The Power of Song

Songwriter Ryan McDaniel rehearses at the piano.
At Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis and later at IUPUI, the most beautiful music that Ryan McDaniel could imagine was one of his basketball shots whispering softly through the net.

These days, the Indianapolis native is making music of a different kind: an intriguing blend of rhythm-and-blues and pop in his new single Naïve, a sound that already has earned McDaniel recognition from audiences locally, regionally and even nationally through the Black Entertainment Network.

For the Brebeuf graduate, who will pick up his degree in communications studies from the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI this spring, it’s the latest step toward his career dream — becoming a successful musical recording star. A journey begun at age six when he started classical piano lessons has carried him from Indy to Los Angeles, including a brush with his idol, Grammy-winning artist Stevie Wonder.

McDaniel may look like he could still hold his own on the court against close friends and NBA stars Eric Gordon and Jeff Teague, but he isn’t naïve about the road in his chosen career, despite his initial success. “Music careers are built on hard work,” he says. “There are no shortcuts.”

Song came quickly

McDaniel wrote his hit song — available on iTunes — in short order. “I was sitting around one day playing (the keyboard), and in 10 minutes I had a sound I liked,” McDaniel says. “The words were coming to me as I went along; overall, it probably took about an hour, start to finish.”

McDaniel's musical career began on a keyboard like this one.

McDaniel's musical career began on a keyboard much like this one.

That doesn’t mean Naïve remained unchanged. “I’m such a perfectionist that I mixed the song seven or eight times, and tweaked the song for two weeks or so,” McDaniel says. “But I kept coming back to the original sound I heard that first day.” The next step was creating a music video. McDaniel enlisted Indianapolis-based video director Kassim Norris to shoot it, and they filmed in Chicago “to create that kind of gritty, urban feel we wanted,” McDaniel adds.

Like most fledgling musical artists, McDaniel has a limited budget. But Norris needed musical content to show off his video skills, just like McDaniel needed video expertise. Such relationships are common on the Indianapolis music scene, the IUPUI senior says. McDaniel supports his dreams, for instance, by doing background vocals for other performers, arranging songs or engineering recording sessions, as he did for the O’Jays on their 2010 Christmas CD.

A communications studies degree might seem an odd choice to some to prepare for a recording career. Not McDaniel. “It gives me more options,” he says. “Music is all about communicating with an audience; why not learn skills that help me be a better performer?”

His knowledge plus his affinity for social interaction has helped build word-of-mouth for his career. “Social media and the Web have changed the music industry forever,” he says. “Social media is really free advertising, to get people talking about who you are and what you do.” With roughly 4,000 Facebook friends and closing in on 1,000 followers on Twitter, McDaniel is following the new trend in music. “To people who work with (music) labels, that’s what matters these days, even more than how much they like your music. All they want to know is your numbers!”

Career crossroads

Ironically, a basketball injury may have changed his life. “The summer before my senior year (at Brebeuf), I got a stress fracture in my back, and the doctors wouldn’t let me do anything related to basketball,” McDaniel says. “I had to sit out for six months, and it was driving me crazy. Making music kept me going.” When healthy, he tried to continue both careers, but found himself at a crossroads. “I couldn’t do both basketball and music and do them well,” McDaniel says. “To be good, you have to commit yourself. And by then, I knew that music was my path.”

Wonder remains “my all-time favorite, a legend,” says McDaniel, who says Wonder’s versatility is a big part of the lure. “He moves so easily from one type of music to the next. That’s what I’d like to do.”

McDaniel hosted a viewing party to prepare for the launch of his music video.

McDaniel hosted a viewing party for friends and family to prepare for the launch of his music video.

The music superstar was part of McDaniel’s most nerve-wracking moment. “I got a chance to perform in the Los Angeles area, and the promoter saw I was doing a Stevie Wonder song,” McDaniel recalls. “He said Stevie sometimes goes to clubs to see new acts, and might be in the crowd. I told him ‘yeah, right, that’ll happen.’”

Only the promoter turned out to be a prophet. Host Tony Rock — comedian Chris Rock’s brother — opened the show “by saying ‘Stevie Wonder’s in the audience.’ All I could think was I was doing one of Stevie Wonder’s songs in front of him! What if I messed it up?” But the song went well, and McDaniel got a chance to meet his idol. “He couldn’t have been nicer — that was a real thrill!”

McDaniel’s mother and manager, Pat McDaniel, remembers that night well. “I was in bed asleep when I got a call from Ryan. At that hour, I thought something terrible had happened. Instead, he was so excited he was practically shouting into the phone!” she laughs.

McDaniel sees both of his passions, basketball and music, as two sides of the same coin. “I always felt you do what you can to inspire and motivate as many people in life as possible, to make their lives better or more enjoyable,” he says.