It could have been easy to lament the timing of brothers Tim and Ryan O’Neill when they dove into the music industry 25 years ago.
It was the eve of seismic disruption as the world’s songs were about to become widely available through the internet – and often for free through rampant illegal downloading. Consequently, CD sales would plummet as the industry scrambled to adapt to new forms of music consumption.
But, the O’Neill Brothers had a sense their easy-listening piano music would find its audience.
Now that online streaming has come to dominate the music marketplace, the O’Neill Brothers are listed as the fourth-most listened-to Minnesota musical act on Spotify, the popular streaming service. With more than a billion spins to their credit, the O’Neill brothers find themselves sandwiched on the list between rap duo Atmosphere, at No. 3, and pop-rockers Hippo Campus, at No. 5.
Tim and Ryan O’Neill, who now reside in Edina and Bloomington, respectively, had a sense of confidence as they entered the music industry thanks to none other than their mom, who embodied what would be the pianists’ core audience. When her sons gave her a listen to their recordings, she listened with glee. And while it’s not unique for a mother to be partial to the work of her children, this was different. Kathleen O’Neill liked her sons’ music enough to help them expand their audience.
“My mom made copies to give to some of her lady friends, and they all loved it,” Tim O’Neill said.
The O’Neill Brothers now boast a library of more than 50 piano albums, a list that includes holiday classics, Christian music, wedding ditties, Broadway showtunes and even lullabies.
For their prolific career of making mellow piano music for people like their mother and her friends, the O’Neill Brothers were honored in November with an induction into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of Peterson family of jazz artists – who are also local to the south metro – and world-famous rock band Soul Asylum.
The brothers, the two youngest of five siblings, got to that point after a childhood filled with music growing up in New Prague. Both having learned piano at a young age, they cut their teeth playing at church before joining forces as a duo at the University of Notre Dame.
Tim recalls receiving a standing ovation after their first gig together, a talent show at their dormitory.
“It was super fun, and we knew we wanted to do more of it,” Tim said.
Tim, now 47, was a senior majoring in business; Ryan, now 45, was a freshman who would graduate with a degree in German. The positive reception carried on past their college days, albeit from an older audience this time.
Those days, Ryan remembered, were characterized by “hustling to do our best to get the music out to others.”
As they developed their sound, they aimed for an aesthetic of comfort. “Early on, we realized that what sold the best were albums and songs and CDs that had some familiar songs that maybe people wanted to hear on piano,” Ryan said.
The craft show circuit
With their mother and her ilk as continued inspiration, the O’Neill Brothers hit the craft show circuit, traveling across the country playing live and selling their CDs, which feature both covers and original material. They further proved adept at navigating the music business in the 1990s as they formed a partnership with JCPenney to have their music played in the department stores.
Responding to audience demands proved central to the brothers’ success. Their musical direction was again inspired by family when their sister mentioned she needed music for the day care she operated.
“She said, ‘I need an hour of nap-time songs,’” Tim said. “I’m glad we listened to her because our lullaby music has been some of the most popular, best-selling music.”
Their ability to sense audience whims has been an asset for the brothers within the new streaming paradigm. And as a company, they’re nimble enough to quickly deliver the goods when they see a niche, a flexible approach that Tim credits much of their success.
“It’s very responsive,” he said. “I think that’s why we’ve been successful. We’re not a huge company.”
Their success is not just due to marketing savvy, the brothers insist. “I think a lot of it is just having high-quality music,” Tim said.
Recording at a professional studio – in the O’Neill’s case, Creation Audio in Minneapolis – helps set their music apart from a glut of sub-par recordings made possible by a digital revolution that has made it easier than ever to record music, Tim observes.
The work of the O’Neill Brothers has seeped into the wider world of pop culture as well, oftentimes as background music in movies and TV. The brothers’ credits include TV shows “The Office,” “Sex and the City,” and “Cold Case” in addition to several feature films and commercials. On top of those turns in the zeitgeist, they toured with Debbie Gibson in 2006.
Through it all, the O’Neill’s brotherliness has been central to their work. In a music industry infamous for causing rifts among creative collaborators, the brothers managed to avoid the kind of sibling rivalry that has proved corrosive to other artists.
“Tim and I have always gotten along very well. He was the best man in my wedding,” Ryan said, describing a “very loving, supportive relationship.”
With all the elements for a fruitful musical career having slid into place, the O’Neill Brothers rest easy knowing they chose the right path, one based on brotherly love and a musical gift.
“I could never throw a baseball as a kid, but I am talented at the piano,” Tim said. “ … I think that Ryan and I are doing what we are talented at and sharing it. I think it’s just what we were meant to be doing.”
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent