A storybook breakthrough year in music goes something like this: Streaming numbers explode, a fan base grows and a world tour commences. But this year was less of a storybook and more of a Webster-length chapter book written in invisible ink and set on fire. It was impossible to get a read on, seemingly never-ending, and burned a lot of us while we were just trying our best. Still, for a handful of young musicians, some chapters had more than just doom and gloom.
For Jelani Aryeh, a year destined for passport filling and festival hopping became a pit-stop for family.
For glaive, a trip to the mall and an initial taste of recognition even with a facemask on became a realization of an after-school hobby becoming a career.
And for BENEE, a perfectly timed single became the companionless anthem for a year spent indoors.
Beabadoobee, Jenevieve, BENEE, Jelani Aryeh, and glaive—like all of us—entered 2020 unable to anticipate the schedule-destructing pandemic that would interrupt their everyday lives. And as the world became dimmer, they couldn’t have predicted how bright their futures would end up looking throughout it all.
Now, as they reflect on their last 12 months, whether they were spent remotely schooling while they watched their music take flight online, touring New Zealand where COVID cases are at a record zero, or quarantining with their significant others as they put out one of the year’s most critically acclaimed debuts, one thing remains true: blowing up in 2020, like doing literally anything else cool in 2020, was bittersweet. And bittersweet or not, all five artists are still celebrating what they can of the most unconventional breakthrough year in the history of modern music. Spotify provided some data highlights and we spoke to each artist to hear how they coped.
The most unique case of newfound fame came for alt-pop star BENEE, aka 20-year-old Stella Rose Bennett, who entered the year with big plans to tour North America and beyond. She started 2020 promoting sold-out gigs lined up in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and pushed all to bigger venues in February due to demand. But the shows never happened.
“I was sad at the start of the year,” BENEE says. “And then I was like, ‘People are losing their jobs.’ I guess I was like, ‘Just be happy you can still write and record anything.’ We’ve been able to work around things. We’ve been able to do the late night shows. Luckily, we've been going in and out of lockdown. Maybe I've missed out on some stuff, but I can do it another year. And, you know, hopefully people won't forget about me.”
Forgetting about BENEE in 2021 would be near impossible after the imprint she’s left in pop music since March. The New Zelander’s November 2019 track “Supalonely,” which snowballed into one of the year’s defining musical moments as the world locked itself away in its supa-loneliest state, has earned over 478 million Spotify streams at the time of publication. She’s gone from 3 million monthly Spotify listeners in a year to, just recently, 11 million. And BENEE remembers the feeling when TikTok first did its thing to her Gus Dapperton-featuring breakout smash.
“I came back from this music festival and that was when we went into our first lockdown,” the New Zealander says. “I was getting sent the TikTok things. That’s when I [started] comparing followers from a couple months before, and I was like ‘Whoa.’ Unless you’re looking at it and someone’s showing you, you don’t really realize how much you’ve grown.”
That “whoa” moment in March led to a year of firsts: performances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Late Show, and The Tonight Show, 105,000 Spotify followers on March 1 soon becoming 516,000 on Dec. 1 (a 391% growth), several award show nods from MTV and elsewhere and even a string of big-time arena concerts in New Zealand as her home country got it together before the rest of us. And now, she’s got a debut record, Hey u x, to her name.
But while BENEE entered 2020 with some steam from previous years already, 15-year-old Ash Gutierrez used the tools he had access to in quarantine to start from scratch. The now-rising North Carolina newcomer, who goes by stage name glaive, admits he initially saw music as something “cool to do” at the start of quarantine to pass time in between gaming sessions. The infectiously chipper highschool sophomore had no intention to amass 287,000 monthly Spotify listeners after starting the year with just one (a 28,700,000% increase). Truthfully, he feels like it only started taking off a few days ago.
“It was when one of my first songs hit a million streams on Spotify,” glaive says. “[And] when I got recognized for the first time outside, I was at the mall. These three girls were pointing at me. I was like, ‘Am I doing something dumb or something?’ And then they came up to me. It’s surreal. It’s like, you don’t ever expect that to be you.”
But it is him. And, yes, even when he was wearing a mask he wasn’t confused for his doppelgänger Finn Wolfhard, either. Interestingly enough though, his day-to-day hasn’t changed too much as attention builds during quarantine and his November release cypress grove reaches new listeners. He either works on music or plays video games after school to keep himself happy, not the normal schedule for a 15-year-old pop star on the rise.
“Just being with your thoughts a lot more than I'd say a lot of people are used to, it's very easy to fall into being sad or being pensive, or loads of different negative things,” glaive says. “But I've just been trying to be like, I have this great opportunity. People enjoy listening to stuff that I put out. And I just have the best opportunity in the world.”
