What does it take to turn a catchy track into a bonafide mega-hit? As part of this year’s Power 50 series, Jessica Dale chats with some key players that helped shape Tones & I's 2019.
Twenty-one weeks is a long time. Around five months. 147 days. That’s how long Tones & I - real name Toni Watson - held the #1 spot on the ARIA Singles Chart without interruption. From 3 August to 28 December, Dance Monkey stayed steady on the chart before being pushed down to #2 by Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.
At 14 weeks, Watson took the record for most weeks consecutively spent at #1 on the chart, breaking the record by Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise (1995/96), Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Justin Bieber collab Despacito (2017) and Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road (2019), as well as overtaking The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which held the record for 13 weeks at #1 in 1968 when the charts were monitored by the Kent Music Report.
The following week Watson broke ABBA’s run for most consecutive weeks at #1 on the Kent charts, taking over the 1976 record from Fernando, and by week 15 Dance Monkey had tied with Ed Sheeran’s non-consecutive Shape Of You record. Sheeran had held the top spot in 2017, with 13 straight weeks at #1 followed by one week at #2 and a further two at #1. She’d beat the record the following week and smash it for the following five. As it stands, Dance Monkey has had a massive 24 weeks non-consecutively at the top of the ARIA Singles Chart. Oh, and it's Tones & I's second-ever release.
While Dance Monkey (which has now had more than 7 billion streams across all platforms) was written solely by Watson - reportedly in less than half an hour - the work that went into it being a global #1 track was a team effort.
Sony Music Entertainment's now Senior Manager Of A&R and Marketing Marietta Ouzas first brought Tones & I's music to Sony Music Entertainment in early 2019, with Chairman & CEO, Australia & New Zealand Denis Handlin signing Watson to the label soon after.
Prior to this, the Tones & I's management team - Lemon Tree Music's Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan, and Artists Only's Jackson Walkden-Brown - was building. Ouzas would go on to join the team in early 2020, working with Emma Steven on day management.
The team worked closely with streaming platforms throughout 2019. Spotify Australia, led by Alicia Sbrugnera, started with playlisting of Dance Monkey early on and continued from there. The support would soon see Watson secure herself the platform’s most-streamed song ever by a solo female artist, with Dance Monkey reaching over 1.5 billion streams within a year. Katie Hardwick and the Apple Music team played a key role in the song's success too, helping to break Watson in territories around the world. By September, Dance Monkey was gaining over one million searches a week via Shazam and by early 2020 it had held 23 weeks at the top of the Shazam chart, making it the longest-standing #1 for Shazam. Video played a huge part as well, with YouTube Music's Marion Briand (Manager, Music Content Partnerships AU/NZ, YouTube and YouTube Music) making Watson the first-ever Australian act to partake in the Artist On The Rise initiative, receiving global promotion from video streaming service.
Here's how Tones & I's 2019 looked from the perspective of some of these key players:
Jackson Walkden-Brown: "I met Tones in September 2017 during her first busk in Byron Bay. I was blown away by her voice and left a card in her case. She called about a week later and soon after that she was up at my place working out of my studio in the Gold Coast hinterland. I’ve been a music lawyer for about a decade, but Tones was my first management client. I feel very blessed to have stumbled across such an inspiring and talented artist!
"The whole journey has just been absolutely incredible! I knew from the moment I met Tones that she was exceptionally special, but no-one could’ve predicted the curve on this trajectory. It’s insane. In the early days I’d go busking with her and just observe the onlookers. I knew from the way people on the street engaged with her that things were really going to roll when we starting releasing music officially. No one walked past her. Ever. By the end of the first song there always at least 20 people, and 100 by the third. Every time. We were getting shut down by the police so often because of people spilling onto the road. Everyone just loved her and she became iconic in Byron before she’d even released a track!"
