Mumford & Sons' 'Babel': The Billboard Cover Story
Break out the banjos! Check out Billboard's newest story on the folk-rock group and their staggering, 600,000-unit sales week.
"That was quite a sunset!"
Marcus Mumford, clutching an acoustic guitar against his white button-up and olive-green tuxedo vest, is a bit breathless after opening his band Mumford & Sons' Hoboken, N.J., show on Aug. 1 with the new anthem "Lover's Eyes." To his back is the New York skyline, the light slowly shrinking from the crevices between the skyscrapers. To his left, Ted Dwane props up a string bass and "Country" Winston Marshall grips a banjo; to his right, Ben Lovett stands ready at his keyboard. And in front of Mumford are more than 15,000 onlookers crowded inside Hoboken's Pier A Park-some holding red Solo cups, some sporting unkempt beards, a few men over the age of 60 and several girls under the age of 15, all cheering in the darkness of the new night.
For those wondering how a quartet of scruffy, suspenders-wearing folk-rock musicians from London managed to sell 600,000 copies of their sophomore album, "Babel," in its debut sales week in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan), the crowd sharing the sunset at the band's Hoboken show can provide the answer. Mumford & Sons have cultivated this audience assiduously, not just with famously raucous shows but with a touring strategy designed to create event experiences for fans in every corner of the country.
Glassnote's strategy for raising awareness of "Babel," the group's sophomore full-length released on Sept. 25, was multipronged, beginning with the band's maiden voyage to Hoboken. The Aug. 1 show was the first date in a 15-city U.S. tour that allowed Mumford & Sons to introduce "Babel" songs to stateside fans. "I think that the No. 1 focus of the plan was that the band was going to be here for almost two months, setting up their record and playing their record -- which is kind of a ballsy move, playing half of your new album each night," Glassnote founder Daniel Glass says. "No. 2, keeping them connected to radio, particularly noncommercial, triple A and alternative. And keeping them attached to retail, particularly indie retail, and making sure there was good value there for them. And then letting [the album] ride free -- letting the streaming services help expose it."
Mumford & Sons + Billboard
Instead of cannibalizing album sales, streaming services helped Mumford & Sons score even more fans in "Babel's" debut sales week. The album smashed Spotify's records for streams from an album in a single week, with around 8 million streams. According to Spotify chief content officer Ken Parks, one out of every 10 U.S. Spotify users played a song from "Babel" in its first seven days of release. "Opening up the faucet and letting people hear it and stream is definitely very healthy," Glass adds, "and I think people inherently want to purchase an artifact, a memento, so they have a piece of it now that they streamed it."
From the moment Glass first saw the group playing the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge club in New York in March 2009, his experience with Mumford & Sons has been checkered with what he calls "epiphany moments." There was the night he watched the band perform alongside Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers, in a televised celebration of classic and contemporary folk at the Grammy Awards in February 2011. And more recently the time Glass hugged the band and manager Adam Tudhope at 3 a.m. after Mumford & Sons had made their "Saturday Night Live" debut on Sept. 22, culminating a two-year campaign to get the group on the show.
And now he can add the night of Oct. 2, when "Babel," released three days after that "SNL" gig, officially claimed the top debut sales week of the year. ( Justin Bieber's "Believe" is now in second place with a 374,000 start.) It's also the highest sales week of any rock album since AC/DC sold 784,000 copies of "Black Ice" in November 2008, the first No. 1 album for New York-based indie Glassnote and the largest sales week for Sony's indie distribution arm, RED.
Lovett, a multi-instrumentalist and backup vocalist, says that he, Mumford, Dwane and Marshall never expected any sort of prolonged groundswell when Mumford & Sons emerged from the loose collection of acoustically minded musicians dubbed the West London folk scene in 2007. But the first tipoff that the quartet was onto something special came years ago, in spring 2009, when they opened for British indie rock band the Maccabees for 11 dates in the United Kingdom. Playing in front of the Maccabees' guitar-driven pop anthems, Mumford & Sons' plucky folk ditties might have seemed out of place, except for the surprising fanfare that greeted them. "That was really when things started to change for us -- and it was before we released 'Sigh No More,'" Lovett says. "All of a sudden everyone was like, 'It's all right to like these guys if you like rock music.'"
