How Khalid Used Road Trips & a Film Event to Bring Fans Face-to-Face With 'Free Spirit'

Anthony Campusano 
Khalid

While Khalid was working on his breezy, reflective sophomore album Free Spirit last August, he told his manager, Courtney Stewart, that the new music sounded like a playlist for a road trip across the country. Their chat inspired Stewart to spend his own cash on a "raggedy" 1972 van, which he had completely restored and painted with a Free Spirit-themed mural.

“I stepped out on faith,” Stewart says about the purchase -- and it led to something bigger. Khalid’s label, RCA Records, invested in several more vans, which were painted with the same artwork and driven to cities and colleges across the globe to promote Free Spirit’s April 5 release.

Stewart says the van idea shifted the focus from social media marketing to tangible, on-the-ground experiences, something he feels is often missing from album campaigns. The van and its image appear across the album’s marketing materials, including merch and a short film tied to the project.

“I feel like labels have stopped investing in lifestyle marketing, and it took away from the creativity a bit,” he says. “It’s a balance between having Instagram-able moments and a tangible item.”

Though admittedly expensive to pull off, the idea resonated immediately with RCA co-president John Fleckenstein. “Khalid had such a strong vision for Free Spirit, which is this romantic idea of a kid coming out of school and driving across the country,” Fleckenstein says. “But Khalid can’t be everywhere around the world, so [the vans] allowed us to use an avatar to carry the message forward.”

The team felt it was important to send vans to smaller markets like Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Gainesville, Fla., where fans don’t normally have access to the music experiences available in cities like New York and Los Angeles. The vans pulled up to 11 colleges across the U.S. in March, stocked with car-themed Free Spirit merch for students like bumper stickers and keychains. At the Northeastern University stop in Boston, Khalid even made a surprise visit.

One of those vans also appears in a Free Spirit short film that Khalid co-wrote and co-starred in, which screened in more than 700 theaters across the world simultaneously for one night only on April 3 (and April 1 in L.A.). Given Khalid’s growth as an artist since his debut album American Teen in 2017, Stewart says they wanted to do something with “next-level visuals,” and after all, he adds, "when we listened to the music, it felt like a soundtrack."

Khalid co-wrote a loose script with British music video director Emil Nava (Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran) about a group of high schoolers who take a spontaneous road trip, during which they confront their anxieties about the future. The rest of the script -- about 50 percent, Stewart estimates -- was improvised by a cast who quickly became close friends, including R&B singer Dizzy Fae and Skate Kitchen’s Judah Lang. "Everything that they’re talking about in the film, it was Khalid’s real responses," Stewart says.

Today (April 5), the film is available on Apple Music and YouTube. But the one-night-only screening event ahead of the film’s online release was another way for Khalid to reach fans off the internet. Released through Trafalgar, the same distributor behind BTS’ film Burn the Stage in 2018, Free Spirit was screened in theaters across 13 countries this week.

“A theatrical event-based premiere puts the fans in a situation where they have to go somewhere -- it’s not something they’re watching privately on their phones,” Fleckenstein says. “We get caught up in these gargantuan numbers and stats, but more and more, we’re looking back to how you make it special for a few people that are actually real fans.”

And while artists are by no means abandoning digital marketing, such experiential, in-person promo campaigns seem to be on the upswing. Last summer, Travis Scott debuted enormous, gold sculptures of his head in major cities to promote his blockbuster album ASTROWORLD; Solange’s recent surprise album When I Get Home was accompanied by a short film screened at events in the artist’s native Houston. Last month, Ohio rockers The National announced that a short film starring Alicia Vikander would debut alongside their album I Am Easy to Find in May.

As for what will happen to the original Free Spirit van now? Khalid himself called dibs.

“He bugged me every day,” Stewart says, laughing. “He was like, ‘When the album is done, I need the van in my house!’”

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