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Breakthrough Breakdown: #2 Ellie Goulding - Jan 28, 2013

Slow burning Lights finally spark

picture Countless hit songs have lit up the charts and faded away in the thirty-three chart weeks it took British singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding’s ‘Lights’ to slowly amble up the Billboard Hot 100 to an eventual peak of #2. Clearly this isn’t your standard success through sustained marketing bombardment, but rather an unconventional meandering route to the top where a variety of factors came into play. As Breakthrough Breakdown highlights, it does seem fitting for Goulding that her breakout campaign has been one where audiences have slowly been won over by her unassuming allure rather than pinned to the ground and forced into submission. So what we can learn from the slow burn success of Lights?

(1) If first you don’t succeed …

Lights took so long to reach the Top 10 because the original US breakthrough campaign for Ellie Goulding failed.

The March 2011 ‘Lights’ album and subsequent single release were timed to attempt to capitalise on a burgeoning profile that was beginning to attract attention stateside.

Having achieved household name status in her native Britain during 2010 following a string of UK hits, culminating in her cover of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ reaching #2, Rolling Stone magazine anticipated the shift in focus towards the US and decided that 2011 would be the year the States succumbed to her charms, featuring Goulding in their annual “Hot List”.

The label responsible for facilitating this US breakthrough was Cherrytree Records, the then Interscope imprint run by A&R marvel Martin Kierszenbaum (HQ interview), renowned for its expertise in grooming new talent for breakout success, having introduced the USA to the likes of Lady Gaga, Far East Movement and La Roux.

Goulding’s US campaign was marked by extensive media coverage and an exhaustive schedule of appearances. These began with the customary SXSW introductory show and “live at the Cherry House” mini-concert, followed by a US TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a slot at Coachella, and a headlining US tour.

But all the hard work and marketing muscle paid meagre dividends – at least initially. The album initially only debuted at #129 on the Billboard 200 but following a surprise guest appearance on Saturday Night Live and a profile boost prompted by an invitation to perform at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding reception it did manage a chart re-entry, reaching #76 in May.

The same month saw the release of the Lights single but it took until August for it to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 when it reached #85 before dropping out a week later.

It was never a lost cause though, and there were enough encouraging signs to suggest that persistence might eventually pay off – albeit probably with a different single.

(2) Success rewards hard work and persistence

The sensitive music and girlish tones might suggest a vulnerable young artist but make no mistake, Goulding seems to possess the kind of drive, steeliness and ambition that characterises the most successful solo female artists.

In working two territories simultaneously during 2011/2012 – cementing her UK success while forging her US breakthrough – Goulding withstood a physically and mentally demanding schedule that at one stage involved touring the US in a bus while making frequent return trips to the UK to fulfil promotional duties. Even a band, with all its inherent camaraderie and shared pressure, would find that a struggle, so to be able to cope as a solo female artist Goulding must be made of stern stuff.

This is not to say that Goulding found it easy to adapt to suddenly dealing with massive audiences and big expectations – she needed a course of cognitive behaviour therapy to relieve her of the panic attacks she suffered at big shows such as the Glastonbury Festival.

(3) Coming across as nice and down to earth goes a long way

Since beginning her US Lights campaign in early 2011 until the single’s peak in August 2012, Goulding has made a lot of promotional appearances on TV, radio and at special events where the audience doesn’t necessarily know who she or haven’t made up their mind whether they like her or not, so it’s important that she comes across well.

She presents herself as being very down to earth, modest about her success; she’s easy to like, easy to relate to. And that has gone down well with audiences. A little like that other USA-cracking British singer-songwriter Dido in fact.

(4) Chose you market and collaborators carefully

And the comparison to Dido doesn’t end there. The way Goulding manages to exploit the fine line between hip and the mainstream is not dissimilar to the manner in which Dido broke through in 1999.

