The name “Halsey” didn’t mean much to many people twelve months ago. This time last year, the moniker used by American singer/songwriter Ashley Nicolette Frangipane was barely known outside of the fanbases she had cultivated herself through social media. By the end of 2014, her biggest accolade – as in, the kind you would see on a press release – was supporting yesterday’s indie wet wipes The Kooks.
Yet, back in August, Halsey’s debut concept album Badlands went straight to number two on the Billboard charts, selling close to 100,000 copies in one week – almost half of which were pre-orders. It probably would have gone number one had The Weeknd’s The Beauty Behind the Madness not been released the same day. By the time Halsey came to play her first shows in the UK this year at KOKO and O2 Academy (both of which sold out instantly) the venues were packed with thousands of fans – mostly teenage girls – who knew every single word to every single song she had ever released. Some even held up signs saying they’d flown in from mainland Europe just to see her. It’s the kind of adolescent-driven adoration you would typically see reserved for male artists like One Direction or Justin Bieber rather than a young woman, but Halsey speaks to teenage girls in ways they can’t. As a directly relatable figure, Halsey is their voice as well as their idol.
But it wasn’t until after Badlands was released that Halsey began to receive anything like the kind of print and radio attention that would typically precede a high-charting debut release from a new artist. Now, her name is pretty much impossible to avoid, and the mystery left behind is how she was able to elevate herself from a promising artist with a dedicated cult following to a global phenomenon in less than a year, with hardly any major media coverage or radio play. In the past, musicians used the internet to launch themselves into more traditional structures: record labels, publicists and, the end goal, a “team” who could take on most of the business side of the operation. This year, however, we saw the firm establishment of a certain type of star - hyperconnected personalities who strike today’s tone, form stronger bonds with fans than most of you have with your Netflix account, and have become adept at translating online love into IRL success all by themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, artists using the Internet to help establish themselves is by no means a new thing. That’s how the likes of Grimes, Lil B and PC Music have all come to be the considerable cultural forces they are today. Going back a little further in social media history, you could even include Lily Allen, Kate Nash and Adele, who all built followings on MySpace. Panic at the Disco! struck gold after sending their demos to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz over LiveJournal, and even Justin Bieber was initially discovered through posting covers on YouTube. Basically anyone who has forged a career in music after the turn of the millennium is indebted to the internet in some capacity, but 2015 saw the arrival of a new kind of music celebrity: one that isn’t just present online - but born, raised, and very much determined by it.
For Halsey, who built her following via Tumblr, the foundation of her fame is a secret language she has shared with her fans since the beginning - one that the New York Times described as “loaded with the knowingness of a cooler older sister who sneaks into the city from the suburbs.” Not even of legal drinking age when Badlands was released, her breakout single “New Americana” featured the tongue-in-cheek chorus: “We are the new Americana / High on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana”. The point may be that there’s more to her generation than that, but she certainly knows how to lampoon it in a way that still communicates something relatable to her fans. It’s a real “nobody makes fun of my mother but me” move. And in turn, she's become the ideal poster girl for a particular cross-section of iGen that has gone largely underrepresented in the mainstream. We’re talking about the kids who pair sports gear with black lipstick, dye their undercuts pastel blue, have a Tumblr full of belfies and Bright Eyes lyrics, and equal fervour for My Chemical Romance and Kanye West. Until Halsey, perhaps the only visible icon they had was Hayley Williams – yet, being a teetotal Christian, she’s on a slightly different but equally influential page.
Halsey's voice is simultaneously vulnerable, strong, candid, vocal on issues that affect her (mental illness, sexuality, race) and unapologetic in all of the above. And by establishing her identity so loudly and independently, Halsey found herself in the driving seat when it did eventually come to working with a major label. “Being a pop-leaning, female artist, you’d think that I’d have my record company breathing down my neck and trying to control everything I’m doing,” she told the New York Times. “Actually, they’ve just kind of let me take the wheel.”
Of course there are plenty of artists who have enjoyed a similar rise to prominence without that extra monetised buffer. It was only at the end of last year that song streams and track download data was folded into how the charts were tabulated. This year we’ve seen the results of that change, and perhaps no genre has benefitted more from it than grime.
With most of its sales coming via digital downloads, hype generated by the YouTube channels of Link Up TV and GRM Daily, conversations generated by Twitter – grime and the internet are inextricably intertwined. It’s no wonder that Drake – “our most internet-conscious popstar” as Aimee Cliff put it – has become so obsessed with the genre. It is built on a do-it-yourself ethos that social media has essentially been able to elevate into an effective tool for self-promotion and empowerment, making many traditional aspects of the music industry an unnecessary expense for lots of grime stars.
Living and creating under his own strict code of ethics for nearly fifteen years now, JME is basically the blueprint for this type of artist, a DIY veteran, a man who proudly operates without the involvement of any sort of team. As his Twitter bio puts it: “No label, No pr, No publisher, No manager, No pa, No stylist, No Instagram”. He barely even gives interviews. Still, in May this year, the independent release of his album Integrity> found itself wedged between commercial goliaths Taylor Swift and James Bay in the midweek UK Albums Chart, with absolutely no radio play or commercial backing. And heads turned pretty hard. How did he do it? It’s a question he answered on a guest verse for YouTube celebrity KSI in November: “Everyone’s baffled, ‘Who are they? Who are you?’ / How’s JJ got a lambo too? / It’s a simple equation fam / You get bare P’s if you get bare views.”
