Niykee Heaton's debut EP, Bad Intentions, was released last Tuesday to noteworthy buzz, topping the Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 chart (and quickly nestling into the top 10 in the iTunes Store). But if you haven't heard one of the EP's six tracks on the radio, don't think you've missed out. That's all in the plan.
Heaton is one of the first artists to partner with All Def Music, a label founded by Def Jam-founder Russell Simmons, entrepreneur Steve Rifkind and film director/producer Brian Robbins. The venture, announced in July, operates with a unique strategy: finding artists and basing their promotion and artist development through YouTube. As part of a deal with Universal Music Group, All Def can sign its artists to any of the group's labels. Heaton has been picked up by Capitol Records, home of Katy Perry and Sam Smith, among other acts.
Aspiring performers, such as Heaton, are invited to upload their songs on ADD52.com, the A&R website for All Def Music. The service uses an algorithm that measures plays, shares and other factors to determine acts' most popular tracks, both on the website and in partnership with Samsung's MilkMusic streaming service. The top-performing titles then vie to be recognized as the site's "Single of the Week" (with the "52" in the title designating the 52 tracks that will make up the year's picks).
In May, Heaton's Bad Intentions title cut scored the weekly honor, which has boosted the song's popularity. Since its selection, "Bad Intentions" has netted more than 3.2 million streams on Spotify, while her YouTube channel has added 3 million views.
The Chicago-raised Heaton first began writing when she was 5 years old and taught herself to play guitar by age 9. Heaton's family couldn't afford vocal lessons, so she trained herself to sing thanks to a Diana Ross greatest-hits CD. All the studying paid off in December 2012, when Heaton first captured the Internet's attention with a cover of Chief Keef's "La Sosa," which went viral. The buzz even caught Keef's attention, who gave a nod of approval on Twitter.
Subsequent covers followed, including renditions of hits such as Drake's "Started From the Bottom," Lady Gaga's "You and I" and Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody," as well as original compositions. To date, Heaton's YouTube channel has generated nearly 22 million views.
That big YouTube audience has transcended the platform, with the EP's release generating enough response on Twitter to shoot "Bad Intentions" to No. 1 on the Trending 140 early Saturday. Her Instagram account, meanwhile, now boasts more than 660,000 followers.
With the Internet conquered, Rifkind says that the largest obstacle remaining is radio, which he calls "the penthouse." Instead of trying to compete for space on airwaves, he says that All Def Music's strategy focuses on building Heaton's online and sales presence to such a degree that radio won't be able to ignore her. "We're giving the power to the fans, and soon people are going to be demanding to hear these songs on the radio," he says. "Ultimately, it's about making them come to us."
Despite the potential risks that come with launching an emerging artist with a new platform, Rifkind already predicts success for Heaton.
"I've put out songs every Tuesday for years," Rifkind says. "[Sept. 23] was the best Tuesday of my life."