GET IN ON THE PASSENGER SIDE

“It’s a real error to think that just because you like somebody’s work, that you’re going to like them personally as well.” – Paul Simon

I divide musical artists into two distinct categories: those you love to see on stage and those you’d love to have dinner with. Rarely are they the same person, but it can happen. In my 20-year stint in Artist Relations at Warners I found that there were many artists with whom you would prefer not to do a meet and greet as it could ruin the fan’s fantasy of the artist. The fans assume that their favorite artist is just as captivating off stage as on stage. Not so much. That’s why I was leery at first to meet Passenger, the “suddenly famous” singer/songwriter/artist, on his solo tour of the U.S. last fall. His onstage presence felt real and honest – hard to fake, although I have seen it done once or twice. Imagine my surprise finding those same qualities in his persona off-stage as well. Now I want to have dinner with him, and take in another show.

His onstage presence felt real and honest – hard things to fake.

Passenger, né Michael Rosenberg, has a pretty straight-forward Wikipedia entry, outlining his birth in England (17 May 1984), his passion for classical guitar and songwriting (around 14-15 years of age), his time as leader of the group Passenger (2003-2009), his retention of the band name as his stage name, his professional emigration to Australia (October 2009), his entrée into the folk rock music circle Down Under, culminating in his first solo album release (Wide Eyes Blind in 2009), a fan-only release Divers and Submarines (in 2010) and its follow-up, Flight of the Crow (in 2011), all on his own Passenger label and all funded by revenue collected from busking!!

And finally he released the current LP, All The Little Lights, in August 2012 on Aussie label Inertia internationally and simultaneously on Nettwerk in the US/UK/Canada.  Nettwerk’s marketing and promotion departments pushed all the right buttons two months before the August 2012 release in the US. Even though the single “Let Her Go” shot up to the #1 position in 16 countries internationally by late in 2012 and his video for the track had simultaneously accumulated millions of views, the nature of the music (acoustic guitar and a high-register warbling voice reminiscent of early Cat Stevens) did not sit well early on with US radio programmers, who did not rush in where others (ROW, or the rest of the world) had tread. “It doesn’t sound like anything else we’re playing,” was the standard response given.

(Sidebar: The success of the video predates everything related to the song all around the world. The video had an unprecedented million views internationally even before Nettwerk’s initial radio add date in August 2012. And it’s not a breakthrough video by any stretch of the imagination – it’s really just him and his guitar singing this song.  It’s all about the strength of this song and his performance. As of March 2014, the You Tube views for “Let Her Go”are over 225 million. If you’re not one of them, you can watch it here.)

All three previous releases were funded by revenue collected from busking.

Back to our story: Ed Sheeran, a mate of Michael’s from Cambridge in 2005, was having great success in the U.S. at radio and he invited Michael to be his support act on his sold out Fall 2012 U.S. small hall tour.  It was just Michael and his guitar playing to unsuspecting audiences and winning them over one market at a time. He then embarked on his own short headline U.S. club tour in December 2012 and each date, somewhat surprisingly, sold out. At the same time, the digital single sales, albeit still relatively small, were increasing every week. Even then, radio was non-responsive. By December 2012, Nettwerk felt as if it had hit a wall.

(Another sidebar: By the way, six months of intensive radio promotion and marketing without a significant blip is the point where many labels these days would either switch singles or, more likely, abandon the project altogether, promising to wait for the next release to evaluate its commercial potential. But not Nettwerk and not Passenger. The label knew that “Let Her Go” was the track and they knew what a special artist he is, and so they committed to taking as many tries as they would need to in order to surmount the initial push back from programmers.)

In January 2013 the label regrouped and switched their radio promotion efforts to The Artist Cooperative, a new outside independent radio promotion staff with experienced reps in the top seven influential markets who operate regionally as a unified front. Although initially the TAC reps met with the same resistance that came before, sheer persistence and personal relationships prevailed and the track began its long, slow climb to the top of the AAA chart. Also in January, the push at the Hot AC format began, pursuing the obvious demographic for the track – women.

Once the groundwork was laid by The Artist Cooperative, Nettwerk set up a new arrangement with Warner Bros. Records in the Spring of 2013 to have the WB staff work the track as well at Hot AC in a non-competitive way with the TAC staff, which led to the ultimate success detailed below.

The obvious demographic for the track – women.

And then, as if it were all planned to happen that way, Passenger’s own headline tour of clubs, theaters and small halls was announced for July and August and it quickly sold out! Now the value of the track and the artist to radio programmers across the country and in multiple formats could not be denied. All of the pieces started to fall into place – single and album sales, ticket sales, video plays, website hits, Google searches, press requests and magazine articles, blog mentions, TV appearances and now radio play – ONE FULL YEAR after the Nettwerk staff began to work the record.

Once the tour ended in early September 2013, the train could not be stopped. By December it was #1 on the Billboard AAA chart, cracked the Top Ten of the Hot 100, and the single went platinum in the US. And in late February 2014 the track did (finally) reach the #1 position on the Hot AC chart as well as #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #1 spot on the AC chart in March. The real highlight? Budweiser chose the track “Let Her Go” to be the music bed for its Super Bowl commercial. Passenger had arrived full-blown into the American consciousness.

The eventual success of the record and the artist here is a testimony not only to Passenger’s talented singing and songwriting, of course, but also to the hard work and persistence of Nettwerk Records. Come this summer, a full two years since the single was first launched in the U.S., Passenger will return to these shores for a larger-than-before venue tour (and the new single out this Spring, Scare Away The Dark, is from his new forthcoming album).  But I’m certain that there won’t be a hint of gloating or I-told-you-so in him. It will only be all about his gratitude and appreciation, both from the stage and at dinner. And it will be one where I’ll be all too happy to pick up the tab.

“You need to write about the truth, because there are a lot of people living that truth.” – Loretta Lynn

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