One Direction’s Right Direction: The Billboard Cover Story
December 14, 2012
One Direction used social to conquer radio and fire up its fan base, resulting in two No. 1 albums in one year, and leading the charge in a 2012 packed with chart-topping new artists.
As 2012 dawned, few American adults outside the most dedicated of Anglophiles knew much, if anything, about One Direction. In part, that’s because the kind of boy-band pop One Direction had already turned into 2011’s fastest-selling debut album in the United Kingdom (aided by the most preordered single in Sony Music history) doesn’t target adults. And in part it’s a matter of history: In the decade that passed since the peak of the boy-band craze led by Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, the U.K. groups that kept the sound at the top of charts overseas were barely able to translate their success beyond a single on American shores.
Of course, One Direction would change all that, and write a little bit of history in the process.
By Nov. 30, as the sun began to set on 2012, the group had invaded the New York area for a week that included three sold-out arena shows (two in Connecticut and its first headlining gig at Madison Square Garden), a private fan convention in New Jersey to meet and greet with die-hards who’d been flown in from more than 35 countries, visits to “Letterman” and SiriusXM-and to cap it all off, the opening slot at New York’s biggest pop concert of the year, WHTZ’s Jingle Ball.
“This week’s been crazy, crazy busy but so much fun,” says Louis Tomlinson, the group’s oldest member at just a few weeks shy of 21, toward the end of the band’s whirlwind takeover of Manhattan. “To have this opportunity to come here and perform is amazing . . . It’s almost a cliché but it’s so true-if anyone hadn’t bought a record, we wouldn’t be here.”
So how did Louis, Harry, Zayn, Liam and Niall accomplish what no British group had done before, let alone a boy band, by topping the Billboard 200 with its first two albums (March’s “Up All Night” and November’s “Take Me Home”) and going from virtual unknowns to mega-stars in less than a year’s time? Social media played a crucial part, as it did in so many of the breakout stories of 2012: Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY. But One Direction was bigger than an Internet meme, and that’s thanks to an aggressive touring plan and the combined efforts of a team led by industry veterans Richard Griffiths, Harry Magee, Steve Barnett and Simon Cowell, who signed the group to his Syco imprint shortly after the act finished third on the U.K. “X Factor” in 2010.
A healthy dose of intuition helped, too. The first inkling that something might click stateside came Feb. 26 at Chicago’s 4,400-capacity Rosemont Theater. The gig was an 11th-hour opener for the Nickelodeon-created boy band Big Time Rush on the latter’s sold-out “Better With U” tour. One Direction had just released “What Makes You Beautiful” as its first official single in the United States less than two weeks prior, and “Up All Night” was still weeks away from domestic release. But minutes before the band members took the stage, nervous that no one would know their names let alone care, manager Griffiths and former Columbia Records chairman Barnett heard 4,400 girls chanting “One Direction!”
“We hadn’t gone to radio-we’d just put a track out-and yet everyone knew all the words to every song,” says Griffiths, a longtime record label executive who co-founded Modest! Management with Magee in 2003. “This was all fans communicating amongst themselves about this band.”
Griffiths is referring to the “Bring1DtoUS” campaign, designed to boost the group’s social media profile stateside. It grew the act’s core fan base from 40,000 to 250,000 online from late November 2011 to the end of January 2012, and garnered more than 220,000 followers to a dedicated Twitter handle. Different cities competed to win a special concert, with Dallas winning a show for 10,000 fans at the Dr Pepper Ballpark in March and Los Angeles winning an event on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Soon, that rabid following began to translate to radio, which began to take notice of “What Makes You Beautiful” and the group as the conversation began to swell leading up to the album release. “Usually traditional sales lead the way for us, but we also had fans request them through our social media sites,” says John Ivey, senior VP of contemporary hit radio programming and talent development at Clear Channel. “And the song was good, too, which always helps.”
The Bring1DtoUS campaign spread the word on preorders of “Up All Night” and generated contest winners in each city where One Direction played with Big Time Rush. The initiative was so successful Columbia bumped up the album’s release date a week ahead of schedule. Crowds of 4,000-5,000 swarmed in-store signings during release week, with a mob of 10,000 to see the group play “Today” on March 12, the day before “Up All Night’s” U.S. release. By the end of the tour, One Direction had become the first British group in Billboard chart history to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with its first album.
“The campaign has always been fan-first and about One Direction as a band. It’s never been about a traditional push around just one single,” Columbia senior VP of marketing Doneen Lombardi says. Nevertheless, “Beautiful” quickly became a top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100, with follow-up “One Thing” later cracking the top 40.
As One Direction’s album sales made headlines, tickets to a handful of spring U.S. tour dates were scooped up in minutes, prompting Modest! to make the bold decision to start selling tickets to a summer 2013 tour in April-more than a full year in advance. Those were quickly sold out, too.
“I actually rang Irving Azoff [Live Nation Entertainment executive chairman/Frontline Management Group chairman/CEO] to ask him if it was crazy even thinking of doing it, because not many people were agreeing with us about that. And he just said, ‘Go for it,’” Griffiths says. “We knew that it was exploding everywhere, and we knew that we really needed to have a plan that took us all the way through to next year. We didn’t feel we needed to wait and see-the evidence was there to make the most of it.”
That still left a short-term problem for 2012, with One Direction already committed to a month-and-a-half’s worth of dates playing U.S. amphitheaters before taking time off from touring to work on “Take Me Home.” Creative Artists Agency’s Mitch Rose, who books One Direction in the States, was able to get a December date at Madison Square Garden that would save the band months of time in tour routing by doubling as a global fan event. Columbia quickly spearheaded a “Go1Den Ticket” contest that gave fans in dozens of countries the chance to win a travel package with a trio of tickets to see the band’s show and accompanying fan convention.
“There’s a certain excitement that is generated when you have nearly 40 countries flying in to see a show,” Rose says. “If you just think of how social is driving everything with acts like One Direction, the good will, the word-of-mouth, the excitement, the passion of all those countries is exponential for what can happen.”
And while 2013 already looks to be an even bigger year for One Direction touring-wise, it’s easy to see why industry eyebrows raised when Sony U.K. chairman Nick Gatfield spoke candidly of the band’s fortunes at a creative industries reception in June. “What you might not know about One Direction is that they already represent a $50 million business-and that’s a figure we expect to double next year,” Gatfield said, indicating that Sony has more participation in the band’s career than just recorded music. A Sony U.K. spokesman declined to expand upon or clarify Gatfield’s comments, which Columbia U.S. chairman Rob Stringer echoed when asked to do the same. “You’d have to ask Nick,” he said.
Still, Stringer had strong indications that the time was right to break One Direction in America, having previously worked with both Cowell (on acts like Westlife, Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho) and Griffiths when the latter was running Epic U.S. during the ’90s. “It does work well to have people who understand each other,” says Stringer, another Brit expat on Team 1D.
But although another British boy band (and “X Factor” alum) was worked to U.S. audiences at the same time as One Direction, Stringer hesitates to declare a resurgent boy-band movement. “The Wanted record is a very good record. It’s just not the same, and it’s not on the same scale,” he says. “Can you do what One Direction has achieved again and again? Probably not. But then again, 10 years ago ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys were in the same world and even on the same label. So, there’s room, but we’re happy to have One Direction have the lead that they do.”