This week, MRC Data released its 2021 year-end report, calculating the biggest songs, albums and trends of the year. And coming in at No. 9 among the most-consumed songs of 2021 was “Heat Waves,” the slow-burning single from Dave Bayley-led U.K. psych-pop group Glass Animals.
The top-10 distinction for the song, which was originally released in June of 2020, is a capstone to a record-breaking year for the group, one which saw them finish the year as Billboard’s Top Rock Artist after achieving two significant records on the charts this year: the longest trip to No. 1 in the 12-year history of Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart (60 weeks), and the longest trip to the top 10 in the 63-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 (42 weeks). The cherry on top for the group: a nomination for best new artist at the 2022 Grammys, the group’s first Grammy nod acknowledging its mainstream breakthrough for the single that came from its third album, which was released through Wolf Tone/Polydor/Republic.
It’s the culmination of a decade’s worth of work for the band, and particularly for the band’s manager Amy Morgan, who also runs September Management’s publishing wing. And it helps Morgan earn the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Here, Morgan reflects on the lengthy campaign for the single, how the group overhauled their plans and experimented with fan engagement as the pandemic took hold and the impact of such outside-the-box things as the band setting up an open source web site for fans to experiment with the album’s artwork and music stems, and a Minecraft fan-fiction story written by a YouTuber, which opened the song to a new, unexpected audience.
“I think, from a management point of view, all you can do is set a record and an artist up to have as many opportunities as you can possibly have,” she says, “But what sticks and doesn’t stick you don’t have any control of.”
Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” was the ninth-biggest song and fifth-biggest on-demand audio streaming song of 2021, despite it being released in June 2020. What key decisions did you make to help make that happen?
Basically, we started the album campaign in October 2019 with [Denzel Curry and Glass Animals’] “Tokyo Drifting” and then into the first song from the record. And when the pandemic hit, we had an option of shelving everything we’d started, or trying to figure out a new way of creating the world that we were planning to create through touring and a lot of in-person stuff that we were building. And I’m not sure how much of a decision I actually had to make, in some sense, because it was obvious that we had to keep going and look sideways and outside of all of the parameters of how you do a normal campaign. And “Heat Waves” was a big part of that, obviously.
But I’ve said from the beginning that Glass Animals have songs that have real longevity in them, because they’re brilliant songs and Dave is a brilliant songwriter, but there’s a lot of nuance in them. “Heat Waves” has a lot of interesting chords underneath the main melody, and there’s a lot of complexity in what sounds, from the outside, quite simple. And those songs — those that are not straight out of the box, obvious songs — take a while to grow. And though I could never have predicted the length that “Heat Waves” has been going for, or the extent, I do think that we factored in, even in the hodgepodge of a pandemic campaign when there were no rules and no one was certain about anything and there was a lot of experimentation, with all that aside, that song having the space to grow and connect was really important.
It entered the top 10 of the Hot 100 in its 42nd week on the chart, the longest climb ever. What did you guys do to help keep it growing over that time?
There were a lot of different moments for the song. It started in the fan community, and they embraced it out of the gate. The video that we made for it was very powerful because it was a lockdown video, set in London, a lot of it filmed by Dave under such strict lockdown at that point, and it really captured a pandemic moment in that initial stage, and the fan community really embraced it because it was sort of the most vulnerable song that Dave has ever written, I think. Then there were some other things that we had no control over whatsoever, like a piece of fan fiction was written for a Minecraft YouTuber, and it sparked this engagement with the song from the Minecraft community, and that was a big learning curve. And the song was also synced in FIFA 21 and that really impacted. So all the way through there have been these tipping moments, where different communities have gotten on board with the song.
I think, from a management point of view, all you can do is set a record and an artist up to have as many opportunities as you can possibly have, but what sticks and doesn’t stick you don’t have any control of. I think one thing we did at the very beginning of the pandemic was to try and keep the creativity of the fan base really engaged with the album. We put all of the artwork and music stems up on this open source website, and then Dave really engaged with different fan art and fan music creations, and I really think that that dialogue with the band and that access to the creative of the project gave fans a chance to play at home with their own imaginings of the record, but in particular this song. And I do think that’s the reason that it translated to so many different spaces, because so many people put their own creative into it. So setting up the open source site wasn’t a deliberate strategy, it was just a way to try and keep an engagement with the fan community, but what it did was breed lots of creative responses in different worlds to the song, which set it off building. And then of course Spotify and the DSPs were really supportive, the numbers start to rack up and it kind of tipped from there. But without those creative communities’ support in the beginning, I don’t know whether it would have built to that stage.
How much did the radio campaign play into it as well?
