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Breaking ‘Redbone’: The Campaign Behind Childish Gambino’s Unlikely Hit

Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” is an irresistible slice of sweaty, sultry, vintage R&B — but it’s also a song that’s difficult to imagine on the radio alongside Post Malone, “Despacito” or The Chainsmokers. Add to that, Childish Gambino is the stage name of actor Donald Glover, who, owing to a stacked schedule including the TV series “Atlanta,” the forthcoming “Star Wars” film and “The Lion King” remake, was largely unavailable to promote the album from which the song comes, “Awaken, My Love!” The kicker? Gambino is known as a rapper — and “Awaken” has no rapping.

Such situations often lead labels to scale down their promotion on the assumption that it’s throwing good money after bad. However, the opposite was true of Gambino’s label, Glassnote, the proudly independent label founded by four-decade industry veteran Daniel Glass, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and which landed “Redbone” at No. 19 on BuzzAngle’s Top Songs of 2017 (to date) chart.

“We got the complete album in August of 2016 — and when we heard it we knew we had something so special and unique,” Glass recalls. “So we urged our entire staff to get out of their offices and play it for clients. Then the fire got lit when [Apple Music’s Beats 1 DJ] Zane Lowe played the record nine times in a row! That lit a fuse at Apple Music, within the industry, and our distribution company.”

Next up, during a brief window in which he was available, Glover taped an eye-grabbing, high-profile performance of “Redbone” — in which he appeared shirtless — on “The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon” in December, shortly after the album’s release.

“Our publicity team timed that perfectly,” Glass says. “Then we shifted back to radio, where we convinced urban-adult-contemporary [stations] to play it — and the Shazams were immediately so big that we spread that story through a radio format that neither Glassnote nor Childish had ever been involved in.”

While the urban-AC stations brought the song to an older demographic, the next big boost came from, of all places, the hip-hop world. “In early 2017 we went back to see our clients,” Glass recalls, “And I had lunch with Tuma Basa,” curator of Spotify’s highly influential RapCaviar playlist. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s not a hip-hop record but you should be playing it because it’s part of the culture’ — and not long after, it was on RapCaviar, even though it was unlike anything else on it. That helped us get it onto other playlists, and it stayed there for months.”

“Sonically it wasn’t traditionally hip-hop,” Basa concurred. “But it was so dope how could we not include it? ‘Redbone’ is for the culture and RapCaviar is for the culture.”

The streaming and radio campaigns dovetailed with some key work by Glassnote’s synch department. “It was in the opening credits of Jordan Peele’s film ‘Get Out,’ we had two songs on Netflix campaigns, a couple of video games and several others,” Glass says.

Then in May, the company released a special “Virtual Reality Vinyl” boxed set of the album including VR footage from concerts Gambino played in Joshua Tree the previous summer — which prompted another round of office visits to tastemakers to show them the VR experience. “We sold out of [the boxed set] four times, and we’re bringing out a new vinyl package [later in 2017] around the new Grammy season — 15 months later, we’re still coming out with more stuff!

“It’s been an interesting project,” he says, “although it’s been challenging: We didn’t have a tour and we didn’t really have Donald, so we had to get out there and project our confidence. And Donald, to his credit, was always in cultural moments: He was on the Emmys, he was on ‘Atlanta’ and in ‘Star Wars.’ But I’ve gotta give our staff an A+ — and we’re not done! The campaign continues.”

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