When I ask Brandon O’Brien, the musical director of this year’s Ponystock festival, what other indie music communities could learn from the My Little Pony fandom, he responds without hesitation: “Generosity, Laughter, Kindness, Loyalty, Honesty, and the Magic of Friendship.” These are the “elements of harmony,” the central tenets of a show that has gone from a cartoon aimed at girls ages 2 to 11 to a cultural phenomenon, reported on by outlets ranging from Gawker to Fox News. The adult and adolescent fans of the show have been dubbed “bronies,” a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony,” and have created one of the most fruitful fan-art communities in existence. Relative outsiders like King of Partying Andrew W.K. describe their conventions as otherworldly, filled with a mixture of open-mindedness and good cheer that makes everyone feel welcome.
But what is their secret? How do they avoid the pitfalls of so many other indie music scenes? In reality, the brony music community is much more complex than it seems on the surface, and some of the problems that plague other indie music scenes have snuck their way in over time. But in my conversations with brony musicians, it became evident that most are staunchly committed to creating and sustaining an inclusive, accepting environment focused on positivity. Their stories show the possibilities for other indie artists if they collaborate and support each other with a spirit of generosity, but also the limits of a utopian music scene in the real world.
Perhaps the most remarkable facet of the brony fandom is its ability to ignite and reignite artistic passion. Nearly all the brony musicians speak of the spark—the indescribable force in the show and community that inspires people to pick up the guitar, the violin, or the piano for the first time in years, or for the first time in their lives. Brony rapper and singer Mic the Microphone’s first experience performing his own music ended with him being booed off a talent show stage at 14 years old while performing a Metal Gear Solid parody rap based off “The Real Slim Shady.” But when he began to hear My Little Pony fan music that “little spark” he had when he was 14 “popped back up.” He now has 66,105 YouTube subscribers. Brony guitarist and singer Bejoty says the magic hit him during a “jaw-dropping” musical number in Episode 11 (“Winter Wrap Up”). His musician side “went all in” and he composed an acoustic guitar cover of the song that weekend.
Both Bejoty and MandoPony (short for Mandolin Pony) say this creative spark is their favorite part of the brony community. “Whether it’s music, writing, or visual art,” MandoPony explains, “it seems to reconnect people with art, and that’s fantastic.” MandoPony started doing brony music at 23. “I was going through a very hard time at that point in my life,” he says. His family was struggling, he hadn’t done music in over a year, and he had a “tiny $100 laptop which just barely ran [his] music software.” Then he found My Little Pony and RainbowCrash88 (a chiptune musician), and was inspired to compose “video game” type themes for the characters in the show. Like Mic the Microphone, MandoPony has seen runaway success in the brony music community, with 65,687 current YouTube subscribers.
There is a sheer blind ambition and motivation that people get simply by being part of this fandom.
“The spark” that these brony musicians speak of reminds you of how much independent music relies on this passion, this subject, this thing the musician feels the need to express and share. It doesn’t have to be cartoon ponies, or a code of friendship, but it has to be something that truly matters to the artist. Bejoty talks about musicians who “picked up their first instrument because they wanted to play a song from the show.” Inspiring someone to start music from scratch is no easy feat, as many parents currently trying to bribe their children into piano lessons can surely attest to. And yet My Little Pony and the brony community continues to do it. “There is a sheer blind ambition and motivation that people get simply by being part of this fandom,” Bejoty says, something he’s always blown away by. Even brony musicians themselves are sometimes surprised at how powerful a muse My Little Pony has proven to be.
While a hearty creative fire may be necessary to create compelling music, it can be quickly doused if there is no community to accept and nurture it. The second defining element of the brony fandom is its tradition of acceptance. This acceptance extends not just to all those obsessed with the show, but also to outsiders interested in engaging with the community. Andrew W.K. found this out firsthand when he spoke at the My Little Pony convention “Canterlot Gardens” in 2012.
They want to share the way they’re feeling with other people. They want other people to feel that good. – Andrew W.K.
Andrew W.K. was unsure how his speech would go, as he’d previously experienced niche groups where much of the excitement seemed to come from the exclusivity of the club. There was none of that with the bronies. He was taken aback by their level of enthusiasm and open-mindedness. “No one was there with questions to try to trip me up. No one was trying to put me on the spot in a way that would make me uncomfortable. It seemed like almost the main goal everyone had for me was to feel welcome. They want to share the way they’re feeling with other people. They want other people to feel that good.” After Andrew W.K. gave his speech about Pinkie Pie, a pony from the show he identified as sharing his “good cheer, high energy, and desire to party,” to celebrate “not being dead,” he asked if he could be an honorary brony. The bronies wouldn’t have any of it. They told him there was no such thing as an honorary brony, that he was “just a brony.” “They wouldn’t even accept the idea that anyone would be left out if they wanted to be part of this,” Andrew W.K. says.
