How Two Unsigned Teens From Nebraska Sold Millions of Records in Less Than Two Years (And Never Lost Their Chill)
When a celebrity photo shoot is planned, there are countless people to deal with and multiple hoops to jump through. On the actual day of the shoot, over a dozen people from the artist’s team might be on site: everyone from publicists, managers, agents, stylists, bodyguards, girlfriends – just to name a few. And more often than not, the talent arrives late – in some cases, very late. So when Jack Gilinsky and Jack Johnson arrived not just on time, but early, we were impressed. And when we realized they came by themselves, with no entourage, we were extremely impressed.
Throughout the day, Jack and Jack, a platinum-selling duo with millions of combined followers, continually thanked YSBnow, a brand new digital platform that most people haven’t heard of. And throughout the day, over and over, we realized why it’s unfair to call them social media stars. Let’s go back to where it all began.
“We were normal high school kids.” –Jack Gilinsky
Jack Gilinsky and Jack Johnson have been best friends since kindergarten. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the two share a first name, and a mutual love of music. “I had two older sisters and they were always making me sing,” says Gilinsky. After receiving a school-issued laptop in seventh grade, Johnson used it to discover underground hip-hop that wasn’t played on Top 40 radio. “I always loved it,” says Johnson. “When we were chilling, we’d just throw on a beat and start freestyling.” Freestyling would soon become an integral part of the guys’ social lives. “It was definitely one of those activities that we would do when we were bored cause it was funny,” says Gilinsky. “Something would always come out that would just be funny – like, ‘What did you just say!?’”
And it wasn’t freestyling, but their funny personalities that first got Jack and Jack noticed on Vine. “The Vine thing kind of took off within a few months of us starting it,” says Johnson. “We were hitting the six figures in followers. We had a few viral Vines here and there.” But the decision to post a cover of Trey Songz “Dive In” would take things to a completely different level. The three-time Grammy nominee tweeted about it, followed them on Twitter, and even DM-ed them his number. “If anything came out of that, it was inspiration,” says Gilinsky. “Like we’re good enough to get someone’s attention!”
“We didn’t know what the next step was.” –Jack Johnson
The Trey Songz Vine gave them the confidence to record their own original music, but they weren’t quite sure how to do it. Omaha isn’t exactly notorious for being a hip-hop mecca. “We didn’t know what the next step was,” says Johnson. That would change when Travis and Turner Eakins, a pair of local teen producers, reached out via e-mail and invited the Jacks to come record at their house. “That spawned our first four singles, which all came out of a closet in Omaha,” says Johnson.
In January of 2014, Jack and Jack released their debut single, “Distance,” on iTunes. “We didn’t expect it to chart at all,” says Gilinsky. Imagine their surprise when it shot to number 7 on the iTunes Hip-Hop charts. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘This is real, we can do this – our fans support it,’” says Johnson.
They may have been topping the iTunes charts and traveling to meet thousands of fans during most weekends, but within the walls of Westside High School, they were just, well, Jack and Jack. “I think what really helped us was staying in school and finishing with the rest of our class,” says Johnson. “We went to prom with our friends. Even though we were gaining this crazy notoriety on-line, and everyone in our school was just like, ‘Oh I see them every day, they’re our homies.’”
“There was a point where we could have let it get to our heads.” –Jack Johnson
In 2015, Jack and Jack left Omaha and made the move to California. Yet despite their rising superstardom and platinum-selling status, they’ve remained completely humble. “I think there was a point where we could have let it get to our heads,” says Johnson. “There was probably a breaking point where it’s like okay, right now you let it go to your head or you don’t and that’s the direction you take.”
And they credit their friendship for helping them stay so levelheaded. “I know exactly who Jack was before this and he knows exactly who I was before this,” Gilinsky says with a laugh. ”Like what are you talking about? You’re still that lame-ass kid from Omaha! We’ll always be those kids!”
They’ll also always be those kids who love their fans more than anything. A lot of fans tell the guys that they’ve helped them survive tough times, but Jack and Jack say that it’s actualy the other way around. “Anything that’s going on in my head, once we hit the meet and greet and start meeting our fans, I’m just a whole new person,” says Johnson. “It’s hard to explain, but when I’m around our fans, it’s always positivity. It’s always fun, even if I had a long flight and got no sleep or something. We’ll take pictures with every single fan because our fans are an integral part of our lives. Our lives and our fans, they mesh 100 percent.”