The Sudden Online Success of SYML
More than a decade into his career, the recording artist grabbed the ears of millions.
It took Brian Fennell a lifetime to achieve overnight success. Fennell's transition from home-studio hermit to millions of monthly Spotify listeners in less than two years seems like the familiar story of an artist who spent ages refining his craft before finally being swept up in the torrent of an online wave. But the details are improbable, and more importantly, they describe the way music in the streaming era is made, discovered, and shared. Despite the 36-year-old's veteran status as a recording artist—first as lead singer, songwriter, and keyboardist for the Seattle-based indie-pop band Barcelona and currently with the downtempo-soul solo project he calls SYML—the best place to drop into his journey is at its intersection with Teen Wolf.
No, not the goofy 1985 comedy starring Michael J. Fox, but the creepy, neo-emo MTV reboot series that aired between 2011 and 2017. Ironically, Fennell had never seen the show and didn't even know it existed, but it set off a career-changing sequence of events: Its viewers used Shazam to identify one of Fennell’s songs—"Where’s My Love"—that had been placed in an episode, the online Teen Wolf fan community lit up about it, there were a couple of fortuitous Spotify playlist placements followed by a video that became a YouTube sensation … and suddenly Fennell found himself the object of nearly 5 million music fans’ affection.
Success that snuck up
In the middle of 2016, Fennell started receiving messages from fans out of the blue. "People somehow found my personal email through, like, the mandate of Shazam or something," Fennell says, sitting in the captain's chair at the desktop recording console in his home studio in the basement of the big, modern house he shares with his wife and their two young children. "Teen Wolf changed everything."
Barcelona songs had already found placements in TV and film. The quartet was Fennell’s first collaborative endeavor, setting his plaintive voice within dramatic, piano-driven arrangements reminiscent of Coldplay, The Fray, or Death Cab for Cutie. They began touring in 2005 and have put out several albums and EPs; 2009’s Absolutes was released by Universal/Motown. And when a Barcelona song landed on an episode of The Hills, a late-'00s reality show, Fennell received advance notice from his publisher and planned a party around the air date. But in the case of Teen Wolf, he had no idea. In fact, because he was still focused on his work with Barcelona, he hadn't officially released "Where’s My Love," nor had he even named the new solo effort that spawned it.
Fennell's longtime publisher, L.A.-based Secret Road, had sent a digital version to the music supervisor at Teen Wolf, and they dropped it into a 30-second promo for the show. The delicate, mournful instrumental backdrop and Fennell's devastating vocal paired perfectly with the spot's angsty melodrama. Fans were immediately hooked, Shazam-ing the song to discover its provenance and gushing about it online. "Where’s My Love" was soon placed in a full Teen Wolf episode and became unofficially known to fans as "Stydia's Theme," mashing up the names of the two star-crossed lead characters, Stiles and Lydia.
"People were reaching out to me personally, saying, 'I know you wrote this song for this character'," Fennell says. "It got specific super-quick. And I had no idea about the show, much less characters. I was surprised about how meaningful the song was to true fans."
With the sudden flurry of activity around his music, Fennell chose a pseudonym his wife had suggested—SYML, pronounced sih-mul, which translates to "simple" in Welsh—and wrote and recorded the rest of his debut EP. He released the material on all platforms via a digital distribution company called TuneCore. As the music gained momentum on YouTube and elsewhere, Spotify added "Where’s My Love" and his heartrending "Girl (Acoustic)" to popular proprietary playlists Peaceful Piano and The Most Beautiful Songs in the World, respectively. SYML's play count skyrocketed.
"It's wild to think that if somebody hadn't done their due diligence, typing in that mundane metadata information about me or about that song, that there probably would've been too long of a lapse in people's attention span for it to be meaningful beyond that show," Fennell says.
Finding the right collaborators
Wisely, Fennell partnered with Canadian filmmaker Gavin Michael Booth to create a video for "Where’s My Love," which he posted to YouTube in early 2017. (The two met in the Cayman Islands while they were both working on new material for Third Eye Blind, but that's a different story.) Another instance of the song coming together with an arresting, youth-driven narrative, the video has been viewed almost 14 million times.
"There is, at this a point in my musical life, a consistent theme of very visual-sounding music," Fennell says. "Just like there are musicians who are adapting really healthfully to the newer landscapes of how people digest visual content, I'm lucky to have met a handful of those filmmakers who are willing to—with pretty minimal budget—create something new and exciting. Not just projecting their ideas on your art without caring that it works, but collaborating to make sure that it's as special as it can be."
In November 2018, Fennell released another slick, cinematic video, this one for the SYML single "Clean Eyes." It's racked up more than 700,000 views. In the last 18 months he's unveiled a slew of remixes and reimaginings of his previously released songs. Even as his process of brand-building and fan-gathering is rooted online, he spent most of 2018 traversing the real world, playing dozens of dates across the U.S. and Europe. (His live setup varies from totally solo to a backup string trio to a three-piece band with Fennell on a guitar alongside keys and drums.) He also finished his first full-length release as SYML, set for release this spring. He describes the process as "full of collaboration," even though he recorded alone in his home studio and connected to other musicians and producers online.
As a bandleader, Fennell craves direct audience engagement; as a recording artist, he appreciates the instant unfettered access that technology provides. And all of it, from the moment of creativity to the moment of discovery, are governed by forces he can't quite grasp. And he's fine with that.
"Anywhere I go pretty much around the world, there's a handful of people that are like, 'I know that song' or 'That song spoke to me'," he says of "Where’s My Love." "Just for that to even exist is some element of virality. That moment when, in spite of yourself, there's a chain of events that happen and people that discovered the music from so many different areas of the internet or radio or film and TV all convene because of this one three-and-a-half-minute song… that's supernatural."