This spirit of acceptance ran through the stories of all the brony musicians I spoke with. Mic the Microphone’s first foray into brony music came when he messaged an established artist about a posted WIP (work in progress), saying he liked it but thought a couple parts were “kind of rough,” and giving suggestions. In many music scenes this might have been considered a tad brazen, and received either silence or a subtle “fuck off,” but the brony musician responded saying he thought the suggestions were “actually really good.” This story is typical of an environment that Bejoty describes as stemming from the mix of acceptance and love in the show, where creative attempts are not only encouraged by heavily celebrated.
You see any music video on YouTube, and there’s always an onslaught of negativity. With pony music, it’s nothing but kind words and encouragement.
“Everyone wants to work with each other,” Brandon O’Brien says. “They toss around ideas and remixes, and people are really kind with their criticism which helps with the honing of the musicians’ skills. You see any music video on YouTube, and there’s always an onslaught of negativity. With pony music, it’s nothing but kind words and encouragement.”
When I asked the brony musicians what other indie artists could learn from their community, or what advice they’d give, the most common answers revolved around acceptance. “Be supportive of one another,” MandoPony urges. “Collaborate with each other. Become a family. Be humble. Almost all of the musicians and singers in the fandom are really cool people with no ego, just doing what they do because they love it. I wish all musicians were like that.” Mic the Microphone puts it a bit more bluntly: “Never say, ‘Who are you?’ That’s the most pompous, egotistical, shitty thing to say to someone. At that point it’s like, ‘No, friend, who the fuck are you?’ That’s inexcusable.”
While the media has a tendency to treat the brony community as a static entity, in reality it’s constantly evolving, especially the music scene. This change refers not just to the increasing sonic depth of the community, which Brandon O’Brien describes as a deepening from dance remixes and parody songs to full-length orchestral performances, documentaries, and entire concept albums. It also relates to the attitudes of the community itself, as fans flooded to newly founded conventions, and the issues of ego and hierarchy reared their heads for the first time.
“It felt small and special two years ago,” MandoPony says, a sentiment echoed by Mic the Microphone and Bejoty. “It wasn’t about trying to get more subscribers, get more popularity, get that solo post on EQD (Equestria Daily),” Mic the Microphone explains. “There wasn’t a need to be better than someone else.” In that first year, according to Bejoty, “anyone could add to the creative circle and be celebrated across the internet.” He says it was relatively easy to get noticed and the community felt very “tight-knit.” But as the community grew, that feeling began to dissipate, though it never disappeared completely.
People sometimes forget they are internet famous, among a bunch of nerds who love a show about cartoon ponies. Some people could use a gentle shove off their high horse—pun intended.
“Pretty soon there were people at your fucking throat,” Mic the Microphone relates. “Calling you out. Saying horrible things about you.” Mic admits he said some “pretty heinous shit” himself and paid the price for his “own fucking ego.” There was a reason for that ego. The community had exploded in size and some musicians had become (in Bejoty’s words) “pony famous.” “It goes the same with any music scene,” Brandon O’Brien says. “People sometimes forget they are internet famous, among a bunch of nerds who love a show about cartoon ponies. Some people could use a gentle shove off their high horse—pun intended.” Mic the Microphone agrees: “For the love of God don’t be me two years ago talking down to people just because you believe you’re on a higher level than they are. Help those people. Nurture them.”
Both the pony famous and the have-nots were in a tough spot. It was harder for new musicians to get noticed, especially when many of the more prominent artists already had established relationships and collaborating partners. However Bejoty says the popular musicians were also in a predicament, with fans “hounding them constantly” to make the same “template tracks” and rejecting anything that strayed from that format. Some artists, including Mic the Microphone, went on hiatus. A few even lost interest in the show altogether.
But this was a fandom built on acceptance and friendship, and even while fame (as relative as it was) swept through the scene, creating what Bejoty characterizes as a “toxic environment,” pieces of the fandom were fighting to retain that “magic.” Mic the Microphone believes that now “a bunch of people are finally getting back to that mentality,” of having fun, doing what you love, and supporting one another. Bejoty has seen media organizations restructure the way they spotlight music and artists in higher tiers of popularity begin to use their own exposure to showcase new talent.
The underlying values of the community seem to have helped it bounce back, to reseed the supportive environment that birthed this massive outgrowth of music in the first place. In fact, Mic the Microphone’s favorite brony concert of all time was Everfree 2013, where they “blew the fucking roof of the building,” allegedly registering a “1.6 on the Richter scale” from all the jumping. “Watching all my friends let loose on stage was an absolute treat,” he says. “It was fucking incredible.” The magic of friendship is still strong in the brony fandom, even if popularity has brought its customary set of problems to the community.
The Internet and RL
One of the defining features of the brony music scene, and one that has dictated to a significant extent how the scene has evolved, is how much of the collaboration and consumption takes place over the internet. Brandon O’Brien believes this is a microcosm of the way music collaborations are moving in general, but that you can see it very easily with brony music. “There are people who have entire bands and have never met in real life. It makes the live performance a little nerve-wracking.” But it also allows the scene to exist. “I can just imagine the musicians bulletin at the local music store,” Brandon says. “WANTED: bass player for a live dubstep/polka/jazz fusion band based on the My Little Pony fan-fic ‘Cupcakes.’ Must be professional.” It’s hard to envision something like the brony community coming together without the catalyzing wires of the internet.