Regan Lethbridge: “So Harry Moore, who is her agent at Lonely Lands Agency, sent me a video of Tones busking in Byron, that would have been June/July 2018, it just stopped me in my tracks. I literally fell off my chair, called him straight away and I was screaming down the phone, 'Who is this?! What a voice! Can I meet with her? Can I meet with her?' and then the following week he hooked up a meeting and I think we had two or three coffee dates, whatever you want to call it, and said a bit about what LTM did, our history with buskers and taking them global and all that sort of stuff, plus just connected with Tones and heard about her vision as an artist and that’s the very, very early phase of it. The video got sent to my office in Melbourne, my business partner David Morgan and our staff played it and everyone just had the same reaction - then we started conversations with Jackson as well who was her manager for that whole first year and first discovered her busking in Byron Bay... We then worked out a co-management agreement and we signed in January 2019. We set up and launched the first single Johnny Run Away on the first of March. We will be forever grateful to Jackson and Tones for letting us into their world so early on and now we have an unbreakable trust."
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Marietta Ouzas: “I came across Tones in January 2019, over the summer break in Byron Bay. My sister-in-law gave me the hot tip to check out this busker called Tones & I who is a favourite amongst the locals and pulling massive crowds on the streets. I remember instantly looking at Tones’ Instagram account and being totally blown away by the busking clips that showcased her unique vocal and ability to really captivate the street crowds in Byron... Unfortunately Tones wasn’t busking over the two days I was in Byron, but I reached out to Jackson and he got back to me pretty much straight away and sent me early versions of Johnny Run Away and Dance Monkey. They were amazing, they were incredible songs and they instantly grabbed my attention.
“Tones was playing her first-ever show in Sydney the following week at the Beach Road Hotel, so I flew up to Sydney and I spent about an hour before the show with Tones. That was the first time we met and we spoke and I got to know her and it was really evident from that conversation, even though I hadn’t seen her perform yet, that she was just so confident in who she is as a person, as an artist and I could really feel that determination. It was an incredible night, I was completely blown away and had a chat to Tones afterwards and I bought two of her demo CDs so I could actually listen to her music because she didn’t have any music out there... Straight after that I sent everything to Denis and included the music - Johnny Run Away and Dance Monkey - and he said ‘incredible, go for it’.
David Morgan: "I was sent a link to a demo for Johnny Run Away in July 2018. I almost fell off my chair and our office and staff companywide all stopped what we were doing for a solid hour whilst we social stalked her and listened to anything and everything we could find, over and over again. I then met Tones when I saw her play live for the first time in September 2018 which is basically when we (Regan and I) started begging to be part of her team. We then helped set up her label and business structure to release completely independently starting with Johnny Run Away coming out 1 March 2019."
Marion Briand: "I still remember it vividly. I was in Byron and walked past her busking. I stopped because her performance was jaw-dropping, and I had never heard a voice or sound like that before. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to talk to her then, as it was packed with people hoping to get a glimpse. At the beginning of 2019, I went to Tones’ first indoor show. It was on 16 January at the Beach Road Hotel in Bondi. I was with the Sony A&R team who were in conversations with Tones at the time. Even though it was her first official venue show, people were blown away. Not long after that in February 2019, we reached out to book her for a work event where there would be several hundred people in attendance. The event was incredible and the response was even more impressive than her first venue show. From that point on, it was clear that we had to be a part of her story and to support her international trajectory."
RL: "We gave it [Dance Monkey] to everyone super early, well before it was out. I flew to Sydney and played it to [triple j's] Richard Kingsmill, he listened, he said he really loved it, he worded up the Unearthed team that it was coming. It was just a normal kind of set-up except we were starting from complete scratch. All the DSPs [digital service providers], we just really made them all feel like they were each owning it, which they were, and the main thing is just that Tones is simply incredible. Sony were on it super early here and they have been incredible from Denis down to the entire engine room. Tones is as real as it gets and we just wanted everyone we possibly could find across her story and music. We then went about setting up the international teams which took some months. Tones writes incredible songs, her voice is mind-blowing and it resonates. You can hear the emotion in her voice, it’s what really cuts through; just her songwriting chops in general, how clever she is as an artist. At the end of the day, we set it up but all the credit needs to go to Tones because she’s just that brilliant. It’s just an honour to be a part of it and really help take it global. We felt from the outset how special Tones was as a person and as an artist and just believed anything was possible."
DM: "For every artist we set up a different and unique strategy, however we like to stick to the same principles - it has to be a global plan, has to start independent and stay indie for as long as possible in as many markets as possible with the artist having full control of their music/art/business. We take a very artist-led approach and try to bring their dreams to life. With Tones, we knew the music would do the talking and it was all about rolling it out, telling her story and connecting the dots across the different international markets."
