Foster the People: How a Free Download Begat a Business
March 2010. Brent Kredel, an artist manager at Los Angeles' Monotone, receives a panicked phone call from a local musician who he'd befriended a year earlier.
The call was from Mark Foster, leader of then-unknown L.A.-based rock band Foster the People. A few months earlier, the musician had posted his catchy song "Pumped Up Kicks" as a free download on his website. Foster, who had been writing music for commercials to pay the bills, wasn't quite prepared for the online explosion that followed.
"Mark was saying, 'I think I just did something good,'" recalls Kredel, who now co-manages Foster the People with Monotone's Brett Williams. "'Everyone is calling me and emailing me-what do I do? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys?'"
A month after posting "Pumped Up Kicks," Nylon magazine caught wind of the tune and used it in an online advertising campaign. Others in the music blogosphere caught on, some predicting it would be "the song of next summer." As Internet chatter spread, Foster realized he needed professional guidance.
"He went from the guy who couldn't get a hold of anyone to being the guy who had hundreds of emails in his inbox," Kredel says. "So we spent the next month being there to help him through this process-and figuring out if it was a good marriage between the two of us."
Neither Foster nor Kredel had any clue that during the next 20 months, the trio-Foster, bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius, who started playing together in late 2009-would have a top 10 album on the Billboard 200, a monstrous hit at top 40 radio, numerous TV appearances and synch deals, dozens of sold-out headlining concerts, a best new artist nomination at this year's MTV Video Music Awards and coveted performance slots at Coachella, Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
So how does a virtually unknown L.A. rock group so quickly become one of the most successful artist development stories in recent memory? The team behind Foster the People-which includes executives from StarTime International/Columbia Records, Monotone and the Windish Agency-says it's an ongoing strategy that involves allowing the group to naturally develop in all areas of its career, rather than skipping crucial developmental steps and immediately cashing in on the popularity of "Pumped Up Kicks."
"We've been at this now for about a year, and the amount of things we've been able to do [during that time] is on par with campaigns that can take twice as long," says Ian Quay, Foster the People's product manager at Columbia. "That's not to sound cocky. It just moved really quickly. Everyone can tip their hat and know they did an awesome job."
Video: Foster the People, "Pumped Up Kicks"
Spring 2010. Kredel and Foster take meetings with Warner Bros., Atlantic, Columbia and Universal Republic. "I can't think of a label that wasn't interested," Kredel says. An early champion of the band was Isaac Green, who oversees Columbia imprint StarTime. By May 2010, Foster the People had decided to sign a worldwide, multi-album deal with Columbia.
"Columbia stepped up and said, 'We know there are a lot of people chasing you. We want to be the ones who win this,'" Kredel says. "So we were happy the band was able to sign a deal that didn't involve ancillary rights-your typically straightforward record deal that had nothing to do with merchandise or touring. A lot of people were surprised that in 2010 we were able to go out and get a deal like that."
With the Columbia deal squared away, it was time to concentrate on the music. "The focus," Kredel says, "was to stop everything and not work on any marketing or touring, but to make an album that backed up 'Pumped Up Kicks.'"
So from July through September, Foster and his bandmates wrote the new material that would appear on the group's debut album, Torches, the following year. As songs began to take shape, Green asked the band members for their producer picks. Three months later, Foster was co-producing his first album with Paul Epworth ( Adele, Florence & the Machine), Rich Costey ( Muse, Interpol) and Greg Kurstin ( Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers), whom Kredel describes as "some of the top producers of our time."
THE LIVE SHOW
In truth, the band didn't have much experience performing together. So booking agent Tom Windish stepped in and booked a handful of club shows in secondary and tertiary markets beginning in October 2010. "This was to help them get their sea legs," Windish says, "and become accustomed to playing in all sorts of different situations."
He admits that securing dates for a band without any touring experience was challenging. "I was begging promoters to book a band they'd never heard of, and to pay them $100 or $200," says Windish, who now books the group's tours in North and South America, Asia and Australia. "Some wouldn't go for it. Others did."
Foster the People had a secret weapon leading up to its tour that began taking shape in January: a massive database of fans who had downloaded "Pumped Up Kicks" from its website. "We sent an email to [those] 15,000 or 20,000 people that said, 'Hey, we're playing shows. Here's the first round,'" Kredel says.
Early on in the year, Windish had convinced Coachella booker Paul Tollett to give Foster the People a shot at playing a much sought-after tent. Although many in the group's camp view the Coachella performance as a key point in the group's touring career, Windish believes the band's live aspect really took shape in January during a month-long residency at Los Angeles' 350-capacity club the Echo.
By the time of the third Echo show on Jan. 26, "there were hundreds of people trying to get in outside," Windish recalls. "The management company was walking up and down the sidewalk saying, 'You're not going to get in'-and people stayed. It was an obvious turning point that could be measured in numbers." According to the Windish Agency, between last Halloween and the end of October the band will have played approximately 145 shows. Since July 23, the majority of the group's concerts have been sellouts. Its festival appearances have drawn upwards of 50,000 people.
The Echo residency shows, meanwhile, also helped Foster the People ease its way into the licensing world. "We started bringing out music supervisors to some of those shows at the moment we realized they were ready for burn time," Columbia senior director of creative licensing Jonathan Palmer says. "Some licenses developed from that down the line."
January also marked the first commercial release of Foster the People's recorded music-a self-titled EP that featured "Pumped Up Kicks," "Houdini" and "Helena Beat." Product manager Quay says that part of the strategy in releasing the EP was to show the world that the act had more than just one strong track under its belt. And since the full-length album wouldn't arrive until late May, an EP would hold fans over.
