A Marshmello helmet — a white, identity-concealing bucket hat that’s become the DJ’s signature style — was the best-selling Halloween costume at Spirit Halloween Stores last year. On Marshmello’s YouTube, 40% of the audience is under the age of 13.
The DJ owes much of his wild popularity with children to the strategic vision of his business team, led by manager Moe Shalizi and The Shalizi Group COO Krista Carnegie. The group is now expanding the demographic to an even younger set: toddlers. On Friday, July 10th, at midnight, it debuted Mellodees, a new YouTube animated series about a singing robot, aimed at kids between two and six years old. Marshmello himself may only make a cameo or two, but he created the setting and all the music.
Shalizi and co. had been working on merging electronic music with children’s education for the past year — a mission that grew more critical during the COVID-19 lockdown. “Children’s screen time is at an all-time high,” Shalizi tells Rolling Stone. By “blending creativity and innovation,” Shalizi says his company and Marshmello aim to “fill a gap in children’s programming.” The team took care to build a kid-friendly new product without stripping the star of his “cool factor.”
Marshmello, thanks in large part to Shalizi’s vision, has grown over the years from a single artist into a sprawling, multiplatform brand. The masked man is really 28-year-old Christopher Comstock; the man behind the masked man is Shalizi, a 30-year-old who grew up in Section Eight housing in Southern California.
Shalizi’s parents moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan 40 years ago. In their house, Shalizi didn’t listen to music much and he wasn’t allowed to play rap. “I remember being 10 years old and listening to Coolio,” Shalizi says. “There was that one song that went ‘One, two, three, four, get your woman on the floor.’ My dad heard me listening to that and got so mad at me. He was like, ‘I don’t want you listening to these kinds of lyrics!” (That didn’t stop him from coveting a DMX CD in secret.)
Having an almost “underground” love of hip-hop led him to rave culture as a teenager. He fell in love with his first festival, Nocturnal Wonderland in San Bernardino, and picked up DJing as a hobby. To make money to buy CDJ-1000 turntables, Shalizi struck a deal with a local dive bar — one so drab that it was actually featured on the show Bar Rescue — and created an EDM night, with the owner pledging that she’d give him half the revenue if he brought in more than $3,000. She laughed and wished him luck.
But Shalizi then concocted a scheme, paying his female friends $10 or $20 to let him borrow their MySpace accounts: He went through their friend lists and messaged all the men, suggesting they meet up at the bar on EDM night. If targets later complained about being set up — he’d message them again as the women, writing, “I left early! My stomach hurt. But come back this week!” He started hitting the $3,000 mark after his third week. And he continued to hit it for the remainder of the event’s run — every Thursday for six straight months.
“A lot of my marketing strategies come from those days,” Shalizi recalls.
After his father passed away — leaving him, at 17, to take care of his sister and mother — Shalizi felt more pressure to succeed in business, and graduated with a degree in finance from the University of California-Riverside. One of his friends, who happened to be the popular DJ Borgore, suggested they start managing artists together. Shalizi later became one of the youngest managers at Red Light, Borgore’s management company.
His first big break came after he signed Jauz, an electronic artist. A friend of Shalizi’s was listening to Jauz’s SoundCloud tracks at desert festival Burning Man when he caught the attention of hit DJ Diplo, who happened to cruise by in a golf cart. Diplo soon took Jauz under his wing and Shalizi suddenly made enough money to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. He left Red Light to form The Shalizi Group, which he describes as a “fully in-house operation” covering everything from merch to consumer packaging. One day, he and his friend — who would eventually go on to become Marshmello — had the idea to create a faceless DJ who couldn’t get caught up in the egoism of fame.
When Marshmello debuted in 2016, the duo had no expectations. It took them a year to settle on the right first show, a festival called HARD Day of the Dead, which agreed to the $30,000 performance fee they had been holding out for. “We stayed disciplined, even though we didn’t have money,” Shalizi says. “We waited till that first show came in at the right price.”
They were still pretty broke after the show — but the anonymity of Marshmello was intriguing to electronic music fans, who started to gossip about whether the DJ was an existing celebrity in disguise.
“People would say, ‘The music is too good to be one person,'” Shalizi remembers. “We played into that. We never told them who it was. I went on Craigslist and found a guy that made props, and we paid him like $400 to make a Marshmello helmet, after deciding we couldn’t use pantyhose and ski masks. Two weeks later, he showed up with a yoga mat that he’d made into a helmet with the eyes cut out.”
