Can Owl City Soar Back To The Top Of The Charts?
Adam Young still remembers the feeling he had prior to playing his first show as Owl City.
"The whole time leading up to it I was trying to put it in the back of my head," he says of the gig, which took place Feb. 13, 2009, at Minneapolis' Varsity Theatre, not far from his tiny hometown of Owatonna, Minn. "Then I show up and the place is sold out, and it's way bigger than I thought it would be.
"I'm standing backstage before I go on, just so terrified. I didn't know if I could be the frontman, if that fit who I was," Young recalls with a laugh. "But the second I stepped onstage it ignited such a passion for re-creating this stuff I made in my basement. I was like, 'Wow, this is really what I want to do.'"
Video: "Alligator Sky," Owl City feat. Shawn Chrystopher
Two years after the ascent of Owl City's electro-emo single "Fireflies" forced Young to transform from a home-recording hobbyist into a Billboard Hot 100-topping pop act, this soft-spoken 24-year-old faces a different challenge: to convince listeners that the Owl City story is one worth following on the outfit's second major-label effort, "All Things Bright and Beautiful," due June 14 from Universal Republic.
"Everyone always says that the sophomore release built on freshman success is the hardest thing you'll ever have to do," Young says. "I've definitely lost a lot of sleep worrying about it."
Universal Republic co-president Avery Lipman adds, "A hit like 'Fireflies,' is it a blessing or a curse? The answer is 'yes.'"
What eases everyone's anxieties is that Young is a proven album-seller. "Ocean Eyes," Owl City's 2009 full-length, has moved 1 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Last year's "An Airplane Carried Me to Bed," by Young's side project Sky Sailing, sold 26,000.) "That kind of puts Adam in a different category in terms of other artists who've come out with big singles," Lipman says. "There's clearly a greater connection that exists out there, something that brought kids in and made them want to buy albums and tickets and merchandise."
Tracked like the debut was at home in Owatonna, "All Things Bright and Beautiful" is unlikely to alienate anyone who bought "Ocean Eyes." Though Young says he sought to showcase more of his love for "abstract hip-hop," the new set still seems custom-designed, as Lipman puts it, for "lying in a field somewhere, staring up at the stars and thinking about life."
According to Owl City's manager, Steve Bursky, Universal Republic initially floated the idea of Young working on the new album with such top 40 hitmakers as Dr. Luke and Starsmith. "But what made 'Fireflies' so successful was that it wasn't that," Bursky says. "At a time when everything on the radio all sounds the same, it cut through. My advice to Adam was, 'Do what you do-go in your basement and create.'"
Universal Republic marketing VP Frank Arigo says highlighting that method is the centerpiece of the label's campaign. "The thing we've made an effort to do is give Adam's fan base an inside peek at his creative process," Arigo says, pointing to a five-minute making-of video that's racked up nearly half a million views since its March 18 debut on Vevo. Additional behind-the-scenes content, including Young's track-by-track walk-through of the album, will be rolled out through release date on Vevo, Facebook and Owl City's official website.
"This is stuff we didn't have access to last time," says Arigo, who adds that in terms of a "direct connection" with fans, "Adam is one of the best we have. When he tweets, it's not coming from the label or management."
Bursky echoes Arigo's point, acknowledging the value of radio play in the success of "Fireflies" but identifying the risk in "putting Adam in a place where we're relying on things we can't control. I can't control if the PD at [WHTZ New York] likes the new Owl City record," he continues. "But I can control how we keep our artist engaged with his audience."
To that end, Owl City will kick off a six-week North American tour June 13 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It's a trip Young says he's anticipating with far less dread than he did that first show in Minneapolis.
"I'm still figuring out how to get back into the swing of things after stepping out of the head space of making the record," Young says. "But now I wouldn't trade the challenge for the world."