Five times unsigned artists had their big breakthrough moment

From Arctic Monkeys to Lil Nas X

In partnership with Amex Gold Unsigned

When embarking on a career in music, many new and unsigned artists will dream of experiencing their breakthrough moment when everything just triumphantly clicks into place. With global access to music at a scale never witnessed before, these moments of opportunity really can come in all shapes and sizes. A humble song recorded in a bedroom might one day explode in popularity on TikTok, or an influential music blogger may come across a hopeful tweet promoting a SoundCloud mixtape and give it the spotlight it deserves. It could even be through more traditional means, such as a moment in a live show when a sold-out room of excitable fans spine-tinglingly shout every single lyric back at their new heroes.

And then there are the kind of breakout opportunities like the one being offered by the new American Express Gold Unsigned initiative. A new partnership between NME and Amex, Amex Gold Unsigned is giving one unsigned UK artist the chance to soundtrack and feature in a cutting-edge American Express advertising campaign. There are also a host of additional benefits on offer for the winner, including a £10,000 sync fee, mentoring from music industry professionals and a slot on the Stargazer Stage at Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire on August 5.

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Stay tuned for the big reveal of the six shortlisted acts who have made it to the final round of Amex Gold Unsigned. In the meantime, here’s five great examples of when some of today’s leading musicians enjoyed their big breakthrough moment.

Arctic Monkeys

arctic monkeys
Arctic Monkeys in Sheffield in 2005 (Picture: Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images)

“We played a gig in Sheffield and as soon as I started singing the entire crowd sang it back to me,” AM frontman Alex Turner remarked during the Sheffield four-piece’s first-ever NME interview in 2005. “I thought, ‘Something’s going on here!’” The incredible rise of Arctic Monkeys from 2003-05 was aided by the band giving away free CDs at their early gigs, as well as file-sharing fans who were desperate for their ‘Beneath The Boardwalk’ demos and sheer word-of-mouth (and very justified) fervour: a deal with Domino Records (who they’re still signed to today) inevitably followed. But the moment when the Monkeys could truly measure their huge success as unsigned artists arrived when their two-track debut EP ‘Five Minutes With Arctic Monkeys’, released on the band’s own Bang Bang Recordings, sold out of physical copies near-instantly in May 2005. Even today, the EP is being resold online by collectors for hundreds of pounds.

Lil Nas X

‘Old Town Road’ was one of the defining songs of 2018 and 2019 – and who said rap and country music were uneasy bedfellows? Lil Nas X’s breakthrough hit originated from a beat he bought for just $30 (£24) from the Netherlands producer YoungKio (who sampled Nine Inch Nails’ ‘34 Ghosts IV’), and its undeniably catchy and instantaneous appeal, paired with its meme-ready lyrics, naturally caught fire online and beyond in December 2018. The singer/rapper didn’t look back, signing to Columbia Records soon afterwards and recruiting Billy Ray Cyrus for a re-released remix of ‘Old Town Road’ that took over the charts once again in the summer of 2019.

Beabadoobee

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Philippines-born, London-raised singer/songwriter and all-round NME favourite Bea Kristi is gearing up to release her second Beabadoobee LP this month amid big summer festival slots at Glastonbury, TRNSMT and Reading & Leeds. Bea’s success story can be traced back to 2017, when a friend uploaded a muffled recording of her 2017 debut single ‘Coffee’ (which was recorded in her bedroom) onto Spotify, going on to receive hundreds of thousands of streams in the first few days. If that wasn’t enough of a breakthrough moment, then Bea’s viral YouTube cover of Karen O’s ‘The Moon Song’ really sealed the deal: Dirty Hit, home to Wolf Alice and The 1975, snapped her up then and there. It all happened so fast that she decided to keep her then-Instagram handle as a stage name: “I called myself Beabadoobee,” she told NME in 2019. “You can tell I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen!”

Gerry Cinnamon

Gerry Cinnamon
Gerry Cinnamon performs onstage during T In The Park at Strathallan Castle on July 8, 2016 in Perth, Scotland. (Picture: Carrie Davenport/Redferns)

The Glaswegian singer/songwriter is used to doing things on his own terms: take his live shows, which typically consist of just Cinnamon, an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a set of foot pedals (OK, and maybe a harmonica too). A humble set-up, but Cinnamon’s rousing music alone is enough to slay festival crowds, sell out stadiums (he’ll play two Hampden Park shows this summer) and bag a Number One album (2020’s ‘The Bonny’) – and he’s still doing all of this as an unsigned artist. Cinnamon is an authentic word-of-mouth sensation, and his effortless ability to pack out venues has been long-standing. In November 2016, Cinnamon summed up the hype around him by selling out Glasgow’s O2 ABC in just two days, with the only advertisement being a simple Facebook post. “I never even had a set list before I came on because I’m a shambles,” he later told Glasgow Live about that momentous gig.

Little Simz

“I want to make it known: I’m an artist, I’m someone that wants to make classic albums,” Little Simz declared to NME last year. The much-revered, NME Award-winning – and still very much independent – London rapper is certainly well on her way to racking up a hugely impressive discography, most recently with 2021’s ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’. Simz has enjoyed a plethora of big moments in her career already, including her first BRIT Awards win earlier this year. Some eyebrows were raised when Simz was honoured by the BRITs in their Best New Artist category (‘… Introvert’ was her fourth studio album – what took them so long?), but if that was the breakthrough moment required for Simz to truly ascend to the top table of UK music, so be it.

Be sure to check back at NME.com soon to find out the six shortlisted acts who have made it to the final round of Amex Gold Unsigned.

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