Last week, a young R&B singer named Daniel Caesar received his first gold plaque. “Get You,” a smooth piece of classicism featuring Kali Uchis, got what it deserved. It’s a song that feels on first listen like you’ve heard it before, a four-and-a-half minute swooning session dependent only on languid guitars and, more importantly Caesar’s star turn of a vocal performance. Still, as good as the song is, going gold is a marked achievement for an artist as early in his career as Caesar—he’s just released his full-length debut, Freudian, after two EPs and a handful of loose tracks—made more impressive by the fact that Caesar is still independent.
Turning unsigned hype into unsigned success is becoming more commonplace in the streaming economy. The barriers to success are coming down, and the pool of parties able to help an artist find an audience is growing. In Daniel Caesar’s case, he received notable support from Apple Music. In a statement provided to Complex, he thanked the platform and described its support as “life changing.” In turn, Apple described Caesar as "a part of the Apple Music family from the very beginning."
Apple Music premiered “Get You” on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show, then immediately began adding it to its playlists. In August, it increased the support, profiling Caesar in its “Up Next” series. By the time the song went gold last week, Apple claimed 56 percent of the U.S. market share in “Get You,” a song that’s hit 50 million streams across platforms to date. The song’s success is an example of the power streaming services are accruing in breaking new artists, and highlights the strange new world that’s emerging between independence and platform-specific largesse.
“There's this weird concept of industry plants that everyone talks about,” said Carl Chery, Apple Music’s Head of Artist Curation, “When people start getting success, [it becomes] ‘Oh, he's a plant,’ or whatever.” In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Chery took umbrage at the idea that his picks on Apple’s platform are a part of some sort of industry-initiated conspiracy. “The stuff I've done with Daniel, with 6lack, with Sabrina [Claudio], with Khalid —if I pick the wrong song, it doesn't work.” Chery has a growing stable of artists he’s promoted on the platform, including Bryson Tiller, that he jokingly calls “The Club.” “I can do the same thing I've done for all these artists for another person, but if I pick wrong, it's not gonna go anywhere. It's never gonna chart. It's gonna get skipped. The listeners are too smart.”
Chery describes his role as simply finding the songs that feel right to him, and putting them in front of as many people as he can. In the case of Daniel Caesar’s “Get You,” which he heard before its release, it was pure gut instinct. “The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Wait, wait. This is different. This is notches above anything Daniel has done so far. It's next level.’”
Soon, Chery had convinced Caesar’s team to let him premiere the song on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show. Chery was launching a new segment on the show—called “#TheCosign”—spotlighting his own selections, and he wanted a big premiere for the inaugural episode. “Get You” would be that song. “I hate how people prematurely call things 'classic,'” Chery said. “But the first time I heard it, I was like, ‘OK, this song has a shot at becoming a classic.’”
Choosing “Get You” for a major look, no matter how immediately it hit, came with its risks, according to Chery. For one, Caesar wasn’t a known quantity, and his last EP, Pilgrim's Paradise, had received a programming push on Apple Music, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. “Get You” would have to be different.
Moreover, since Apple Music has launched it’s been assigned some responsibility for the ballooning of a few young artist’s careers. The most notable of those, Bryson Tiller and 6lack (pronounced Black), are cut from similar cloth: aggressively trendy and dark, their music straddles the gap between hip-hop and R&B, and sounds tailor-made for mid-2010s internet success. Daniel Caesar, who favors organic instruments and his clear, unprocessed vocals, is a departure from whatever Apple Music Sound Chery was cultivating, intentionally or not.
“With the other artists that I really championed heavily, like Bryson Tiller and 6lack, they had a particular sound, a sound that kind of fit what's happening right now,” said Chery. “With Daniel it was more of, like, a throwback, with a modern twist. So as much as I loved the song, I had some—I don't want to say concerns, but I was like, ‘I love it. Is this gonna work?’”
Of course, it’s worked so far. “Within 24 hours, there was traction,” said Chery. “It took off fast, and then the interesting thing, after a few weeks, all this stuff that wasn't charting before, Pilgrim's Paradise and everything? It started charting. They started searching for the old stuff, and the Pilgrim's Paradise EP has now been charting since 'Get You' started charting.” That’s an expected response when someone like, say, Kendrick Lamar releases new music, who saw a bump in streams for his first three albums when he dropped this year’s blockbuster Damn. But, Chery says, for an unknown artist like Daniel Caesar, “This was the first time I've seen it with someone at that stage.”
Now, Caesar has his first hit single, and the streaming counts continue to rise. But it’s what Apple Music did after premiering his song that cemented the success. “It was my number one priority on the R&B side, for the past year,” said Chery. “That means week to week to week to week, it was always in the playlist—prominently featured on the playlist, to make sure we keep the traction.”
The playlists Chery highlights as crucial to Caesar’s success are the ones you would expect. First, there’s “A-List: R&B,” which, as the name suggests, is Apple Music’s playlist for people that want to listen to the best new R&B. Then there’s “Mood.,” another playlist aimed at R&B fans, but more heavily curated towards younger, trendier artists (it currently features SZA, dvsn, Kehlani, Brent Faiyaz, and, of course, Daniel Caesar). And, finally, “#OnRepeat,” which is primarily a hip-hop playlist (currently leading off with Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar,” alongside Kodak Black, Dreezy, and Lil Xan), but Chery will use it as a proving ground for potential crossover R&B songs.
“When I'm playlisting something, you're giving the artist visibility, making sure it gets in front of the audience. But if you—let's say I was to stop playlisting a song too early, it might lose traction,” said Chery. “At some point, because 'Get You' was doing great, I was like, ‘I'm gonna start focusing on ’Japanese Denim’ [another Caesar single] a little bit. But then I noticed that 'Get You' dropped off a little bit.”
Apple Music’s strategy here is a balancing act, dictated by Chery’s taste. If a song is playlisted, on Apple Music or any other streaming service, there’s presumably enough of a built-in audience to guarantee success. If you take away that audience, its numbers suffer. However, Chery maintains that there is an inflection point he’s noticed, and once a song crosses a threshold of popularity, he’s no longer as necessary to the process of making that song a success.
“[‘Get You’] just got so much momentum that it was moving on its own, meaning the song reached a point where the playlisting was still helping it, but me moving it up and down wasn't even affecting how much traction it was getting,” said Chery, who noted that this is a pattern he’s been paying attention to (and tweaking) since he first began pushing Bryson Tiller, close to the launch of Apple Music. “It's one thing to make it chart, but you can make it chart and then within the next week, it just drops,” he said. “For me, when it stands on its own, it means it's sticking, it's working. We're not force-feeding the audience. It's like OK, they want it.”