Earlier this year, vaultboy set himself a challenge: Write a song a day and share the results on TikTok. He had a knack for the negative; one of his first-ever TikTok posts was tagged “potential breakup song but more sad,” and he followed that with covers of various mega-hits that were alternately “hella sad” or “kinda sad.” But 12 days into his onslaught of songwriting in January, vaultboy decided to throw a snippet of a happy track on the app for the first time. Sort of — “everything sucks” is the opening line. “Just kidding,” vaultboy adds, not entirely convincingly. “Everything is great.”
The seesaw between gloomy and gleeful was chum in the water for TikTokers: close to 30,000 users created their own videos using vaultboy’s verse over the next few weeks, even though he was an unknown independent act. Looking at data on these early adopters, the singer’s manager, Kevin Calame, noticed that a sizable number of them were located in Southeast Asia. (Calame is also the co-founder of the Fast Friends label, which signed vaultboy as well.) Fast Friends called up Stellar Trigger Marketing, a Copenhagen company that is intent on showing that fans in these territories — typically neglected by the U.S. music industry — can play a key role in creating hits.
Stellar agreed to put its digital promotion muscle — including music- and mood-focused Facebook and Instagram pages and YouTube channels — behind vaultboy. “Within the first ten days, it was on 80-plus viral charts [on Spotify],” says Ryan Peterson, managing director of Stellar Trigger Marketing.
“Everything Sucks,” which vaultboy finished with help from Gnash of “I Hate U, I Love U” fame, has amassed more than 67 million streams across all platforms since its official release in May. The launch of the single marks an impressive start for the vaultboy project. It also represents another meaningful data point for disciples of the “Trigger Cities” theory, a small but growing number of people intent on breaking free from the U.S. music industry’s historically America-first approach.
The Trigger Cities concept relies on a key observation. Now that streaming services like Spotify and YouTube knit together disparate continents, a hit can move relatively easily from one territory to the next. Therefore, even if the end goal is still a hit in the U.S., artists and their teams do not necessarily need to attack the American market first, second, or even third.
In fact, the Trigger Cities theory suggests that it is probably more cost effective for a new act to build fans in populous cities in Southeast Asia, where passion for music and digital engagement are high while advertising costs are low. Because streaming services excel at finding a song that is generating excitement in one area and conducting that enthusiasm somewhere new, the right group of devotees abroad can unleash a wave of interest that builds until it eventually feeds back into the U.S.
Lauv is often viewed as the poster boy for the Trigger Cities approach: His breakout hit “I Like Me Better” picked up momentum in Malaysia and Brazil long before it reached a global audience. Acts like Pink Sweat$, Jeremy Zucker, and Chelsea Cutler — whose 2017 track “Your Shirt” is currently going viral in Indonesia — all amassed formidable fanbases outside the U.S. on their way to stardom. (Ranked by listenership, for example, all five of Pink Sweat$’s top cities on Spotify are in Southeast Asia.)
At the moment, former The Voice U.K. contestant Jamie Miller is enjoying his breakout hit with “Here’s Your Perfect,” which is Number One on Spotify in Indonesia and Number Six in the Philippines; the same is true of Dhruv, an indie act whose “Double Take” is Top Five in Indonesia and Number Two in the Philippines. As more artists have found Southeast Asia to be a helpful springboard to widespread success, the Trigger Cities concept is catching on with younger, digitally savvy managers and marketers.
However, there is still some resistance to the idea that success in the world’s biggest music market could start thousands of miles away. “Some people in the music industry don’t value streams coming from Southeast Asia and even some parts of Latin America,” says Noah Broxmeyer, who manages the rising singer Jillian Rossi. “… There seems to be this stigma sometimes that streams from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia aren’t ‘real,’ or at the very least not ‘as good’ as U.S.-based streams.”
But like Calame with vaultboy, Broxmeyer has seen the impacts of streams from these locations on Rossi’s single “Fever Dream,” a swing-for-the-fences piano ballad, firsthand. After a Trigger Cities-focused campaign in May, Rossi’s track cracked the viral charts in the Philippines and Malaysia. Messages started to pour into Rossi’s Facebook and Instagram “in all different languages, saying that her song changed their life, or that she is now their favorite American artist,” Broxmeyer explains. (The song cracked the viral chart in South Africa and Australia too, even though Broxmeyer did no marketing there, another demonstration of the Trigger Cities theory at work.) Again, this listener enthusiasm was unexpected, considering that Rossi, like vaultboy, was a new artist without major-label backing.
Broxmeyer also manages several prominent TikTok creators, so he is acutely attuned to new developments in digital marketing, and he’s had courtside seats as TikTok has become intensely saturated with music campaigns. “It is the primary way of marketing music in 2021 for nearly every label, and with that, the price for running these campaigns has soared,” Broxmeyer says. “Some songs’ budgets just for TikTok venture into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — it just isn’t doable for an independent artist. Going where other people aren’t in certain circumstances, like Southeast Asia, is so much more cost efficient.”
vaultboy is continuing to push “Everything Sucks” without a major label, sticking to the strategies that got him this far. That means posting more tragic song snippets on TikTok — recent videos tackled “the aftermath of getting out of a toxic relationship” and being “the last one to get married” — while also making time to bop along to an Indonesian translation of “Everything Sucks.”
And that also means continuing to seek out new fans in Southeast Asia. “We’re trying to push this record up the charts independently,” Calame says. “Trigger marketing is gonna be crucial as a part of that.”