How Beach Bunny Transcended TikTok

Beach Bunny
– Beach Bunny

One of the horror stories of the road that touring bands tell is of rolling into town, loading into the venue for that night’s gig, and discovering some band they didn’t agree to opening the show for them.

For Remo Drive in early 2018, that gig was in Minneapolis and the offending opener was a four-piece from Chicago they’d never heard of called Beach Bunny.

Remo Drive’s booker, Greg Horbal, was an independent agent and musician, booking shows in the upper Midwest for bands he liked. He initially didn’t want to book this one.

“I didn’t really notice at first but finally I went to them and was, ‘What the hell!’ The guy at the venue’s like, ‘They’re good kids, can’t we just leave them on the show? I don’t want to kick them off.’ And I said OK,” Horbal says of his first encounter with his future clients.

Horbal was further surprised to learn friends of singer and songwriter Lili Trifilio attended the show and livestreamed it. But after he saw the stream, all was forgiven. He agreed to let Beach Bunny open for Remo Drive as direct support. It marked Beach Bunny’s first real tour.

Horbal still reps Remo Drive, and Beach Bunny, too. But he’s no longer an independent agent booking regional bands; he brought them with him to APA where he now works in the New York office.

And Beach Bunny, with its scrappy DIY ethos, artful punk sonics and Trifilio’s off-center songs about not being anybody’s Prom Queen, replete with references to self-harm, self-medication and self-acceptance is on its way to authentic stardom – with a jolt of viral accelerant by way of social media app TikTok.

A snippet of the band’s track “Prom Queen” last year took TikTok by storm, with (mostly) young girls lip-synching and dancing to an odd, slowed-down, uncredited version of the track at the centerpiece of Beach Bunny’s Prom Queen EP in August 2018. At present, #PromQueen clocks in with 75.2 million views and tens of thousands of home-video snippets uploaded by fans to the service. But don’t call Beach Bunny a “TikTok band.”

“It’s a little bit confusing, just because it definitely increased our listeners, but we did have a platform before that,” Trifilio tells Pollstar. “In addition, none of the songs are written to be put on the app. I mean, I didn’t even know what the app was and the version [of “Prom Queen”] that went viral was a kind of down-pitched version that we didn’t even upload to TikTok ourselves.

“It’s had an amazing affect on getting a bigger fan base and stuff, but we try to keep things kind of punk. We’ve been a band for about two years and on tour for about two years and it feels kind of weird to focus on something that was only a couple of months where we have this whole prior history,” Trifilio adds. “I don’t hate TikTok but sometimes people just want to totally write about it. I’m happy it was that song, because it has a positive social message.”

Trifilio needn’t worry. Beach Bunny has a catalog of music that stands on its own, spanning four EPs dating to 2015’s Animalism and its full-length debut on tastemaking indie label Mom + Pop Music, Honeymoon. The reviews are glowing, the new tours  have been selling out in ever- larger venues, and 2020 could shape up to be the year Beach Bunny takes off.

Mom + Pop Music founder and co-owner Michael Goldenstone and VP of A&R Suzanna Salvin caught a Beach Bunny show at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Baby’s All Right in November 2018 and announced their signing and album debut a year later.

“It was one of the first shows they’d done in New York,” Goldenstone says. “Their managers, Chris [Crowley] and Mike [Scrafford, of Salty Artists Management], weren’t even quite in place yet but that might have been where it came together for them.”

Scrafford says it was Beach Bunny’s live show that drew them in.

“There’s a real special part of them in the live show,” he says. “It gets a little more pop-punky and there’s a sense of community there between them and the fans that you see at the live show. The young fans that you see that might be using TikTok are there but you see people of all ages joining in.”

Trifilio marvels at the diversity of her audience. “At the shows, it’s such a diverse crowd, even agewise. But you can see people are coming from different backgrounds and different genres they listen to,” she says. “Especially on this tour, it’s been really interesting to see who shows up, who can connect with the lyrics. We definitely have dads with with 12-year-olds and the dads are jamming even harder than the kids are, which is great. Then there’s people my age or older, and high school kids, who have never seen us before. In general, I think the internet has embraced Beach Bunny.”

Beach Bunny
Kelly Sullivan / Getty Images
– Beach Bunny
Matt Henkele, Lili Trifilio, Jon Alvarado, and Anthony Vaccaro of Beach Bunny play the Fillmore in San Francisco June 22, 2019.

Horbal can pinpoint the month he realized that the internet, by way of TikTok, had embraced Beach Bunny, which was still playing 250- to 500-cap “basement clubs” and DIY rooms. While the band had some 10 songs uploaded to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, “We didn’t realize what was happening or why this song went from streaming 10,000 times a day to 150,000 times a day in four weeks,” he says.