"The entire record had yet to be turned in," Quay says, noting that fans who bought the EP on iTunes were able to apply the purchase toward the full-length through the retailer's Complete My Album option. "We wanted to show it was more eclectic than what one might expect."
Additionally, having an EP available ahead of the May 23 release of Torches was helpful in exposing Foster the People's material to industry folks at South by Southwest in March, and to music supervisors and studio music executives who were looking for songs to place in upcoming season finales and episodes airing during sweeps.
"A lot of times, we're compelled to keep music closer to the vest until it's closer to the album release date," Palmer says, noting that the band's first "Pumped Up Kicks" synch came in late July 2010 in an episode of HBO's "Entourage."
"The plan helped us a great deal to set up more opportunities rather than chasing the release date," he continues. "So by the time we put the record out in May, we had already placed several songs."
To date the group's music has been licensed to such outlets as TV shows "Gossip Girl" ("Pumped Up Kicks," "Houdini") and "The Vampire Diaries" ("Helena Beat," "Pumped Up Kicks"), feature films "Friends With Benefits" ("Pumped Up Kicks") and "Suits" ("Don't Stop [Color on the Walls]"), videogame "FIFA 2012" ("Call It What You Want") and a Nissan commercial ("Don't Stop [Color on the Walls]").
"I haven't seen this kind of a range of song licenses from one album since we worked the first Ting Tings record [ We Started Nothing] three-and-a-half years ago," Palmer says. "That was an album where we licensed nine or [all] 10 songs on the album. We're kind of in a similar situation [with Torches]."
Foster controls his own publishing for North America. In 2010 he struck a deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing for publishing outside of North America, according to Kredel.
THE RADIO CROSSOVER
Foster the People's biggest push into the mainstream began at the start of 2011 with exposure on alternative radio that eventually led to widespread airplay on top 40. In January, without a heavy push from Columbia, numerous alternative radio stations-including Sirius XM's Alt Nation channel and Los Angeles outlets KROQ and KYSR-started spinning "Pumped Up Kicks."
"It was one of the only alternative bands I remember in a while that you could actually dance to," Columbia senior VP of promotion Lee Leipsner says. "And the fact that the record has a groove and rhythmic feel to it-not heavy guitar-based at all-gave us a wide opportunity to cross the record."
"Pumped Up Kicks" debuted on Billboard's Rock Songs airplay chart at No. 47 on Jan. 29, eventually peaking at No. 3 in mid-July. On Feb. 5 the track debuted on the Alternative Songs airplay chart, peaking at No. 1 (for five weeks) in late June. Fueled by the band's growing live fan base and success at alternative radio, Torches debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 8 on June 11. Further bolstering the band's image were release-week appearances on "Last Call With Carson Daly," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
"Last Call" music producer/booker Davis Powers says it's highly unusual for a developing act to land back-to-back late-night TV bookings on a debut album. "There are a couple of those artists every year where you'll see that trend," Davis says, pointing to the success of "Pumped Up Kicks." Footage of the band performing at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre will air on "Last Call" in October. The group is also scheduled to perform on "Saturday Night Live" (Oct. 8) and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" (Oct. 18). Torches has sold 321,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Back at radio, Leipsner says the group's true top 40 breakthrough arrived shortly after a new music presentation in June organized by Clear Channel Radio president of national programming platforms Tom Poleman. The meeting, according to Leipsner, included key programmers from around the country, including KIIS Los Angeles' John Ivey, WKSC Chicago's Rick Vaughn, KHKS Dallas' Patrick Davis, WXKS Boston's Dylan Sprague and WHYI Miami's Alex Tear.
"Obviously during our presentation we had a big push on Foster," Leipsner says. "After we showed our presentation, we had so many Clear Channel major-market programmers come up to us and say, 'The record I want to play besides Adele is Foster the People.'"
"Pumped Up Kicks" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 96 on May 14 and broke into the chart's top 40 in late July. It went top 10 on Aug. 27 and spends a fifth frame at No. 3 on this week's chart. The song debuted on the Adult Top 40 chart on July 9. Seven months after it first appeared on the Rock Songs tally, the track debuted on the Mainstream Top 40 chart on Aug. 6.
"We're a more rhythmic radio station," KIIS PD Ivey says, "so certain records that we put on kind of clear the way for other rhythmic stations to think it's OK to play the record. At this point, 'Pumped Up Kicks' is a power record for me and it's nowhere near burnt. It's one of the five most popular songs on the radio station right now.
"It's kind of hipster, but in a very palatable way," Ivey adds. "You hear it a couple times and you feel like you know it."
"Pumped Up Kicks" is the 25th biggest-selling digital song of 2011 with 2 million sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The track has shifted more than 100,000 downloads per week for the past seven weeks. On YouTube, "Pumped Up Kicks" has received more than 23 million views.
PROTECTING THE BAND
Overall, perhaps the most challenging aspect for Team Foster during the band's rise has been to shy away from lucrative offers that wouldn't be beneficial to the act later on. "We've worked really hard with Columbia to really foresee the trajectory and make sure we're making good decisions for the band," Kredel says. "There have been tons of opportunities that have come to the band-whether it's an endorsement or something that would help them right away-but in three months they'd regret doing. Those have been the harder decisions as managers."
But so far, the team members are still asking themselves how this all happened so quickly-and even pinching themselves to make sure it isn't a dream.
"How often do you see a band like this come on the scene and completely explode in that period of time?" Columbia senior VP of marketing Scott Greer asks. "For all of that to come together in such a short period of time is pretty tremendous. It's a great example of the team coming together and working hard in their respective areas to develop the best band."