San Diego’s Jelani Aryeh, another young breakout star who ran with the scenarios 2020 presented to him, feels similarly. The 20-year-old indie up-and-comer, whose April single “Stella Brown” recently broke 10 million Spotify streams, was looking forward to filling up his passport in 2020—so much so that he expected to have little time to spend with his family. But, as it would turn out, this year kept him closer to his support system as he watched his numbers stack up online.
“That’s something I wasn’t expecting,” Aryeh says. “I was expecting to leave the house at the top of the year. But I got to spend a lot of time with my family and have these deep discussions that I didn’t think we’d have.”
Aryeh’s steady momentum began in 2017 and continued into the tail end of 2019 with the release of his Helvetica project. But he noticed things changing once he put out “Stella Brown,” his first and only single of 2020. He began racking up streams at an exponential rate and saw 15.8 million listens across platforms to end this year.
“I was definitely able to see it,” Aryeh says. “I think through people sending videos of listening to the songs and making TikToks. You could see the weight and the feeling the song had on the people. Just the fact that we got to 10 million streams—even before the year ended—is mind-blowing to me.”
Probably one of the biggest musical breakthroughs from the anti-storybook year came from 20-year-old British indie rockstar Beatrice Laus. Beabadoobee, from the 14 million Spotify streams on her mid-October debut Fake It Flowers to seeing her name on over 20 million user-generated playlists, ascended to otherworldly levels while quarantining with her boyfriend this year. But even without a tour and while many creative plans for Fake It Flowers had to be retooled, Bea shined in 2020, partly thanks to those in her corner.
“One thing I took away from this year was to stick to the people whom I love and appreciate the people around me. I know they’re always there to talk,” Bea says. “Because of tour and being away often, I guess it made me forget about those relationships or abandon them in a sense. Every time I felt like shit or didn’t know who to talk to, I had people around me to talk to.”
Bea’s 2020 first reached astronomical proportions as Powfu’s “death bed (coffee for your head),” which features Bea’s 2017 single “Coffee,” monopolized TikTok in the year’s first quarter. The track has since broken 800 million Spotify streams.
“At one point it felt untrue and dishonest for some reason, which I think was quite stupid,” Bea says. “And that was just me being stubborn. But at the end of the day, that song has blessed me with so many opportunities. And despite [some people] only knowing ‘death bed,’ they all got that one notification [from Spotify Marquee] when my album came out, an album that I really care about.”
Bea now admits that she’s still learning to understand the gravity of what 2020 has meant for her career. But, in a sense, she says its good that she doesn’t “actually know what the fuck is going on.”
“Tours and performing and having fun with my band distracted me from the extent of how big everything was getting really quickly,” Bea says. “What distracted me this year was that it was a pandemic and I was so concentrated on this album. I’m so appreciative and grateful for everything that’s happened. But I'm also really thankful that I don’t actually, to a detailed extent, feel pressure, if that makes sense.”
Also watching her climb unfold is Miami R&B singer Jenevieve, whose rise this year was powered by her two singles “Baby Powder” and “Medallion,” which are nearing 9 million streams collectively. And while March’s “Baby Powder” is sitting at nearly 7.5 million itself, some love from K-pop supergroup BLACKPINK and another 216,000 fan-made playlists have shown her reach is only growing.
Entering 2021 with her story already unfolding at the pace it is, Jenevive has a single goal: she wants the world to feel good again. “I just want everything to feel good again,” Jenevieve says. “Make people feel good, feel positive. My mindset is definitely to go into 2021 and embrace everything that comes my way.”
Bea, too, is looking forward to what a new year has to offer after the at-home success of her 2020 and Fake It Flowers. “I'm ready mentally,” Bea says of touring. “I needed to be stuck at home with myself and my brain and my thoughts. So I can be okay.”
There are still plenty of firsts BENEE, Bea, and the year’s rising stars have been deprived of while watching their fan bases grow from their couch cushions—or in BENEE’s rare New Zealand case, arena stages. But whatever happens in the next 12 months for these acts, one thing is for certain: 2020 was punishing for so many reasons, but it never prevented artists from creating or fans from discovering. Roughly 60,000 artists reached a milestone 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify this year alone. Of them, 6,500 artists dropped their first music on Spotify in 2020—an increase of 180% from last year. While this would be a reason to celebrate during any year, these artists have successfully navigated the most bizarre breakthrough year in the industry’s history.
“I think the hype for this year was insane and it shows you how quickly things can go from what you thought they would be to the complete opposite,” BENEE says. “I don't want to get my hopes too high. I have no idea what I'm gonna be doing next year. And I feel like it's just important to keep going and keep yourself happy.”