MO: “Dance Monkey was released in May and first went to #1 on the third of August. It stayed at the top of the ARIA Chart for a record-breaking 24 weeks, which is an incredible achievement. Then all the charts around the world started to come through from there, it was #1 in over 30 countries. In the UK it broke the record for the longest-running #1 by a female artist on the Official Singles Chart and reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 [in the US]. Tones has had a monumental year and I’m incredibly proud of the person she is and everything she has achieved. I’m inspired by her every day.
RL: "That was incredible to be honest. Tones has got the longest #1 for a female in the UK ever, she overtook Whitney Houston for 11 weeks at #1 which was just mind-blowing. And with the ARIA Charts, it was crazy. The whole thing is just an emotional experience. The build-up is crazy. You definitely get emotionally invested in someone when you’re spending so much time with them and so invested in their career so the whole thing has been, I’m not going to say surreal, it’s just been an honour and absolutely incredible to a part of. It’s a credit to the entire team, there’s a huge team on this - from management to agents, to labels to publishers - here and overseas - and everyone that’s just been working around the clock. When you get everyone swimming in the same direction like that with an artist like Tones and her drive and her vision, not just with her songs but with her creative vision, it’s just incredible. It’s unstoppable. It was like a global wave...
"It felt like everyone was behind her, which I love. It’s like ‘the underdog Aussie that was busking and taking over the world’. It’s fucking awesome. It really did feel like we had that unstoppable momentum, and as soon as we overtook Ed Sheeran and she had the outright record that was just incredible - and to get to 24 weeks at #1 is mind-blowing. It’s still top 10 or something in the charts almost a year on. The all-time record for #1 on Spotify Global Charts and being the most-streamed song ever by a female on Spotify is just insane and something we will never forget. It just ticked over 1.5 billion streams on Spotify and over 7 billion streams on all platforms globally which is madness and the song has only been out one year. Insanely proud... And the best part is what's to come and what's next from Tones."
The AFL Grand Final
JWB: "Walking out onto the ground was intense! I’m not into sports so I haven’t experienced the big stadium sports vibe very often in my life. And when Dance Monkey kicked in it was just nuts. The management team were side of stage on the ground, jumping around like a bunch of kids with our arms around each other. Treasured memory."
DM: "I think relief was the ultimate feeling on the day followed closely by an immense sense of pride in Tones and how she rose to the occasion. The AFL Grand Final is arguably one of the most criticised performances in Australia and Tones had a grand plan for it that included an anti-bullying/one love message. There were multiple teams that worked on that performance, 50 back-up dancers, choreography, on-ground creative design and, of course, song choice. Everything was led by Tones' creative vision and we all had to pull together to make it happen. It was epic."
RL: “Anna from Mushroom reached out, planting a seed because apparently the AFL public have been screaming for locals for years - three local acts - and it was pretty early on, from memory. I’m pretty sure that Dance Monkey had gone #1 but it wasn’t like crazy record-breaking... I was at a cafe with Tones and when the call came in actually. We just chatted about it and said, ‘Look do you want to go for it this year or do you want to hold off and do it next year? Write a pros and cons list or whatever?’ and she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ Tones drives everything on the creative side - because everything that happens creatively onstage comes from her brain - so getting that together with the team, which Em, Elise and the Lemon Tree team did such an incredible job bringing that vision to life with the challenges of putting on an event of that scale during a football match, when a lot of people are there for the footy. So the logistics and all that side of things were definitely challenging but we bound together and we got through it. I was actually in Denver with Dave because another client, Tash Sultana, had sold out Red Rocks so we flew to Denver for one night because we couldn’t miss that and then the next day flew back. Literally landed in Melbourne at 11 o’clock, rushed to the ground and we made it to see. It was so surreal. It was just an incredible moment, I remember hugging with Jackson and Dave, jumping up and down in the air like school kids when Tones was playing. It was a real buzz, I’ll never forget it. It was a real proud moment and it's not an easy gig. You don’t often feel like that but it was definitely one of those days where she just went out there and owned it and on her own terms.
