On Tuesday, the single “Broken,” by the previously hit-less group Lovelytheband, broke a notable threshold: It has now reached more than one billion listeners. No song has gotten more play on what’s known as “Alternative” radio — the catch-all home of guitar-bass-and-drums acts, including Weezer, the Struts and Elle King — this year, with 105,118 spins and still climbing, according to Mediabase.
This feat catapults Lovelytheband into the tiny group of rock acts that manage to put out genuine hit singles these days. Imagine Dragons are the leaders of the pack, with “Whatever It Takes” and “Natural” both cracking the Top 15 on the Hot 100 this year. Two bands just rose to join them: the veteran act Panic! At the Disco, which jumped to Number 35 on the Hot 100 this week with “High Hopes” — the second biggest hit of their career, 12 years after the first — and Lovelytheband, with “Broken” at Number 39.
All these acts require cross-format radio play to reach these heights, earning support from their home format, Alternative (a top five record in the radio format reaches around 8-10 million listeners, according to promotions executives), along with Adult Contemporary (30 – 45 million) and Top 40 (over 100 million). Without the latter two, a band ends up like Twenty One Pilots — unable to earn a real smash with any of their Trench singles, no longer a member of the Rock Hits Club.
But Lovelytheband are sitting pretty, hitting the top of Alternative for six weeks before reaching Number Two on Hot AC and Number 15 on pop radio; all told, they were heard by 75 million listeners last week alone. “It’s cool to be a part of bringing guitars back to the radio,” says Mitchy Collins, Lovelytheband’s lead singer, sitting in the cafeteria at Sony Music’s Manhattan office, bleary eyed after an early call time for Live With Kelly and Ryan.
“Every step of the way when we were going to radio, once we found out we were gonna start crossing over, people were like, ‘you got here, but this is gonna happen [something bad], just wait, you’re a guitar band,'” he adds. “It’s cool to look at the chart and see Post Malone, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa and us just snuck in there.”
It’s a second chance for Collins, who used to have an Atlantic Records deal as a member of the duo Oh Honey. His goals for that duo collided with the famous rigidity of major labels. “Even when we were making the album that we were trying to make that never came out, we would write songs and I’m like, ‘I want to write about this, and they’re like, that doesn’t really fit you,'” Collins says. “There’s a lot of stuff I deal with, and there are only so many happy songs I can sing,” he adds. “I would write some stuff that touched on another side of myself and they’re like, the band that sings ‘Be OK’ can’t come in hot with this new stuff about how you’re depressed.”
Following the dissolution of Oh Honey, Collins resolved “to do whatever I wanted to do.” He wrote “Broken” in New York City with Christian Medice — a collaborator from the Oh Honey days who also has pop machine credits for P!nk and Hilary Duff — and Sam DeRosa. The song describes a match of misfits, relying on a synergistic refrain, “I like that you’re broken/ Broken like me,” and strum-heavy instrumentation. It also incorporates a synth melody you can play with one finger, effectively functioning as an average of any number of Alternative hits from the last decade: Play it for people and they’ll call out M83’s “Midnight City,” MGMT’s “Kids” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.”
Lovelytheband released “Broken” independently in April 2017, and Spotify was the first institution to support the single. As a favor, one of Collins’ old friends, music industry manager Rene Mata, emailed the track to several of the streaming service’s rock gatekeepers. “Alli Hagendorf [Spotify’s Global Head of Rock] and John Stein [an editor for the platform whose beat includes indie and alternative] were really awesome,” Collins says. “They playlisted stuff early.” “That’s rare in the state of the industry that we’re in now,” he adds. “No one wants to take a chance on an unproven thing.”
Mata also helped Lovelytheband connect with Don Robertson, SVP of A&R at Red Music, who signed the group, and the label’s radio team took charge of the campaign behind “Broken.” “Top 40 radio goes through cycles, and now is not an Alternative cycle; pop is more rhythm-based,” explains Danny Buch, Senior VP of Promotion. “Imagine Dragons is the exception, maybe Panic! at the Disco. Foster the People was a smash [at Alternative], but it didn’t go the distance [on the pop airwaves]. I had this great Alice Merton song, ‘No Roots’ that peaked at 26 [on pop].”
So Buch and his VP of promotion, Scott Burton, aimed to make “Broken” big enough over a long-enough period that pop radio could not deny it. “The longer you work a record, the better chance it has to perform in call-out,” Buch says. “That’s the trick in the record business: To be able to go long enough for the record to research.”
They started promoting “Broken” to Alternative radio in August 2017, and it charted for the first time at the end of November. “We knew we might have something special probably the second week of February,” Burton says. “The song was hooky, people were comfortable giving it a shot.” And it researched well, as Buch hoped. “Broken” became an Alternative radio Number One the week of April 15, a year after it was first released.
The next step made the difference between “Broken” remaining an Alternative hit — remember, 8 – 10 million in audience, more than indie rock but still relatively niche — and it becoming the type of record that eventually reaches more than a billion listeners. “I didn’t want to take it straight to pop [radio],” Buch says, “because with a lot of records, if you go pop and you don’t get ’em, it’s done.” “I prefer to go Hot AC first, because Hot AC is a format of pop without hip-hop,” he continues. “I’m not competing with Post Malone at Hot AC. There’s more of a lane to navigate.”
“Broken” hit the sweet spot at Adult radio stations. “It’s edgy without having any real edge,” says one operations manager in charge of a Hot AC station that jumped on “Broken” early. “It’s cool without being too cool. It allowed us to play new music that didn’t have a teen-pop sound [a plus, perhaps, when your target demographic is listeners between the ages of 25 and 54].”
Many Hot AC programmers felt similarly, and in June, “Broken” cracked the Top Twenty at the format. With that audience weight and familiarity behind it, Buch’s team started promoting the single to Top 40 radio. Now “Broken” is Top Twenty at pop and still rising, 18 months after its initial release. During this strikingly long timespan, Drake has released 11 solo singles.
The radio path taken by “Broken,” a drawn-out climb from Alt to Hot AC to Top 40, appears to be the primary channel for commercial rock success in 2018. Some would argue that the key to enjoying that success is to not sound very much like rock. “A lot of the stuff that is actually even played on Alternative radio these days is very pop by nature,” says Jim Ryan, who programs a pair of adult stations for SiriusXM. “When I worked in Alternative radio back in Philadelphia in the Nineties, I’m not sure we ever would have played some of the records that seemed to get their start on Alternative radio these days.”
Still, for those hoping that guitar-based music will continue to participate in the larger pop conversation, acts that take the Alt-AC-Pop radio route may be their best hope. “I joke a lot of times with the record people, ‘Can you get me something that’s got guitars in it?'” Ryan says. “For the most part, a lot of that has been abandoned.”
No one is abandoning “Broken” any time soon, however. “As we speak, ‘Broken’ is still in the Top Ten at Alternative,” Red Music’s Burton says. “It’s up 100 spins right now, which is stupid crazy.”
“Not only is it calling out and people like it, it doesn’t burn [listeners don’t get sick of it],” Buch adds happily. “They can’t get rid of it. ‘Broken’ is the song that won’t die.”