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Breakthrough Breakdown: #3 Lorde - Aug 22, 2014

Seize the chart crown by stealth

picture For proof that you don’t need to follow the tried and tested route in order to succeed and that originality really is the key then look no further than Lorde. In Breakthrough Breakdown we look at what lessons we can learn from the Kiwi’s royal debut.

(1) Don’t compromise your art

“Success will come through following your art, not dollar signs.” Every artist knows that by now, surely? But that’s not to say they really believe it …

“[Young artists] get persuaded to compromise their vision. If they start compromising, they are diluting their message and they lose their authenticity and originality. You can listen to people but always listen to your own voice first.”

It takes a new artist like Lorde, who has broken through despite making outwardly anti-commercial – or at least unconventional – decisions in bringing her music to the masses, to remind you that there may actually be some truth in it.

“The whole vision of her as an artist was not driven by money, it was driven by her music. We never made a decision based on finances.”

Whether swimming against every tide in introducing Lorde to the world was actually driven by the music or just a deliberate desire to stand out from the crowd doesn’t matter, its proof that doing things your own way can really work.

(2) Mystery is more interesting

Before Twitter, the internet and blanket media coverage, pop artists were all a bit of a mystery, whether they liked it or not. It was hard to find out much about an artist beyond what your imagination could conjure up from a record sleeve, a live show or from the music itself. It had the effect of making artists all the more mysterious and intriguing – a real bonus if you were desperately dreary in person.

Now that artists are expected to communicate their day-to-day thoughts and actions directly to their fans through social media, the reverse is true – it’s harder than ever to be enigmatic. But it has meant that the power mystery has in captivating an audience has grown. Lorde understood this, having recognised its effect with shadowy artists like Burial and the Weeknd:

"I feel like mystery is more interesting. People respond to something that intrigues them instead of something that gives them all the information -particularly in pop, which is like the genre for knowing way too much about everyone and everything."

Manager Scott Maclachlan was only too happy to buck music industry marketing conventions and keep it “all about the music”.

“We were really keen to not have the record company do their usual thing, which is employ a stylist, get an expensive photographer and do the traditional marketing … There was no photo, there was no bio … we never wanted to mention her age. This music is good not because of her age, this music is just good.”

If the music is really good then people will be desperate to know who is behind it.

Equally, if the music stinks then you’re better off adopting the opposite tact and employing all the marketing razzle dazzle you can muster to wow the audience and distract them from its awfulness.

(3) Use youth to your advantage

Audiences may prefer their pop stars young and pretty but when it comes to an artist negotiating the music industry youth is a weakness, seen as being synonymous with inexperience, naivety and ignorance. “You don’t know how the industry works. I’ve got 20 years experience, I know what the kids want, I know what sells… Listen to me.”

But the only people who really know what the youth want, are the youth.

“As a marketer or record company you’re always trying to get down and connect with the youth, but [Lorde] is the youth. It's the ultimate marketing plan without having a marketing plan.”

And in an industry where technology is rapidly changing how music is made and marketed, knowing what worked ten, twenty years ago is not always helpful, you need to be totally on trend and tuned into what’s happening right now.

“I think young artists these days are very smart and savvy in how to make music, how to market themselves and take their music to their audience, whereas a lot of the industry is still stuck in the old way of doing things.”

(4) There are no instant stars, you have to grow into the role

When Lorde hit popular consciousness she was only 16. At that age most would-be artists are just starting to jam with their mates or muck about with beats on their computer – but here, as if out of nowhere, was a fully formed star with a strikingly original image, sound and set of songs. How can we compete with that?! But her youthfulness hid years of development; Lorde had just started earlier than most.

Manager Maclachlan had seen a video of her performing at a local talent show, as half of a boy-girl singing duo, and been struck by her remarkable voice. She was only 12 when he signed her as a solo artist to a development deal with Universal. She then spent three years developing her songs, initially writing with other songwriters. Progress was slow and not without frustration, but she showed enough promise and improvement for Maclachlan to believe that his patience would be eventually rewarded.

