She’s the first female artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart this year, with her new album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. But Halsey isn’t just another cog in the pop star industrial complex, she’s an artist who carefully built a strong and passionate fan base long before her songs were on the radio.
At the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity there are a lot of parties. Brands throw parties, agencies throw parties, the festival throws parties, and often those parties feature a hit artist or band. Halsey, however, hit the stage at the festival not to sing but to talk about how she approaches her career, her songwriting, and, yes, her brand. In conversation with Ryan Seacrest for an iHeartRadio session called, “Authentic, Creative, Unafraid: How Halsey Broke Out,” she talked about her upbringing, her early days in the New York City club circuit, and how her fingerprints are on everything from the music, to the stage, to the videos, to the poster and flyers.
She told a story about when she first arrived at Cannes this week. A man stopped her on the beach and asked if she was here for the festival. She told him she was a young CEO that was here to talk to a group of other female CEOs. The man said, “You don’t look like a CEO.”
“Well,” she replied, “I am.”
I talked to Halsey after the session, about being a young, hungry businessperson with a growing enterprise.
CEO of Halsey Inc.
“It’s a weird thing to refer to myself as a product, but when you’ve gone past being a musician and artist, to a role model, where people are buying into your lifestyle, and what you represent, then you become a product people are buying into,” she says. “I never considered myself a CEO until recently. At first, it was naivete. I thought every artist did everything themselves. I thought Britney Spears wrote her own music–I thought every superstar was designing their own live stage show, so I always just did those things. And I was with a team who didn’t know any better either–my manager Anthony [Li] was a 25-year-old kid from New Jersey when I met him. He’d never managed an act before. I’d never been an artist before, obviously, and we’ve built this thing really organically. He never told me no, because he didn’t know he was supposed to. And I just did everything myself because I didn’t have the resources to do it otherwise.”
“I’m fortunate to just be surrounded by good people. A lot of artists have horror stories about their record company or management–I just love everyone around me. They’ve just facilitated my vision in a way that’s been nurturing and kind. I’ve had the same team around me from the start–from demos on SoundCloud to a number-one album–it’s the same people as it’s always been. They’re young, they’re hungry, they care about the fans, they’ve watched everything grow, and because they’ve been working as hard on this as I have, they feel connected to it.
“I also try to make the project really collaborative. I never hear no, but I also rarely say no. If we’re in the car and my photographer says, ‘wouldn’t be cool if during ‘Colors’ on stage you did blue color smoke?’ I know that’s a great idea. When people have good ideas, I’m not foolish enough to ignore them for the sake of wanting control. I’m not a control freak in that way.
“When people have been working for you for so long, you have to keep them around, keep morale up. From just a touring perspective, I’ve watched my crew grow–these are my behind-the-scenes, on-the-ground employees. They’re the people building my stage, loading the truck, putting up the lights. They’re not my manager Anthony who’s on the Forbes Under 30 list. For them, and me, it’s about keeping the connection there, with me and with the fans, always knowing why we’re doing this. It’s for a culture we’re contributing to.”
Put in the work
“When I leave here I’m going to go back to the hotel for an hour. And in that hour I’ll be online seeing what fans are talking about, what are they saying about the upcoming tour, that kind of thing. That’s what I do with my free time. That’s my focus group, and I’m constantly reevaluating and rebuilding. People ask me how this all happened so fast, and I just say I put in the work.
“What it ultimately comes down to is the work. It doesn’t stop once you’ve become successful. You have to sustain and grow. You have to put in more work! Do I go on less dates because of that? Yeah, absolutely. But I think that’s normal for any young, driven, businessperson. That’s something a lot of people forget that young musicians are.
“It doesn’t stop after I write songs. I do that, I produce music, I have a touring company, a merch company in every international territory, I have a separate publishing company for songs I write that aren’t my own, and there’s another company for [any] fragrance, apparel, or cosmetic venture I choose to pursue. I run all these companies. To keep it organic and consistent and me, I just have to keep putting in the work.”
Marketing one unique moment at a time
“A lot of it is just trying to inject myself into my fan’s universe. The hardest thing to do when your fanbase grows is to create a personal experience for people, to create an intimate connection. But again, it’s about not being lazy. If I do a 600-person signing, every single one of those fans walks away with a story, an anecdote, a compliment, something original between us. I make sure to create a unique moment. It’s not just sign a poster and ‘next!’
“Young people are hungry and engaged. They have short attention spans but they’re not stupid. When I do something it has to be real. They have a lifetime of content and advertising. Someone’s been selling them something since the second they were born, and that’s just the nature of the world we live in. So if you can connect with them in a way that’s authentic and organic, and it’s benefiting them, it cuts through. It’s not the same bullshit they’ve been sold since they were in diapers.”