Like Dido, Goulding essentially belongs to the rather passé breed that is female singer-songwriters playing acoustic-pop. To stand any chance of breaking through she needed a contemporary makeover from a cutting edge producer. Just as Faithless’ Rollo gave Dido’s music credibility with its then contemporary trip-hop inflections, electro and house producer Starsmith aided Goulding’s transition from folk-pop singer-songwriter to electro-pop star by adding a dash of club friendly synths and house beats.

The electro production is, however, never anything other than a “lite” strain designed not to scare off less adventurous mainstream music fans. The hip production flourishes complement rather than overwhelm that essential populist core of the music.

The result is that Goulding is trendy enough to appeal to fans of Skrillex and EDM looking for post-rave comedown music and mainstream enough for her to be invited to perform at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding dinner. It’s telling that the song was a Top 40 hit on both Billboard’s Alternative Songs and Adult Contemporary charts.

(5) Exploit dance floor potential with remixes

Remixing gives artists the opportunity to exploit their potential on the dance floor without alienating their existing mainstream audience.

The modest early success of Lights in the US came as a result of remixed versions proving popular on the dance floor and this secondary dance floor market had no doubt always been in mind; the song has a deliberately club DJ-friendly tempo of 120 BPM, a stomping techno beat and a suitably anthemic chorus.

This market potential was tapped with the commissioning of nine official remixes, which were released as two separate digital EPs in the US and Canada. In unleashing the song’s euphoric, rave-worthy potential,
Bassnectar’s remix provided the market breakthrough and helped encourage the demand that would ultimately see the song picked up by radio and rise up the charts.

(6) An association with EDM poster boy is helpful

Having first attracted attention in the electronic music community with the Lights remixes, Goulding’s credibility was reinforced when she began an association with EDM poster boy Skrillex, the first fruits of which was an appearance on ‘Summit’ from his breakthrough 2011 EP, Bangarang, which broke into the US Top 20.

Goulding and Skrillex’s embarked on a personal relationship that was no doubt all for the right reasons, but the original coupling was certainly career oriented at least. Goulding herself likely had an influence over the collaboration, alluding to the initial meeting in an interview at the time by saying: "The other day I just found somewhere where it was like, it clicked in my brain that I wanted to work with that person. And I won't say who it is but I think it could be awesome if I end up doing stuff with him."

There’s no question that Goulding’s burgeoning profile in the US benefited as a result, even if the producer didn’t have a hand in actually influencing her music at that time.

(7) Radio still has a decisive influence

The airwaves had little or no influence over Lights’ adventures in and out of the lower reaches of the charts during 2011. But by the end of the year Goulding’s profile had reached a point where she had become a pop star without a hit, having performed for Barack Obama at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at the American Music Awards, appeared on David Letterman and stepped in for an injured Jessie J on the North American leg of Katy Perry’s California Dreams arena tour.

The song was finally serviced to mainstream radio in January and from then on started to gain momentum, slowly but surely. Without radio input Lights would have never moved beyond the lower reaches of the charts.

(8) A good well written pop song is the crucial foundation stone

Lights is a well-written song with a strong hook and obvious pop appeal that deserved to reach an appreciative audience and warranted the faith invested in it. If the song hadn’t been as good and had struggled to make any initial headway then the label would have accepted the song just wasn’t good enough and moved on.

The quality of the song and production is largely down to the hugely experienced songwriter/producer team of Biff Stannard and Ash Howes, whose credits include The Spice Girls, Kylie , U2 and, yes, Dido.

(9) … Plus songs that can withstand umpteen plays without driving you mad have a better chance of chart longevity

Lights’ subtle charms and absence of sharp edges has meant that it has been able to withstand a long run on radio playlists without reaching listener burnout. It’s hard to imagine previous feature subject ‘Gangnam Style’ retaining its appeal after six months on the airwaves.

Read On ...

* Gangnam Style is the subject of Anatomy of a Breakthrough Hit
* Manager Sarah Stennett on Ellie Goulding's development