How Dance-Pop Act Zhu Scored a Major-Label Deal Using Just His Logo and His Music
"We've created a way for fans to focus on the music rather than who's behind it," says Zhu manager Jake Udell.
In February, a mysterious Outkast medley surfaced on dance-music blogs, credited to an unknown artist who signed his work simply in white paint strokes. Less than nine months later, that anonymous act had a hit single in 10 territories, a U.S. deal with Columbia Records and a booking at HARD Day of the Dead directly preceding Deadmau5 — feats made even more impressive by his categorical rejection of the music press and most social media.
That artist, Steven Zhu, a 25-year-old Chinese-American dance-pop singer-producer known as Zhu, insists it’s no gimmick. Rather, he believes music should speak for itself.
For manager Jake Udell of Th3rd Brain (who also handles Krewella), not seeing was believing. After connecting through David Dann, Zhu’s creative and business partner at indie label Mind of a Genius, Udell and his team marketed the young artist — anonymously — through the blogosphere.
“We don’t market to promote, we market to enable discovery,” says Udell. “We don’t have commandments in the brand against social media, ZHU is just more focused on connecting with fans in more meaningful ways.”
Supported by gritty, self-directed music videos, Zhu subsequently released “Superfriends” and “Faded,” topping the influential Hype Machine site and building a mystique around his identity — he performs shrouded in shadows — that persisted even after a blog cracked the case using info from cached sites.
In response, Th3rd Brain ramped up the branding, employing a guerrilla marketing campaign centered solely on Zhu’s logo. Stamped $1 bills were distributed to fans through festival vendors and posters quietly rose on walls from Paris to Berlin, while graffiti appeared on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Two shows in New York were initially announced solely through posters displaying the symbol and dates, with details and tickets (only sold physically through a fashion boutique) circulated through blogs. HARD even teased news of Zhu’s debut in a 36-hour social platform takeover that revealed his logo one signature brush stroke at a time. “As long as that logo would be unified to future releases, it didn’t matter whether anybody knew his name or not,” says Udell.
Udell initially broke ZHU in Australia via a VarassoPR marketing campaign to lift “Faded” into radio rotation prior to release. Buoyed by simultaneous support from Triple J and BBC Radio One, where Pete Tong named it an Essential New Tune, “Faded” has nearly gone triple platinum in Australia independently and topped the UK Dance charts while peaking at No. 3 overall via Polydor Universal.
“The rollout was a great accompaniment to great music,” says Tong. “I happen to think he has a fantastic name, an amazing logo, and in this game, branding becomes very important when the stuff’s good. No one ever notices when it’s not.”
After releasing the Nightday EP in April and entertaining offers from several majors, Zhu signed with Sony’s Columbia for North America. His debut album is slated for release in 2015.
“I met with Zhu and was absolutely blown away by his singular and very clear vision of who he was, what this project was, and how he was going to proceed with or without a larger team,” says Andrew Keller, Columbia A&R.
Columbia president Ashley Newton adds: “It was clear that Zhu had a grand design for his music and career, but was going to be meticulous in every detail on the execution and reveal.”
Describing the current music climate as “very black and white,” Udell acknowledges that race played a role in Zhu’s faceless rollout. “Some of us don’t even know the limitations of our own prejudice,” he says. “Rather than put those limitations to the test, we’ve created an engaging way for fans to focus on the music rather than who’s behind it.”
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.