Birth of a Buzz: Behind the Scenes as Hozier Goes Viral

Irish artist Hozier (via Facebook)

There's a good chance you haven't heard of Hozier quite yet -- though over 230,000 have over the past week-and-a-half. Born Andrew Hozier Byrne, the emerging singer-songwriter is in the midst of a unique spike of awareness, made possible by the digital age. We call it "going viral" these days.

Hozier's propitious buzz began on Wednesday, Sept. 25 with the posting of his first music video, for the song "Take Me to Church" from his EP of the same name. The song, bed-rocked by Hozier's formidable voice and a subtle piano line, has a palpable verve of inspiration -- as does its video, which directly addresses the institutionalized discrimination against the gay community in Russia.

The day after its posting, "Take Me to Church" was sitting atop 35,000 views on YouTube. The following day it was around 80,000. Not long after that Stephen Fry, the generally beloved British entertainer and presenter, was retweeting mention of it. Hozier was, and is, well on his way to stardom in his home country of Ireland. Not even two weeks later the debut video from an almost completely unknown artist with no major international support has received 232,134 views.

Wanting to see what the inside of a hurricane looked and felt like, Billboard.biz caught up with the head of Hozier's label, Niall Muckian, last Thursday while he and Hozier were in London. Muckian, who founded Rubyworks in 2002 and is also largely responsible for the international success of Rodrigo Y Gabriela, first became aware of Hozier through his friend Caroline Desmond, who had seen him perform two years ago, at a friend's backyard barbecue. Here, Muckian explains what its like keeping your head above water while in the midst of a hurricane.

Billboard: Whew. So how's it going?
Niall Muckian: Pretty good -- it's been a pretty hectic week. It's been incredible how the interest in Hozier has taken off in such a short period of time.

When was the video posted exactly?
It was Wednesday night. When it was posted on Wednesday I went to bed and it had 900 views. When I woke up it was at 9,000, five minutes later 20,000 an hour later 40,000 -- and it's still going. People keep gravitating towards.

When I saw it it was 90,000 and when I checked the following day it was 135,000. 200,000 at the moment. Do you know Stephen Fry?

Yes of course!
He's just retweeted it. People just keep gravitating towards it. We posted it last Wednesday, Thursday people started to really notice it. On Friday international labels started to get in touch. So I'm actually in London at the moment, I'm normally based in Dublin -- it's Andrew Hozier Burn is his full name, so that's where Andrew lives -- but we're over to meet some of the Universal subsidiaries today.

How long have you been working with Hozier?
Nearly two years. There's a concert promoter named Caroline Desmond who spotted him at a barbecue he was playing, happened to be there, something like that, and she was taken aback by his voice. She mentioned it to us, so about two years ago that happened. He was writing songs, but they weren't… he was trying around things he wanted to do but it didn't feel natural compared to the music he's now doing. So it was really only about five, six months ago that he started sending us these demos that ended up becoming the "Take Me to Church" EP. And as soon as we heard them, finally everything fell into place and we understood that this is a much more genuine voice coming through -- not forced. It's much more natural.

We decided to just post it, put it on BandCamp as a free EP for people and said we think it's great, so let's just let it out into the world and see if people pass it around. The first thing we were amazed by was that people were paying at least 5 euro most of the time they downloaded it. If we were on iTunes we wouldn't have made that money, but people were genuinely sharing it around social networks. So we put a show on sale in Dublin and that sold out three or four weeks in advance. And this was all before the video, so there was a genuine connection with the music and his voice and the song that people wanted to share and talk about.

So we had put on another show for December and that started selling very well -- it was all very much social network-based. And then we went for the video last Wednesday evening.

At least through the social networks I observed, the message of the video resonated alongside the weight of the song. Whose came up with the video's concept?
We put Andrew in touch with an Irish video director that we were familiar with. So we asked him to send us a pitch and what he sent was quite interesting, but it had a different slant to it. It was less… it had a vaguer angle. Andrew started talking to him and developing the concept, and I think Andrew wanted a more contemporary feel to it. He basically took a structure that Brendon, the director, had come up with and Andrew brought his ideas into it, which made a huge difference.

What I'm wondering is: You post the video on Wednesday and by Friday it much be pretty apparent that the snowball is quickly rolling down the hill. So what's your first move?
I run the label Hozier is signed to, so we've been working with him for these few years. Just to give you some background on ourselves, the company's called Rubyworks, and even though we do management for some acts -- I manage Rodrigo y Gabriela, for example -- so traditionally we sign acts, we have distribution throughout Europe, and sometimes we'll put it out and sometimes it makes a lot more sense to team up with a bigger partner, as we've done with Rodrigo y Gabriela. With Andrew it's become pretty apparent that the people looking to come aboard would do a better job on a worldwide level than we would be able to do as a small to medium-sized label.

So when we started getting label calls they were going "We really want to come over and see him." So now I think we've got 15 senior A&R people coming to Dublin tomorrow night. It's just -- I've been in the Dublin music business a long time and I can't think of the last time, not even [Rubyworks] acts but any acts, that have generated that much A&R interest from various labels. And loads of labels under the one [Universal Music Group] umbrella.

There's a parallel to the success that Lorde has been enjoying recently.
Yes -- I'm wondering, has everything settled down now with the majors that they're now back in a position to be aggressively going after artists. It's something I haven't noticed for a long time.

The thing with Lorde was that her video for "Royals" was percolating for months before she hit the charts proper. With Hozier it's been happening so much more quickly. I'm curious about the feeling behind-the-scenes, watching this go from zero to hyper speed.
It's just been full-on. With Rodrigo y Gabriela they've had big, worldwide success but it was a much slower burner, over a number of years. We knew we had a great act but it just took a lot longer. I suppose people so clued into the internet at this stage, once something goes it spreads very, very fast.

So as I say we've been coordinating with these 15 different A&R agents coming in tomorrow, trying to figure out can we meet them to say hi. NBC's synching department was calling, Sky's synch department in the U.K...

I was just about to ask if synch offers had been coming in…
... Stephen Fry retweeting it -- it's just a whole new level. One of the more unusual things as well is that it seems that there's now the very beginning of mainstream awareness and press. He's just been playlisted on Today FM, one of Ireland's largest national radio stations. But all the blogs and the more selective indie kids are talking about it just as much as the kind of more "mainstream" press. Sometimes it needs to be one or the other but at the moment it seems to be getting embraced by everybody.

How do you maintain your focus between what Hozier wants from his career in the midst of all this?
We think we've got a really important artist and we want to be able to control so it's not all hype. We want to make sure we're going to build this through live audiences and connecting with fans, developing a solid fan base over time. If we end up with either one international partner or a number of international partners, those will very much be the focus.

There's a certain amount of trust and communication built up with the fans already, and we want to keep developing that end of things.

So the first order of business is... ?
We have a tour of Ireland planned, we want to see how it plays out over the next week to see whether we're going to start working with U.K. straightaway.

But aside from that we have a plan where there's an EP, the follow-up EP next March, and the album out next August, so we're still moving ahead with that plan. If there's people who come in behind that and broaden it out to a more international base, then that's great.

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