A Teenager, Her Ukulele and a Bedroom Pop Empire in the Making

mxmtoon’s diaristic songs have helped her win audiences on nearly every social media platform. But she’s in no rush to cash in on viral fame.


CreditCreditDamien Maloney for The New York Times

Joe Coscarelli

OAKLAND, Calif. — Like many of today’s post-Y2K teenagers, Maia, a preternaturally composed and thoughtful young woman from the San Francisco Bay Area, can rattle off her old screen names and social media accounts as easily as her birth date.

First, there was the Gmail account her parents started for her when she was 9, after she returned from camp feeling left out because she had to give new friends her mother’s email. A couple years later, there was a YouTube channel where she attempted to mimic the vloggers who had become her celebrities. Most formative was probably the Instagram account @mxmtoon, where Maia was commissioned (free of charge; she was 11) to do cartoon drawings for strangers on the internet.“I think I got up to, like, 500 followers on Instagram,” she recalled, before the demand got too overwhelming and she let the account fizzle out.

In the time since, Maia, now 19, has tried it all, and stuck with most of it: Tumblr. SoundCloud. Facebook. Vine. Twitter. Snapchat. Bandcamp. Pinterest. Twitch. TikTok. And so on.

Along the way, her parents, both tech-savvy educators, warned of the obvious perils of living publicly. “We were really very clear about wanting to make sure that our kids understood their footprint,” said Maia’s father, Cameron, in the family’s kitchen, before Maia chimed in, mocking in a singsong voice a line she’d obviously heard dozens of times: “Everything you put online is online forever.”

What her parents didn’t know, until things got too big to hide, was that their daughter was not only living a huge portion of her life online, but she was becoming kind of famous for it. Under the name mxmtoon (pronounced em-ex-em-toon), Maia — who keeps her last name private — began secretly posting ukulele songs she recorded in her bedroom, beginning with simple covers before finding a gushing audience of international peers for her diaristic original songs with titles like “1-800-DATEME” (sample lyrics: “I prefer Netflix over everyone/I’m so Tumblr/hashtag relatable”), “Life Online” and “Feelings Are Fatal.”

In barely two years, as her music has ricocheted around platforms, bringing new followers every day, Maia, who overflows with earnestness and giggles, has assembled an independent, D.I.Y. mini-empire almost by accident. Rather than viewing each social network as an after-the-fact marketing arm for her music, she has taken to each on its own terms, creating a constellation of content that has made her not only an emerging pop star, but an unintentional — or at least innate — influencer fluent in short-form comedy clips (TikTok), video game streaming (Twitch), instructional ukulele videos (YouTube) and more.

“I never approached the internet as a branding tool — it was always a place of self-expression,” Maia explained sincerely in the basement guest room of her parents’ house that has since become her recording studio. “When it became this thing where I had to understand that I am the brand, that was really confusing and it still is.”

On a drive around her hometown later, Maia added out of nowhere: “I definitely just thought I was going to go to college on the West Coast and move back here to be a teacher. That was the life plan, until all of a sudden it wasn’t at all.”

Because true online purity is all but extinct, mxmtoon has instead become a full-fledged business. A gap year after high school became a longer pause as Maia took on managers, a touring agent, a publicist and a lawyer, and has commenced agreeing to every kind of entertainment-industry meeting imaginable. In September, as mxmtoon, she released her debut album, “The Masquerade,” which did not have the backing of a proper label but received a heavy push (and an original podcast) from Spotify, an eager supporter since the company noticed the high levels of organic interest in her music.

Rosa Asciolla, the head of North American artist and label marketing for Spotify, said that the company differentiates between plays that come from its own editorial pushes, like putting an artist on an official playlist, and those that originate from a user’s own saved songs. With mxmtoon, “We could see that people were listening from their own libraries, which is a high indicator of engagement for us,” she said, crediting Maia’s emotional honesty. (For a time, mxmtoon released music as part of Spotify’s since-shuttered direct distribution service for artists.)

Now, many microgenerations after the first young musicians went viral online, there exist plenty of blueprints for success as well as cautionary tales. The mxmtoon team has opted for the complicated tactic of hitting the gas and holding back at the same time, with her manager, Max Gredinger, noting that they have conversations about avoiding burnout for Maia “every day.”

While mxmtoon’s music has the intimate, conversational folk-pop simplicity of the Moldy Peaches or Regina Spektor, mixed with the Gen-Z, postgenre bedroom instincts of Clairo, girl in red and Beabadoobee, Gredinger pointed to new megastars like Shawn Mendes and Billie Eilish as models.

