Without a label, publicist or big celebrity tweets and only limited iTunes placements -- two tiny thumbnails in New & Noteworthy -- Ben Rector's fourth studio album, "Something Like This" (Good Time Records), bows this week at No. 41 on the Billboard 200. The debut marks the singer/songwriter/musician's highest-charting project. His 2010 effort, "Into the Morning," peaked at No. 11 on Heatseekers Albums.
So who is Rector and what's the catch?
"A lot of people have been asking that question," Rector says with a laugh. "I'm pretty much a nobody; just a guy who plays pop music. But there is no funny business here, no gimmicks. Even in the cycle for my last album, there was no enormous break, huge tour or epic TV. I try to put enough craft into my music so it's not super simple or gimmicky... for me it's all about the song."
Actually, Rector has been steadily building a following since his college days at the University of Arkansas.
Melding pop, rock and folk influences, the business major began writing songs in earnest. After winning the grand prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest's pop category in 2006, he began hitting the road in his sophomore year on weekends to perform. "It was like leading a crazy, separate life," he recalls. "I'd go to class during the week and then jump in a van and go. I can't believe I survived-and graduated."
One of his performances in Texas led to his meeting eventual manager Paul Steele, co-founder of Nashville-based Trivate Entertainment. "He was almost 19 when I first heard him," says Steele, who also manages the group Green River Ordinance. "His recordings were garage-y, lo-fi, but there was something about the texture of his voice and how mature it sounded."
Rector released his first album, "Twenty Tomorrow," in 2007, followed by "Songs That Duke Wrote" and "Into the Morning." Now Nashville-based, the prolific artist has maintained an intense touring schedule. He co-headlined the Three Amigos tour in 2010 with Steve Moakler and Andrew Ripp and toured that same year with Dave Barnes and Five for Fighting. Since then, he's toured with Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors as well as Matt Wertz. He was also tapped to perform on the VH1 Best Cruise Ever with Train, the Script and Lifehouse.
"I felt like I showed up to a formal party in a T-shirt and shorts," Rector says of the cruise. "I was shocked that anyone on that boat had heard of me."
The exposure most likely led to Rector's track "After All" appearing last year on TV shows "Pretty Little Liars" and "Castle." However, Steele says the push behind "Something Like This" was focused on "things we could actually control. We decided to focus hard on everyone who has heard one of Ben's records, followed him on Twitter or Facebook, watched him perform or bought his CDs." The approach netted an increase from 5,800 Facebook fans in February 2010 to 26,200 today, while his Twitter followers rose from approximately 2,500 to 13,900 in that time frame.
For the sake of full disclosure, Steele says they did spend a couple hundred dollars on a Facebook ad. But that, along with the two iTunes placements and a YouTube push behind four buzz-building videos, were the only formal promotional efforts.
So what's next? Reconnecting with fans and attracting new ones. Rector is back on the road as of Sept. 22 for a five-week headlining tour. Steele has also partnered with synch company Secret Road for more licensing opportunities.
"We'll do as much as we can independently," says Steele, whose staff numbers full-timer Samantha Higinbotham and two interns. "But our ideal plan is to find a partner who can come alongside and support what we're doing. We've proven he can sell records; last week is a good testament to that."