Similar to how fans discover artists, labels often stumble upon talent through something as simple as a TikTok or a TV show. Such was the case of SYML, an Indie/Alternative artist who was originally signed by Nettwerk Music Group due to his success in sync, but has since developed into a highly successful and multi-faceted artist.
To better understand the journey behind this story, we chatted with team members Ellen Gildersleeve (Sr. Marketing Director), Emma Bleakley (Director of Analytics), Nikki Fair (SVP of Digital Marketing), and Diana Buchert (Digital Account Manager) to discover their approach and strategy towards breaking sync artists beyond just the realm of TV and film.
Brian Fennell, also known as “SYML”, is an Indie/Alternative artist hailing from Issaquah, Washington. In 2016, his unreleased track “Where’s My Love” landed a life-changing sync placement on the hit TV drama “Teen Wolf” and fans immediately became obsessed with it. Once the song exploded, Fennell found himself in possession of one of the most popular indie anthems from the last decade, as well as an extremely promising career as a solo artist. Shortly after, Nettwerk Music Group caught wind of SYML’s budding success and signed him on as a sync artist, not realizing that it would snowball into one of the most exciting and inspiring projects the team had seen so far.
Developing a Marketing Strategy
From the beginning, building a strategy for an artist like SYML posed an interesting challenge for Nettwerk. Thanks to the sync success of "Where's My Love," Fennell was already seeing some sprouting success on streaming and digital platforms. On the other hand, he had no prior marketing or press to share who he was as an artist, so many fans didn't know the true story of SYML.
"That question has always been forefront in our minds, 'How do we make that connection?' He had a successful sync career, but his social numbers were still small, as were his streaming and follower numbers, but we knew we had someone who was very talented," Ellen Gildersleeve, Sr. Marketing Director at Nettwerk, told Chartmetric.
Translated to the word "simple" in Welsh, SYML's aesthetic as an artist emulates precisely that. Off the bat, early listeners of Fennell fell in love with his smooth guitar melodies, and it wasn't long before Nettwerk noticed how reactive these fans were to his music.
"Early on he would get comments like 'your song got me through a really bad breakup' or 'you've helped me through one of the darkest times of my life,' so we knew we had this core fanbase that was deeply connecting to his music but we had to find ways to build his following while also continuing to engage his fanbase," Gildersleeve said.
Determined to build out SYML's audience reach, the Nettwerk team took to online platforms like YouTube to garner a following. This tactic was primarily due to YouTube acting as the typical first point of discovery at that time, as fans would head online to search for a song once hearing it in a show or movie.
"Building out his YouTube was one of the first steps. Getting lots of content on there, especially live content, because he's a really great live performer, and we wanted people to see that. A lot of third-party channels like 'Indie Air' and 'Mr. Suicide Sheep' were also early champions of him. And those were amazing because they already had built-in subscriber bases, so we could see in the analytics that a lot of his referrals and channel subscribers were coming from those third-party playlists," Nikki Fair, SVP of Digital Marketing at Nettwerk, told Chartmetric.
"Chartmetric is great because we can see everything in one place for all of the socials, like where the fans are or if it's aligning the streams as well. We'd ask 'are the people listening on Spotify the same people that are becoming fans on Instagram, on YouTube, on TikTok, et cetera?' and we could see that they were, so there was actually a real connection forming there," she added.
Catering To Specific Audiences
Since the beginning stages of his career, SYML has managed to amass nearly 100M YouTube channel views and 288K subscribers thanks to early attention to the platform, as well as utilizing newer functions like YouTube shorts and Premieres. Several of his music videos were shot and filmed in some of his top markets to pay homage to territories that have shown him significant support. He also regularly shares instrumental tutorials of his songs, including language-specific renditions such as "Where's My Love (French Version)" to cater to his niche fanbases.
While Fennell continues to have great success on YouTube, he and the team have recently switched their strategy to include TikTok over the last few years. Due to the success of some of his most popular tracks, SYML was finding an audience on the platform before he even joined. "Where's My Love," in particular, became a prevalent sound on the app, getting picked up by a new, younger generation of listeners. As of today, SYML has gained nearly 500K TikTok likes in just three years.
