Sleeper Hits and the Golden Age of DIY Promotion - Slow Week


By Gabriela Kalter

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s no news that the continuous growth of the internet has had a major effect on the music industry. Aside from the issues related to free and illegal downloading, pop music has been repeatedly taken by surprise at the increasing number of DIY artists and independent musicians who are climbing the charts seemingly from out of the blue.

While major record labels spend a hefty chunk of change to release an album and sufficiently promote their artist through expensive marketing campaigns, the freedom of the internet has allowed for the emergence of numerous “sleeper hits.” (And by “sleeper hit,” I’m referring to the underdog songs and/or albums that become an unexpected success despite their limited promotion and lack of major press to generate hype.)

One of the most recent instances of a sleeper hit is The Heist from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The indie hip-hop album rose to popularity through exposure on various internet platforms such as SoundCloud and YouTube. With two hits having topped the Billboard charts, breaking a record for Billboard having two singles climb the charts in such a way, there’s no denying the success of Seattle based rapper, Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty, and his beat maker/producer, Ryan Lewis.

“It really came down to just not wanting to deal with lawyers and fork out a bunch of money,” Haggerty told Rolling Stone last October. The boys decided to try their hand at creating their own, fresh musical landscape without the constraints and limitations of being under contract with a label. They dedicated their time to gradually building their fan base through YouTube videos and the Alternative Distribution Alliance.

Just like we can’t flip through radio stations without hearing “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us” playing on at least three channels, it’s almost impossible to get through 2013  without hearing “Ho Hey” from indie-folk group The Lumineers at least once. Released in 2012 as the first track off their self-titled debut album, “Ho Hey” became the sleeper hit of last summer, catapulting the Denver rockers from playing small venues and local bars to touring the country and getting nominated for two Grammys (Best New Artist and Best Americana Album).

The Lumineers write their music with a quality of modesty and unpretentiousness. A perfect example of how sleeper hits reflect the genuine appeal of the music, “Ho Hey” climbed the Billboard Charts because of a growing buzz over various social media sites.  After the song played on the finale of the CW’s Hart of Dixie, the song went viral, generating strong enough demand for significant radio play and genuine interest in the band.  They turned down several label offers to instead opt for a deal with indie label, Dualtone Records. So, despite the lack of a strong commercial marketing campaign and financially driven promoters, “Ho Hey” reached number one on numerous charts, making it your quintessential sleeper hit.

Another 2012 sleeper hit was the unforgettable breakup track by Gotye, “Somebody That I Used To Know.” It took almost a year for the track to gain significant momentum, hitting number one on the Billboard charts several months after its initial release. Between the growing YouTube views and the various covers that became viral hits, “Somebody That I Used To Know” started to saturate the radio waves, ensuring our lives would never be the same. Can anyone even remember a time before they heard this song? Probably not. The drastic shift from relative obscurity into international phenomenon most definitely classifies it as a sleeper hit.

However, sleeper hits aren’t limited to garnering popularity over the internet. Gotye’s single climbed the charts with the help of artists who covered “Somebody That I Used To Know” and, in turn, gathered its own following. After the song was covered on Glee, it was pretty much the final push it needed to reach an unspoken mega popularity status. Similar is the story behind “We Are Young” by Fun., the indie-pop rock trio whose second studio album Some Nights has launched them into international super stardom.

The song saw minimal success at first, and it was primarily through the circulation of online media. But, once “We Are Young” was covered by the cast of Glee, the band was promoted to the big league industry radar of pop which has led them to their current success. The Glee cover became a hit and as it climbed the charts, circulation of the original increased, creating the perfect recipe for a sleeper hit.

Many executives view the growing platform for independent musicians on the internet as a dangerous hindrance to the future of the music industry. The ability for virtually anyone to record and release their own music is threatening to the major record labels because it increases the competitive pool for their roster of artists. The labels invest large sums of money into the production, promotion and release of a new album, and with the development of accessible technology, the internet has made these executive roles seem somewhat obsolete. But, perhaps the labels should view the growing popularity of the internet as a blessing in the discovery of new music.

Foster the People, for instance, signed a multi-album record deal with Columbia Records and a got nominated for a Grammy in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category in 2011 for their song, “Pumped Up Kicks.” Yet another sleeper hit that blasted through radio speakers with an unexpected catchiness and bite. The song took a year to really climb the charts, crossing over from modern rock stations to contemporary hit radio stations after it was posted online in 2010 as a free download. Those fateful forbidden words regarded disdainfully by label execs, “free download,” is precisely what led Foster the People to their commercial success.

Even for those currently signed to major label deals, the internet has brought attention to talented musicians that may have slipped under the radar if it weren’t for these technological avenues for recording and releasing albums. Frank Ocean, for example, built his foundation on the internet because he wasn’t receiving any support or a budget from Def Jam. He scouted the internet for instrumentals to popular songs and then used his own melodies and lyrics to re-purpose them. After releasing a free mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, Frank Ocean began work on his album Channel Orange, which became one of the biggest albums (and therefore, biggest sleeper hits) of 2012.

Through his interaction with fans on sites like Tumblr and YouTube, Ocean’s music and public persona went viral after he posted a statement in which he opened up about his homosexuality and his first romantic experience. Regardless of his sexual orientation, the world wide web’s buzz over the announcement made him a household name and gave his music a platform to be heard by a wide variety of fans. Once his music had a chance to speak for itself, all the rumors became secondary to this evident talent who may still be unknown to most of us had there been no such thing as a ‘mixtape’ as the web knows it today.

So, maybe the machine of the music industry won’t ever be the same but to look at this as a loss is a complete misunderstanding of the immense power that online music gives musicians and fans alike. Despite critics of the Radiohead model of giving away your music once your career is firmly established, artists who would otherwise never have an opportunity to share their music can now reach a larger demographic thanks to modern technology.

Though, the increased quality of DIY production and promotion doesn’t have to be a threat to label-backed musicians. Instead, the ability for sleeper hits to emerge from available avenues for net-based music distribution is a beautiful and incendiary development. It has opened up the world of opportunity and innovation, making the middle man of the record label an option (as opposed to a necessity) while fostering a more direct process of sharing music between artists and their potential fans.