Kane Brown: Market Manipulations & The Manufacturing of an Organic Star

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If you haven’t heard of Kane Brown, you’re about to, whether you like it or not. You can pride yourself in being one of those country music fans impervious to the buzz machine the industry uses to attempt to reel you in. But Kane Brown is coming, and he will be ubiquitous . . . unless his entire career implodes on itself.

Let’s not even broach the subject of Kane Brown’s music for the moment, but rest assured, it’s not what many consider country. Kane Brown cites Cole Swindell and Sam Hunt as similar artists, and he recorded his EP at the studio of Brantley Gilbert’s guitar player Noah Henson. That probably tells you all you need to know about Kane Brown’s sound.

What’s remarkable about Kane is not his music, but his story, and his supposed meteoric rise that has occurred completely organically—if you’re to believe what is being reported.

Kane Brown is an unsigned, totally independent singer for the Chattanooga area, who was completely unknown to the industry up until very recently. Or at least that’s what they’re telling us. However Kane once tried out for American Idol and The X-Factor, and was accepted by The X-Factor as a contestant. What did Kane say he was going to do to celebrate being accepted by the reality show? “I don’t know, probably go clubbin’.” This was way back in September of 2013—over two years ago.

So to say Kane Brown was completely unknown is probably not true, but in the last month is when everything started going crazy for the singer, and for seemingly no reason.

Kane Brown’s EP Closer, which was released back in June, has all of a sudden taken off like wildfire. Where before sales of the album sat around 1,000 units, over a three week span they’ve gone from 4,000, to then 8,100 in sales to the point where this unsigned and unknown artist landed in the Top 40 on the Billboard 200—a virtually unheard of feat for an independent record released nearly six months prior.

But those numbers pale in comparison to what Kane Brown has been doing on iTunes and Facebook. On iTunes, Brown’s EP has been dominating the charts over the last few weeks, regularly cresting at #1 over established mainstream country stars. On Wednesday (10-21)—Kane’s 22nd birthday—he released a new single called “Used To Love You Sober.” Once again, it shot straight to number #1 on iTunes, creating buzz all across the music industry about this new country music internet sensation.

Kane had been garnering most of his attention previously through videos on YouTube and Facebook created with his smartphone. Searching YouTube, many of his videos have over 100,000 views. Once again, pretty impressive for a virtual unknown, but not unheard of, and many of those views have occurred after his recent ascent. It’s his Facebook presence that has become ridiculous. Brown has amassed over 600,000 new followers in just the past couple of weeks, and at the time of this posting, is sitting at 984,158 people. Notice I didn’t say “likes.” His Facebook “like” page sits just under 119K at the time of posting, and hasn’t been updated in months. It’s his personal friend page that people can follow that is getting all the activity. Remember this important distinction, because it could be important later.

So what is really going on with Kane Brown? Why would a guy that had a pretty decent, but not unusually-big following on YouTube and Facebook all of a sudden blow up overnight? The answer is simple: a man named Jay Frank.

kane-brown-2Jay Frank owns two companies. One is called DigSin, which is basically a record label but for singles, not records. The second is called DigMark, which is a digital marketing and data strategy company that analyzes data in the marketplace and then uses it to craft strategies of how help launch artists, brands, etc.

But this is not all Jay Frank does. He also is the vice president of Global Streaming Marketing at Universal Music Group—the largest music corporation in the world. Jay Frank is also Kane Brown’s manager.

Now remember, Kane Brown isn’t signed to the Universal Music Group. He’s not signed to any record label at the moment, though that will change very shortly, and is all part of the master plan. As Brown said in a recent interview with the Times Free Press in Chattanooga, “I’ve had offers already, but I want to go to No. 1 and make them come to me. I want to be the next Luke Bryan.”

So what sparked off all of this incredible buzz that took Kane Brown from an unknown singer with a few popular YouTube videos and a struggling EP to the very top of the country music industry?