"One thing that we've realized is that there are different kinds of segments of SYML's audience. So you've got the people from the beginning with Teen Wolf, who are the diehard fans engaging with all of his content. But then we also have found a niche set of fans that are really into his instrumental and piano music, and so we'll cater a specific marketing strategy towards them as well. And even then, since TikTok has become a bigger thing, we've also had a couple of moments where we've seen a new generation of fans come from that platform," Emma Bleakley, Director of Analytics at Nettwerk, told Chartmetric.
With viral moments bubbling up on TikTok every few months for SYML, Nettwerk explained that their strategy on the platform has been both strategic and naturally organic. The team will often lean into the bumps that come out of nowhere, such as aesthetic hikes through the forest or edits for the TV show Ginny and Georgia, while also tailoring to larger platform trends as well. In 2023, for example, SYML released a "Where's My Love - Sped Up" version and a "Where's My Love - Slowed" version, tailoring to the #nightcore and #slowedandreverb styles that have been driving the resurgence of catalog music.
Though SYML's paralleled success on TikTok and YouTube has undoubtedly been a feat, it also posed an exciting challenge to the marketing team regarding contrasting age demographics from platform to platform.
"I think there's a nuanced strategy with an artist like this. SYML now has a really dedicated fanbase, so it's a two-pronged approach because we really want to super serve his existing fans that have been with him since the beginning. You’ve got that lane where we're trying to serve the fans that have a more direct connection while also doing things on TikTok for example, where you can pick up new fanbases, lean into it with the music, and reach out to creators that are doing influencer campaigns." Nikki Fair explained.
Still, SYML and Nettwerk have found the recurring theme to SYML's cross-platform success to be simple: being authentic as an artist.
"At the end of the day, the kinds of content we want showcase SYML as an artist and as a performer. That's what he's comfortable with, so the content we're putting through is just him. Whether he's belting out a solo or just playing an instrument, you really just have to to try to meet fans where they are, so it really does help to have a presence across as many platforms as possible without feeling burnt out," Fair continued.
Release Strategy and Collaborations
Once Fennell discovered that super-serving fans with personal connections worked best on digital platforms, it made sense that his release strategy would follow suit. Whether it's different versions of "Where's My Love" or new tracks altogether, maintaining a constant release cycle has helped SYML's audience stay engaged and kept fans looking forward to new music.
"It's interesting, in this past year we've been in this new album cadence and releasing singles steadily, leading into The Day My Father Died album release in early February. But, along the way we didn't want to ignore his evergreen tracks that still really move the needle. So, even though we were in a “new” album cycle, we still capitalized on catalog when those moments bubbled up on TikTok, like with the sped up version of 'Where's My Love,'" added Fair.
Nettwerk has also strategized using collaborators to pour fuel on the fire, both on releases with fellow musicians and through the use of social media influencers.
"We've reached out to some of those creators to see if we could help boost things along, recognizing that it was just going to help build his profile and discovery for SYML overall. The great thing about it is that Brian allows us to do that, and he knows that those strategies will bring new fans. Some artists would say, 'I'm releasing new music now. I don't want to lean into past stuff,' but he's very much been game to help out with that and create more content around it," added Nikki Fair.
"We also made strategic decisions with some releases by collaborating in order to reach a wider audience. For instance, we brought in Guy Garvey from Elbow as a collaborator on "Lost Myself," a single from the new album. This afforded us an opportunity to reach more of the UK market because Garvey has a large UK fanbase and we wanted to broaden SYML's fanbase in that market." Ellen Gildersleeve explained.
SYML's latest album, The Day My Father Died, was released on February 3rd, 2023. Several tracks, such as "Believer" and "You and I," are already on their way to becoming some of the highest streamed songs the team has seen so far, crossing over 1K Spotify playlist adds just days after their release. Having just begun the European leg of his latest tour, Fennell and the Nettwerk team are also excited to bring SYML to the fans that have been with him since the beginning.
“Brian’s incredible live performance has always been something for us to market around. He releases songs that his fans connect to on such a deep level and then when they go see him at a live show, they can see how authentic he is by the way he engages with them. At the end of the day, that’s what every fan wants….to feel like they are part of something." Ellen Gildersleeve concluded.