The branding of a band
Masterful marketing and undeniable talent have turned New Hollow, three teenagers from New Albany, into one of the hottest pop groups in the country.
New Hollow, from left: Mick Clouse, Chad Blashford and Evan West.
Michael A. Foley/MAF Photography
The three wide-eyed teenagers slowly make their way through the interior of Cowboys Stadium with a hint of hesitation and a sense of bewilderment. Instruments in hand, the boys gradually head toward a tunnel, the roar of tens of thousands of football fans growing stronger.
Stepping onto the field, where the Dallas Cowboys are about to play the New Orleans Saints, they amble past the Dallas cheerleaders, who offer smiles while ruffling their blue-and-white pompoms. The trio climbs a few steps onto a makeshift stage, in front of three microphone stands.
And there they are, face to face with 94,000 spectators, not to mention the millions of viewers at home on this Thanksgiving Day.
The announcer’s voice suddenly comes over the PA. “Performing today’s national anthem, Billboard’s chart-topping recording artists and new teen rock sensation, New Hollow. . . .”
The tallest teen begins strumming his acoustic guitar. The curly-haired one quickly joins in with a light guitar melody of his own and the blond boy between them starts to roll on his snare drum. The two guitarists break into a soft vocal harmony of “O say can you see,” altering their pitches with surprising precision.
By “the home of the brave,” the crowd lets out a boom of approval. Following the anthem, many viewers likely were left wondering, “Who are these boys?”
Jenny Anderson vividly remembers seeing the performance on TV. She’d hired New Hollow—at the time called Monkee Hollow—to play her son’s ninth birthday party in the backyard of her New Albany home only a year earlier. “I was a little freaked out,” says Anderson, a wellness dietitian for Ohio State. “It gave me goose bumps.”
Indeed, it’s been a whirlwind for the guys, as well. Made up of Evan West, Mick Clouse (both 16) and Chad Blashford (15), New Hollow’s emergence on the pop music scene hardly can be called a rise. More like a catapult. In less than a year, the New Albany trio has gone from playing bat mitzvahs and block parties to singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that Cowboys game, performing at Gov. John Kasich’s inauguration, appearing in TV ads, gracing pop magazine covers, serving as the face for a major clothing label and selling more CD singles than any other artist last year and, so far, this year as well.
And, perhaps most interestingly, they’ve done this with no radio play. (Imagine a film that’s never shown in theaters winning a Teen Choice Award.) Mere months after playing their first major gig, the boys appear to be zooming down a trail previously blazed by the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber—kids plucked from obscurity and transformed into pop sensations.
So, how have three fresh-faced high schoolers accomplished in under a year what more established groups struggle to attain in a decade? The answer is a combination of masterful marketing and branding—behind which, however, lies undeniable talent.
It was this same talent that stopped Leslie Armour several months earlier in the parking lot of New Albany-based Tween Brands, which operates the roughly 900 North American locations of Justice, the clothing label specializing in apparel aimed at pre-teen girls, also known as tweens. She’d been handed a demo CD and, after leaving the office, Armour played it in her car, only to immediately hit the brakes. “I walked back into the building,” she says, “went to my colleague and said, ‘Where did you get this?’ ”
The first few songs were good, she says. The next was OK, but the fourth was “SiCK,” which would become New Hollow’s breakout single.
Armour, president of Youth Marketing Group, is a branding consultant for Justice, using her extensive network to find emerging musical talent. (She’s previously consulted with Bieber and the Jonas Brothers.) She’s more than a publicist. Her job is to seek out and launch bands by attaching them to her clients and vice versa—in this case, to make Justice clothing and New Hollow synonymous.
Meanwhile, for the young rockers, this discovery has turned their once-average lives upside down.
It all started with the New Albany Classic. The boys had attended the charity equine event Les and Abigail Wexner host each year on the grounds of their New Albany estate, and they’d seen the bands performing there. It got them thinking: How cool would it be if that were us playing in front of our friends?
Originally made up of next door neighbors West (vocals, bass and keyboard) and Clouse (vocals and guitar), the duo had named themselves Monkee Hollow after a street sign they’d seen in Sunbury. Clouse then recruited Blashford and taught him to play the drums. They changed their name to New Hollow and recorded a demo in Clouse’s basement—their ticket, or so they hoped, to earn a booking at the New Albany Classic.
As chance would have it, the father of one of Blashford’s friends is Scott Bracale, the president of Tween Brands Agency, one of the two divisions of Tween Brands. The demo was given to him and subsequently passed on to Armour. After that first listen in the parking lot, she arranged with Clouse’s father, Michael Clouse Sr., to meet the boys.
At first, the encounter played out exactly as Armour had expected. The boys “looked like any other average boys . . . they didn’t look like rock stars,” she says. “They looked like boys that were playing Xbox five minutes ago.” That is, until she heard them play.
