When a musician is asked to go before the House of Representatives, images of angry Parents Music Resource Center hearings of the 1980s are generally what comes to mind. But for pianist Isaac Shepard, the situation couldn't be any more different. The Ladera Ranch resident's music has been streamed more than 60 million times across the globe on Pandora, so it makes sense that the music giant would select Shepard to represent them on Capitol Hill, where he would explain to elected officials how independent artists monetize outside the major-label universe.
Born and raised in Orange County, Shepard got his first keyboard when he was 12. He never had the formal classical training that someone traditionally has when playing New Age music. Relying instead on instinct and feel, Shepard used his ears to sharpen his musical sense, allowing him to flourish without delving too deep into music theory. "I always had an interest in music," the 37-year-old pianist says. "We grew up listening and watching our parents play. My dad was a Beatles freak and loved all things around there. For piano things, they played several of George Winston's albums, and I definitely appreciated more of that music based on those."
Shepard released his first solo instrumental album in 1998. But it took about a decade for him to stumble into his success. In 2006, he was working at Amazon as a lead game programmer. During his spare time at home, he created his own web-based game, Music Catch, which garnered more than 1 million plays in 10 days.
The game featured musical notes and beats coming across the screen based on the music being played. The music was strong enough to pique the curiosity of gamers, who wanted to know where to find it. Shepard scrambled to get his music on all major digital retailers and YouTube, which became one of the main places where people could hear his output. "I wanted to become the go-to place on YouTube for my own music, which is pretty ironic," he says. "The YouTube portion really brought attention to my music in Asia."
And it's a good thing it did. His most fervent fan base is in the Far East. Shepard's piano music reached No. 1 on iTunes' New Age charts in the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Spain and Malaysia; No. 3 on the classical chart in Taiwan; and No. 4 on the New Age chart in Singapore.
Millions and millions of plays later, Music Catch proved to be the launching pad Shepard needed in order to leave Amazon and embark on his own musical journey. Since 2008, Shepard has released six albums, scored several game soundtracks and a commercial for Knott's Berry Farm and has even partaken in an American Music Awards.
Shepard submitted his music to Pandora in 2009, and success spiraled out of control–in a good way. It's what spurred the Pandora brass to invite Shepard to Washington, D.C., to represent independent musicians. He dazzled members of the House of Representatives–even having a piano moved into the meeting room, which he says was a monumental task.
But seeing his fans' comments on his website is what resonates with him the most.
"I feel like I don't deserve any of this type of praise," Shepard confesses. "On my site, there's a collection of quotes from fans that I've pulled from over the years, and it's crazy to me how many times people have said they've cried [to the music]. It's overwhelming that this music is touching their hearts and their lives in that way."