One day on the Warped Tour last summer, when the five members of the rising emo-metal band Hawthorne Heights sat down at their merchandise table to sign autographs for fans, singer J.T. Woodruff noticed something unusual about the young woman at the front of the line. "She had all the tattoos on my arm drawn on her arm in detail," he recalls. "So you gotta think to yourself, 'Should I ask this girl how she knows all my tattoos, or should I let her go about her business?' I let her go about her business. I didn't want to know."
The band, whose second album, If Only You Were Lonely, sold 113,817 copies and hit Number Three on the charts in its debut week in early March, credits the intense connection it has with its fans for its slow-burning pop success. While the sales figures may not be on the level of R&B rookie Ne-Yo, who hit Number One the same week with 301,005 copies sold, they're extraordinary for a band on an independent label (Victory Records) that has received almost no radio or MTV exposure — although that's beginning to change, with some American radio stations picking up the single "Saying Sorry" after the band's chart showing. (In addition to its Top Five debut, If Only You Were Lonely is the best-selling disc in independent record stores.) "We never thought we would be number anything on the Billboard chart," Woodruff adds. "So Number Three is ridiculously huge for us."
What's the Dayton, Ohio, quintet's secret? In addition to manning an autograph table after each of 300 shows per year, the five-year-old group has aggressively promoted itself on MySpace.com, the online-networking site where 2.577 million people have viewed the band's profile and almost 1.8 million have played its song "Ohio Is for Lovers." "We make a point to stay in contact via MySpace or purevolume.com or our Web site," drummer Eron Bucciarelli says. "We're very, very approachable."
The band's label, Victory, has a reputation for aggressive grassroots promotion, using hip-hop-style street teams to push its acts. An e-mail from the label circulated online encouraged members of the Hawthorne Heights street team to go to record stores and hide copies of Ne-Yo's CD. (Victory later claimed the e-mail had been a joke.)
But Victory owner Tony Brummel downplays the importance of MySpace and street-team promotion. "It's no different from when bands were smart ten or twenty years ago and had mailing lists or fan clubs," he says. "This is the band being honorable guys, talking to the people that support them every night and not hiding on the bus."
This story is from the April 6, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.