“Once I was seven years old, my mama told me: ‘Go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely’.”
Lukas Graham have plenty of friends now. The band are having a massive worldwide hit with their track ‘7 Years’, which is topping charts around the world.
Yet this time last year, they were unknown outside their native Denmark. According to the labels working with them, their rapid rise is part of a wider trend, fuelled by streaming services.
“Success can come from anywhere and translate everywhere. An increasingly streaming-dominated market is helping artists break out of any territory,” is how Stu Bergen, CEO, international and global commercial services for Warner Music Group puts it.
Spotify is the streaming service most heavily involved in the ‘7 Years’ story: the company helped to break the track first in the Nordics, then globally.
“A song can come from anywhere in the world, but to a degree historically there’s been a bit of a duopoly with the US and UK in terms of export of music, and how anglo music dominates globally successful hits,” says Kevin Brown, head of label relations at Spotify for Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Here’s how it all happened.
Lukas Graham’s industry story began five years ago in 2011, when Danish label Copenhagen Records – now part of Universal Music Group – signed the band, including its singer/songwriter Lukas Graham Forchhammer.
“Nothing had the sound he had at that point, and the charisma he has as a lead singer: it gets into people,” says Gaute Niemann, product manager at Copenhagen Records. “He’s very honest, his lyrics are deep and personal, and people really respond to that.”
‘TAKE THE SONG AND PUT IT UNDER PEOPLE’S NOSES’
That was borne out by debut album ‘Lukas Graham’, which was released in Denmark in 2012, spawning several hit singles. The following year, the band were the most-streamed Danish artist on Spotify.
Before recording their second album, the band signed a separate deal with WMG subsidiary Warner Bros Records. Copenhagen Records handles them in the Nordics, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France, with Warner Bros repping them elsewhere.
Second album ‘Blue Album’ came out in Denmark in June 2015, with a release that reflected their clout within that country.
“They did a shock release: there was no communication about the album beforehand. They went on live television and they had the album ready: it was on Spotify and also in stores physically,” says Niemann.
“It went really well: it did 840,000 streams on the release day, which was a record in Denmark, and two days after all the tracks were in the top 28 on Spotify. That had never happened before.”
With Warner Bros holding its plans back until 2016, Copenhagen Records teamed up with Spotify to roll the record out in other Nordic countries, focusing on its ’7 Years’ single.
“The strategy was to take the song and put it under people’s noses. We didn’t want to blast Lukas all over Spotify in the Nordics. We wanted users to find the song themselves and take ownership,” says Eva Lægdsgaard Madsen, Label Relations Director Nordics at Spotify.
’AS HE GREW, THE TARGETING GOT BIGGER’
Spotify’s editorial team placed ‘7 Years’ in relevant playlists in Sweden, Norway and other countries in the region, but also put some advertising muscle behind the track.
“We used our social channels to target fans that would like similar music with a video of the band saying ‘Hi! Please listen to our song’ and having the strongest part of the song in that video,” says Madsen.
“We also did audio ads targeted to users with similar music tastes, and used the data to put Lukas in front of potential fans. As he grew, the targeting got bigger and bigger.”
At this point, radio stations weren’t really playing ‘7 Years’, but the song was proving a hit with Spotify’s listeners: within three weeks of its release in Sweden, it had topped Spotify’s chart there – the first time a Danish act had achieved this feat – while also climbing the rankings in Norway and Finland.
The response to ‘7 Years’ was so intense, the streams in the Nordic region alone made the song the 53rd most popular track on Spotify, just outside its Global Top 50 chart.
“We thought ‘there is really a momentum here’,” says Madsen. However, there was also a problem: this was October 2015, but ‘7 Years’ wasn’t due to come out elsewhere in the world until January 2016.
“We made the decision to let the album come out first in Europe to coincide with the band’s touring schedule. It was somewhat unorthodox, but we thought it would work to our advantage to give us time to build their fanbases in various territories around the world,” says Cameron Strang, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros Records.
