Alex O’Neill’s transformation from a student at Grosse Pointe South High School experimenting with electronic music in the basement of his parents’ home into Ayokay (A-OK), a Gold Record singer-songwriter-producer, began at the age of 14 when he resisted his mother’s urging to take piano lessons.
He opted instead for learning to record with an older brother, Mike — who, during his downtime from studies as a medical student at Wayne State University, sang and played drums and guitar in the basement of their home. “He was very, much into music and I looked up to him so much, I was eager to bond with him,” O’Neill says of his brother, who’s eight years older and is now an emergency room physician in Miami.
As he taught himself the fundamentals of both recording and electronic music, O’Neill invited a schoolmate and aspiring rapper, Mike Temrowski, to join him in those basement sessions. Their collaboration would later propel them to the top of the electronic music charts; Temrowski is a top touring solo act known as Quinn XCII (Quinn 92).
The explosion of music service providers like Spotify, Apple Music, and Sirius XM has given freshly minted artists lucrative platforms where songs and albums are measured not by how many records or CDs they sell, but by how many times fans download or stream their music from those services.
Ayokay’s signature hit, “Kings of Summer,” recorded in college, and Quinn XCII’s “Another Day in Paradise,” written in his friend’s Grosse Pointe basement, each attained Gold Medal status with more than 100 million streams each.
O’Neill explains that in 2013, the burgeoning electronic music market catapulted once-anonymous record producers to the forefront. “That was it for me; I knew then I wanted to produce,” he says. “I locked myself in the basement for a year. I was writing these songs and I didn’t know what a pre-chorus was or what a bridge was, or that a verse was different than a chorus. I didn’t know anything.”
While he was studying at the University of Michigan, O’Neill used a student recording studio to produce “Kings of Summer,” featuring Temrowski singing chorus. The song quickly rose to No. 1 on Spotify. “I didn’t even pay for Spotify at the time because we didn’t know what that meant. And that’s when the first checks started to come in,” he says. “Spotify pays between $5,000 and $7,000 for a million streams. We’re still in college and, in less than two months, we made $70,000.”
He also didn’t know about Ian Desmond, a Texas Rangers baseball player who adopted “Kings of Summer” during the 2016 season. The song played every time Desmond went up to bat. “The song blew up in Texas and became the No. 1 song in Texas, and that’s how we got signed. We got called by a bunch of record labels and we decided to sign with Columbia Records,” O’Neill says.
With six-figure contracts in their pockets, the students moved to Los Angeles, where today O’Neill performs, writes, produces, and discovers new talent.