“She would come and play me something that she had been working on, I’d make a few comments ... Then she would come back with something else three months later and it was always an improvement from the last things. That is absolutely key – if you see someone that young progressing with every piece of work they deliver, you know something good is happening.”

(5) You can't make it alone

Look behind any great artist and you’ll find a team of talented collaborators that saw their potential and helped them to realise it, whether it’s a manager, musician, publisher, attorney, friend, teacher, or producer. Nobody makes it alone – not even solo artists.

Lorde struggled with a succession of co-writers before she found the perfect partner in producer Joel Little. Like a lot of things that are just meant to be, it all snapped into place with incredible speed, as Maclachlan highlights:

“After a week of being with Joel one of the first three songs she played me was Royals.”

(6) Non-traditional tastemakers

Tastemakers play an ever more influential role in breaking new artists. A respected writer on an influential music website or blog or a DJ on a hip radio programme has the power to get lots of people listening to and talking about a new artist. So much so they are now an accepted port of call for anyone on the promo campaign trail. But it’s for that very reason that Lorde and Maclachlan decided not to bother with them:

“I felt going down the traditional route of sending it to Pitchfork, Hype Machine or any of those things doesn't make any sense because that's what everybody does. These sites get new music everyday and I don’t think you get a fair chance of people listening to it. I thought we should send it to non-traditional areas.

I sent it to a couple of architecture and fashion websites. They never get sent music so they react and say: "Wow, this is great!" and listen to it. It wasn't even a plug, it was just: "Hey, we are working on this, what do you think?" - really low-key.”

(7) Keep ‘em hungry

Another standard industry practice when promoting a new act is to set up live showcases and then entice the media to turn up and write about them with the promise of free drinks. Needless to say, Lorde and Maclachlan didn’t want to do that and so they did some small shows and deliberately didn’t invite any media along. And, much like keeping the artist a mystery makes the audience more curious, this of course made them want to see her all the more.

But what can we learn from this? That new acts should bar the media from attending their shows? No, of course not, that would be self-defeating. Lorde could only get away with doing that because she’d already built up a lot of hype and so there was already a big demand to be squeezed. What the example highlights is that classic piece of wisdom: always leave them wanting more. If you’re to eager too satisfy your audience they’ll quickly lose interest and move on.

(8) Find a guide to get you in

A&R people are traditionally seen as the gatekeepers of the music industry; get discovered and signed by a record label A&R and the keys to the kingdom are yours. But with today’s music industry stuck in the doldrums, labels, particularly the majors, are reluctant to start at square one by investing time and money in “unknowns”.

Majors want “readymade” artists that have been developed independently and already established a fanbase. Increasingly it is managers and small labels that take on this nurturing role or, to continue the gatekeeper analogy, the “guide”: “You’re not getting in unless you’re accompanied by someone we respect who can vouch for you.”

The label can then just focus on using their marketing muscle to generate a big promotional splash and get the music distributed far and wide. This is essentially what happened with Lorde:

“Almost 100% was done outside of the record company and they picked it up at a point where it was ready-made. It was like the dish was prepared by us and they served it.”

(9) Coming from outside the USA or the UK can be an advantage

A non-US and UK artist has the instant advantage of being “different” from a regular chart act. However for them to be successful they need to strike a perfect balance between the familiar and the unusual. Both Lorde – from New Zealand – and earlier Breakthrough Breakdown featuree Psy – from South Korea – achieved their Western breakthrough with songs that were familiar in that they both referenced US pop culture, but at the same time sounded new and interesting because came from different perspectives.

“Because the big bands normally come out of the US and UK, people can sometimes look at things from outside these markets in a patronising way but nowadays there is a desire for something new. The song "Royals" is in a way a critique of hip-hop culture but it's coming from somewhere totally different. That intrigued people.”

(10) Aspire to be genre-defying

An aspiration for any act should be for their music to be “genre-defying”. Don't limit the reach of your music by surrendering to a certain genre or radio format – you want it to be appreciated by anyone. The originality of Lorde’s music paired with her enigmatic profile has helped her avoid the inevitable pigeon holing and allowed to ‘Royals’ to surf across various radio formats up to the top of the charts.

Read On ...

* What can new artists learn from the slow-burn success of Ellie Goulding?