide. Her ensuing debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ and the 2021 follow-up ‘Happier Than Ever’ was recorded at home in the same humble surroundings.

And here’s a chance to get your big break too…

Amex Gold Unsigned is an incredible opportunity for emerging artists to catch their big break, perform at a live showcase and potentially win a record deal this November. To enter, submit your track via Pirate here by October 29 for consideration by our panel.

The post Start Me Up: how these music legends got their big break appeared first on NME.

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