“Those artists had years of genuine discovery and building brand equity and brand awareness — it’s not a flash-in-the-pan type thing,” he said. “We’re not looking at a two-, three-year plan, we’re looking at a 10-, 20-year plan.”

Putting that into practice meant not trying to push a song like “Prom Dress,” mxmtoon’s most undeniable account of high-school angst, to pop radio for fear it might blow up too fast and too fleetingly. “To pigeonhole her with a song would be selling ourselves short, even if it is leaving money on the table in the short term,” Gredinger said.

Instead, Maia, who released every song on her album in two versions — an acoustic one, true to her online beginnings, and one with full studio production — is embarking on a carefully planned tour to build her grass-roots fan base. Though the arrangement is far from economical, the dates and locations are booked in a way that allows Maia to have about a week on, followed by a week off at home — “for my mental health and my stamina,” she said.

Raised in a warm cocoon of liberal Northern California values, Maia has a highly developed emotional intelligence and interpersonal acuity, though she can sometimes sound like the type of eager teenager who is echoing the grown-ups around her. A self-described “spastic and kind of quirky” nerd who got teary-eyed after getting a C on a math test, she studied architecture, dance and circuitry, learned ukulele in class and even played in a school rock band, singing songs like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” which came out the year after she was born.

“I just kind of did everything everybody told me to do,” Maia said — that is, until she found a freer version of herself online. “Social media was the way of me understanding who I was outside of the format of school.”

Still, her solid foundation of familial trust and high-achievement came in handy after she gained an audience. Maia — and by extension, mxmtoon — exists as a kind of poster child for an extremely online youth who is not a shallow zombie, but rather, has brought a broad-tent sense of empathy to her creative endeavors and attracted others like her.

Maia, who identifies as bisexual, described her fans as “very respectful,” often “young women of color or young people that are L.G.B.T.Q. or sharing a lot of the same identifiers that I do.” And though she admits to spending too much time on her apps, she has developed a sense of perspective when it comes to learning how to be a role model and a public figure.

“There’s no guidebook on how to deal with the amount of scrutiny that you might face on a day-to-day basis as an artist, especially as a young woman of color,” she said, adding: “Oh, to be a teenager on the internet!

For now, Maia said she was happy as just that, though she can be ambivalent when it comes to her longer-term ambitions. “Because I’m so young and because everything has happened at such a rapid pace, I’m still understanding what I want my artist project to be,” she said. “Everything gets increasingly more intense as I go along.”

There are moments that she feels ready to conquer, like the day she got her first professional in-ear monitors for performing live. “I was wearing them and looking in the mirror, and I was like, ‘I’m a damn pop star!’” she said, collapsing into laughter. “Ariana Grande has these!” She plans to meet with labels after playing New York shows in November.

Other times, Maia wants an expiration date on her life as a performer. “Do I see myself attending the Grammys?” she wondered. “I guess … yes? But I don’t want to be in my 30s and still doing that,” she added, as if her 30s were her 80s. She recently had her first studio sessions as a songwriter, and could see falling into the background by composing for others in the future.

“It’s so cool, of course, to exist with such a big audience,” Maia continued. “But I also know myself and know that it’s not something I want to be doing my whole life.”

Soon, she will move out of her parents’ house and head to New York, to room with her younger brother, who recently started college in Brooklyn. They already have plans to get matching tattoos, to go with the ones she has with her father (cornflower and thistle, for her German and Scottish heritage) and with her mother, Cheryl (cherry blossoms, for her Chinese side).

Back at home in California, Maia’s parents will keep up with her adventures through social media. “I’m absolutely worried to death for her,” said her father, Cameron, who is still coming to terms with the effects of her internet fame and has taken to reading books like “All You Need to Know About the Music Business.” But he’s also seen the allure, and he rattled off statistics about mxmtoon’s listeners across platforms. “I’m probably more obsessed with it than she is,” he admitted.

Using his own facility with D.I.Y. technology, he even built a digital counter that connects via Wi-Fi to the mxmtoon accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Spotify, and now sits on the kitchen windowsill. As Maia forges on, posting her music, microthoughts and inside jokes along the way, her parents can watch the numbers creep upward with every new follower.

Joe Coscarelli is a culture reporter with a focus on pop music. His work seeks to pull back the curtain on how hit songs and emerging artists are discovered, made and marketed. He previously worked at New York magazine and The Village Voice. @joecoscarelli

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