What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd -- the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye -- sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album "Kiss Land" last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. "Kiss Land" trailed Urban’s "Fuse" for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview -- with Complex magazine in July -- in support of the project.
Having risen to prominence in a flurry of Internet buzz and curiosity two-and-a-half years ago, The Weeknd, perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, has built his profile in the negative space left by the old pop star model. As "House of Balloons," his first album posted for free on his website in March of 2011, rose to the center of a storm of hype and cast him as the poster boy for a new wave of R&B, Tesfaye remained doggedly private, avoiding the press and social media and obscuring basic details about himself -- including, for a time, his face and birth name. Though major labels came knocking, he put off signing a recording contract until he had released two more albums of free material in the months following "Balloons" ("Thursday" and "Echoes of Silence"). "Kiss Land," released Sept. 10 by Republic Records and Tesfaye’s own XO label, is the first Weeknd album to debut in stores and not for free download on the singer’s own website.
“The music industry seems to run a lot on hype,” Tesfaye’s co-managers Cash and Sal say in an email. “Abel wanted to see where things would go with his songs living on their own merits.”
Though well short of blockbuster status, "Kiss Land"’s performance is noteworthy in light of its atypical rollout. With Tesfaye remaining largely out of the public eye and radio declining to pick up his singles -- including moody, industrial ballads like the title track and “Belong to This World,” both clocking in at over five minutes -- XO and Republic relied on positive word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.
Clips for "Kiss Land," "Belong to the World," "Love in the Sky," "Live For" and "Pretty" premiered online between June and release week. Jim Roppo, executive vice president of marketing at Republic, said it’s conceivable that a video will be shot for each of the 10 songs on "Kiss Land" before the album cycle is over.
"The foundation was exactly the same one on which Abel’s fan base was originally built," says Roppo of the album campaign. "We led with great quality, innovative music and visuals and really focused on building a direct, one-to-one relationship with fans online."
During release week, and the showdown with Urban, Tesfaye broke slightly from his usual reclusive pattern with a subtle but shrewd promotional offensive. He made his first appearance on television during a Sept. 12 performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and stepped even further outside of his comfort zone the next day during a surprise “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on the online forum Reddit.
That week he also released the video for “Live For,” featuring superstar ally and fellow Toronto-native Drake, and premiered a short documentary on the making of "Kiss Land" via MTV.com. On Facebook and Twitter Sept. 15, The Weeknd promoted a 24-hour “Buy 'Kiss Land,' Meet The Weeknd” campaign where fans who bought the album from his website received an invite to one of a series of meet-and-greets planned for December. Late on the 15th, a three-hour web-only “flash sale” offered "Kiss Land" for just $3.98.
Would Tesfaye have moved more units and edged out Urban for No. 1 if he had courted radio and done more traditional publicity? It’s impossible to know. But that "Kiss Land" sold as well as it did under the circumstances is a testament to just how much the rules of the road have changed for popular artists in the Internet age.
“The way I see it, The Weeknd won the popular vote,” says Republic chairman/CEO Monte Lipman. “The one thing the modern music industry hasn’t been able to manipulate in 60 to 70 years is word of mouth. That’s what the Weeknd possesses, and it’s been incredibly valuable.”