Fun.: The Billboard Cover Story
Covered on 'Glee,' Synched for Super Bowl & No. 3 on the Hot 100 -- fun. Delivers
Last February, producer Jeff Bhasker was in New York working on Beyoncé's 4. For nearly three months, he had been getting calls from John Janick, president/CEO of Fueled by Ramen and co-president of Elektra, about a New York band called fun., whose singer, Nate Ruess, desperately wanted to work with him. Bhasker, generally known for his high-profile work on hip-hop projects like Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Watch the Throne," took his time returning the calls. "I kind of blew them off actually," Bhasker says today. "It wasn't until I was in New York working that Beyoncé album that someone from my team said, 'Fun. is in New York. Can you just meet with them quickly?'"
Reluctantly, Bhasker met Ruess for drinks, but then, the pair slowly hit it off. After downing a few cocktails, Ruess was in Bhasker's hotel room singing the hook to fun.'s breakout hit, "We Are Young," the flagship single from the band's second album, "Some Nights," which arrived Feb. 21 on Fueled by Ramen/Atlantic.
"Jeff automatically freaked out," Ruess says. "It went from, 'Oh, it's nice to meet you,' to 'We need to get into the studio in the next few days.' It was a catalyst for everything we've done until now."
"We Are Young"
Chevy Super Bowl Ad
The next day, Janick put Bhasker and Ruess in a New York studio. There, the duo cut a version of "We Are Young" not far from the final version of the track, which was covered on an episode of Fox's "Glee" in December and landed a prominent synch in Chevrolet's "Stunt Anthem" Super Bowl spot for the new Sonic car. "We Are Young" is No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Some Nights debuts this week on the Billboard 200 at No. 3, selling 70,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with digital albums comprising nearly 72% of sales.
Even Janick, who didn't hear the track until after it was recorded, says that everyone involved knew "We Are Young" was a special song. "It just felt like a massive record from the beginning," says Janick, who signed fun. to Fueled by Ramen in early 2010 after chasing Ruess' former band the Format for years. "Not to say that we can foresee the future, but I've noticed in my life there's very few projects where something feels special and you go after things and they come to you and things fall into place. This is one of those projects."
"We Are Young" was released as a single on Sept. 20, 2011, with a video following in early January. The track was slow-building, initially attracting only the attention of online media. For fans of fun.'s debut, Aim & Ignite, which came out on Nettwerk in August 2009 and peaked at No. 71 on the Billboard 200, "We Are Young" felt like an appropriate follow-up. The song, which features Janelle Monáe (another benefit of the Bhasker connection), is a grandiose alternative number, built on theatrical orchestration and a propulsive, immediate chorus that beams with inspirational effect. In addition to helping secure the Super Bowl synch, the song's enormity and dramatic flair brought it the coveted "Glee" cover.
"I vividly remember John dropping by my office with a just-mastered 'We Are Young' in hand," "Glee" music supervisor PJ Bloom says. "It was still on its original blank CD-R titled in poorly handwritten red Sharpie." When Janick suggested that the track was perfect for the musical show, Bloom demurred. "'Glee' doesn't break bands," Bloom says. "We celebrate existing pop success-that's our core model." But after listening to the song only once, he changed his mind.
"Not five minutes later I sent it to ["Glee" co-creator] Ryan Murphy, and within a few short weeks Ryan created what would become one of [the show's] pinnacle song moments of the entire series," Bloom says. "For fun., 'Glee' provided a launching pad for much of the success to come. For 'Glee,' fun. allowed us to show the world we could be an A&R source and break a band. It was music business perfection."
But fun.'s "We Are Young" didn't quite take off following "Glee"-the show's version did, peaking at No. 12 on the Hot 100. After the Super Bowl, however, the single soared.
According to Columbia, which handles "Glee" releases, "We Are Young" marks the first track that was truly broken by "Glee." "The only other two tracks that even come close are [our] artists," publicity coordinator Winnie Lam told Billboard in an email. The show's cover version of "We Are Young" has sold 351,000 copies, nearly six times that of the "Glee" versions of Hey Monday's "Candles" and Black Kids' "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You."
But while the release of the "Glee" version did cause a 1,650% jump in sales of fun.'s "We Are Young" (from 3,000 to 49,000, according to Columbia, during the week of Dec. 11, 2011), it wasn't until the song appeared in the Super Bowl spot that fun.'s "We Are Young" took off. In the weeks since, the song has notched sales weeks of 291,000, 244,000 and 296,000, working backward to the week of the Super Bowl. Its total sales now stand at 1.2 million.
