The search for the new Billie is undoubtedly under way. But how will record labels attempt to replicate her success?
Last week, Billie Eilish released her masterfully mournful Bond theme, No Time to Die a huge swoop of a song that wants to bottle a feeling of timelessness. It ratchets up what has already been quite the year already for her, as last month she became the youngest person to win best record, best song and album of the year (as well as best new artist) at the Grammys.
The record business abhors a vacuum, so when it sees any sort of success happening it just wants to counterfeit more of the same. Hence the chart avalanche of glum boys in the mould of Sheeran and Capaldi who lack combs or ironing boards but make up for it with a lucrative line in the lachrymose. Likewise, the search for the new Billie Eilish is undoubtedly under way.
Yet her path to success, despite her youth, was a long one. Eilish was in stealth development since barely entering her teens, putting Ocean Eyes online in 2015 and signing to A&R hothouse Platoon (subsequently acquired by Apple), whose alumni also include Stefflon Don, Rex Orange County and Jorja Smith. She was swiftly signed by Interscope (part of Universal), and the huge machine around her was developing her as an album artist from the off, going against the prevailing streaming logic.
Her co-manager Danny Rukasin told Music Business Worldwide that, while playlists drive singles, albums can be put together in a specific way where, if you have the right artist and if its the right time, albums become a new playlist. Invariably, every rival label will want to do a Billie and post-rationalise her success, breaking it down into steps they think they can template.
There is plenty of help at hand. Companies such as Chartmetric can make sense of the tornado of data around acts in the digital age, slicing and dicing the numbers to try to predict not only who will break next, but also where. So where could the next Billie bubble up? Cover versions on YouTube and the ukuleleisation of pop now lie in a shallow grave of twee; SoundCloud has lost its urgency, the flat punchline when a tweet goes unexpectedly viral (I dont have a soundcloud to check out); and TikTok, for now, cant quite be brought to heel in a way the major labels would prefer, although that will likely soon change and it will be choked by contrived virality.
One would hope Billies boundless eclecticism and long gestation is the real template that labels, despite the ripe bouquet of money in their nostrils, follow. Let artists develop and make their missteps out of the spotlight so that when the moment comes, they gatecrash the mainstream and force everything to recalibrate around them. The other option the hothoused pop star is utterly unsustainable. But if we know anything about major-label pop, patience is all too rarely a virtue.