Billboard Touring Conference: Halsey Tells the Tale of Her Meteoric Rise to the Top, and the Team That Got Her There
The tale of Halsey's meteoric two-year rise from unknown YouTuber to arena-level touring act -- and the featured voice on one of 2016's biggest songs -- is also a reflection of the company she keeps. The hyper-verbal 22-year-old singer and her team gave highlights from that story Wednesday (Nov. 9) in a conversation moderated by Billboard's Ray Waddell at the Billboard Touring Conference and Awards for the day's rollicking artist development case study.
"The magic of my camp differs a lot from others," she said. "A lot of people warned me about being good friends with your team and how there's supposed to be separation and professionalism. I say, 'F--- that!'"
Indeed, the candid hour-long discussion proved that the extreme personal closeness of Halsey's team -- which includes co-managers Anthony Li and Jason Aron, A&R Jeremy Vuernick of Capitol/Astralwerks and agents Matt Galle of Paradigm, Matt Meyer of AM Only and Alex Hardee of Coda -- has been key to that success, allowing her to dream big, execute bigger and back up her seemingly-bottomless confidence in ways few other developing artists are allowed.
Assembling her team began with something as banal as a cigarette break outside a random party at a New York City hotel. There Halsey ran into Li. "He started asking me what I do," she recalled. "I told him I write poetry, make art, wrote and sing." She played him a YouTube video of her singing which she said had "like 900 views -- mostly my grandmother's friends."
"Pretty much right off the bat I knew she was the most articulate and artistic person I'd ever met my life," said Li, who played music himself but had never managed an artist. He asked Halsey if they could write and record music together for synchs and he contacted his friend Aron, who had management experience. The trio set about recording the song "Ghost," which was released in late 2014, rocketed up the iTunes charts and soon led to something of a bidding war.
Halsey recalled going before labels with a massive duffel bag -- "I'd say, 'That's where I live'" -- and meeting major execs like Rob Stringer and Ashley Newton at Columbia, as well as execs at Atlantic and RCA. "They were talking about development deals and I was sitting there pretending I knew what the f--- they were talking about -- 'Oh, yes, let me consult with my team' -- and I had one song!," she remembered with a laugh.
"She came in and started talking and immediately I had a visceral reaction to her personality," explained Capitol/Astralwerks' Vuernick, who was also friends with Aron. "She was so eloquent and seemed to know exactly what she wanted and how she would get there. But first and foremost, she had a team of people I knew and trusted."
For Halsey, she liked that her team had come out of a scene that had an overwhelming love of music. "He toured in a van, and he worked with bands that toured in vans," Halsey said, pointing at various members of her team who she said know what it's like to "shower with baby wipes and baby powder."
It took Paradigm's Matt Galle seeing Halsey perform just one time, at a now-closed former strip club called Westway, to know he wanted to work with her. Galle immediately took her music to Paradigm head Marty Diamond, who agreed to sign her.
A large part of Halsey's success comes from her gumption. She would repeatedly suggest what seemed like outrageous ideas that would somehow come to fruition: This includes going to Diamond's office and asking for a headlining tour after playing only two shows; deciding with her managers to headline Madison Square Garden when she hadn't played a room larger than 1,000-capacity ("We thought she was crazy," AM Only's Meyer said); and opening for Imagine Dragons extremely early in her career ("My 12th show was playing before 20,000 people in Portland -- I almost cried blood," she recalled).
For every escalating step of her career, Halsey credited her "amazing" fans and social following, recalling that when she said she wanted to headline a tour, she countered Diamond and her team's skepticism by tweeting -- during the meeting -- to followers asking where she should play if she were to tour. It was another example of her, as she puts it, "balls" -- "There could have been a hundred replies," she said. "But there were thousands. They routed that first tour for us."
Another part of team Halsey's strategy included playing large festivals with her powerful live show ("I love climbing shit, fire and going into the crowd," she says) as a springboard for larger gigs. She played the smallest stage at Lollapalooza in 2014, for example, and the next year performed on the main stage. And at last year's Coachella (with the "second largest font") her set, which was live streamed, introduced fans to her summer arena tour.
Sealing Halsey's rapid ascension over the past year was her decision to record the song "Closer" with The Chainsmokers just as her album and touring cycle were wrapping up. "I figured it was just something for fans to consume while I was on hiatus," she explained. "Boy was I wrong: the song exploded into a monster and was literally one the biggest songs of the year and which ended up escalating into a second mini-cycle." Indeed, the song has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks. She was forced, with only two days notice, to cancel her vacation so she could perform at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.
With two years of hardcore touring under her belt, Halsey had advice for the agents, promoters and venue owners gathered at the Touring Conference's lecture hall. "Paying attention to your artists' mental health is so very important," she said, recalling times that her breakneck schedule simply became overwhelming. "Show the artist respect," she added, noting that green rooms quickly become a home away from home where she can FaceTime with her mom and take showers. She also requested that venues and promoters treat fans with respect, as any ill-treatment of them reflects poorly on her.
When asked if there was one quality anyone on her team must possess, Halsey answered without flinching. "I don't do fighting," she said. "Fighting doesn't work. Be kind if you work with artists, be compassionate, show kindness and make sacrifices -- that will take you far. And if I'm not an example of that, I don't know who is."