The team realized what was happening, but it wasn’t planned that way. “It was crazy. It was all natural, but TikTok is a tool and another platform,” Horbal says. “There’s a feature in TikTok where you can add a song and anyone can take the audio from your video and make their own. Beach Bunny’s song [“Prom Queen”] was labeled incorrectly so It did not say ‘Beach Bunny.’ And it was slightly slowed down. It had all these things going against it for people to be able to actually go and find the band.

“To do that, you had to watch the video, hear the lyrics, probably Google the lyrics, go to Spotify or Apple Music or whatever, then listen to the song. There were all of these steps to get there,” Horbal explains. “The conventional wisdom with anything on the web is that someone  clicks two times and they’re done; they’re just not going to do more. So, this was a four- or five-step process. And it’s clearly working because the music isn’t getting any playlisting but it’s still just going bonkers,” Horbal says.

“It’s all thoughtful engagement. In a way it’s like having a single at radio. Here’s the thing that’s blasting this song out to millions of people and it’s translating into not just fans of the song, but I really think that every person that heard ‘Prom Queen’ because of TikTok would go and find ‘Sports.’ They would find the Crybaby EP. And they would stick around.”

It would be unfair to Beach Bunny, TikTok and their fans to say that what makes the service attractive to very young people is the brevity of user-generated videos and their looping repetition – though in a short-attention-span world, it’s a benefit.

Mary Rahmani is director of TikTok’s Music Content & Artist Relations team and comes to the job with some 20 years in the music industry, in development, creative and A&R roles for major and indie labels, along with artist management.

“Because it is a video platform that enables our community to discover an array of sounds, talent and content, music and artist discovery are a benefit,” Rahmani says. “One example, a user may create a video that includes a song from two decades ago, a recent release or their own original sound. You’re given instant access to options for music discovery in the app or through the playlists in our Sounds library.

Beach Bunny
– Beach Bunny
miss world: Beach Bunny founder, leader and force of nature Lili Triflio.

“One huge value add from TikTok is that artists are being discovered constantly from having their music become beloved from the app. Then especially for emerging talent, they might experience a new journey in the industry; from being signed, becoming a label priority, charting radio and increased streams on DSP’s, and beyond,” Rahmani explains.

Beach Bunny’s team had barely been in place for a few months when TikTok sent the band’s streams into the stratosphere.

“We’d started an ongoing dialogue over a period of time that included getting demos sent back and forth and had always shown an interest in the band before some of those other drivers along the way created a profile for them like TikTok,” Goldstone says. “We had a relationship with them before that, which was really instrumental in guiding us to how real it was and how hard they’d been working and that they were real, authentic, and Lili was one of the most refreshing songwriters that we’d come across in ages.

“She started in her own room like many do. She’s an incredible talent and we’re just thrilled to work with her and the rest of the band,” Goldenstone says.

Crowley adds that Trifilio’s songwriting has a universal appeal, pointing to his 70-year-old mom who called him up to discuss his new management charges with him.

“My mom called me and says, ‘[Beach Bunny’s track] ‘Miss California,’ I could have written that about my high school love!,” Crowley says, laughing. “There’s a real timelessness and universality to Lili’s writing.

“The band obviously had an accelerated moment because of what happened on TikTok. The first time Mike and I saw the band play in New York in 2018, that show had already been sold out. It was only 250 tickets at the time but for a band with no press, no label, no nothing attached to it, they sold in New York, Philly, Boston, D.C., six months before TikTok.

“So TikTok is part of the story; we always try to convey to people that this band had legs long before that. They did what bands have to do in this business, which is to put out good music, promote the hell out of it and tour as much as you can. Thy were laying the foundation even before we came along.”

Trifilio was laying that groundwork even before that fateful Remo Drive gig in Minneapolis.

She was in her first year at DePaul University in fall/winter 2015 and immediately surrounded herself with local musicians and bands, whether by accident or design. She and another girl formed a singer/songwriter, folky duo called Finger Straws where she learned the fundamentals of songwriting. Trifilio describes spending a winter break at her parents’ house and, out of boredom, made a bedroom recording of songs for a first solo EP.

With her coterie of musician friends, it wasn’t hard to get gigs in basement clubs or, preferably, house shows.

After performing solo for two years, she decided to enter a Battle of the Bands. First, she needed a band.

“We were originally a three-piece,” Trifilio says. “Matt [Henkels] plays guitar and Jonny [Jon Alvarado] plays drums (the band is rounded out by bassist Anthony Vaccarro). They’re  mutual friends. I didn’t know them that well, but I knew they weren’t super active in other bands so I knew they’d have time to compete. We weren’t sure if this was just going to be for the battle or if we would continue as a three-piece. We ended up getting really close over that summer even though we didn’t win and they were like, let’s continue Beach Bunny as a band and not as a solo project.”

Triflio sounds almost wistful talking about her college days and the band’s formation and nascent live shows, making it something of a challenge to remember it’s been fewer than five years since she was that first-year student.

