Sound the banjos! A look at how Mumford & Sons' unique touring strategy and three years of hard road work paid off.
"That was quite a sunset!"
Marcus Mumford, clutching an acoustic guitar against his white button-up and olive-green tuxedo vest, is a bit breathless after opening his band Mumford & Sons' Hoboken, N.J., show on Aug. 1 with the new anthem "Lover's Eyes." To his back is the New York skyline, the light slowly shrinking from the crevices between the skyscrapers. To his left, Ted Dwane props up a string bass and "Country" Winston Marshall grips a banjo; to his right, Ben Lovett stands ready at his keyboard. And in front of Mumford are more than 15,000 onlookers crowded inside Hoboken's Pier A Park-some holding red Solo cups, some sporting unkempt beards, a few men over the age of 60 and several girls under the age of 15, all cheering in the darkness of the new night.
For those wondering how a quartet of scruffy, suspenders-wearing folk-rock musicians from London managed to sell 600,000 copies of their sophomore album, "Babel", in its debut sales week in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan), the crowd sharing the sunset at the band's Hoboken show can provide the answer. Mumford & Sons have cultivated this audience assiduously, not just with famously raucous shows but with a touring strategy designed to create event experiences for fans in every corner of the country.
Glassnote's strategy for raising awareness of "Babel", the group's sophomore full-length released on Sept. 25, was multipronged, beginning with the band's maiden voyage to Hoboken. The Aug. 1 show was the first date in a 15-city U.S. tour that allowed Mumford & Sons to introduce "Babel" songs to stateside fans. "I think that the No. 1 focus of the plan was that the band was going to be here for almost two months, setting up their record and playing their record -- which is kind of a ballsy move, playing half of your new album each night," Glassnote founder Daniel Glass says. "No. 2, keeping them connected to radio, particularly noncommercial, triple A and alternative. And keeping them attached to retail, particularly indie retail, and making sure there was good value there for them. And then letting [the album] ride free -- letting the streaming services help expose it."
Instead of cannibalizing album sales, streaming services helped Mumford & Sons score even more fans in "Babel"'s debut sales week. The album smashed Spotify's records for streams from an album in a single week, with around 8 million streams. According to Spotify chief content officer Ken Parks, one out of every 10 U.S. Spotify users played a song from "Babel" in its first seven days of release. "Opening up the faucet and letting people hear it and stream is definitely very healthy," Glass adds, "and I think people inherently want to purchase an artifact, a memento, so they have a piece of it now that they streamed it."
From the moment Glass first saw the group playing the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge club in New York in March 2009, his experience with Mumford & Sons has been checkered with what he calls "epiphany moments." There was the night he watched the band perform alongside Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers, in a televised celebration of classic and contemporary folk at the Grammy Awards in February 2011. And more recently the time Glass hugged the band and manager Adam Tudhope at 3 a.m. after Mumford & Sons had made their "Saturday Night Live" debut on Sept. 22, culminating a two-year campaign to get the group on the show.
And now he can add the night of Oct. 2, when Babel, released three days after that "SNL" gig, officially claimed the top debut sales week of the year. (Justin Bieber's "Believe" is now in second place with a 374,000 start.) It's also the highest sales week of any rock album since AC/DC sold 784,000 copies of "Black Ice" in November 2008, the first No. 1 album for New York-based indie Glassnote and the largest sales week for Sony's indie distribution arm, RED.
Lovett, a multi-instrumentalist and backup vocalist, says that he, Mumford, Dwane and Marshall never expected any sort of prolonged groundswell when Mumford & Sons emerged from the loose collection of acoustically minded musicians dubbed the West London folk scene in 2007. But the first tipoff that the quartet was onto something special came years ago, in spring 2009, when they opened for British indie rock band the Maccabees for 11 dates in the United Kingdom. Playing in front of the Maccabees' guitar-driven pop anthems, Mumford & Sons' plucky folk ditties might have seemed out of place, except for the surprising fanfare that greeted them. "That was really when things started to change for us-and it was before we released 'Sigh No More'," Lovett says. "All of a sudden everyone was like, 'It's all right to like these guys if you like rock music.'"
In the three years since "Sigh No More" arrived in the United Kingdom in October 2009, mainstream rock music, specifically that being consumed in the United States, has rearranged its profile to allow for banjo breaks. New artists like Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers have had their singles gain traction on alternative radio. Longer-running acts like the Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros have released albums that scored top 10 debuts on the Billboard 200 and career-best sales weeks in 2012. James Steele, PD of alternative WROX-FM (96X) Norfolk, Va., says that rock radio has had to accommodate new sounds during the past three years: As bands like Phoenix and Foster the People have built more complex, electronic offerings into the genre, bands like the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers have stripped things down. "Program directors and people who shape music realize that there's a want for something more," Steele says.
