After his song "Cold Little Heart" earned a prominent spot on HBO's new Big Little Lies, Michael Kiwanuka saw a massive jump in his music's popularity. Here he discusses how TV placement can help artists whose music may not fit with traditional radio, and the important relationship between a well chosen song and the show/film which is supports.
Guest post by Emily Blake of Next Big Sound
Six or seven months ago, soul singer Michael Kiwanuka got an email from his manager about a request to use his song “Cold Little Heart” on a HBO miniseries called Big Little Lies, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarskård.
“At the time, I assumed it was a small part in a scene,” Kiwanuka said last week. His manager, Robert Swerdlow of Starwood Management, added that it isn’t all that uncommon to get requests like this and for the song to not even make the final cut. Kiwanuka didn’t think it would be all that different from other requests he’d received for songs off his 2016 album Love & Hate. (Both “Black Man in a White World” and “Rule the World” were featured in scenes in Netflix’s Baz Luhrmann-directed The Get Down, for example.)
But right around February 19, when Big Little Lies premiered, things started “going crazy” on Kiwanuka’s social media feeds. And that’s when he realized that “Cold Little Heart’ provided the musical pulse to the opening credits — with a minute and a half of the song featured.
By the time the miniseries’ finale on April 2 — which pulled in right around 1.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen — things got even crazier. According to analytics provider Next Big Sound, in the year leading up to the mini-series’ premiere, Kiwanuka had been averaging right around 50 artist station adds on Pandora per day. In the past seven days, that average has been over 550 per day— placing him on the list of Pandora Trendsetters. According to Billboard, “Cold Little Heart” was on Shazam’s United States Top 100 chart every week during the miniseries’ seven-week run. He’s also added more than 7,700 fans on Facebook and racked up over 43,000 Wikipedia page views since the show premiered.
While Swerdlow, Kiwanuka’s manager, has had several artists featured on television shows, never seen anything this big before, calling it a “bit of a eureka moment.”
“It’s become a little bit of a fine art in the past couple years. I think it goes back to 90210 and The O.C. Those were the real game-changers where there was a real creative force and art form, fitting sound and vision together,” he said. “When they get it right and it strikes a chord. That’s the kind of magic moment…. this is definitely one of those moments where everything just comes together beautifully.”
Kiwanuka, too, has alway been intrigued by the marriage of music and film.
“When I’m writing music, I always imagine what it would be like if you could set a picture to it… My relationship to hearing some of my favorite songs so many times were tied to a movie,” he said, pointing to the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown — featuring Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” — as one of his first inspirations. But his attraction to TV is not just an artistic one, but marketing too. Kiwanuka says television “opens the door for people like myself, artists who don’t fit a certain mold.”
Specifically, the pop radio mold. Last summer, when Love & Hate was first released, Kiwanuka wanted to push singles to alternative radio stations in the U.S., but “it didn’t happen.” One reason is because most of the songs on Love & Hate run relatively long — with the original version of “Cold Little Heart” clocking in at 9 minutes, 57 seconds.
And even if radio stations weren’t playing “Cold Little Heart” last year, the buzz around Big Little Lies seems to have changed that. In the United States, the song has seen a month-on-month increase in radio spins of nearly 5,000%.
Not only has Big Little Lies expanded Kiwanuka’s reach, but he’s also seen increased engagement as well, which he ties to the manner in which people consume television. Unlike radio, it isn’t just “on in the background,” he said.
“With TV becoming more like cinema, they’re looking at music like the way Tarantino would, devoting a long portion of a song to a long, slow scene, so they put it on their shows that people tune into and they get to hear your music but they actually have to sit and listen to it,” he said. “The world’s so fast paced but when you’re watching something, people are forced to listen to it. And if they don’t like it they don’t like it, but at least they listen to it.”