In August 2018, singer and songwriter Mitski released her album Be the Cowboy through indie label Dead Oceans, which went on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the year and catapulted her onto a new level. A European and North American tour followed, covering more than three dozen dates and finishing that December in Brooklyn. And then, for the most part, she disappeared from the limelight.
In the interim, however, her music took on a new life on TikTok, where it seemingly organically exploded and led to a huge bump in streaming numbers for her catalog, exposing her to a new fan base and keeping her music circulating even while she herself had taken a step back. Now, four years later, Mitski has reappeared with her latest album, Laurel Hell — which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 this week, her first-ever top 40 album and a high-water mark for Dead Oceans — part of the Secretly Group — as a label, too. And it helps earn Dead Oceans founder and Secretly Group co-founder and chief marketing officer Phil Waldorf the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Here, Waldorf expands on the marketing efforts that went into Mitski’s big release, which also earned the biggest vinyl sales week of the year so far, moving 17,000 copies in its first week in a supply chain environment that has made it difficult for the vinyl business — production of which Waldorf calls “a herculean effort.” And Waldorf also looks ahead at what’s next for the artist. “I think Mitski’s music is universal,” he says. “We just need to make sure it has the platform to reach an even bigger audience, while keeping the presentation authentic to who she is as an artist.”
Mitski’s Laurel Hell album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 — her first top 40 album on that chart — and No. 1 on the Top Album Sales and several other charts. What key decisions did you make to help make that happen?
We were very focused on selling physical to as many of her fans as possible at the front of the campaign. We knew, given the gap between Mitski’s album, that people would be willing to not just embrace the music via streaming services, but buy physical copies. We focused on a few different LP variants that would feel collectible to fans, and added four limited-edition CDs as well. Besides the big D2C [direct to consumer] push, we made sure indie retail felt incentivized to prioritize this release, and we were thrilled with the support and first-week sales at indies. Long term, the goal is to find new Mitski fans, but the short term goal for Laurel Hell was to make sure everyone who was a fan already, could easily buy a copy.
This is her first album since 2018. How did you set things up for her return from a marketing perspective?
We embraced making each campaign moment count. Mitski’s been largely out of the limelight since the end of the Be the Cowboy touring cycle, and we knew there would be huge demand for everything she would do, so we really focused on big tentpole events. The first moment was a tour announcement, the first single (“Working for the Knife”) and Mitski selling a “mystery shirt” via her D2C. We really tried to keep things as simple and succinct as possible — no mystery or breadcrumbs — just making sure the fans new something was coming and where to get it. The YouTube premiere for “Working for the Knife” affirmed what we already suspected: that the audience was there and ready for Mitski’s return, with over 60,000 fans tuning in for the premiere. We also put together pop-up shops in Los Angeles and New York City, the day after release, selling CDs, LPs and limited-edition Mitski merch, as well as creating spaces that brought the album to life. These events gave fans a place to gather, share on social media and celebrate an in-person event around Mitski’s new album.
Mitski seems to have almost inexplicably exploded in popularity on TikTok during the pandemic, sending her streams through the roof. How were you able to capitalize on that for the album release?
Although TikTok operates in mysterious ways, I actually think her popularity on the platform makes a whole lot of sense. Coupling the emotional depth of her music, the age of her audience and everyone being stuck at home enduring a global pandemic made a perfect recipe for Mitski’s music to be shared on the platform, and once fans started sharing it, it grew exponentially because the music really met the moment. The discovery was authentic and organic, and did not feel fleeting. I wouldn’t say we capitalized per se, beyond having a real understanding that Mitski’s fan base had grown substantially in organic ways, and we made sure to include these newer fans within the campaign.
The album’s sales were driven by 17,000 vinyl copies sold in the first week, the largest vinyl week for an artist in 2022 so far. Did you encounter challenges in getting the record ready and available in time?
Vinyl production in 2022 requires a herculean effort. Our production team worked miracles to assure all of our vinyl arrived on schedule, working with three pressing plants, in two countries, all with varying deadlines and specific requirements, and saw the process through to the finish line, assuring LPs made it everywhere, around the globe, for street date. It was a huge amount of work, but it was really important to us that Mitski’s fans had access to all formats worldwide when the album was released.
How important is the vinyl format to the independent label community?
In a world where so much is ephemeral, and lives either on a screen or in the cloud, I think anything that creates a tangible connection between fan and artist is crucial for independent artists and their labels. That can be vinyl, or a t-shirt or a concert experience. Vinyl is one of the cultural touchstones for our labels, and so important for connecting an audience to the music.
How do you build on the success of this album for Mitski’s career moving forward?
In the immediate future, Mitski will do all of the work, pouring everything into a sold-out world tour. Beyond that, I think we need to help push Mitski towards new fan bases. There’s already an incredible foundation, but I think Mitski’s music is universal. We just need to make sure it has the platform to reach an even bigger audience, while keeping the presentation authentic to who she is as an artist.