Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images – Conan Gray
performs at Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago on Aug. 2, 2019.
Sporting a black hoodie and plaid pajama pants, with his signature wavy locks flying and dark polish on a few of his nails, Conan Gray switches from laying in a fetal position on the carpet to running around the house, serving model looks using a blanket as a carpet, crumpling up on the stairs, staring into a mirror, contemplating life while leaning on a piano, jumping off the couch while playing acoustic guitar with a stage-worthy kick, gazing out the window and rocking out on electric guitar while using his unmade bed as a stage. The caption to Gray’s March 20 TikTok sums up the indie pop singer/songwriter’s up-and-down mood: “When ur whole entire debut album release week is cancelled bcuz of c*rona so u gotta celebrate alone in ur house in between ur breakdowns.”
Although a global pandemic might seem like the worst time for promoting new music – and many artists have opted to instead push back their releases – indie pop singer/songwriter Conan Gray has taken things in stride and found ways to connect with fans from afar while showing off his debut LP, Kid Krow.
In addition to posting the delightfully dramatic TikTok, with scenes set to snippets of different tracks from Kid Krow, Gray celebrated his March 20 album release with a live video on YouTube that was part acoustic livestream performance, part behind-the-songs storytelling session and part unboxing video to display his new vinyl. The next day, Gray spent time on Twitter taking part in a Q&A.
“It’s such an uncertain time and it’s a strange environment to release music in. I think if there’s anyone to release music at this time, Conan is the person to do it. … He’s a kid of the internet and he grew up on the internet,” Eddie Wintle of Expand Entertainment, who manages Gray with Colette Patnaude, told Pollstar.
“With all of our album release parties and TV performances – he was supposed to go on the ‘Tonight Show’ – we had to make these last-minute contingency plans to release everything online but he did such a great job [promoting the album].
“It was a beautiful narrative because he started on the internet and he’s gone and done so many amazing things in the world even up until this point and yet when his debut album came out, he was broadcasting from his bedroom again.”
The confessional album from the singer/songwriter, who the press have nicknamed the “sad prince of pop” and “the internet’s sweetheart,” includes tunes about Gray’s struggles growing up with a rough childhood and finding his place in the world as a mixed-race kid in small town Texas who later made the move to Los Angeles, along with tales of falling in love and heartbreak. Listeners have embraced the album, which hit No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 2 on Billboard Top Album Sales, as well as the Top 5 of iTunes’ Top Albums Chart in Australia, Canada, and The Philippines. His fans include Taylor Swift, who posted that she was “obsessed” with the album on her Instagram stories and included the song “Maniac” on her SiriusXM Hits 1 N’ Chill radio takeover. This was a huge moment for Gray, who called Swift his “number one above all” and “songwriting icon” in a recent interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe.
Gray started his first YouTube channel at age 9 and he’s been posting videos to his current channel since age 12.
“What partly makes [his] story so special is a lot of his audience has really been watching him grow up,” Patnaude says. “They watched him discover songwriting and singing the songs in rural Texas in Georgetown. And so they’ve kind of been following along on the journey, which is super cool.”
Patnaude discovered Gray on YouTube after coming across a video of him singing in a tree while strumming a ukulele and thinking, “Wow, this guy is so special and talented.”
After watching more videos and connecting with him, “it was abundantly clear that he was incredibly smart and kind and someone that Eddie and I really wanted to work with,” she said. They started managing him a few years ago while he was still in high school.
By October 2018 Gray was ready to take the stage for his first show.
“I knew he could write, I knew he could sing, I knew he was so fun and had such an engaging personality. I thought he’d be a good performer but you just never really know,” Patnaude said. “The first show was in Texas and I just remember he was so nervous, so deeply nervous. … He got out on stage and the fans were screaming and roaring; he just exploded. And I thought, ‘And he can perform. Great, done.’ He didn’t get on stage and freeze; he danced and jumped around and had the time of his life.”
Wintle added, “I think that the thing you can’t teach is having a natural talent for something. … It was clear right away that he had such a natural stage presence.”
CAA also came on board before Gray had ever played a show or gotten his record deal with Republic. As agent Lee Goforth says, “We all sort of had a real gut feeling of what he could become.”
Co-agent Adam Brill explains that the agency’s strategy was to start “lean and mean” with 200- to 250-capacity rooms with very low ticket prices in major markets like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, New York and Chicago. After those shows quickly sold out, the team continued taking baby steps, booking 10 to 15 shows. He says, “Those sold out instantaneously as well; that’s kind of been the MO with him ever since.”
In early 2019 Gray got the chance to open a handful of dates for Panic! At the Disco, putting him in front of arena-sized audiences.
“He had only done nine shows on tiny little stages, all of a sudden his 10th show was in an arena,” Wintle said. “It was really important for him to understand and feel what it was like to play for that size of a crowd and for his own experience to know that’s the ultimate goal to [headline] stages like that.”
Gray wrapped up 2019 headlining theaters including the Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif., which sold 2,519 tickets and grossed $75,947.
The singer should have been touring Europe right now on the “Kid Krow World Tour,” with gigs booked April 26 through May 30, but he was forced to postpone the dates because of COVID-19. His spring plans were also supposed to include appearances at Coachella and Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Del.
Although his tour is on hold, Gray’s kept up momentum with supporting Kid Krow by livestreaming interviews and performances. He was also named Apple Music’s Up Next artist for April.
As to when touring will resume, Brill explained that CAA has examined “so many different kinds of routings, time periods, festivals as anchors depending on if and when festivals will play. So I think to the best of our ability of what we think we do best is just to have multiple plans, depending on which way we want to go and depending on how the chips will fall, that’s the direction we’ll go.
“Our plans are still in the works, obviously nothing too specific to discuss at the time. … We did initially plan to tour in the fall but we would prefer to hold off and reaccess when we’ll go out, which is going into next year at this point.”
CAA’s Shirin Nury added, “It’s given us this moment of pause to reassess how each play affects the long-term lifespan of his touring. We’ve had multiple iterations of what A, B and C look like, and how that gets us to where we want to be 10, 20 years from now. We’re building a career and trying to lengthen the lifespan of that as long as humanly possible. I do think that in a weird way it’s been somewhat of a blessing and somewhat helpful having those questions and having to create alternative scenarios.”