JME gets bare views. And he gets bare views because he’s forged an unbreakable bond with his followers. Within the first three minutes of this year’s album, JME didn't just string together random pieces of information into a hot 16, he made sure you know exactly where he shops (Lush), where he eats (Nando’s), what he eats (“No meat, no cheese, no milk, no eggs”), his dental hygiene routine (“Sensodyne Classic, Listerine Citrus / Cause I don’t wanna have no fluoride"). In doing so, he offered up an insight into who, uncompromisingly, he is, and what defines him. With specific codes of conduct, Halsey and JME are just as loyal and consistent to themselves as their followers are to them.
Of course, many of his fans are still grime fans who have followed him since day one, but he's also nurtured a much younger legion of admirers. His relationship with his fans is built on brutal honesty and sheer transparency. Or, as he'd put it: integrity. He happily discussed voting before the election with fans (his choice was not to), he relentlessly posts life updates on Twitter, he swapped shiny charizard Pokemon cards for vinyls of his album, and when he decided to sell some high quality, JME-crafted caps, he sold them at £105.78, because that is exactly how much it costs him to fill a tank of petrol (they sold out in 2 hours). He even imported and sold hoverboards in the UK to fans, before any shops did. In essence, he’s built an empire for himself based on all the idiosyncrasies that go hand in hand with enjoying the things in life that JME enjoys. “There’s no failure in what I’m doing,” he told GRM Daily in April, “everything I do is bigger than the last thing. So there’s no need to change.” Next year, he says, he plans to make a shoe, and then a book.
Without the red tape of a PR or marketing team he’s free to feed an internet fan base that lives for instant gratification. That’s why he double dropped totally different videos for “Test Me” and “The Very Best” on the same day. The first celebrating his first love: those hoverboards. The latter riffing on that Pokemon passion. It’s not hard to find a young kid who appreciates both, but you’d be hard pressed to find an MC who has personalised them as expertly as JME. This partly explains how the younger Adenuga – a dude so disinterested in the fame aspects of the music industry that he declined to flank Kanye West at this year’s BRIT Awards alongside the rest of UK grime because he was too hungry – ended up with a Top 20 record.
There is a term in robotics called 'the uncanny valley', about when robots look and move almost like real human beings, but not exactly, and that slight discrepancy automatically makes us feel uncomfortable – we’re not duped. You only need to cast an eye at the social media pages of big major label artists, to see the uncanny valley in full effect: accounts ran by specialists, posts constructed by a team of writers and fan activities – like meet and greet photos of Avril Lavigne safely standing just out of reach of her fans – dreamt up in marketing department brainstorm sessions. Just this week, Ed Sheeran made a statement announcing that he would be quitting all social media and closing down his online presence until his next album was ready, incase you ever needed a reminder that his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are not for communicating with fans for anything other than sales, sales and sales.
The essence of what makes JME and Halsey so appealing is how honestly they define themselves to their fans, shunning marketing tactics to promote qualities the weary internet obsessed music fan is desperate for: charisma, authenticity and transparency. Qualities that every major music label in the country is channeling copious amounts of cash into replicating, but too often resulting in nothing but robots. Because, at the end of the day, you can’t really fake this.
It's indicative of how we fall for artists in 2015, not always happy with simply falling in love with their music, but needing on some level to know and love every little thing about them. Fans want the album, yeah, but they also want Halsey to cut their hair, or trade Pokemon cards with JME, or speak about tattoos. Of course, there is always going to be a downside to this. If you give fans everything, then they will always want everything. “I have blessed myself and cursed myself,” Halsey told the New York Times, “by building something that people are so attached to.” During the election, JME’s integrity came back to bite him when every politically opinionated Twitter user on the UK spectrum decide to flood his mentions with why he was a fool for not voting, or for slightly favouring the Green Party, or for anything at all really.
But the positives still seem to outweigh the negatives. To some degree, you could say the same about UK rapper Little Simz, whose independence on every level has come to define her as an artist. Or Stormzy, who’s currently gunning for Christmas #1 off the back of an impulsive Twitter campaign after his YouTube freestyles (filmed in various London parks and estates) racked up views in the multi-millions. Then there’s Ryan Hemsworth, who’s at the forefront of a new wave of digital DIY artists and creating a community for them through his Soundcloud-based Secret Songs label. Plus everyman-cum-indie-pop-prodigy Alex G, whose Bandcamp is still a more solid home base for his output than any record label. These are all artists for whom the internet has allowed them to establish, craft and promote their art, and communicate with their fans, however, wherever and whenever they want. The only catch – perhaps the most fair and field-levelling one that the rise of digital technology has offered the industry as a whole – is that you actually need some semblance of a personality to succeed in this way, and that’s not something the internet can help you forge no matter what your press release says. Still, you can imagine every major label on the planet is going to be trying to make artists just like them in 2016.
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