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Exclusive Interview: Everybody’s Working For The Weeknd

The chart-topping artist talks about those epic VMA ads, his relationship with Apple Music, and the art of being a brand.

Exclusive Interview: Everybody’s Working For The Weeknd
The Weeknd performs during Apple WWDC on June 8, 2015 in San Francisco, California. [Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images]

On the song “Tell Your Friends,” The Weeknd sings, “Last year I did all the politicking/This year, I’m a focus on the vision.” And since his voice first mysteriously dropped online back in 2010, it’s been clear the 25-year-old Toronto native has had a shrewd strategy all along. From no pictures or interviews at the start, to building his name and spreading the word through key associations with artists like Drake and Ariana Grande, then appearing on soundtracks for blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey–all bricks in the foundation for becoming one of the biggest acts in music.

This week, his Beauty Behind The Madness notched its second week atop the Billboard charts. Unveiled on August 28, it’s the second-biggest selling debut album of the year, no doubt benefiting from lighting the VMAs on fire two days later with a performance of “Can’t Feel My Face,” that got Kanye, Taylor Swift, and just about everyone else on their feet.

But another boost likely came from a pair of cleverly crafted ads for Apple Music that ran during the show, seemingly following The Weeknd off stage and into the surreal life of the artist otherwise known as Abel Tesfaye. In Part I, he ambles off stage wearing the same clothes he performed in on the live show, and jumps into a limo chauffeured by none other than John Travolta. The second act finds him at a raging, appropriately swank afterparty, that he quickly shapes to his mood with the power of his playlist, which Apple Music has now posted for your own house party needs.

Apple has long featured independent and up-and-coming artists, often bringing plenty of album sales with its exposure–just ask Jet and Feist–but the brand’s relationship with Tesfaye takes things a step further. Not only did these ads, directed by Nabil Elderkin, feature The Weeknd’s music, but they were a story more about him than the actual product. Tesfaye didn’t even return to his seat and wasn’t seen on VMA cameras again after performing in order to keep the continuity of the ads intact.

Apple Music head of content Larry Jackson says one of the things that got his attention right away about The Weeknd, aside from his music, was how he brought it to the world. “The fact that his marketing had mystique made an impact with me because it’s a lost art that I have such immense respect for,” says Jackson. “Overexposure is at an all-time high, and everyone gives everything away. The fact that he employed a tactic and approach that’s counterintuitive to most was the draw for me. I was a fan from day one.”

In an exclusive interview with Co.Create, Tesfaye talks about the Apple Music ads, how they’re a result of a strong, personal relationship he’s had with the brand, and his own brand strategy behind The Weeknd.

Co.Create: How did the idea for the Apple Music VMA ads come about?

“I can’t take credit for them. Larry Jackson and Jimmy Iovine put all of that together. Generally, if I let other people send me an idea, I like to work on it and make it fit better with my brand but they killed it. And bringing in someone like Nabil to direct was a great idea. I had no comments. They really won me over with the John Travolta cameo. The idea was brought to me a week before the VMA’s and was shot that same week…We moved quickly.”

Between it’s faux behind-the-scenes look at you after a show, and featuring your personal playlist, the ads revolve around not just your music but who you are as an artist. What was that creative process like?

“Jimmy, Larry, and I are very close. They’ve been following my career for some time now, so for them to tap into my life and how I think, it was simple for them. If they didn’t know me then I probably would have had to send the treatment back and ask them to think of something better, but they nailed it. It’s really hard for me to take any credit.”

You were on stage at the Apple Music launch. You’re playing the Apple Music Festival. How did you first get involved with the brand and why?

“I’ve been friends with Jimmy since before I was signed. At least five or six years. We’ve always envisioned doing something big together but it just never happened. Finally one day he invited me over for dinner with another good friend of mine, Robbie Robertson from The Band, and that’s where I met Larry Jackson. Zane Lowe was also there. We all hung out, watched movies and discussed plans all night. Jimmy explained to me what he was doing with Apple and from then on I was on board. A few months later, I played he and Larry some of my album and we put together my performance for the launch of Apple Music. Once there, I got to connect with Tim Cook and the rest of the team at Apple, it was really an unforgettable afternoon.”

With the stage name, the free music and mixtapes, the scarcity of interviews and the subsequent veil of mystery–MBA marketing students have probably been drooling over your brand building skills for years. Do you consider yourself a brand? How do you balance being an artist, with the need to find, build, and maintain an audience?

“I feel like everything we do comes down to how it looks. Even no branding is branding. For example, you had no face or image to put to my music at first. That was branding. I spend just as much time on how people hear my music as I do the actual music, no matter how long it takes. I’m such a visual artist as well that it always goes hand-in-hand.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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