‘THEY TURNED ON A DIME’
With ‘7 Years’ on the brink of Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart, the streaming service urged the labels – Copenhagen Records had yet to release it outside the Nordics – to bring their plans forward.
“We said ‘we have something happening here with Lukas. Release it now [globally] and we will guarantee you that it will enter our Global Top 50’. As soon as it goes in that chart, it takes on a life of its own,” says Madsen.
“I have to give Warner big ups: they were flexible and they moved really fast. When we came to them and said this was happening now, they got it straight away.”
Brown agrees. “All credit to Warner – and to Universal too. They turned on a dime and released it in a couple of days. If they had not reacted like that, they would have missed a moment,” he says.
Warner Bros’ Strang says the label was more than willing to change its plans for the track.
“When ‘7 Years’ started to explode on streaming platforms globally, we moved quickly to capitalise on the momentum by adjusting street dates, radio impact dates and marketing plans in various countries to ensure that Warner Music and Lukas Graham were joined at the hip to make a global push that would result in a true worldwide smash,” he says.
The track was released globally on a Thursday, and placed in Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists the next day. The main one has 1.2 million followers, with tens of thousands more following local versions in the UK, Germany and other countries.
‘LIKE A TRAMPOLINE OUT OF THE NORDICS’
Madsen says that the song’s existing success was “like a trampoline out of the Nordics into the global chart”, buoyed by people streaming, saving and sharing the song from New Music Friday.
Within five days, ‘7 Years’ was number 43 in the Global Top 50 chart, where even more listeners discovered it. And as its streams rose, so radio stations around the world caught on and started playlisting the song.
By mid-January, the track had been played by 10 million unique listeners on Spotify, and it reached 100m streams on the service later that month.
“That’s huge for any artist, let alone a Danish artist,” says Madsen, pointing out that Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ was previously one of the most-streamed Danish tracks – it has 32.3m Spotify streams. ‘7 Years’ has pushed on since January, too.
“The track now has 225 million streams and the band has 16.8 million monthly listeners. They’re the 22nd most-played artist in the world on Spotify: more than Maroon 5, Future, Chris Brown, Calvin Harris,” says Madsen.
“It took eight months to reach the first 100m streams, but the second 100m happened in just eight weeks. And this is just the beginning.”
[Since the interview, Lukas Graham have grown: at the time of writing the band has 17.2 million listeners on Spotify, making them 20th on its artist rankings.)
Spotify has seized on Lukas Graham as a good case study for its recently-launched Fan Insights analytics platform, to dig a little deeper into those numbers.
Madsen says that four million of Lukas Graham’s monthly listeners count as “fans” – people who’ve listened to the band’s music regularly in recent weeks.
“That’s a big group of people. Almost as many who are in the entire population of Denmark!” she says.
34% of Lukas Graham’s Spotify streams are coming from its programmed playlists and radio stations, but 39% are coming from users’ saved-music collections – tracks they’ve heard on Spotify and added to their virtual collections on the service.
‘THE SONG PAVED THE WAY’
This is not just a Spotify story: ‘7 Years’ is a top-five iTunes Store hit, is now popular on other streaming services, and its video has 44.2m streams on YouTube. Radio is also now hammering the track, but Copenhagen Records’ Niemann is clear about where the story started.
“Radio was fuelled by Spotify. Spotify was the first hub, and when the track did well there, radio playlisted it,” he says. “And in terms of media, we’ve never done lots of PR and we haven’t done a lot of marketing. The song paved the way, and then the rest has followed.”
Understandably, Spotify is keen to stress that while the rapidity of Lukas Graham’s global rise is unusual, it’s not the only example of an artist springing to worldwide fame from a non-anglo country in recent times.
Norwegian dance star Kygo is one example, while WMG’s Bergen cites the emergence of German artist Robin Schulz as another success story worth noting.
“Our use of digital promotional tools drove consumer demand on streaming services, and helped make him the biggest German musical export in a generation, if not more,” says Bergen.
“We’re living in a globalised, streaming-driven world, which is tearing down boundaries and challenging traditional assumptions.”