Denis Handlin: "You cannot underestimate the impact that Tones has had on the Australian industry and also globally. With #1s and breaking records here and in many other markets, her achievements have well and truly placed her on a world stage. Her success again shows that Australian talent is very strong and can certainly compete internationally. For Sony Music, it also reaffirms our enviable track record of signing and developing artists that can travel outside of Australia and be embraced by fans around the world."
MO: "Splendour was an unforgettable moment. Tones won the triple j Unearthed spot and from the beginning of her 12pm slot there was a sea of people and the crowd continued to grow as Tones powered through her set."
DH: “The four ARIA Award wins, especially the coveted Best Female and Breakthrough Artist awards, were a clear highlight. There was also a very special gig of only 200 people at The Workers Club in Melbourne the day we signed Tones to the company, which coincided with the opening of our new Melbourne office premises. The venue was jammed, it was a thousand degrees inside and everyone shoulder to shoulder. She did a fantastic set, which included Dance Monkey. The song had just been released and it had not even charted at that point. It was not long afterwards that everything changed for her forever."
JWB: "Busy. Very bloody busy. We were building a global team and that took a crazy amount of time, energy and travel. We were having amazing wins constantly which kept us all motivated, but there were also significant roadblocks that we needed to navigate almost daily. It really was a surreal year. I still struggle to come to terms with the milestones she reached in the first official year of her career. So many unprecedented achievements and cherished memories."
MO: "It was massive. We officially signed Tones on the 16th of May, which was the night of the Melbourne Sony Music office opening and also Tones’ first sold-out show at The Workers Club. From that moment, it was just crazy. Seeing how quickly Dance Monkey grew throughout the entire world was just something I don't think any of us have ever seen before."
MB: "After I met Tones, I worked closely with Sony and Lemon Tree Music to provide best practices and grow her presence on YouTube and ensure that her music was surfacing to listeners across YouTube Music. I also took Tones to the global team to organise a YouTube Artist On The Rise package. They were sold from the moment they heard her music and saw the creative vision; it was a no-brainer for everyone involved. It was an incredible moment as she was the first Australian artist to join our Artist On The Rise family. We launched three huge digital billboards in NYC (Times Square) and LA (Downtown) to celebrate Tones & I as the latest Artist On The Rise on 18 November. 2019 was a massive year for Tones & I. In less than a year, she grew her audience from just 8,000 subscribers, at the beginning of July, to reaching more than 2.8 million subscribers. But it’s not just her subscriber count that has taken off; over this same period her channel has grown from 1.4 million views to more than a billion views. Dance Monkey has spent nine weeks on YouTube’s global Music Charts, and we’ve seen her release more music which is sure to perform well."
RL: “We’ll look back on it one day and reflect - we haven’t had a chance at the moment, it’s been flat out - but one day we’ll catch our breath - we’re not really the ‘pop the bubbles’ type of people - we’re always just excited on what’s next.
The Next Step
DH: "Tones will continue to push boundaries both creatively with her music but also through the clever and unique ways she connects and engages with her fans. She is currently working on her debut album and 2021 will see her out on the road for an already sold-out world tour. Tones is a very special artist and she is the real deal. She is believable, compelling and relevant. The next 12 months will be incredibly exciting for her."
MB: "We continue to have an amazing relationship with Tones where we can bring a massive global audience to her unique creativity. We are here to enhance and amplify what she wants to do. Tones has a tonne of ideas she wants to work on and we are here to support her every step of the way. There’s a lot of things brewing as Tones' creativity is prolific and her energy is contagious!"
MO: "Tones has such an incredible creative vision for everything she does and she drives that as well. We’re here to listen to her, understand her vision, help bring it to life and amplify it. Tones has creativity pouring out of her, it's incredibly inspiring and I’m so grateful to be part of her journey."
RL: "Since the start, we’ve just loved working on what she’s got recorded in the can and we’re just so excited to keep setting things up and keep rolling forward because she’s so brilliant live, her songwriting is just something like I’ve never heard before and she’s a career artist. And that’s the proposition that we’re super excited about - no matter how big Dance Monkey is, or got and still is, we as a team are excited about what’s next and that’s the cool thing... We’re just getting started. We’re only 18 months in, I can’t wait to see what the next five to ten years looks like around the world."