Indie #1: How the Passenger album topped the UK charts


Spoiler alert! Passenger’s seventh studio album ‘Young As The Morning, Old As The Sea’ went to number one in the UK last autumn, despite competing with new albums by Bruce Springsteen and Shawn Mendes.

At AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London yesterday, Cooking Vinyl and its partners on the project gathered for a panel session explaining how the campaign worked, and why it was such a success in a frantic release week.

AIM CEO Paul Pacifico chaired the panel, describing the campaign as “a perfect storm” of marketing elements coming together.

Passenger, of course, was not an unknown entity: his 2012 hit ‘Let Her Go’, despite not making it to number one in the singles chart, has sold 1.5m copies in the UK to date. His YouTube channel currently has 2.9 million subscribers, and his Facebook page has now passed 3.7m likes.

Cooking Vinyl had the new album for the UK and Europe and Chris Farrow, the head of marketing & product management at the label, explained how they drew on Passenger’s previous success to give his career a second wind.

“We wanted to regrow this artist,” he said. “He had this potential and we knew the record was fantastic. The great thing was we could do it with our own team, with ie:music [his management company] and working alongside all the other labels around the world was really important.”

“We knew his fanbase was huge and latent… so there was interest there… He had achieved so much, but had never had a number 1 album,” added Farrow. “For an album artist, a number one album, especially on an international level, still stands for something.”

Key to that was building Passenger’s audience further still on social media in general and YouTube in particular. “He has massive involvement in how he curates his content and connects with his fans,” said Tom Burris from ie:music. “My whole objective was mining as much data as possible and using that to our advantage once the campaign kicked off.”

PledgeMusic was brought in as the D2C partner. Pacifico suggested that platforms like Pledge were normally associated with acts that were unsigned or out of contract, so working with an act like Passenger marked something of a sea change for the company.

Mike Hemsley of PledgeMusic, who had worked with ie:music on a variety of projects already, agreed and said, “It’s important to say that we came in as a premium D2C partner rather than a crowdfunding platform.”

He added: “It was something of a first for us. It was the first time we worked with an artist that was signed to three different labels in three different territories – having to set up the D2C [for that] around the world. It made it a very exciting proposition for us.”

Pledge came on board in May 2016 and the album pre-orders began in June, some 14 weeks ahead of the album release. “The campaign was very format-driven,” Hemsley said. “It was about how we could incentivise the D2C side of things with the formats we had. We had essentially four formats – a CD, a CD + DVD, an LP and a deluxe LP. Where we found our strength was in the signed formats. That was what we were able to offer from the get-go.”

The signed copies were, however, not sold at a premium. They retailed for the same price as unsigned copies but it was made clear in the marketing that there were a limited number available for fans. “Once they were gone, they were gone,” said Hemsley.

passenger panel

On the online marketing side of things, Rachel Stoewer, who handles digital marketing at Cooking Vinyl, said, “The amount of content we had to work with was something I had never seen before. Usually it’s reaching for content and trying to squeeze it out of an artist – but we had an overabundance of it.”

Key to this was ensuring there was uniformity in all the assets that would work as both shared content and online ads, so the campaign had a cohesive look and feel.

Live streaming on Facebook, particularly around a busking tour, was a large part of the campaign – with Facebook putting its weight behind them and loyal fans doing a lot of the heavy lifting and sharing of the videos. The powerful role of video was almost underscoring YouTube’s centrality to the campaign push.

While there was parity across all DSPs in terms of the content they were given, Apple proved to be a key partner, with Passenger landing the support slot for OneRepublic at the Apple Music Festival in London on the Wednesday before album release.

The initial plan from management and label, however, was proposing to Apple that Passenger busk outside the venue – but that idea fell through the cracks. Farrow explained that this lobbying paid off, though. “When the [support] slot became free, we got the call.”

On release week, the campaign moved up several gears as, despite the pre-sales being strong, they knew it would be a tight race when Springsteen and Mendes fans were activated. To give the album an early push on release, a discount was offered with retail partners to help give it a boost.

Passenger played a show at Bush Hall in London that was offered as a multi-camera stream live online and he also made appearances on key TV shows, such as The One Show, in that week to reach as mainstream an audience as possible. He was only available for promo in the UK in the first half of the week, so the team’s hands were tied somewhat, and there was a final push focusing on video.

Passenger played (and streamed live on Facebook) a show from Brighton on the Monday and followed that up with a video offering fans a signed guitar; but the most powerful video was him gently mocking the chart battle that was raging.

He wrote and performed the self-explanatory and self-effacing ‘Fighting For Number 1 With Bruce Springsteen’ which alluded to the fact that he was ahead in sales on the first few days of release but had slipped behind on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

With all hands to the pumps, a final effort across all platforms and DSPs helped nudge him over the line for the Friday chart. “It was a real feel-good campaign,” said Farrow of the multitude of partners getting behind the album to give it that important final push. “Everyone wanted the underdog to win.”

Eamonn Forde

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