The Head and the Heart: The Billboard Cover Story
Seattle's The Head and The Heart covers Billboard's State of Independence Issue, a look at independent music in 2011.
One day last spring, Tyler Williams lost his cell phone on the streets of Seattle.
The drummer for folk band the Head and the Heart never expected to get it back, let alone within the prophetic series of events that followed.
Williams' bandmate Charity Thielen got a call that day from a stranger who found the phone. Thielen connected the two, and they arranged to meet at the man's office, around the corner from Seattle's Pike Place Market.
What seemed, at first, to be a chance encounter with a good Samaritan instantly became something more, when Williams found himself on the doorstep of Sub Pop Records.
The flexibility the band found with the heavy-hitting indie label allowed it the immediate access and freedom it needed to continue developing a career, the foundations of which the group had already established. "They wanted to be sure they were in a place where they could have that organic growth," the band's manager Matt Shay says. "And I think that's exactly what's happening now."
Of course, the label's Seattle address also came in handy: As Poneman puts it, "If we're messing up, they can come on down to the office to yell at us."
"It was more than the convenience thing, though," Thielen says. "We were [both] birthed there, in Seattle. That was cool for us."
When the band signed the deal, it had run out of CDs. Instead of immediately pushing a physical rerelease, however, Sub Pop director of marketing Kate Jackson says the label decided to let the album build organically, without promotion, on the digital market. The soft rollout was supported solely by touring.
"They were exposed to a new audience time and time again, so it just continued to sell at [whatever] price it could be bought," Jackson says. "It was a crazy digital boom." She adds that the Head and the Heart project has been relatively hands-off, which speaks to its success, both now and in the future.
"We don't have to invest thousands of dollars in a marketing campaign with a band like the Head and the Heart," Jackson says. "They've already got this momentum going, so we just build on wherever it's naturally going anyway." When the band finally rereleased the physical record on Sub Pop, it chose to drop it on Record Store Day in April, playing two free in-store shows at the shops that drove the group's success from the beginning: Easy Street and Sonic Boom.
The act continues the record store tradition whenever possible on tour. As Zasche explains, the band's enthusiasm for these in-store performances isn't just to support independent shops. "A lot of our shows are still bar shows," he says, "so when we get to play a daytime set, we have the chance to play for [a younger crowd], too."
That desire to reach fans regardless of demographic has been a crucial factor in the band's success, according to-well, all of them. "One of our main goals . . . from the beginning has been to make people's experience with the music as personal . . . as we possibly can," Johnson says. This means talking to fans after concerts and responding to their tweets, even offering guest-list spots to those who travel from afar to attend shows.
"There have been nights when it's been stressful, crazy," Hensley says of the band's ritual post-show meet-and-greets. "But it means the world to someone... it's important."
The band's universal appeal, coupled with its intimate, slow-boil approach has steadily developed a network of loyal and diverse fans whose support has launched the band's album to No. 1 on four of Billboard's regional Heatseekers album charts, No. 3 on the overall Heatseekers Albums tally, No. 4 on Folk Albums and even a slot on the Billboard 200, at No. 171. On April 10, the band sold 20,000 copies of the Sub Pop release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In slightly more than two months, that number has more than doubled, reaching 45,000. "It's not that they're reinventing the wheel here," manager Shay says of the band's personal tactics. "They're just really, really good at it."
The group's word-of-mouth promotion even reached Dave Matthews, whose doctor gave him the album. Fellow Seattlite Matthews asked the band to open for several of his West Coast dates and perform at his touring festival, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan. The support from Matthews, whose music draws an entirely new crowd, has expanded the Head and the Heart's reach-something the members are more than happy to embrace.
"One band's success, especially in the indie world, could be the absolute opposite of what another band would want for themselves," Sub Pop's Jackson says. "[The Head and the Heart] have no target demographic."
Even as the group tours Europe with Death Cab for Cutie and its single "Lost in My Mind" breaks the top 10 on Billboard's Triple A radio chart (the song is No. 8this week), the Head and the Heart has maintained that chain of local good will and continues to collaborate and play shows with local Seattle bands like Campfire OK and Devil Whale -- the latter joining the Head and the Heart on its first national headlining tour this fall.
"There are things [we] do as a smaller band that you can still do as a bigger band," Johnson says. "There's always a way to bring it back down to an individual interaction . . . you have to make even more of an effort if you've reached people in a general way to reach them in a specific way."
"It's like that tree theory," Zasche says (to the immediate chorus of "It's the Zasche Tree Theory!"). "As you get further out there, and reach the people at the smaller branches, you have to support yourself by strengthening your roots."