Massive, massive. The very traditional radio and DSPs have always been incredibly important for Glass Animals, in an alternative space primarily. And this song built at alternative radio and we had incredible support from the key alt stations and from Sirius and all these people who have been supporters of the band for a long time now. If the band hadn’t been three albums in and built those relationships with these stations and these stations hadn’t been so supportive, would “Heat Waves” have happened the way it did? I don’t know; probably not. They’ve done a lot of work with alternative radio over the years and alternative radio supported the song very early on. Then it crossed to pop radio later on, then it tailed off at pop, then it went back to pop where it is now, which is wild. But radio has been a massive part of the story, 100%, and the team at Republic have been incredible. Both Polydor and Republic were a huge part not only of the DSPs, sync and radio elements of this campaign, but the way that they supported and backed Dave’s mad creative ideas and really helped us build on them.
Glass Animals is known for their live shows, but with the pandemic touring has been shut down for much of the past two years. Did that give you the space to focus on other creative elements of the campaign for the song?
Yes, definitely. We had to — we didn’t have any choice. I think that’s where things like the open source website came from, and a lot of Dave’s digital interactions with fans came from, because not only are the shows incredible celebrations, but he also spends a lot of time meeting people at shows, and all that personal stuff that happens, which obviously couldn’t happen to any degree. So we tried to keep the energy of that communal experience, but translate it to digital experiences. Some ideas worked pretty well, some didn’t work as well. I hope we never lose what we’ve learned on the digital side, because it’s been so important, but I’m also so happy that they’ll be able to be in front of audiences again. Because the live show is just another layer to the whole band and the whole world of the band, it doesn’t take away from digital, radio or streaming, it adds a whole other level of creativity and energy. The music live is completely reimagined, different structures, with an incredible visual world that we’ve spent a long time perfecting. I’m glad that element will be back, but I also don’t want to lose all those other things that we tried to do to keep that connection, because the connection to the fan base is always so important, and the fan base is bigger now than it was two years ago.
The band was also nominated for best new artist at the Grammys. What was that like?
I mean, it’s incredible, really. I just think they’re such a hard-working band, and we’ve worked so hard, often on the sidelines, in a sense. They’ve been building their world and their fan base and community, and to get that acknowledgement from the Grammys — and we’ve had BRIT nominations, too — it’s a real nod of recognition to what we’ve created. And best new artist I know raised some eyebrows, but I think the Grammys have been quite clear about how that category has shifted its definition, and I do think if you’re defining it as an artist that has made a significant impact in X period of time, they are a good example of that. And as a music person, I like the fact that you can grow on your third album. We live in a music world that is so obsessed with the new, and the first couple of singles that somebody drops, and I think it’s kind of brilliant that they’re new in a different way — that they’re new through growth, rather than new through novelty. It’s very them, to be honest.
How has management changed during your time in the music business?
You know, I managed Glass Animals from the beginning, but I never really though of myself as a manager until quite recently, because I had such a vision for and connection with the band that it always just felt like a labor of love, and I was so passionate about the plan we had from day one. And I think now, three albums in, management has changed so much. The pandemic is phenomenally hard to navigate in every way from a management perspective, because you’re navigating your artists through it, the business through it, the live crew through it, the wider team and keeping everybody focused while everybody is separated around the world. And especially for an international, global act like Glass Animals, who are not a global pop act that’s a priority for every label — Glass Animals is still an alternative act — it’s a different type of pulling people together.
And the challenges are completely different, because at no point four years ago would I have thought I’d be trying to put on a massive tour in North America without any insurance, or not knowing one day to the next whether we’d be flying to Australia or not. The uncertainty that everybody is facing, in every walk of life, is so real. But in terms of the music industry I think managers are really the core face of that. And you have to not only be strong for yourself in your own personal life, but you’re also navigating the artists through that. And it’s frightening for them, too, because it’s their livelihoods, and it’s scary. And I think dealing with that uncertainty — whether it’s through the pandemic, or climate change, or anything else — management is going to have a much bigger risk level than it’s ever had, and it’s always been risky. But this is a higher level of risk that I think anyone ever imagined it to be.
I also think artists take a lot longer to break, so there’s a much longer development period, especially in the alternative/pop side of things. And I think you have to be unbelievably aware of digital communities and how you engage with them. Because as much as anything else, the internet has empowered these worlds, and they’re not always as visible to the naked eye. Like the Minecraft community — and the Minecraft fanfic community — isn’t something that you or I would necessarily engage with on a day to day basis. But there’s real power and real engagement with people and you just have to figure out that landscape a bit. And that’s constantly changing, too. So, you know, management now more than ever is about constantly being reactive and proactive and embrace chaos. [Laughs] Just trying not to lose your mind, you know?