Alabama Shakes at the Studio at Webster Hall. (Photo: Andrea Radulescu)
[ Disclosure: Billboard.biz editor Jem Aswad, author of this article, was an editor at MTV News from 2004 until 2010.]
The story behind Alabama Shakes' sudden rise to band-most-likely-to has almost become urban legend: a blog post and some hot performances during last October's CMJ Music Marathon sparked a buzz that's led them from being virtually unknown (singer Brittany Howard was famously still working for the post office just a few months back) to a wildfire success story -- a no. 3 debut in the UK this week and a no. 16 debut on last week's Billboard 200 for their eponymous first LP (based on digital sales alone; it's expected to rise to top 10 this week) -- all in just over six months.
Along the way, their refreshingly rootsy sound, driven by Howard's stellar singing, has led to a Zales ad featuring their song "You're Not Alone," a management deal with Red Light and a one-album deal with its related label ATO, and countless keystrokes of feverishly positive press, ranging from underground blogs to an article in Rolling Stone, a big Sunday feature in the New York Times and a strong push from NPR and several MTV properties. And considering the role New York has played in the band's fast rise, its gigs in town last week -- particularly their set in the basement Studio in Webster Hall, which was live-streamed as part of MTV Hive's "Live in NYC" series -- had the air of a victory lap.
Lead singer Brittany Howard digs deep to hit the notes. (Photo: Andrea Radulescu)
Indeed, the venue is so small that the most commonly overheard line was about how "you won't get to see them in a venue this size again" -- we saw them play before a much larger crowd when they sold out the 600-capacity Brooklyn Bowl in January -- and not surprisingly, the small room was packed with media and biz types. Many MTV staffers, both on and off-duty, were in the house -- VP of digital music strategy (and one of Billboard's 2011 Women in Music honorees) Shannon Connelly, Hive's Jessica Robertson, MTV.com's Colin Helms, News' James Montgomery, MTV/VH1 Communications Director Kurt Patat, Music and Talent's Lisa Lauricella - along with Text 100's Jessica Casano-Antonellis, RED's Melinda Caffin, former Billboard.com reporter Jillian Mapes (who covered the show for the Village Voice), Fort Lean manager Talya Elitzer, Big Hassle's Shira Knishkowy and Myles Grosovsky, and of course Shakes manager Christine Stauder.
The by-now-seasoned band delivered a typically rousing hourlong set -- you can watch five full songs below -- although we do wish they'd played their stunning medley of Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times" and snippets of various blues songs.
The Shakes have been a sort of textbook case for the kind of multi-platform push MTV has brought to up-and-coming artists over the past couple of years: Florence and the Machine, Mac Miller and Young the Giant are among the success stories, and they've admittedly gone the extra yard for the Shakes.
Back row: Christine Stauder of Red Light Management, Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Ben Tanner and Zac Cockrell, Red Light's Kevin Morris. Front row: MTV's Lisa Lauricella, Shakes' Steve Johnson, Billboard.biz's Jem Aswad, MTV Hive's Jessica Robertson. (Photo: Andrea Radulescu)
"I have a team of passionate music fans [her staff of approximately 30 people across all branded MTV platforms] that are out seeing music every night, and many of us saw them at CMJ last fall," said MTV Music & Talent EVP Amy Doyle, who is one of the key people behind that push. "And rarely does everyone come back and have the same opinion: Everybody just fell in love and were so inspired by the emotion, the soulful raw talent, Brittany's unique vocals -- so we decided we want to be involved in bringing this band to a larger fanbase. With all our different platforms, we could expose them to amuch larger audience."
To that end, the group got a prime slot during the O Music Awards (via a pre-taped performance at Stubbs' in Austin), an interview with Matt Pinfield on the new " 120 Minutes," named the band one of 11 "Artists to Watch" for 2012, were nominated for an mtvU Woodie, were part of Hive's "First Take" series, and taped the group's performance at South by Southwest. Last week, the band was spotlighted as MTV Push's multiscreen artist initiative, which included heavy rotation of their "Hold On" music video, exclusive interviews, along with Tuesday night's live stream.
Howard caught up in the song. (Photo: Andrea Radulescu)
"CMJ was the band's first-ever performance in NYC and the first time a lot of people got to see the band, so it was exciting to return to NYC for their album release and even better to team up with MTV to do a live stream of their show and broadcast it live online to an international audience," Stauder told Biz. "MTV have been very supportive of the band from the beginning and we appreciate all of the support and enthusiasm they have given."
In all, it adds up to a hell of a lot of Shakes in a lot of different MTV platforms. And while it's difficult to quantify the direct effect of MTV's efforts, given the wide base of support the band has developed over the past few months, it does show how many new ways the channel has found to support new artists beyond the traditional music video.
"Rise To The Sun"
"You Ain't Alone"