There are people who have entire bands and have never met in real life. It makes the live performance a little nerve-wracking.
These connections forged on the internet can allow brony musicians to dream big in real life, and create events that tie together a disparate community. Bejoty was one of the main organizers of Musiquestria, a “crazy, ambitious idea” for a four-week, cross-country brony music tour sandwiched between the two most prominent brony conventions, Everfree Northwest and BronyCon. They crowdsourced the fundraising on Indiegogo and brought in $10,000, enough to complete the tour provided they scale back to a dozen or so cities and cobble together the cheapest lodging and marketing plan possible. The tour was a triumph, and one that Bejoty says brought him much closer to other brony musicians. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love those guys,” he says.
But the problems of real life, and the tribulations of independent musicians, still have a way of sneaking in. Mic the Microphone relates the story of his friend, an “amazing musician” and “wonderfully talented guy,” who came up to him at BronyCon. “I don’t have a home to go home to after this,” his friend said. “I’ve been on the Musiquestria tour and my roommate hasn’t been paying his side of the rent. I’m getting evicted from my apartment. I don’t have a home to go home to.” Mic the Microphone says he spoke to the head of BronyCon to try and make sure his friend got some form of compensation.
Money is a layered issue in the brony music scene. Multiple brony artists highlight the wonderful generosity of the community. Bejoty tells of a time around the end of the first season, when during a marketing fundraiser he read the following comment: “I’m really sorry guys, but as a student my finances are extremely tight right now. I can only donate $20.” Good luck getting the average student to contribute half of that to even purchase an album. MandoPony says he is able to make enough money from sales to be able to continue doing his music, “which is fantastic.” There is a willingness in the brony community to reach out and support each other, monetarily and otherwise.
But even with the generosity of the community, the lack of money in the scene can sometimes make it hard for brony musicians. Mic the Microphone says that for popular brony musicians who were attending multiple conventions in different parts of the country, there came a point when the “opportunity to perform wasn’t enough payment.” It just wasn’t feasible. He says now a lot of prominent brony artists want to be treated like professional musicians, and that conventions are having to budget that in if they want to attract bigger names. Even so, because the fandom is growing, conventions are expanding. Brandon O’Brien wants to make Ponystock a multi-venue event this year to free up space to book more acts, and is trying to set up workshops and panels where people can “interact with and learn from some of the amazing talent that this fandom has to offer.” The future seems bright for brony musicians looking to travel farther down the path towards becoming professional musicians.
Moving beyond a community that accepts and supports them to such a unique degree can be terrifying for some brony musicians, especially when they are unsure any of their fans will respond positively to music not explicitly about My Little Pony. It’s not an unwarranted fear from the perspective of someone trying to make it as a professional musician. “If we’re talking about non-brony music, or my actual music career it’s been very, very difficult to get support,” MandoPony says. “I’d say only about 5% of my entire audience pays attention to music I make if it’s not related to pony. One word of warning I’d give to people thinking of breaking into the MLP music scene: don’t expect bronies to follow you into non-pony music. They’re just not interested in it.” It’s a hazard of having such an intense culture based around the love of a specific show. Bronies love My Little Pony.
That said, it seems these musicians’ experiences in the brony music scene have certainly helped some of them branch out. Bejoty says he’s played some of his pony songs at his shows outside the brony community, as he tends to write layered songs that aren’t “overtly pony.” MandoPony has composed music for several short films and indie video games and hopes to continue in that direction. Though Mic the Microphone says he will always view music more as a hobby, he’s discovered that his passion is voice acting, and has recently scored the lead part in an animation project. Even if individual brony fans don’t follow him to his next artistic venture, at least in Mic’s case, their support for and encouragement of his experimentation and growth has been a far cry from the kids who booed him off stage at a talent show many years ago.
I’m not here to whitewash the brony community, or to project onto them an idealistic standard no person would be capable of upholding. As Mic the Microphone stressed a few times in our conversation, we are all human, we all make mistakes. What struck me me most was the tolerance the brony musicians I spoke to seemed to have for these mistakes, and their willingness to work to correct them. Andrew W.K. says he noticed a conscious effort on the part of the bronies he met not to have a hierarchy, even though I learned from others that his speech came at a time when one was creeping into the fandom. This shows an awareness in the brony community of its own problems, and the earnest desire of bronies to make the fandom as accepting and nurturing as possible.
The musicians in this community are (sometimes cautiously) positive about the future of the fandom, and not from a place of blind optimism, but from what appears to be a genuine belief that the core values of the community could continue to protect and promote the creative energy so many have found in ‘these beautiful ponies.’
The musicians in this community are (sometimes cautiously) positive about the future of the fandom, and not from a place of blind optimism, but from what appears to be a genuine belief that the core values of the community could continue to protect and promote the creative energy so many have found in “these beautiful ponies.” In a time when cynicism or vapid positivity oftentimes dominate, these brony musicians have managed to steer clear of both. And that is something we can all learn from.