The genre-splicing, socially conscious and streaming-dominant Vegas quartet has cemented itself as by far the year’s most successful rock band. But who, outside of their fans, is actually taking notice?
Backstage at the filming of Late Night With Seth Meyers on a Monday afternoon, two halves of the Las Vegas-based quartet Imagine Dragons make for odd juxtapositions. Frontman Dan Reynolds, 30 and bassist Ben McKee, 32, are clearly dressed for showtime -- Reynolds wearing a sleek floral jacket and pants set, and McKee in patterned multi-colored joggers -- while guitarist Wayne Sermon, 33, and drummer Daniel Platzman, 31, have yet to get in costume, still rocking more of the sweats-and-tees look. “We don’t have a stylist,” comments Platzman, laughing.
“We just wear whatever we’re feeling.”
The half-in, half-out visual scheme represents where Imagine Dragons is at as a band in 2017. On one hand, they’re pop stars, capable of sharing both the biggest national stages and the highest stretches of the charts with the most mononymous of top 40 idols. Of the three hits to scale the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017 that have been classified as “Rock,” two of them are by Imagine Dragons: “Believer” (hitting No. 4 in August), and “Thunder” (currently sitting at its No. 4 peak).
On the other hand, they’re still just… a band, one whose inclusive sound makes them an easier sell on 2017 radio, but one whose unmatched level of modern-day success from within the rock world still practically defies explanation. You won't find the answer from critics, certainly, who have roundly dismissed the group when they've even bothered to pay attention, and you definitely won't find the answer from the band itself, whose socially conscientious public conduct eschews any kind of rock-star narcissism or behavior traditionally suggestive of a band on top of the world.
“Damned if we know,” Sermon says after a long pause when asked what they’re doing right that seemingly no one else is.
“A lot of hard work,” is Reynolds’ decidedly unsexy addition to the conversation. “We've all dedicated our lives to music since we were young. Luck, right time, right place...”
Though their crossover is unmatched among bands in 2017, it’s nothing new for the group itself, who have long been ticketed for the big leagues. Gary Kelly, Executive Vice President/Chief Revenue Officer, Interscope Geffen A&M remembers seeing them as an unsigned act over five years ago, at a Monday night gig in Silverlake, California. “I remember turning to one of my colleagues at the time and saying, 'I can see these guys playing in arenas,’” he tells Billboard over the phone. “They had that type of big sound, and clearly it resonated.”
Kelly’s confidence was quickly justified. The quartet released their debut album, Night Visions, in 2012, and the LP -- a bombastic blend of stadium-rock muscle with hip-hop backbone (largely courtesy of producer Alex Da Kid) and EDM aesthetics -- ultimately went supernova. It spawned three top 20 hit singles (“It’s Time,” “Radioactive” and “Demons”) on the Hot 100, and earned the band both a Record of the Year nomination and a collaborative performance with rap superstar Kendrick Lamar (both for “Radioactive”) at the 2014 Grammys. Five years later, it’s still in the top half of the Billboard 200 albums chart.
The second time out, however, the band’s success was a little more muted. Heavier 2015 follow-up Smoke + Mirrors hardly flopped, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and being certified Platinum earlier this year. But it was a step back from the omnipresence of Night Visions -- the album produced just a single short-lived top 40 hit, the No. 28-peaking “I Bet My Life” -- and it suggested that perhaps the band’s time at pop’s center would be limited to their debut album.
But with Evolve, the band’s more buoyant third album, Imagine Dragons are again a gravitational force in pop music. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in July, and nearly five months on, it’s still hanging around just outside the chart’s top 10, largely thanks to the tremendous popularity of the album’s two crossover smashes. The Dragons also won Favorite Rock/Pop Band/Duo/Group at the fan-voted American Music Awards earlier in November, beating both an established veteran act in Coldplay and a newer phenom in The Chainsmokers.
Perhaps most importantly, the band is catching on with the platform most meaningful to artist momentum in 2017, and most traditionally inhospitable to acts from the rock world: They’re streaming like gangbusters, with “Believer” and “Thunder” earning nearly a billion combined plays between them on Spotify. “We can talk about hip-hop being pop music these days -- if you look at the Spotify charts or the Apple charts, that's what kids are really listening to,” Kelly says. “But when you look at the one record from an alternative rock band perspective [that’s also getting streamed] -- they stand out.”
Imagine Dragons thriving on streaming may be surprising, but it's hardly shocking. The group's focus on beats and drops as much as on riffs means the can blend in on playlists with Lil Uzi Vert and Taylor Swift as well as they can with Kings of Leon and Cage the Elephant. It's not just a bunch of passive playlist listens responsible for their Spotify and Apple success either, as Kelly explains. "Sixty-nine percent of those streams from those two partners are lean-forward" -- meaning streams that were actively sought out by listeners -- "which means only 31 percent are basically coming out of a playlist directly, which I think would probably blow people's minds.
Because you might have a critic who would say, 'Oh, they just happen to be getting their plays from a playlist.' Which is essentially not the case. Their songs are really sticky."
So, again: What’s the difference with these songs?
“We have a lot of people asking us that -- I don't know the answer,” says Reynolds, before offering a broader explanation: “One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was: At the end of the day, it's all about the music. And it's such a cliché, but at the end of the day, you're making a song that people will want to listen to or not. So we try to create music that we love.”
“There's artists out there that have really strong brands -- incredibly strong brands,” adds Sermon. “For us, we can’t afford to have a bad album, because we know with our band, it's gonna be about the music. Our band is gonna live and die by the music.”
By that logic, then, does that mean that the band considers the blockbuster Evolve to be a better album than the commercially underwhelming Smoke + Mirrors?
