Music

How Djo’s ‘End of Beginning’ Rode a TikTok Wave to Global Success

To many people, Joe Keery is the actor known for playing Steve Harrington on the beloved Netflix show Stranger Things, or Gator Tillman on the most recent season of FX’s Fargo. What those people may not know is that he’s also the creative behind the music releases under the moniker Djo and has been releasing music for the past five years under that name through Sony-owned AWAL. He started by licensing his music through the company’s distribution service and, over the years, rose through its tiered offerings to release two projects via its AWAL Recordings label.

The most recent of those projects was Decide, Djo’s 2022 album that broke through and was well received by critics, garnering him his biggest looks from the music press to date. Now, two years later, the Decide track “End of Beginning” has become a massive hit on TikTok. The song has flown to the top of the TikTok 50 chart and landed “End of Beginning” not just a spot in the top 25 of the Hot 100 (it currently sits at a new peak of No. 23) but into the top 10 of both the Global 200 (at No. 6) and the Global Ex-U.S. charts (No. 7) as the song explodes not just Stateside but around the world.

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That marks a huge success for Djo and serves as an example of how AWAL’s tiered offerings can help an artist go from hobbyist side project to worldwide success; it also helps earn AWAL CEO Lonny Olinick the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week. Here, Olinick talks about the success of “End of Beginning,” Djo’s rise through the AWAL ranks and how the company helped support the song’s growth as it began to take off on social media. “We are seeing many people who are discovering ‘End of Beginning’ and loving the song, and are digging deeper,” Olinick says. “And when they do, discovering that the person behind it is so talented in many different ways is just adding to their connection to the project.”

This week, Djo’s “End of Beginning” jumps into the top 10 of Billboard’s Global 200 (No. 6) and Global Ex-U.S. charts (No. 7), his first global chart entry and first top 10. What key decision did you make to help make that happen?

Projects that create meaningful impact always begin with the right A&R decision. You never lose when you partner with artists who have a real creative vision, the drive to be successful and great music to go along with it. That has been the case with Joe and this project since day one. 

When it comes to the success of this record, the way we have structured AWAL really allows us to mobilize on a global basis immediately. As we started to see “End of Beginning” react, we were able to spread the story in every country, tied in with the specific way it was reacting. That meant everything from press to content creation to DSP partnerships to radio, depending on the market. Joe even went to the U.K. to present at the Brits and visit key partners, with only a few days’ notice.

Djo first started out distributing his music through AWAL, then rose up through the company’s offering tiers to now doing full recordings deals with AWAL. How did you help guide that trajectory?

We are really lucky that we work in a system that allows us to find the best way to work with music we are passionate about. Ultimately, the projects help guide this process themselves. It becomes pretty clear when an artist is raising their hand and is in the right place to be supported further. I think the traditional way of looking at it — that an artist goes from doing everything on their own to counting on someone else to do everything — isn’t relevant in today’s world. The ramp should be guided by the connection an artist has made with an audience and the potential to grow beyond that base.

In Joe’s case, that is exactly what happened. When we first started working with him, he needed distribution and marketing/content advice. If we had pushed to do more too fast, we might have suffocated the creative process and organic growth he was experiencing as an artist. By the second project, there was a more defined fan base and he was ready for our team to handle marketing and push the story globally. And then we have a moment with “End of Beginning” where we are pushing every lever available to a record label on a global basis. And most importantly with that, pushing them in a way that is focused on creating fans of Djo, not just fans of “End of Beginning.”

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“End of Beginning” was originally released two years ago, then caught a new wave on TikTok earlier this year. How were you able to capitalize on that to continue to boost the song’s success?

It is critically important that we let the artist and the art dictate what is possible. In this case, we started to see such great engagement around this song and amazing content being created. Joe was excited to continue the dialogue with the audience and so our job was to spread this in a way that respected the song and artist. From there, we dig into the who, what and where of the moment. From creating new content to support the song, to pitching DSPs, radio and press, and facilitating in-person moments, our team created and executed this strategy on a global basis. And importantly, it changes in real time as the moment evolves. 

But most importantly, this has to be led and driven by the artist and that is what happened with Joe. And Joe is supported by an amazing manager in Nick Stern, who has always known when to lean into moments and when to let the fans do what they do on their own.

The song’s appearance in the top 10 on the global charts speaks to the enormous success it’s having not just in the U.S., but also around the world. How have you worked to help the song grow internationally?

To start with, we don’t care where an artist is signed or even where they are based. We let the fans tell us where there is an opportunity to engage further. Since this is ingrained in our DNA, we look at every artist with a global perspective. That has meant that our team has spent as much time focusing on what we can do in Latin America and Asia as we have on what can be done in the U.S., U.K. and Europe. As it turns out, the audience for this song is everywhere and so our team has been everywhere. But it’s easy to say we want to be global. What’s hard is to create and execute a unique plan for each and every market, and that is exactly what our team has done.

Djo — Joe Keery — is also an actor that many people know from Stranger Things and Fargo. How has his success in other mediums also helped you guys with his music career?

To be honest, this is one of the things that makes this project most meaningful and that starts with Joe. Even when I was introduced to the project five years ago, I had no idea it was Joe. I listened to the music and loved it and only found out after the fact. And that has been the way Joe has wanted it to be. He puts the music first and doesn’t want people to listen to it or discover it because he is an actor. And because of that, he has built up a hugely engaged music audience first, many of whom don’t know that he is behind Djo.

It has been interesting to watch this moment evolve. We are seeing many people who are discovering “End of Beginning” and loving the song and are digging deeper. And when they do, discovering that the person behind it is so talented in many different ways is just adding to their connection to the project.

What else are you looking to do to continue to push the song, and Djo’s career overall, moving forward?

Career is the most important part of that question. We are relentlessly focused on using this moment to create new fans for Djo, vs. just fans of “End of Beginning.” We are seeing great engagement with his whole catalogue and there are so many great songs he has put out that are getting new exposure. We believe there is a lot of life left in this song, but at the end of the day, we are spending a lot of time planning out the next two years and continuing to build a story that has already been five years in the making. So many artists have moments that they aren’t ready for and you see that, quickly, it can only be about the song. In this case, we have an artist and their team who has done the work in so many different ways and is fully ready.

How has AWAL shifted along with the music business in the last few years?

We have been fortunate to be ahead of where the industry is going for a while now. We always had fair deals and a model that allowed us to partner with artists in different ways. And most importantly, we always were a music company that prioritized being in business with artists that we love and knowing how to truly develop those artists. Our track record of developing meaningful artists really is different from any other non-traditional company. 

But that doesn’t mean we are in any way complacent. I find that our team is hungrier than we have ever been. And being a part of Sony has been an incredible accelerant to everything we planned to do. We have doubled down on the creative side of our business both in helping on the music side and the content side. The creative part of our jobs is what we ultimately all are here for. We have also built out the global side of our business even further. We have new teams in India, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria with more offices opening up in the coming months. I look at the last eight years as the hard preparation work for where the market was going. It is fun to see now how uniquely positioned we are even as so many others are trying to adapt to this new music world.

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