"That's always the first thing that will get a song on the air, if it's a song we love and we think the listeners will love," says Lisa Worden, music director of alternative KROQ Los Angeles, which put the song in rotation in January, just before the Super Bowl. "The song is anthemic, it's catchy. Lyrically, it's something I think our audience can relate to. That's why it went on the air, and then all the marketing around it is an added bonus. That's helped in getting the song out and reaching a different audience."
"The response to synchs has been really amazing," says fun.'s manager Dalton Sim of Nettwerk, noting that the band's extensive touring, which has included playing Coachella, ensured that the groundwork was already in place for the act to grow. "From my perspective, the success comes from the hard work the band, Nettwerk Records and Fueled by Ramen have put into the band for the last three-plus years to develop a real fan base. Now, with some great exposure, the fun. fan base is taking those looks and spreading and connecting the band to new people."
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Cultivating and maintaining that fan base has driven much of the promotion around the album. Fueled by Ramen initiated an album preorder through iTunes, Amazon and the band's website to coincide with the Super Bowl. In less than a week, more than 9,000 albums had been preordered-both by longtime fans and potentially those that just discovered the group through the single.
Along with the iTunes preorder, Janick and Fueled by Ramen activated the 90-second preview clips of all of the tracks on Some Nights on iTunes, hoping that listeners driven to the marketplace by the Chevy commercial would dig a little deeper than "We Are Young." "This is our big single, but this is an album artist," Janick says. "The album is amazing from beginning to end, and we want to make sure people aren't just hearing one song."
"We Are Young" has certainly spawned a surge in popularity for the band, whose earlier success would be best described as moderate. (Debut Aim & Ignite has shifted 75,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) But the track was also the fulcrum around which the entire album revolved. After cutting that early version of the single with Bhasker in New York, Ruess and bandmates Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff flew to Los Angeles. There the trio, who formed fun. in 2008 following the breakup of the Format (Dost came from Anathallo and Antonoff from Steel Train), spent about a month with Bhasker filling out the rest of the album, driven by the idea that hip-hop production could form the foundation of a rock record. "I was so obsessed with hip-hop and mainly how Kanye's been doing things for the last few years, I thought that would be a really cool element in our music," Ruess says.
One of the major changes from Aim & Ignite (and even the members' former bands) is that "Some Nights" features almost no live drums. With a few minor exceptions, synthetic drums form the backbone of the album. "I've always been kind of wary about drums," Ruess says. "I thought this was the perfect time to try something different."
That's where Bhasker's history with hip-hop came into play. It wasn't so much about replacing the human rhythm element with a drum machine as it was about expanding fun.'s sound to encompass the sort of experimental, artsy instrumentation that is layered on albums like West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" and even the Bhasker-produced tracks on Lana Del Rey's debut, "Born to Die."
To up the ante, Bhasker also brought in producer Emile Haynie (Kid Cudi, Eminem, West, Del Rey) toward the end of the "Some Nights" sessions. Frequent collaborators, Haynie and Bhasker co-produced one track on Some Nights and fun. later joined Haynie in New York to record two additional tracks for the project: "One Foot," which was released early as a B-side to "We Are Young," and "All Alright."
Bhasker says, "It's been a great thing for my career to work with an up-and-coming band. To work with someone and see it take off from the ground up . . . It's been an awesome new era for me personally moving forward with music."
As a whole, "Some Nights" finds its cohesion in both its production and Ruess' specific songwriting tendencies, which often involve deeply pensive, occasionally dark lyrics that stand in juxtaposition to the melodies. Following his work with the Format, whose quirky indie rock numbers often embraced a sense of whimsy that's still present here, fun. pairs alt-rock elements with a pop sensibility that Ruess has recently embraced.
"With the last two albums I've made-one being in a completely different band and one being in fun.-there was always a level of insecurity that I had," Ruess says. (The Format independently released its sophomore effort, Dog Problems, in 2006.) "I would try and apologize for writing a pop song by giving it a bridge that was four minutes long or changing keys 90 different times. With this album, I just stopped apologizing for it and admitted that I love pop music."
Janick and the label are banking on this idea. At press time, representatives for Roadrunner confirmed that the album's title track is poised to be the second single from Some Nights, even as "We Are Young" continues to grow.
"I love 'Some Nights,'" KROQ's Worden says. "It will do very well. [It's] too soon to talk about airplay on KROQ, as we're still going very strong with 'Young,' but I definitely love 'Some Nights' as the next single."
It's a sentiment echoed by team fun., who remain confident that "We Are Young" is not a singular success.
"It's all going to be 'We Are Young' level," says Bhasker, who has since worked on additional music with Ruess and says that Ruess has deeply influenced him as an artist. "That's why I think people are just going to be blown away. I hope they are, at least. I'm really excited that people like 'We Are Young' so much because the rest of the album is based off 'We Are Young.' That was the template. Every song is that special. It really is that good."