Just four months ago, Michael and Carissa Rae Alvarado, a husband-and-wife folk-pop duo known as Us, were trying to promote their just-released album "No Matter Where You Are" via YouTube videos and covers of popular songs. They fared reasonably well, amassing 18 million views and over 300,000 subscribers, but "even that wasn't enough to make our presence known," says Michael. "We knew we had to find another avenue."
In late November, Us began experimenting on Vine by recording 6-second covers (or #6SecondCovers) to their Vine account, @UsTheDuo, which then had roughly 4,000 followers. Eventually, their covers of everything from John Legend's "All of Me" to the Quad City DJs' "Space Jam" theme song began picking up steam, which helped draw attention to their self-released album of original duets, "No Matter Where You Are," inspired by their own real-life romance (the couple met in January 2011, began dating in April that same year and married one year to the day later on April 26, 2012.)
Their unique technique also helped boost re-Vines – filming only half their faces to focus on harmonies over looks (nevermind that they're an impossibly adorable couple.) Though it's become their trade mark, Carissa insists it was born out of necessity. "I wasn't wearing makeup one night, and Michael wanted to film a video and I was like, 'No I'm tired and I'm in my pajamas,'" she recalls. "We'd had a Vine account, but we never really too active on it. We tried to post funny Vines, but we're not comedians, so it didn't go over too well. But the six-second cover thing seemed to really take off and people seemed to like it."
By mid-December, a take on The Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather" caught the attention of major Vine-rs like Jerome Jarre, who re-Vined the clip to his 4.9 million followers. From there, their follower count began to skyrocket as they caught the attention of outlets like Buzzfeed and Business Insider. By late January, they had 1.5 million followers, and scored a "Good Morning America" appearance. Today, they have over 2.5 million – and, as of Tuesday evening (March 18), a record deal.
Republic Records has signed Us to a deal that will include a re-released version of "No Matter Where You Are" later this spring, with new mixes of the album's breezy Mumford-in-love gems like "Don't Lay Your Head," "Make You Mine" and "Come Back" currently under consideration. A new video of the album's title track and lead single is also in the works.
"There's a universality to what they're doing, and I don't think there's a glass ceiling to it," says Nate Albert, Republic's senior VP of A&R, who first met with the duo in early January. "Their songs are like walking through the birth of their relationship, and it's really rare that you see something that has that level of earnestness to it. These are songs that everybody can relate to, but there's an elegance to how they do it."
By signing with a major label (Billboard's top-ranked of 2013 in terms of market share in current and track-equivalent album sales), Us breaks new ground for a platform heretofore associated with comedy performers. Where YouTube-rs like Justin Bieber (Island Def Jam) and Karmin (Epic Records) paved the way several years ago for the likes of next-gen acts like Austin Mahone, SoMo and The Chainsmokers (all Republic signings), Us has the potential to do the same for other musicians who may turn to Vine to break ground that's already well-trodden on YouTube. Vine comedian Nicholas Megalis, the so-called "King of Vine," has explored a legitimate music career with a self-released single, while hip-hop tracks like FiNATTiCZ' "Don't Drop That Thun Thun" and DJ Snake's "Turn Down For What" have each become Hot 100 crossover hits thanks to viral Vine memes.
In fact, Republic's initial meeting with Us at the label's New York offices turned out to be half-Vine tutorial, half-discussion about a potential signing. "They reached out to us to do a showcase, and we were nervous as all heck, but then they picked our brain on the app as well. They realized it had a lot of power but didn't know how to use it," Michael recalls. The duo shared a few tricks to their success like "post a new cover everyday," and "always wear a different outfit" – even if they were being filmed back to back. "They were super-interested in how they could do that for their artists, but it was clear they were interested in hearing about our music and what we were doing," Michael says.
Republic's Ben Adelson, VP of A&R, notes that Vine is ultimately no different than other discovery platforms like Myspace, Pure Volume or SoundCloud when it comes to getting on labels' radar. "It just seemed like another way for a band to figure out how to promote themselves, they just seem to have done the best job of anyone else on the platform," he says. "Great music always cuts through, and I'm sure there's tons of other people who use the same marketing tactic. But for us it was always about the originals that they put through, and that people went out, found them and bought them."
Us took meetings with other labels, but Republic was the first and the most active. "Once we got the hit on 'GMA,' they sped up everything," Michael says. Big-name artist managers started booking meetings with Us, too, including Scooter Braun's SB Projects and Austin Mahone's Chase Entertainment, but the band opted for Michael's longtime friend Adam Sensenbrenner, a former sponsorships coordinator at music-branding agency MAC Presents.
Signing with a label is still relatively uncharted territory for Vine talent, who tend to align with Vine-based booking and brand agents to make a living and help secure deals that can often net as much as $10,000 a post. Though Us tried out one such campaign, for Pepsi, the agency model didn't seem very sustainable – or autonomous, since many ask for one-year exclusivity to clients' channels. "We realized we could use Vine to promote our own album," Michael says. That's why just last week, the duo introduced a Vine campaign encouraging fans to post their own #NoMatterWhereYouAre videos, which produced enough responses to help the song spike to No. 16 on the iTunes Pop chart. The "No Matter Where You Are" album also re-entered Billboard's Heatseekers Albums for the week of March 29, at No. 20.
Michael cites Republic exec VP Charlie Walk as the label's biggest champion for what could come next from Us. "He's the most creative guy we've ever met with – within 30 minutes of our last meeting we had 20 ideas, and we were just itching to get started," he says. "We love the feeling of minds coming together and creating something."
Republic's Adelson says he's already wary of the "label ego" that tends to permeate such timely deals. "It's just not necessary for us to put our stamp on this. We all decided it's worth the attempt to try to get the album to where they were hearing it in their heads," he says. "I always want to make sure our own major-label hubris is in the right spot because you don't want to steamroll something that people love. It's really about, 'How can I support you being a better version of your band?' It's a band founded on love. There is a really unique point of view that feeds a lot of other songs that are out there."