Instead of choosing a contemporary pop hit, they selected the powerful ballad “Hallelujah,” originally performed by Leonard Cohen in 1985. (Clouse Sr., who used to be in the recording industry, worked closely with singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley, who famously adapted Cohen’s song before his death in 1997.) As they began singing, Armour says she witnessed a transformation. “Evan,” she recalls, “his face, the passion in which he sang that song was beyond mature. You could see it in his eyes. Mick delivered it like a rock star, and I’m like, ‘What happened to the Xbox kids from five minutes ago?’ ”
“It is like that nirvana moment,” Armour adds. She would discover that they write their own songs and compose the instrumentation. They told her they think of their music as being similar to Taylor Swift’s, but from a guy’s perspective—full of heartwrenching high school angst.
After leaving that day, Armour knew she’d stumbled upon something special. What followed were a number of meetings, both with the boys and their families, in which she discussed the rigors required to walk the path she was prepared to offer them. They would need to drop out of New Albany High School, say goodbye to their friends and commit wholly to the band. Was this still something they wanted?
The answer was a resounding yes.
And the boys got their wish. Armour helped get New Hollow booked at the 2010 New Albany Classic.
Armour remembers the day before the event when they had a dreadful sound check. “I wasn’t sure if it was a case of the nerves or what,” she says, though she admits those nerves got to her, too, as she started to question whether she’d put her support behind the wrong band. The next day, as if different kids entirely, “The boys went out there and they killed it,” she says.
Asked later about the performance, the band mates shake their heads in disbelief.
“It was like a dream,” West says. “Because when you wake up from it, you don’t remember that you were there.”
“Kind of like Inception,” says Blashford with a smile full of braces.
That was in late September. On Nov. 1, New Hollow debuted its single, “SiCK,” for which West and Clouse channeled high school hormones into a catchy tune about unrequited love. “Mick and I kind of wrote this song, and it was about liking a girl so much and it drives you crazy, cuz she doesn’t really know you exist,” West says. “And it’s kind of hard to tell her how you feel.” (Though they sing about romance, they acknowledge it would be almost impossible to date or have girlfriends amid their schedules.)
The song peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and sold roughly 28,000 physical copies in the first week alone. Later, it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s 2010 Hot Singles Sales chart. In the two months that “SiCK” was available in 2010 (November and December), Justice sold roughly 134,000 physical copies of it, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which measures music sales. By comparison, last year’s No. 2 CD single, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” sold 56,000 copies and was released in May, a full six months before “SiCK.” (It should be noted that music downloads have become the norm, however. “California Gurls,” for instance, was downloaded nearly 4.4 million times last year, far overshadowing “SiCK.”)
Immediately following the release of “SiCK” came a Midwestern tour of Justice stores, with concerts and meet-and-greets, and on Thanksgiving it was the Dallas game (Charlotte Jones Anderson, 44, the daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, had heard them and issued an invitation).
So, how does a band that doesn’t get played on the radio manage to gain so much popularity? Armour credits their raw talent, but also cites the power of the Justice brand. According to the NPD Group, a global consumer research company, Justice trails only Wal-Mart in apparel sales to girls ages 7 to 12. “And we’re gaining on them very rapidly,” says Bracale of Tween Brands. Per 2010 U.S. Census data, roughly 12 million girls make up that age range in the United States. Justice, meanwhile, boasts 10 million girls in its database. “That’s a lot of girls,” adds Armour. “And those girls have sisters. And they have brothers.”
Placing the boys’ faces and the band’s logo throughout the stores, in music videos shown on TVs there, on clothing, on the retailer’s website or in its catalogs, the reach of the New Hollow brand broadens. “We utilize everything that Justice has to try to launch bands and brands,” Armour says. “It’s a model that works absolutely beautifully.”
But that’s only part of the plan. “We can get bands noticed,” says Bracale, “but at the end of the day, they have to be talented or kids will reject the music.” It’s an experiment, he adds, that’s reaped crystal clear results. “According to Billboard, [New Hollow] sold more physical CDs than any band last year, and they’re only available in our stores,” Bracale says. “Customers are voting with their dollars, and that is the strongest sign of the appeal these kids have.”
“We think they’re going to be very successful,” he adds.
Despite the adult world they’ve been thrust into, the boys have clung to their youthful spirit, which was on full display at an early May photo shoot downtown. At one point, between shots, Clouse claps his hands hard on West’s chest and back, momentarily knocking the wind out of his band mate. Clouse Sr. laughs. “They roll all over each other like puppies,” he says.
Last year, Clouse Sr. ended his four-year tenure as an assistant basketball coach at Northland High School, where he served under Satch Sullinger, the father to Ohio State star Jared Sullinger. He has since become the unofficial road and equipment manager for his son’s band, accompanying them on their various outings and appearances. “It’s not my career, it’s theirs,” says Clouse Sr. “The most important thing is, ‘Is this what you want to do and are you having fun doing it?’ ” (As a tribute to Clouse Sr.’s late friend, Buckley, the boys filmed a video of their adaptation of “Hallelujah,” which they released last fall. It’s since gotten more than 100,000 views on YouTube.)
