The surprising and left-field success story now being written by Regina-based bluegrass combo The Dead South is a testimony to the power of a viral music video.
“In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company” is a track the band released three years ago, on their album Good Company. An eye-catching and smile-inducing video for the cut has grabbed eyeballs around the globe at a simply astonishing rate, and its ride ain’t over yet.
YouTube views are now nudging 11 million, and band manager Brian Hetherman explains that “we’re still getting a million more views per week. I don’t think getting 20 million views is out of the question. Look, it’s a bluegrass band, no-one in a million years ever thought that you could get a bluegrass band to this level.”
Hetherman’s management company, Cerberus, handles the group, and The Dead South’s albums are released by his Toronto-based independent label Curve Music. To get a better fix on their fascinating saga, FYI sat down for a chat with the industry veteran last week.
He recalls his first encounter with the band as being “in Hamburg, oddly enough. I was there for the Reeperbahn festival three years ago. I was hanging out with sadly the now late Derek Bachman, then executive director of SaskMusic. He said ‘you have to see these guys, they’re unreal.' I went to the show in a small club, and it was so full I couldn’t get into the room. I had to watch from the open door outside, peeking in.”
"I was blown away. It’s a bluegrass band, so you don’t see millions of dollars flashing in front of you, but I thought 'this is incredible. This will do well cos it is so unique and captivating it is going to grab people's attention,' and it did. Derek and I and the band had breakfast the next morning and I’ve been working with them ever since.”
Operating in a completely DYI fashion, The Dead South had already made a mark in roots music circles, including scoring a record deal in Germany with the Devil Duck Record label. Teaming up with the industry-savvy Hetherman has helped bring them to a whole new level now.
“They were pretty organized guys with their own great little cottage industry going,” observes Hetherman. “They continue to live in that world, but I think the combination of that and me bringing the traditional music industry to what they are doing works well. I don’t mess with what they do and vice versa.”
A crucial component of their joint strategy has been to have the band play showcases at key industry conferences and festivals. “We can’t take credit for the 11milion YouTube hits, but the guys and I can take credit for being very strategic about playing the shows we do,” says Hetherman.”They play a lot, and we’ve been hitting events like Folk Alliance, America, South By Southwest, and BreakOut meeting key people like bookers.”
This all helped build a strong base from which to take advantage of the momentum generated by the surprise viral status of “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company.” Hetherman explains that the belated timing of the track and video catching fire “came from the fact that the video was shot in so many different locations. It took us four months to shoot, then extra months to edit, so it came out a year after the album came out.”
“The video built a lot of momentum last fall, so by Christmas we were at 500K. Then early this year through social media momentum Reddit picked up the video. That was huge, taking us to around 4 million, then a website and blog called MusicCrowns took it as a featured video and that jumped it to 6 million.”
Hetherman recalls that "I knew we were onto something when at the Junos Dave Spencer who manages Sam Roberts came up to me and said 'my mother sent me that video, going 'have you seen this band?'"
The Dead South released a second full-length album, Illusion and Doubt, last November, but the success of “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company” and other videos taken from the Good Company album means the band has yet to release any clips to songs from the new album.
Hetherman says that will start this summer, in between the extensive international touring the group is now doing. An extensive 21 date tour of Germany runs from May 18 to June 10, followed by North American dates including appearances at such festivals as the Havelock Jamboree and Interstellar Rodeo in Winnipeg.
Further European touring will follow, and Japan and Australia will also be targeted.
Interest in the band’s music for film and TV placements is heating up, Hetherman reports. “We have an arrangement with Americana Music Publishing on that side. They brought the guys down to Nashville two weeks ago to play at The Bluebird in front of film and TV music supervisors, and the response was incredible.”
He notes that "we are getting lots of calls from US labels now," and an announcement on that front can be expected in the near future.
There have been some recent personnel changes in The Dead South Camp. Original banjo player Colton Crawford has been replaced by acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Eliza Mae Doyle, while Erik Mehlsen has been recruited as the cellist for touring. Original cello player Danny Kenyon remains a member.
While being kept very busy with The Dead South, Brian Hetherman also remains active as the Interim Manager of Music Ontario, a post he has held for 18 months. “My role there is to create professional development, networking and showcasing opportunities for Ontario bands and companies,” he explains.
“We seek to create unique programming for that, as well as piggybacking with many functioning Ontario events, such as CMW and CMAO.”
2017 marks the 15th anniversary of his label Curve Music, a milestone he takes pride in. “As an indie label, there have been days when you don’t know if you’ll be around next week, let alone 15 years. What freaks me out the most is that for so long I was identified as an MCA-Universal guy [he was Director of A&R for Universal Music Canada and MCA Music Publishing] My label is now older than the length of time I spent at Universal."
“It feels good being able to survive both changes in the music industry and in genre. We started out as a rock and punk label, with artists like Blue Skies At War, Holly McNarland, and Burnthe8track.
“That has evolved, and our Garth Hudson and the Band project rather shifted the tone for me at the label. With Lindsay Broughton and a few other acts, the label shifted to more of a country and roots direction, and I am more comfortable in that now.”
After distribution relationships with Universal and Sony, Curve is now distributed by eOne. “That has been for the past four years,” says Hetherman. “eOne has a great team and direction. They are really uniting their other territories in a way the majors can’t always do.”