UCity artist licenses viral video tune to major music group


Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

In September, Zachary Wexelman was strumming a guitar in his music studio when he received an email from Universal Music Group. The company’s A&R (artist & repertoire) team wanted to license a song Wexelman wrote. That’s the same Universal whose publishing group artists include Taylor Swift, Drake, Elton John, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Billie Eilish and Justin Bieber.

For Wexelman, 33, it was the culmination of a dream he’s had since attending middle school in Clayton. A career in the music industry has always been his goal. After years of grinding and honing his craft, the call from Universal came in large part through his online presence on the short-form video-sharing app TikTok.

“I had one TikTok tutorial that went viral with over 3 million views, and that’s how I got this deal,” Wexelman said. “Initially I thought, ‘This has to be a scam,’ but it turned out it was real. It was a long process. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved with these big labels. They licensed the song, and now I’m trying to leverage it into a deal or another song. It’s a start.”

Zachary Wexelman: “Insecurities”

“Insecurities” is the song licensed by Universal, an original composition Wexelman wrote and performed under his stage name Real Topeka People. It’s one of several pop tunes he created that are available for download from Amazon Music and the iTunes Store. The TikTok video that boosted his musical credibility is called “How to Make Indie Dance Music in 60 Seconds” (online at https://bit.ly/indie-dance-music or view the full, finished audio on YouTube at youtu.be/3-Wyxgmy4MY.

TikTok is also where you’ll find a wide range of Wexelman videos, many of which are music how-tos, covering every genre from hip-hop to disco. His TikToks take a wry look at the music business from the perspective of an artist who spent a decade in Los Angeles trying to break out. He even posted a 36-second summary of his success story, “How I Managed to Sign a Deal With Universal Music” (online at https://bit.ly/universal-deal).

In addition to being a singer-songwriter, Wexelman is a TikTok content creator who has discovered the importance of the social media site for emerging artists. The music business is not like it once was. A&R reps from big labels no longer hang out in music clubs hoping to find new talent. Now they search out the next big thing on YouTube and TikTok.

Zachary Wexelman: From humble beginnings

The music journey for Wexelman began in high school, when he had a band with some friends. They played small gigs, but his drive to make it big was always there, says Aaron Cannon, his longtime friend.

“Zach was always the most deeply invested in music,” said Cannon, 33. “For the rest of us, it was a hobby. He recorded guitar riffs, and he obviously spent hours working on them, and he really had a hunger for it.”

Cannon and Wexelman played soccer and basketball growing up, and they were Hebrew school friends at B’rith Sholom Kneseth Israel. Later, they went on a Birthright trip together.

“As high schoolers, we connected more with Judaism, and that culminated in college, when we went to Israel together,” Cannon said. “It gave us a deep understanding of what Israel was like and what it meant to our culture and background.”

Wexelman, who is now a member of Kol Rinah, graduated from Boston University with a degree in film. After college, he went to L.A. to try his luck in the entertainment industry, which can be a brutal and humbling experience. For 10 years, he worked in video production and dabbled in music. He created a band, the Space Cadets, managed by his college friend Justin Cohen.

“Literally the first time I ever met him I stumbled into his dorm room and funny enough he was playing Nelly’s ‘Ride with Me’ on acoustic guitar,” said Cohen, 32. “That literal second I thought, ‘This kid’s got talent.’ Zach is the most talented person I know musically.”

Cohen now co-hosts a podcast called “Top Fives and Deep Dives” that examines music, film and TV. The podcast’s spirited intro jingle was written by Wexelman.

“The theme song has become quite a staple of the show, and everyone asks me about it,” Cohen said. “I’m glad that Zach is starting to get the recognition he deserves. He’s been working on it for so long. A lot of artists work with songwriters, and the fact that Zach can do it all himself is becoming a rarer and rarer skill in the music industry.”

Wexelman said jingle writing is one more revenue stream for a singer-songwriter who has a knowledge of audio production.

“I write jingles for a company called Songfinch,” he said. “They were written up in Rolling Stone magazine, and they reached out to me because they’d seen my TikToks. There’s an art to it. You have to try to find that earworm.”

Zachary Wexelman: A one-man band

Like Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, Wexelman can’t read music. He plays by ear. It’s entirely possible he inherited his musical talent from his parents. His late father, Joel, played in a band called the Physical Imaginations while a student at University City High School. Wexelman’s mother, Randi Mozenter (board chair of Kol Rinah), is a talented pianist.

“My dad played keyboard, and he used to sing me Jewish lullabies,” Wexelman said. “One that stuck with me was ‘Henei Ma Tov.’”

That memory launched Zachary into an impromptu pitch perfect a cappella rendition of the 133rd Psalm. His singing voice, guitar chops and mastery of the technical aspects of recording enable Wexelman to be a one-man band. It gives him the freedom to create TikTok music videos and pop tunes from his basement studio in University City. The setup is more conducive to creativity than his former apartment in West Hollywood.

“I came back to St. Louis during the summer of 2020,” he said. “The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had an adversarial relationship with the city of Los Angeles. I wasn’t having good experiences, and I reached my breaking point.

“I had an apartment with paper thin walls and couldn’t be very loud. It’s really important having a space where I can make as much noise as I want to without bothering anyone, because that eats into the creative process.”

Zachary Wexelman at work 

Wexelman treats the composing and songwriting process as a full-time job. He thinks of it as trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Sometimes a guitar riff turns into a memorable song.

Igniting the spark of creativity that generates a hit pop tune can occur just as easily in St. Louis as in New York or Southern California. In fact, one of Wexelman’s recent songs pays homage to his hometown. It’s called “STL” and was described by the online music industry publication Atwood Magazine as being “a tender love letter to the city that made him who he is today.”

“I wish I had come back to St. Louis sooner,” Wexelman said. “I tried to acclimate to L.A. for years, and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t, and when I came back here I realized, ‘Oh, this is who I am.’

“I was in L.A. for 10 years. I always dreamed about going there because that’s where the film and music industry is, but it’s so saturated with artists — every waiter is an actor or a musician. And there’s no love for music. It’s dog-eat-dog. It was not a good environment for being creative. I wasn’t reluctant to come back here because it’s where I grew up and I had good memories of growing up here.”

Zachary Wexelman