“Yeah, I think Evolve is better,” Reynolds allows. Pausing, he clarifies: “Actually, it depends what the word ‘better’ means. I think that Evolve is a more palatable album for this generation and this time period.”
Eliot Lee Hazel
In many ways, Imagine Dragons makes sense as the most palatable band for this generation and this time period. Their music, while unmistakably rock-based, has -- like much of what radio currently defines as “alternative” -- largely drifted away from typical guitar-bass-drum construction, to encompass larger swaths of pop production and hip-hop rhythms. Like Twenty One Pilots, the only other American band from this decade playing on the same figurative (and occasionally literal) top 40 stages, Imagine Dragons come from the rock world, but are not tethered to it.
“A big reason I'm a fan of the Dragons is because of that mixing of genres -- the feeling like you can evolve,” says K.Flay, a fellow genre-ambiguous singer-songwriter grouped under the “alt” umbrella, and an opening act on the band’s current tour. “You're not limited to one set of instruments or one set of synthesizers or whatever.”
It feels logical in an era where all major genres -- not just rock -- are increasingly defined by what they take from other forms of music. The world’s most popular rapper spends half his albums singing. The year’s biggest country hit sounds like it was co-produced by DJ Mustard. The most unavoidable EDM duo of the decade seem like they really, really want to start a late-'00s blog-indie band. To try to conquer the charts in 2017 with nothing but a six-string and an amp turned to 11… it might not be regressive, exactly, but it’s probably not terribly realistic.
“Genres are such a strange thing at this point in time,” Reynolds comments. “We've never been aggressively like, 'We are a rock band.' We really leave it to the world to decide what kind of band we are.” (Actually, the Recording Academy recently decided on the Dragons being a pop band -- on Tuesday (Nov. 28), they were announced as Grammy nominees for best pop duo/group performance (“Thunder”) and best pop vocal album (Evolve), but were shut out of the rock categories altogether.)
Still, in the pop space, where bands of any stripe are in relatively short supply, it often falls to Imagine Dragons to serve as the default keepers of the rock flame. At the Billboard Music Awards in May, following the group’s performance of “Believer,” Reynolds was selected to deliver the show’s spoken tribute to late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. On recent tour stops, they’ve also taken to paying homage to the late Tom Petty, performing “I Won’t Back Down” during their acoustic side-stage set.
They're striking history lessons coming from the Dragons, because there's no obvious Cornell or Petty DNA in the band's music specifically -- except for in the size of the venues they tend to play.
The band resists the urge to claim any kind of status as classic-rock torchbearers, however. “There's bands that are holding down the traditional guitar-based, 'We're a rock band. That's what we'll do forever,’ and I think that’s great,” Sermon says. “That’s not who we are. At least for me, it's always a strange thing. I'm happy, because I love rock music, so when our band gets called a rock band, there's part of me that loves that. And there's part of me that shies away from it, because it's not really our story entirely.”
For Imagine Dragons, innovation and genre-blending are just natural ways to put music together as a band with the capabilities and possibilities afforded to them in 2017. “The Beatles wouldn't have sounded like The Beatles if they had access to infinite tracks, computer music,” Sermon theorizes. “if the four of us just want to do guitar music, I feel like... it's been done before, and it's been done really well, by bands like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Pink Floyd. We want to do something different.”
“There are a lot of bands right now who -- I don't want to say revival bands -- but it's a throwback band,” adds Reynolds. “We are obviously pulling from this decade, this time period, because that's what we want and that's what we want to hear again. And we wanna try to do it.”
On Evolve, the band even took the step of calling on outside producers, like Swedish super-duo Mattman & Robin, former Lorde co-pilot Joel Little, and John Hill -- the writer/producer behind the only non-Dragons rock crossover smash of 2017, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” Imagine Dragons say this wasn’t as much a pop play as an attempt to get out of their own heads. “We have a really hard time self-producing… because it's hard to know when to say no as an artist,” Reynolds explains. “Because you can say, 'It's incomplete, it's incomplete, it's incomplete,' until somebody finally says, 'No, it's done.'”
Reynolds is also clear to emphasize that while the band may handed the reins over in the studio in the little, the songs are still theirs. “As far as songwriting and creating our songs -- I've written every single lyric that's ever appeared on any record, and [about] 95 percent of the melodies,” he notes. “So we're definitely proud of ourselves as a songwriting band. It's not a pop machine.”
That doesn’t mean that they’re not willing to play the game a little, though. The band’s omnipresence has undoubtedly been aided by a variety of high-profile commercial synchs, including the use of “Believer” in a Super Bowl-aired ad for Nintendo Switch, and a Microsoft placement of “Thunder” in a spot for their Surface Laptop. (Both songs hit No. 1 on Billboard & Clio”s Top TV Commercials chart as a result.) “You're trying to get your music in as many places as possible that make sense, that organically fit,” notes Kelly. “In many respects, synch placement is really no different than a radio station or frankly, a big playlist. It's just another way to get your music exposed.”
The Interscope EVP credits the band for staying in the content cycle even in between albums, both with ad and film synchs, as well as soundtrack contributions like Suicide Squad All-Star team-up “Sucker for Pain,” a Hot 100 top 20 hit. “They weren't just putting out a record, going on tour for two years, then coming back two years later without having actually released content,” he says. “So they were really smart and strategic.”
He also explains that the band’s streaming success isn’t entirely by accident. “We met with all three partners [Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon] separately on a single day, with the band in fact playing music, talking about the long term strategy,” he recalls of the band’s pre-Evolve promo. “It's been a great collaboration [between creative and marketing]. That's how you win."
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