The Exponential Rise of Leah Kate’s ‘F-ck Up the Friendship’
As a teenager, Leah Kate used to spend time each week trying to get the music industry to notice her. She would Google the names of her favorite artists’ producers, track down their emails, and send them Voice Notes; she’d email music publishers — “literally blast them with shit” — and none of it seemed to work.
Now, more than a decade later, that dynamic has reversed. After daily streams of her single “Fuck Up the Friendship” recently bounded from around 2,000 to around 140,000, labels are now aggressively pursuing Kate, bombarding her with DMs, emails, and Zoom calls.
“People think they need a major label to get their stuff on Pop Rising, but this song’s just on DistroKid,” Kate says. (Pop Rising is a Spotify playlist with more than two million followers; DistroKid is a platform that allows anyone to get their music on to streaming services for an affordable fee.) “You can do this as an independent artist.”
Kate’s leap was helped by the music startup indify, which is hoping to make this type of trajectory achievable for a wide range of indie acts, bringing a semblance of order to the viral wilderness. To score a zero-to-hero streaming hit, “step one is finding that initial viral moment,” explains Shav Garg, co-founder of indify. “Step two is looping in capital and digital marketing to take that moment and amplify it. Then you loop in people to pitch to playlists and flag [for] gatekeepers.” That route, he adds, “is possible with anybody.”
Kate grew up in close proximity to the music business — her family owns radio stations — and she started singing at age five. She made annual pilgrimages to visit an aunt who was a songwriter in Nashville, primarily because that provided access to a “karaoke booth in the mall where you could go record your own version of songs onto CDs.” (“I was really crazy,” Kate says, cheerfully.) She started to release music in 2018, earning some TV syncs and New Music Friday placements on her early output, but she credits producer Louis Schoori with helping her hone the “funky, disco-pop sound” heard on “Fuck Up the Friendship,” which came out in June and melds a will-they-or-won’t-they tale — based on a real-life friendship that Kate says she did indeed “fuck up” — with a pushy bassline.
Kate thought she had a hit on her hands, but she faced a common problem for young artists: How do you push a track to a wide audience without the financial support and expertise of a billion-dollar company? One obvious answer was TikTok. In the same way that she used to “blast” music publishers, she started spending three hours a day messaging TikTok creators and asking them to create videos with her track; she also began to post her own clips on the platform daily.
Around that time, Alexis Ohanian, founder of Seven Seven Six and also co-founder of Reddit, stumbled on “Fuck Up the Friendship” while browsing through new artists on indify, in which he is an investor. The company is constantly scouring data feeds to see which unknown acts are building followings on Spotify or YouTube. indify then invites artists like Kate to join the platform, giving them access to a pool of potential managers or investors. That’s where Ohanian saw “Fuck Up the Friendship” and dubbed it a hit hiding in plain site. He forged a deal with Kate directly through indify, which allows partners to send deals easily without ever leaving the platform. “She’s practically running a full-service label for herself from her bedroom,” Ohanian says admiringly.
Kate then turned to Creed Media, which has boosted viral moments for songs like Trevor Daniel’s “Falling” and Foushee’s “Deep End,” to drive listeners to “Fuck Up the Friendship.” When Kate’s own video explaining the origins of the track went quasi-viral, the digital marketing company stepped in to help introduce the song to a wider pool of TikTok-ers, according to Felicia Karlsson, one of Creed’s campaign managers. At the beginning of October, “Fuck Up the Friendship” had been used in less than 400 TikTok clips; it has now been used in more than 30,000.
Streams of Kate’s track started to rise in tandem with interest in TikTok — reaching around 25,000 per day later in October. Creed engineered another jump in streaming by translating interest in “Fuck Up the Friendship” over to Instagram, carefully targeting Instagram communities based around demographic information gleaned from the company’s TikTok campaign. Pushing the single on multiple platforms started to make it feel like “Fuck Up the Friendship” was everywhere in the digital-verse all at once, priming listeners to respond.
“Fuck Up the Friendship” is now being streamed more than 140,000 times a day; if the track maintains that pace, it’ll clear over 50 million a year, a nice number for an indie record. For Shav, Kate’s acceleration offers more proof of concept for the company’s new mission — it can help artists find support, hold on to their rights, and build towards a hit. “We’re trying to create a system that makes this repeatable,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kate is still pushing her song on TikTok, asking fans to duet on a new verse for a remix, and hopping on regular calls with Karlsson, who is based in Stockholm, to discuss digital strategy. “I’m waking up at 4:30 AM to talk to Sweden,” Kate says enthusiastically. “I haven’t slept in a month.” But she’s not complaining about the results.