By Mike and Barney Chunn
While this post focuses primarily on the splendid emergence of Lorde across New Zealand, we shall begin with Simon Cowell - creator of many reality talent quest shows with X-Factor being the latest to assault the world’s TV screens.
While these shows catapult artists to great heights of notoriety from absolute obscurity in the space of days, he said a short time ago while being interviewed on BBC4 in the UK – “I’m understanding more and more now that the only powerful marketing tool in the world is word of mouth.” (That’s at 3:15” in if you’re short on time)
Word of mouth.
So let’s look at Lorde. She is sixteen and that is not her real name. She attends an Auckland school that no-one seems to know the name of. I (Mike) first saw her perform when she was 12 but that was in a friend’s home. When I saw her a year later on stage in front of hundreds of strangers it was immediately clear that she loved the stage and the stage loved her. She was singing covers and it was also that the crowd loved her too. They (of all ages) talked about her. Word of mouth. And her public performances continued.
A recording of her singing some cover songs was sent to a record company in Auckland. They moved with a development agreement putting a strategic plan in place for Lorde to evolve. Unlike NZ record companies of old who were intent on number one singles immediately, this one was going to bring a civilised approach. And in sharp contrast to the likes of the X-Factor or NZ's Got Talent winners who are immediately catapulted up into the air and left to fend for themselves, Lorde was booked into a studio to put down an EP for ‘gentle’ release. A co-songwriter/producer/studio owner was enlisted to record the five tracks and that collection was then posted online where downloads could be had for free . No photographs of her featured on that site. Just the tracks. So what happened?
Two major things.
One: online media with intuitive ‘ground’ skills discovered these tracks and started talking about her. One was VanguardRed magazine.
Two: radio programmers playlisting stations with discerning, adventurous listeners discovered the EP and started playing her. Stations like bFM, George FM and Kiwi FM.
All these propagators of her songs got major feedback. Word of mouth. And those who went to stream her songs soared in numbers so that by a month ago she had reached more than 170,000 listens to Royals the most featured track on radio. Their song The Love Club (her tracks are co-writes) is screaming past 150,000 listens. So what is missing here in the grand scheme of Lorde’s arrival. It was Top 40 radio. (They’re there now!) The likes of ZM and The Edge were a ‘final stage’ in the taking of Lorde and her music to the wider populace not the start. It began with a website of five free-to-listen songs. The people talked. They spread the word by Facebook likes, shares and discussion. They tweeted. They talked in playgrounds, on street corners and by emails and texts. Simon Cowell is right. Let’s drop down a generation. Barney?
In a veritable ocean of new music basically bombarding us daily, and with social media granting access to the inner working of musicians like never before, many of the rules of the game have changed.
Lorde did two things when I (Barney) first heard her. First, she totally blew me away. Secondly, she intrigued me.
Neither are easy to accomplish in the modern era. People, not necessarily wrongly all the time, assume that to get attention you have to grab it. As countless pop stars have in the past, they who shout the loudest, look the best and press the most flesh wins.
But we know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and to this snowballing scramble for attention in a pool filled to the brim, the reaction is to stay still. The enigmatic approach. It’s a risky move. You still need the press, you need to draw that line very precisely, but if you do it right, it’s serves as the perfect foil to the Taylor Swiftian in-your-face-all-the-time ethos (she is probably hardly the worst of them too, sorry to make you the poster child Taylor (She reads this blog so I better throw that in)). But you have to have the songs.
People can have a tendency to overlook the importance of lyrics. You can point to countless huge hits as an example of extremely popular songs with terrible lyrics. We all know it’s true, there’s no need to go through them here. But they do. And Lorde is a great example. Much is made of the fact that she is 16, but often it serves to enhance people’s wonder at her skill. What I think the real point is, is that she IS her audience. She is totally right. We are bombarded with songs about expensive cars and flashy jewellery. And it sits at odds with what the vast majority of teenagers are actually experiencing. Which is what Lorde is most likely experiencing, and she is singing about it. Singing with integrity. So aside from the excellent production and great melodies and mature arrangement, it is a message of collectivity that makes especially Royals so special. The people discovered her.
Lorde has now signed a deal with Jason Flom’s LAVA Records.
Oh - and she doesn’t take music as a subject at school.