Copenhagen Records’ Niemann thinks that in this new world, labels can up their global ambitions, even if they’re based outside the US or UK.
“From the first album we had ambitions outside Denmark, and so did the team around him: his management. It’s been high on their list to work Lukas outside Denmark, so they have very much been a driving force,” says Niemann. Madsen also praises the management for being a key part of the plans throughout.
“But yes, due to the insane response we got in Denmark from Danish fans on the first album, we knew this might be one of the acts that could travel,” says Niemann.
‘YOU DON’T NECESSARILY NEED A BIG SETUP’
Copenhagen Records is now thinking “much more globally” when signing and developing Danish artists, with the Lukas Graham example providing encouragement to find audiences across the Nordics, and then worldwide.
“If you have the right track, it’s not easy but it’s easier to get in front of an audience in Sweden and Norway. If it has global potential, you don’t necessarily need a big setup,” he says.
Kevin Brown points to another trend in the Nordics, suggesting that where recorded-music markets have returned to growth in recent years, labels have been investing more in developing local talent again.
“If you speak to the label heads in the Nordics, they’re investing more money in A&R than they have for 10 years or more, and this investment has led to some fantastic artists coming out of the Nordics,” he says.
From WMG’s perspective, Stu Bergen says that a ‘sign anywhere stream everywhere’ approach is opening new opportunities for its local labels.
“The stronger we are locally, the more powerful we are on behalf of our global superstars. But also the more global stars we create, the more leverage we have for our local artists,” he says.
“We’re cultivating an environment in which our local subsidiaries are being encouraged to take charge of local performance. All of our affiliates are active in A&R, even if they don’t sign artists directly. We say ‘Bring us something great and we’ll find a home for it’.”
‘ACCESS TO A GLOBAL AUDIENCE IS DEMOCRATISED’
It’s clear why Spotify is so excited about the rise of Lukas Graham. In a way, he’s this year’s Hozier for the streaming service: a case study showing how it can break new music globally, using its programmed playlists, but also through its listeners’ own actions.
You can also see how playing this kind of role in the creation of global stars works well for Spotify: at a time when it’s facing a mini-flurry of big albums from established artists being windowed, the closer it can work with the next generation of stars, the better for the company.
Or to put it another way: you’d be surprised if Lukas Graham (or Kygo, or Hozier, or Avicii, or…) withholds his next album from Spotify.
However, everyone involved in this story is also keen to stress another aspect: that what really mattered here was the song and the artist behind it.
Madsen notes that placing the track in popular playlists wasn’t a guarantee for its success: if data had shown that it had high skip rates and low engagement – saving and sharing – it would have been taken out again.
“We’re increasingly seeing that our users are actually creating hits, and then radio is following the tracks that are bubbling up on Spotify,” says Brown.
“The old model of the [radio/media] gatekeepers being the arbiters of what the great unwashed can listen to and have access to? It’s really crumbling. The public are not beholden to the media gatekeepers of old. Access to a global audience is democratised.”
Brown suggests that one reason listeners have reacted so strongly to ‘7 Years’ is that it sounds very different to a lot of the tracks that have dominated traditional radio playlists in the last year.
Brown is also wary of hubris on Spotify’s part. “We don’t make hits. It’s important to recognise that the artist and the performance and the recording are the key here,” he says.
“But we have a good track record for songs and artists with potential: that we can amplify that potential and maybe make it happen more quickly.”
Warner Bros’ Strang praises Lukas Graham’s “tremendous live show and a willingness to work hard” as key factors in the commercial success of ‘7 Years’, before returning to the song itself.
“The power of the song was undeniable from the very first listen to the demo recording. ‘7 Years’ transcends borders and demographics,” says Strang.
“The song is working on all levels, and really its success reflects both the changing nature of the global music business and the distinct nature of the business in each country.”
Bergen puts it even more simply. “Anyone who listens to ‘7 Years’ knows it is a hit. Streaming just accelerated the inevitable.”