It’s a little hard to tell, but according to the Time Free Press and a few other notable and knowledgeable sources, it was when Kane Brown got included in a streaming playlist curated by a company called Digster—not to be confused with the companies owned by Jay Frank: DigSin and DigMark. When Kane Brown received over 500,000 plays through Digster, that is when everything began to go crazy in his career.

What is Digster? Digster puts together music playlists using the format of digital streaming services like Spotify, or the European streaming service Deezer, so that fans have a curated listening experience instead of trying to choose from millions of songs. Digster doesn’t own the music, it simply offers playlist suggestions on streaming formats.

For example, Digster might put together a playlist of the hottest Bro-Country songs from popular names like Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, and Luke Bryan, and then include a song from someone like Kane Brown. Nobody is purposely seeking out Kane Brown’s music and running up a bunch of plays; they’re just listening to a playlist. But nonetheless, that Kane Brown song is receiving scores of spins, driving his metadata numbers through the roof, getting the attention of the industry, and creating new fans.

But what is Digster’s incentive? How does it make money, and who owns it? The answer is the key to understanding how Kane Brown came out of nowhere.

Digster is owned by the Universal Music Group.

The vice president of Global Streaming Marketing at Universal Music Group is Jay Frank.

Jay Frank is the manager of Kane Brown.

And who picks and curates the playlists assembled by Digster? “All of the content is chosen by UMGD [Universal Music Group Digital] employees,” says Universal.

That’s all you really need to know. This is how Kane Brown came to power—not an unstimulated organic phenomenon founded on Facebook and YouTube.

Nobody is saying that anything illegal happened here. But clearly what happened was Kane Brown’s manager used his position at UMG to put Kane on these Digster playlists to launch him as an internet sensation. Of course we can’t prove that, because in the digital world, there’s little to no transparency like there is in radio and other formats. This also brings up the question of how ethical it is that Universal Music Group is able to drive plays for artists through a third party streaming entity. It’s similar to a record company directly dictating the playlist of a radio station. Once again, the lines between labels and independent media outlet continue to blur.

Meanwhile, what about all of those Facebook followers? We’ve know for years about how easy it is for music artists, or anyone to buy likes or followers on Facebook. That may or may not be the case with Kane Brown, but it is interesting to see that his Facebook followers are nearing 1 million (and will surpass that shortly), but he only has 28,500 Twitter followers. It’s not unusual to see wild discrepancies between Facebook and Twitter presence, but when the numbers are so distant—in this case Kane has less than 3% of the amount of Twitter followers to Facebook followers—it can be an indication that something is going on that is not as “organic” as it is being sold as.

kane-brown-closerWhen asked by the Times Free Press about his astronomical numbers, Kane’s response was, “A lot of the people in Nashville think the numbers are fake, but they can’t prove it. They’ve never had a Justin Bieber in country music, so they don’t know how to deal with it.”

This seems like a strange way to answer this concern. Instead of flatly denying that the numbers might be manipulated, or explaining how it all came together organically, Brown just points out nobody can “prove” they’re fake. He also alludes to something very real, which is on Music Row in Nashville, many are looking at Kane’s chart and social network performance with a hairy eyeball. Is this guy really garnering this amazing amount of buzz after sitting on a stalled out EP for five months and releasing a few smartphone videos, or is a manager who owns a company that specializes in finding advantages in a digitally-dominated marketplace and has a prominent position at Universal creating something from nothing, or from very little?

At this point, it may not matter. Kane Brown has been launched, and however we got here will probably be rendered irrelevant in the minds of the public soon, just like the unsubstantiated rumors of Taylor Swift’s team buying 250,000 copies of her debut album to manipulate sales number to create buzz and launch her career.

But if it isn’t market manipulation behind Kane Brown’s ascent, what is it?