Mumford & Sons have been at the epicenter of this growing demand for that something more. Thirty months before "Babel"'s debut week was setting records, "Sigh No More" humbly began on the Billboard 200 at No. 127 upon its U.S. release in February 2010, with 5,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Since then, "Sigh No More" singles "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave" slowly grew at radio, with the former topping out at No. 3 on the Rock Songs chart in November 2010 and the latter climbing to No. 2 in April 2011 -- both peaking in their 22nd weeks on the tally. After scoring two 2011 Grammy nominations (including best new artist), Mumford & Sons notched four more in 2012 and were also a focal point of the broadcast.
Just as important, the radio romance and award love was bookended by relentless road work stateside -- by Lovett's count, Mumford & Sons have embarked on 10 separate U.S. tours since their inaugural trek in 2008 -- that catered to bigger crowds with each passing month. "Sigh No More" has now sold 2.5 million copies, according to SoundScan, and hasn't dipped out of the top 75 on the Billboard 200 since July 17, 2010.
Just as "Sigh No More" patiently inched into the public consciousness, "Babel"'s monster debut has thrown prognosticators off-kilter and established Mumford & Sons as organically grown rock stars. And very much on their own terms. "It's not like we started wearing eyeliner and started to distort all of our instruments," Lovett says. But if the band hasn't changed, the reaction and recognition has. "Rock'n'roll magazines, and more alternative rock radio stations, have been like, 'Let's give these guys a spin.' We've just passively appreciated it all going really well, and done the best we can to meet the expectations."
GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD
On June 14, 2010, Mumford & Sons played at the Bluebird Nightclub in Bloomington, Ind., a Midwest city with a population of roughly 80,000, about half of them students at Indiana University. Tickets for the 700-capacity show were $10 each, and Adam Voith, the band's booking agent, wasn't optimistic about the turnout on a Monday night. For one thing, he lived in Bloomington at the time, so he knew the territory.
"I assumed it'd be a tiny little show that we'd get a couple hundred people out to," says Voith, who started working with Mumford & Sons in early 2009. Instead, it was packed, a sellout, and Voith saw hundreds of people whose faces he didn't recognize and whose demographics he couldn't pinpoint. At that point, Mumford & Sons had sold only 50,000 copies of "Sigh No More" in the United States, according to SoundScan, but the hundreds of people at the Bluebird treated the band members like megastars.
"They were going bananas in this club, just losing their minds," Voith says. "And that happens -- of course that happens -- but it usually takes some time."
Mumford & Sons have courted crowds in the major U.S. markets and at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza in the past three years, but they have also paid attention to building a base in smaller markets like Bloomington; Marfa, Texas; Telluride, Colo.; and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Voith says that, from the very beginning, Mumford & Sons were impressed with the way the Avett Brothers had developed their fan bases in secondary markets, and wanted to duplicate that success. The band hasn't just made touring in North America a priority, but touring in the corners of North America that many artists neglect, and coming back to those same corners year after year.
"These are loyal music fans," Voith says of the secondary-market crowds. And Mumford is loyal to them. After spending time in tiny Bristol, Va., on its way to New York earlier this year, the band promised the crowd that it would be back soon. A few months later, in August, back it was.
As the group's audience has grown, so has its reputation as a live act. "Every show is a different experience," Glass says, pointing to the touring partners, like Old Crow Medicine Show, Dawes and the Very Best, that have joined the act onstage for special collaborative encores at select performances. At the Hoboken show, Mumford & Sons performed a brass cover of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" against the Manhattan skyline, and following an Aug. 4 performance at the Eastern Promenade in Portland, Maine, Lovett opted to DJ an after-party at the city's Space Gallery.
The Portland date was the first of Mumford & Sons' four Gentlemen of the Road shows, a series of stopovers in small U.S. cities that ran for four consecutive weekends in August (the others took place in Bristol, Va.; Dixon, Ill.; and Monterey, Calif.). In between the 11 summer U.S. tour dates used to preview the band's "Babel" songs, Mumford & Sons headlined day-long events that included multiple stages, local food vendors, unique opening acts for each extravaganza and the band members strolling around with super-fans on tours of the local areas.
Mumford & Sons have offered U.S. fans a unique tour format in 2011, when the band joined Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show to travel across the country in vintage railcars on the six-city Railroad Revival tour. But the Gentlemen shows, which began with two stopovers in the United Kingdom last June and will occur once more in Dungog, Australia, on Oct. 20, have been the band's most ambitious live undertakings yet, combining its focus on small towns with experiences that cannot be duplicated. Manager Adam Tudhope describes the stopover format as "a desire to go to places off the beaten track, where there's a genuine benefit in a band coming into town and bringing 16,000 people with them."