“Chicago is an amazing town for DIY music, emo, punk and all kinds of music,” she boasts of her hometown. “Anthony, our bassist, has been in several bands and playing a circuit for shows for years and Jon was in another band that was doing the same thing. Especially for college kids, a lot of people will host shows in their apartments or house shows and there’s always the cops showing up for noise complaints but it was like a weekly activity that we would do.

“Some popular small venues would be like the Subterranean or the Elbo Room; we played some of those but if you can’t play that you could always play at someone’s house, which was always super popular! Everyone would just come out and be supportive, and it was really nice because most of those shows were donation-based, so it wasn’t like we were asking people to pay $10 to see it. It was show up, spread the word.”

Beach Bunny likely won’t be playing those kinds of gigs any more.

In just more than one year, Beach Bunny went from an unknown house party band to selling 200-capacity rooms from Chicago to New York to Boston to Philadelphia. Word of mouth made it to C3 Presents’ Huston Powell who invited the band to fill a last-minute slot at Lollapalooza in 2017, which they had to turn down because Beach Bunny was already committed to playing Riot Fest. Powell kept his word and booked them at Lolla in 2018.

“No one was making any money but, in terms of building a career, that’s the first and sometimes hardest step,” Horbal says. “The fact this band is doing this without anything at all is crazy. One of the game-changing moments when I knew, ‘Oh my god this is really happening,’ was seeing them at Lolla. For a punk band, that’s good; there wasn’t a massive crowd but there were dedicated fans because that gig’s more pop. They played at 1 p.m. on a Thursday in front of 3,000 to 4,000 people just going bonkers for them, singing along to every word.

“The audience had shifted. There were a lot of younger, very passionate fans. For one of the first sets of the day, it was crazy. You got young kids who maybe found the band through social media apps. You have people who maybe got the band two years ago as a punk band playing with PUP on a West Coast tour and in that whole lane.”

Beach Bunny has gone from playing short regional runs at familiar rooms at slightly higher ticket prices to adding larger rooms that sold out so quickly that second nights were added. Those sold out, too.

 “Not just East Coast major media markets, but across the East Coast,” Harbal notes. “We followed that with the tour we’re on now. We just did our first of two shows at the Roxy (in West Hollywood), sold out the Great American Music Hall (San Francisco) months in advance, we started in a Portland, Ore., club called Polaris Hall that’s a 250-cap room. Sold that out instantly, moved up to the 600-cap Aladdin, blew that out. In another three weeks we added a show at Globe Hall in Denver, sold that out far in advance and added a second one. Started at Brighton Music Hall in Boston, sold that out and went to the Paradise and sold that out three months in advance. Music Hall at Williamsburg (Brooklyn, N.Y.); sold out.

Beach Bunny
– Beach Bunny
Shades of ‘Carrie?’: Beach Bunny during the band’s “Prom Queen” number, complete with fake blood.

“The Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C., sold out, but then it closed. We moved it to U Street Music Hall and just got the text that it’s sold out. They’re also doing that Foo Fighters’ festival in D.C. We have to announce we’re moving the show the same day this Foo Fighters show is being announced. I’m like, do we even do a D.C. show in the fall? I’m cautious, I’m a let’s-not-skip-steps guy, do a slow progression through the right clubs kind of guy. But I was dying to do a show and we decided let’s do it,” Horbal says, barely taking a moment to catch his breath.

As for Beach Bunny living the moment, Crowely says he’s trying to get them to stand back and enjoy it.

“We’re still trying to frame to Lili and this band how crazy this moment really is,” Crowley says. “We all work with artists who might never sell 500 tickets in New York City or 1,000 tickets in Los Angeles. And this is a band that went from doing 250-300 tickets in each of those markets to 1,000 more in those markets in a year. I don’t think they ever planned for any of this.

“Lili thought Beach Bunny would be a Chicago DIY band for as long as she chose to do it, and maybe she would be a professional musician though I don’t think she really planned on that. When it comes to lyrical content, in the messaging of the group, it really is just Lili writing and communicating with her audience and herself.”

Thinking back on what it was about her music that inspired thousands of girls to lip synch and sway to her songs in self-shot videos on TikTok, Trifilio acknowledges other emergent women singer/songwriters – Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Soccer Mommy and more – stepping to the forefront with songs for and about other young women struggling with issues far removed from the songs about boys of yore. She scoffs at the thought that anyone would question that she would write songs aimed at girls; after all, nobody chastised rock stars for writing songs aimed at teenaged boys.

“Maybe now that women are more accepted as out in front of the band, it kind of lends to singing about more topics and in a way that people will be less likely to trash it, which is great. I can only talk about my experience. Having a pretty heavily female audience, writing about those subjects helps connect with them like a pop romantic song can’t. And it gives me confidence to keep writing those types of songs in the future.”

Beach Bunny’s future seems secure. At least, it won’t be surreptitiously booking opening slots for unsuspecting bar bands any more.