During the shoot, Armour constantly makes adjustments—fluffing hair and straightening necklaces and such. It doesn’t seem to faze the young rockers, though. “He wouldn’t do it,” Clouse says, “but if Chad wanted to call her to take him to like McDonald’s or something, she probably would.” Armour chimes in that, of course, she would, although it wouldn’t be to McDonald’s. Aside from regularly working out with a trainer, the boys are on a strict diet (meats, oats, fresh fruits, vegetables and a regimen of supplements). “There are long days and it’s strenuous,” Armour says. “And so we want to make sure that we fuel them the right way.”
Indeed, the changes have been many for the boys, including a complete wardrobe overhaul and dropping out of high school to devote themselves to their music. The three agree the biggest sacrifice has been the lack of social interaction with their friends and former classmates. They still can talk on the phone with their buddies and hang out with them occasionally, but it’s a part of their lives that has been firmly set aside.
Since dropping out of New Albany, the boys have enrolled at ECOT, an online school designed for students who “for whatever reason can’t fit into the traditional education system,” says spokesman Nick Wilson. (West and Clouse are juniors and Blashford a sophomore.) He worked with the boys to film a TV ad for the Columbus-based public charter, which launched in 2000 and has a current enrollment of roughly 12,000 students in Ohio. ECOT, short for Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, enables the boys to work around their hectic schedules and do schoolwork online.
Aside from giving them more time to focus on their music, limiting their social lives also is a precaution to protect their image. “Their friends are lovely and supportive,” Armour says. “But things happen, and what’s OK happening for high schoolers is not OK for someone trying to have a music career.” As Armour well knows, tabloid headlines are far more negative than positive. In one particular instance last fall, the boys were photographed by a stranger after leaving a New Albany Starbucks. The photo turned up on their Facebook page with the threatening caption, “TMZ.com.” It was a sobering, albeit innocuous, reminder of the fragility of their good reputation—and of those random individuals out to sully it for financial gain.
In spite of everything that’s happened within the past year, it seems the boys have not let the spotlight get to their heads. No hint of enlarged egos is apparent, nor entitlement. “The one thing they don’t have—and I hope they never get—is the bad attitude,” Clouse Sr. says.
“What struck me about them is that they’re just really nice kids,” says Anderson, who’d booked them for her son’s birthday party in 2009, before any hint of fame. “They were great with the little kids, and there were little girls asking for their autographs.”
Now that they’re topping charts and receiving autograph requests from girls their own age, it appears little has changed. “They were great to work with,” Wilson at ECOT recalls of their time filming the online school’s TV spot. “They came in and were extremely polite to everyone, introduced themselves to every single person in the room.”
“These are the nicest kids,” Clouse Sr. says. “Credit their mothers.”
Their personalities did not go unnoticed by Armour, whose vetting of the young musicians was a critical stepping stone to where they are now. “We’re very careful about what we put in front of girls and moms,” she says on behalf of Justice. “If we pick wrong, we could lose trust.”
Back at the photo shoot, the trio is embroiled in a discussion about the best videogames. Asked where they’re the happiest—onstage or in the basement playing Xbox—West and Clouse say it’s the former, while Blashford replies, “Playing Xbox. You just can’t beat that.”
As part of the shoot, the boys launch into jams by Green Day, Blink-182 and 30 Seconds to Mars, in addition to their own material. They credit their early inspiration to—among numerous others—Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who died only months before West and Clouse were born in 1994. The influence is evident in the opening guitar riff of their second single, “Boyfriend,” which evokes the grunge group’s ’91 hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” before breaking into a poppy teen love ballad. (“Boyfriend,” which was released in January, also made an appearance on Billboard’s Hot 100 list, peaking at No. 96.)
Earlier this spring, New Hollow was on the cover of Popstar! Magazine, included in which was an oversized poster of the band. In late May, they released a video for their rendition of the 2010 hit “Airplanes,” by hip-hopper B.o.B. with rock singer Hayley Williams; it was an opportunity for Blashford, the drummer, to show off his adeptness at rapping. As of early June, New Hollow has sold nearly 300,000 CDs, each with bonus material, such as behind-the-scenes videos, interviews and bloopers. (They’re available only at Justice stores.)
This summer, the boys began a two-month nationwide tour, which kicked off in late June, with early stops throughout the Midwest and a performance at the Ohio State Fair on Aug. 3. They’re working on a full-length album, which they hope to release within the year, and they’re starting to entertain the idea of signing with a record label, but haven’t yet committed. While all three plan to attend college, for now the plan is simple. “We just want to play music, really,” West says.
Clouse agrees. “Yeah, and have people hear it.”
Ben Zenitsky is an assistant editor for Columbus Monthly.