The group's transition from club shows to theaters to all-day stopovers has yielded impressive monetary results: Mumford & Sons grossed $716,000 from the 19 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore in 2010; in 2011, the band earned $3.0 million from 14 shows. And there's no stoppage in sight: An Australian run that begins Oct. 12 leads up to a Nov. 10 show at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl, and another U.K. tour before the end of the year will precede many more U.S. shows and summer festivals in 2013.
'55-YEAR-OLDS TO 18-YEAR-OLDS'
Lovett says that he and his bandmates have never minded living out of suitcases: "A tour is more of a way of life than a specific trip," he says. And that way of life made the creation of Babel a markedly different experience from that of "Sigh No More". Once again teaming with producer Markus Dravs, Babel was written on the road and recorded in various U.K. studios during touring breaks, unlike the band's debut, which was finished in a five-week block.
For Dravs, who co-produced arena-sized rock albums like Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" and Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" in between the Mumford & Sons full-lengths, the trick was to expand upon the anthemic qualities of "Sigh No More" and be "more revealing" without rehashing previous hits. "We definitely didn't want to make 'Sigh No More Part II,' but at the same time, we also didn't want to do [Radiohead's] 'Kid A', where suddenly Mumford & Sons does electronics," Dravs says.
The result is a 12-song epic colored by longer buildups, more intricate arrangements and a title and lyrics that are decidedly Biblical -- although Tudhope points out that Mumford & Sons aren't "a 'Christian band'...but clearly these are themes that are relevant to all human beings, not just the religious ones."
"I Will Wait," a furious folk flourish with "Babel"'s most immediate hook, was released as the first single on Aug. 7, and this time, radio was ready for Mumford & Sons. The song gave the band its first No. 1 on the Rock Songs chart, as the track climbs to the top spot this week with 12 million audience impressions in its eighth week, according to Nielsen BDS. WROX's Steele notes that the band's decision to release a song that doesn't start off slowly -- "I Will Wait" springs to life in a rush of guitar, banjo and percussion -- has made the single even more potent, and that through Sept. 27, the station had played the track 442 times. And who's requesting it? "Everybody," Steele says. "Fifty-five-year-olds to 18-year-olds."
Mumford & Sons performed "I Will Wait" and "Below My Feet" on the Sept. 22 episode of "Saturday Night Live," a gig that was fortuitously slated for the weekend before "Babel"'s release. The "SNL" appearance was a major TV look for the band, but the cardinal rule of Glassnote's rollout strategy has been to avoid oversaturation: Mumford & Sons have nothing lined up in licensing deals, and have foregone the stateside late-night rounds in favor of select appearances. The band performed an hour-long set on "Live on Letterman" on Sept. 26, joined Emmylou Harris on a special episode of "CMT Crossroads" on Sept. 27 and sat down with and performed for NPR's "World Cafe" on Sept. 28. Meanwhile, "I Will Wait" isn't receiving a concerted top 40 push, despite dominating at rock radio.
"The core of the band is NPR, alternative and triple A radio, so we're going to be loyal and superserve these formats," Glass says. In addition, "Babel" sold 600,000 copies in its first week without any huge discounts at the major retailers-iTunes carries the album for $11.99, while Amazon and Target offered temporary price cuts ($9.99) during its first week of release. "We played the music for all the key retailers, and...they believed in us, and I think that they heard the record," Glass adds. "Retail is so happy with us because we didn't show favoritism. We just gave them a great album with great artwork and a great deluxe package, and we didn't get into the games of the crazy deep discounts. We held our ground. I'm not being arrogant. I'm just saying, that's confidence in a great band."
A second single has yet to be chosen, but even with the Champagne uncorked and the first-week sales in the rearview mirror, "Babel" is just beginning. Next up is the Black Friday sales bounce, followed by the likely halo caused by more Grammy nods -- the awards darlings happened to release "Babel" in the United States five days before the Sept. 30 eligibility cutoff for nominations.
As for Mumford & Sons, the new question is: How big can they become? Does "Babel"'s success make them festival headliners, in the way that "The Suburbs" helped crown Arcade Fire two years ago? Will the next time Marcus Mumford remarks on a sunset be in a stadium? "They're going to be playing the small stuff and the big stuff," Glass says. "There's a rock'n'roll spirit about them: They want to play, and it's not that calculated. It's about having fun and being a great rock'n'roll experience. That's what they really care about."