In the three years since "Sigh No More" arrived in the United Kingdom in October 2009, mainstream rock music, specifically that being consumed in the United States, has rearranged its profile to allow for banjo breaks. New artists like Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers have had their singles gain traction on alternative radio. Longer-running acts like the Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros have released albums that scored top 10 debuts on the Billboard 200 and career-best sales weeks in 2012. James Steele, PD of alternative WROX-FM (96X) Norfolk, Va., says that rock radio has had to accommodate new sounds during the past three years: As bands like Phoenix and Foster the People have built more complex, electronic offerings into the genre, bands like the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers have stripped things down. "Program directors and people who shape music realize that there's a want for something more," Steele says.
Mumford & Sons have been at the epicenter of this growing demand for that something more. Thirty months before "Babel's" debut week was setting records, "Sigh No More" humbly began on the Billboard 200 at No. 127 upon its U.S. release in February 2010, with 5,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Since then, "Sigh No More" singles "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave" slowly grew at radio, with the former topping out at No. 3 on the Rock Songs chart in November 2010 and the latter climbing to No. 2 in April 2011 -- both peaking in their 22nd weeks on the tally. After scoring two 2011 Grammy nominations (including best new artist), Mumford & Sons notched four more in 2012 and were also a focal point of the broadcast.
Just as important, the radio romance and award love was bookended by relentless road work stateside -- by Lovett's count, Mumford & Sons have embarked on 10 separate U.S. tours since their inaugural trek in 2008 -- that catered to bigger crowds with each passing month. "Sigh No More" has now sold 2.5 million copies, according to SoundScan, and hasn't dipped out of the top 75 on the Billboard 200 since July 17, 2010.
Just as "Sigh No More" patiently inched into the public consciousness, "Babel's" monster debut has thrown prognosticators off-kilter and established Mumford & Sons as organically grown rock stars. And very much on their own terms. "It's not like we started wearing eyeliner and started to distort all of our instruments," Lovett says. But if the band hasn't changed, the reaction and recognition has. "Rock'n'roll magazines, and more alternative rock radio stations, have been like, 'Let's give these guys a spin.' We've just passively appreciated it all going really well, and done the best we can to meet the expectations."
GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD
On June 14, 2010, Mumford & Sons played at the Bluebird Nightclub in Bloomington, Ind., a Midwest city with a population of roughly 80,000, about half of them students at Indiana University. Tickets for the 700-capacity show were $10 each, and Adam Voith, the band's booking agent, wasn't optimistic about the turnout on a Monday night. For one thing, he lived in Bloomington at the time, so he knew the territory.
"I assumed it'd be a tiny little show that we'd get a couple hundred people out to," says Voith, who started working with Mumford & Sons in early 2009. Instead, it was packed, a sellout, and Voith saw hundreds of people whose faces he didn't recognize and whose demographics he couldn't pinpoint. At that point, Mumford & Sons had sold only 50,000 copies of "Sigh No More" in the United States, according to SoundScan, but the hundreds of people at the Bluebird treated the band members like megastars.
"They were going bananas in this club, just losing their minds," Voith says. "And that happens -- of course that happens -- but it usually takes some time."
Mumford & Sons have courted crowds in the major U.S. markets and at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza in the past three years, but they have also paid attention to building a base in smaller markets like Bloomington; Marfa, Texas; Telluride, Colo.; and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Voith says that, from the very beginning, Mumford & Sons were impressed with the way the Avett Brothers had developed their fan bases in secondary markets, and wanted to duplicate that success. The band hasn't just made touring in North America a priority, but touring in the corners of North America that many artists neglect, and coming back to those same corners year after year.
"These are loyal music fans," Voith says of the secondary-market crowds. And Mumford is loyal to them. After spending time in tiny Bristol, Va., on its way to New York earlier this year, the band promised the crowd that it would be back soon. A few months later, in August, back it was.