“He’s doing well on social media, and he keeps in touch with his fans,” explains Kane Brown friend and local club owner Jim Striker to the Times Free Press. “He tries to answer every comment, only now he’s getting 100,000 comments. He can’t keep up. He’ll try though.”

That brings us to the strange situation surrounding the crowdfunding of Kane Brown’s debut EP.

When I did a simple search for Kane Brown, I pulled up the page for a GoFundMe campaign started on July 31st, 2014. It looks like a normal, standard GoFundMe campaign with tiered incentives to donate and everything, and it came to a total of $5,096. It appears Kane was gunning for $10,000, but on GoFundMe, you don’t have to reach your goal to get the funds, and $5,096 is probably good enough to at least get started on an EP, right? So there you go.

But then I noticed that people are still donating on the GoFundMe page as the buzz factor continues for Kane, even though his EP has already been recorded, manufactured, and was released in June of 2015. It seemed a little strange people would still be donating, but hypothetically they will still get their incentives, so no harm, no foul I guess.

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But then while continuing my search for info on Kane Brown, I found out that four months after he started his GoFundMe campaign for his EP, he started a Kickstarter campaign. November 26th, 2014 is when the second crowdfunding campaign began. There’s no official rules against double dipping by launching two separate crowdfunding campaigns for the same EP, but it definitely seems in strange form, and somewhat misleading. According to the Kickstarter page, Kane raised $5,633 from 144 backers—$633 over the goal of $5,000 in the successful campaign. So now he’s hypothetically got over $10,000 to make his EP. The Kickstarter campaign ended on December 26th, 2014.

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Then I started looking through the comments on the Kickstarter, and that’s when things got even more strange. On Kickstarter, there are dates the administrator sets to when people will be receiving their incentives. Kane Brown was giving away T-Shirts, hoodies, and copies of the EP as part of the campaign. For some of the items, the date set when people would receive their goodies was Dec. of 2014. For others it was Jan. 2014, or Feb. 2014, but February was the latest the EP’s were supposed to go out. However the promised dates came and went, and nobody received their items. Nor were there any updates on the campaign, or any info on how to request sizes for the T-shirts and hoodies.

Here’s a sample of the comments in consecutive order:

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So even though everyone was supposed to receive their merch by February, and some as early December, it is now late March, and not only have none of the 144 backers received their stuff, there’s been no update from Kane Brown. And remember, we’re being told that the reason Kane Brown’s music has blown up so fast is because he’s been such a great communicator with his fans. And also remember, Kane has already launched a successful GoFundMe campaign months before all of this, so he’s had a head start to manufacture the merch incentives.

It’s not unusual for incentives to take a little longer than advertised to get to backers of a crowdfunding campaign, but then the waiting game stretched into April.

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Then finally an update from Kane Brown on April 21st.

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Finally on May 18th, Kane says that the release date for the EP will be June 2nd, and that contributors will receive their promised merch, some six months after it was originally promised. But even then, some people continued to complain that they didn’t receive their incentives.

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The comments stop there, so it’s likely some, if not many of the donators finally did receive their merch, but it’s hard to tell. Saving Country Music attempted to contact Kickstarter to find out if any formal complaints had been levied against Kane Brown, but instead was directed to the company’s Trust & Safety page, which reads, “When you back a project, you’re trusting the creator to do a good job, so if you don’t know them personally or by reputation, do a little research first. Kickstarter doesn’t evaluate a project’s claims, resolve disputes, or offer refunds backers decide what’s worth funding and what’s not.”

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Again, nobody is saying that anything that has been done by Kane Brown, his manager Jay Frank, any of Franks’s affiliated companies, or Universal Music Group is illegal. But the idea that Kane Brown’s rapid ascent is organic at least deserves an incredible amount of caveats. Brown is working well within the industry borders, and his wild overnight success is a well-orchestrated market manipulation by savvy individuals to launch a music franchise.

Hey, hat’s off to Kane Brown and his team if they’re success, but Kane Brown’s talents and an organic phenomenon are not to blame.