In the spring of 2019, Nashville-based managers David Conway and Dirk Hemsath, along with New York-based Matt Feldman, decided to swap their annual getaway to Coachella for an excursion to the Walt Disney World Resort. It was a business trip: Multiple industry members were there to watch Tate McRae perform two songs in between acts during a hip-hop dance competition and try to ink a management deal with the teen phenom.
“There were definitely a bunch of other awesome managers there that we were looking around at,” says Conway, a partner at Hard 8 // Working Group along with Hemsath. “And she performed under a totally nightmarish scenario: They rolled a computer out, and she had to just sing along with the MP3 without a monitor or anything. But her voice was stunning.”
Soon after, Conway and Hemsath signed on to manage McRae, who had scored a recording contract with RCA earlier in 2019. After a year of writing sessions, artist development and six sold-out shows in major markets, McRae was ready for a breakout 2020 — and even amid global lockdowns, she had one anyway.
The 17-year-old Calgary, Alberta-based artist finished “you broke me first,” a gentle yet assertive alt-pop song, during one of her last in-person writing sessions. It arrived in April and, despite her low expectations, took off on TikTok a month later, thanks to a series of clips where users force wide smiles until the lyric “you broke me first” hits. By the fall, the track peaked at No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it’s now at No. 40), and currently sits at No. 16 on the Mainstream Top 40 airplay chart. Conway says they scheduled Zoom calls with radio programmers and their kids so they could ask McRae about her well-versed dance background: “Instead of flying around and visiting two stations in a day, she has been able to sit and do global promo for 10 hours and meet a lot more people.” That round-the-clock devotion earned McRae virtual performances at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) preshow, the MTV European Music Awards and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
For the EMAs, McRae recalls tuning in to watch her own pretaped performance and promptly turning her attention back to studying for her upcoming social studies midterm. “Kids are relating to her, this girl who’s in school and taking exams,” says RCA vp marketing Nick Pirovano. “And at the same time, she’s writing and making her own songs in her bedroom, literally shooting her own [music] video on an iPhone that then becomes a global hit.”
McRae was primed for the work-from-home lifestyle that 2020 demanded. A professional dancer who competed and placed third on the 2016 season of So You Think You Can Dance (she stunned judges during her audition with a seamless back walkover), she launched her own YouTube channel in 2011 when she was 7 years old. It started as a means to promote her dance career, but she soon started uploading covers of John Lennon and Bruno Mars. In 2017, McRae performed as a backup dancer during a Justin Bieber tour stop and was later invited by Demi Lovato, a fan of McRae, to join her VMAs rehearsal. The exposure to such high-profile pop stars inspired McRae to start a YouTube show, Create With Tate, in which she posted new choreography or covers on Fridays. But after a few successful clips, she hit a snag when footage of her then-latest dance routine got damaged — and decided to try something new. “I was like, ‘I’m not not going to post tonight,’ ” she recalls. “So I went in my room for 20 minutes, wrote this awful song — my parents were like, ‘Do not release this’ — and it kind of went viral.”
With over 35 million views, the online attention for “One Day,” a contemplative piano-led track about a crush, was enough to pique label interest. Within weeks, she and her parents (and her dance manager at the time) flew to New York and met with all 11 of the labels that had reached out. When they returned, her father, a lawyer, bought music attorney Donald Passman’s All You Need To Know About the Music Business, and McRae began research of her own. “I started to really look at artists’ labels and how they [got their start],” she recalls. “It was, for the first time ever, when I started to look at [music] from a career point of view, like, ‘How can I get myself into this industry?’ ”
Her studies paid off: “[We] let Tate’s voice be the loudest in the room, then execute from there,” says Conway. He cites her recent collaboration with Ali Gatie, “lie to me,” for which the two Canadian artists created a campaign to launch the single on TikTok first. “For some of those platforms, it’s really good to use her as a filter because she is her demographic. Her telling us, in the most polite way ever, that something is a little cheesy or off-brand from what she believes in is the most valuable thing she provides.”
On the heels of “you broke me first” and a new worldwide publishing deal with Sony/ATV, McRae’s current mission is to stay engaged. Pirovano believes a main driver of her success thus far is the pacing: “We haven’t missed a beat of releasing new songs every six to eight weeks.” With a new EP slated for early 2021 and a debut full-length to follow by the end of the year, McRae’s team is on track to keep up momentum — and the members are hopeful they can meet with their rising star in person soon.
“We haven’t seen Tate since March, and she has really broken in that time period,” says Conway. “We’re ready to have a bit of a celebratory moment, then get back at it.”
They Broke Her First
How the management team of David Conway, Dirk Hemsath and Matt Feldman helped Tate McRae level up by stepping back.
What do you recall from your first meeting with McRae?
Conway: We knew from hearing her demos she was able to put teenage drama into brilliant words. So when we met with her, we said, “You tell us what songs you love, how things should look and what you’re connected to.” She has literally not just written the songs, but for video treatments comes up with the Pinterest boards of what the vibes are going to be, the color palette, all the choreography, everything. So for us, we take this awesome digital scrapbook and bring in great people to pull it off.
Hemsath: She absolutely knows her brand, if you want to call it that, and none of us want to get in the way.
Early on, McRae drew a lot of comparisons to Billie Eilish. What pressure does that add as you’re trying to establish her own presence?
Conway: On the plus side, it’s an amazing comparison because Billie broke completely on her own terms. So that side of it I get, and I appreciate the comparison for it being very almost punk-rock and DIY. Yes, the fact that they’re both teenage female artists making lyrically driven music is cool, but music is going to end up separating the two of them. They each have their own lane.
Hemsath: And the timing of it — Tate was coming up right as Billie was getting to that pinnacle, so it makes perfect sense.
Before the pandemic hit, McRae had played only six shows. What’s the long-term plan for her development
Conway: She has also done a lot of voice acting and been on Nickelodeon shows, and definitely has aspirations on the acting side. We have an agent at Creative Artists Agency who’s pitching those things for her, and we’ve had some really great opportunities come up, but she has been letting that cool. She wants to make sure she’s getting out there with music and letting that lead the way. In the short term, she hasn’t played a show since all these songs have connected, so I know for her, the true excitement is singing these songs in front of people at some point in 2021.