Shalizi remembers the incredulous reaction from initial nonbelievers, including Marshmello’s mom: “You’re gonna make my son wear this?” But then Shalizi leaked the “first photo of Marshmello ever” from a behind-the-scenes HARD set to Billboard, and the rollercoaster car dropped. “It just went viral,” Shalizi says. In a flash, Marshmello was playing to sold-out rooms of 15,000 people. Today, Marshmello has more than 40 million monthly Spotify listeners. His most-streamed song, a collab with Bastille called “Happier,” has accumulated more than one billion plays, and tracks with Selena Gomez, Khalid, and Anne-Marie are not far behind. On YouTube, he’s the second-biggest global artist, behind only Justin Bieber.
Zooming past breakout and into superstardom was all about sticking to the brand, Shalizi says. it’s about being ahead of the curve, while still catering to the individuality of the client. With Marshmello, Shalizi had to figure out how to broaden the audience of an introvert with social anxiety. “This guy became the most famous DJ in the world, and he still has never taken the helmet off,” he says. “When he walks into a store, people don’t know who he is. People connect with that.” In other words, since no one can relate to him, everyone can. “We did a cooking show almost two years ago, and now we have 100 episodes of Cooking With Marshmello on YouTube,” he says. “With a family from Afghanistan, I realized early on how important culture was to people.” Cooking became a way to spread Marshmello’s relatable brand to people across the world who didn’t need to speak the same language. Kids from China and India, for example, were thrilled to see that Marshmello could whip up what their parents put on the dinner table.
“A lot of people give away their audience to a brand. If a brand pays you a million dollars for a social post or campaign, guess what… they’ve leveraged everything they need from you.”
Shalizi and Marshmello then introduced Gaming With Marshmello, and they were the first to do a concert within Fortnite — the video-gaming platform Travis Scott appeared on earlier this year — breaking an at-the-time activity record with 10.7 million viewers. “They shut the game down for the first time ever, and nobody could do anything but join this concert,” Shalizi says.
The only brand partnership the team has agreed to so far is for Marshmello-sponsored Stuffed Puffs — chocolate-filled marshmallows — which received orders for one million units before they were even released. Those marshmallows are now the best-selling marshmallow at Walmart. “A lot of people give away their audience to a brand,” Shalizi says. “If a brand pays you a million dollars for a social post or campaign, well, guess what? They just touched your entire audience for that million dollars. They got what they wanted. They’ve leveraged everything they need from you. Whereas if you leverage that for yourself, you can potentially get a lot more down the line.”
Even Marshmello’s music videos are tailored to relatability, focusing on emotions and stories. His most-watched YouTube video is “Alone,” which deals with some of the bullying issues Marshmello faced as a kid and sits at 2.5 billion views — even though it was never serviced to radio.
Marshmello remains technically an independent artist: All his work is managed by The Shalizi Group, without help from a major label.
Shalizi says they’ve received offers from multiple record labels. They were once on the verge of signing a contract, for a multimillion-dollar sum, when a friend called Shalizi and said the president of that label had been mocking Marshmello for being “a guy with a bucket on his head” — which made Shalizi angry enough to pull entirely out of the deal. Since then, the team has operated without assistance, save for the advice of music business lawyer Josh Binder.
Their first single deal was with RCA for the Khalid record. “We came in and said, ‘We’re not signed. We’re independent, but we want to be a partner and this is how we’re gonna structure our deals,” Shalizi says. After that track’s success, they decided to mirror every record release that followed after that one. “We had the leverage, and the labels had what they wanted, which was the market share and a featured artist,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that The Shalizi Group keeps snatching up veteran music executives, providing artists with major-label consulting without the restrictions: CFO Hildi Snodgrass, for example, came aboard after 15 years at Warner Records, and Shalizi’s head of digital Kazy Brown came from Warner too.
At core, Shalizi believes deeply in the necessity of genuine emotional connection between artists and fans. “There are so many artists. Isn’t the metric something like, 50,000 new songs get uploaded to Spotify every day?” Shalizi says. “I ask myself: If the artist doesn’t have substance — if you can’t relate to them — why do I need to follow this person? Especially in the era of playlisting, it’s harder to become a fan of someone when you’re a fan of a playlist that just has good music. Why do I want to listen to a specific artist if I can just listen to a playlist that has all the best songs by all these different people in the genre that I like that’s curated for me? Everything we’ve done has been organic. You can’t fool culture. You can’t fool people. They can sense when it’s not authentic.”