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The Importance of Being on the Road: Grassroot Success Stories

This fall, The Head and The Heart will play the final leg of the tour supporting its self-titled debut album, and then will likely take a little time off. If there is any downtime for the band, it will be the first in about four years for the band that has been actively touring consistently since 2009.

The folk rock band is one of the most recent groups to prove that hard work and long stints on the road, building fans mainly through word of mouth, can pay off in an internet age when stars can be made overnight through a single tweet by Justin Bieber (see: Carly Rae Jepsen).

The saga of The Head and The Heart began in Seattle when the group came together somewhat haphazardly through meetings at open mic nights at Conor Byrne, a bar in the Ballard neighborhood of the city. By June of 2010, the band were selling burned copies of the aforementioned self-titled album that they recorded on their own dime to fans at shows up and down the West Coast. Any time a band independently sells 10,000 copies of an album, like they did, people take notice. Namely, the fellow Seattleites at Sub Pop Records, who signed the band.

When Sub Pop reissued the album in 2011, the group received more widespread attention, and ended up joining tours that saw them opening for the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and Vampire Weekend. The tour in October will be a headlining tour taking place mostly on the West Coast that will likely seem like something of a victory lap for the group. And if they take that time off, it is most assuredly deserved.

But of course, The Head and The Heart is by no means the first band to use grassroots methods to build a large and dedicated fan base, and here we’ll take a look at three of the best examples of other bands that have done the same thing.

The Avett Brothers

When legendary producer Rick Rubin signed the band to his American Recordings label in 2008 and produced I and Love and You, the album that has gained the band worldwide notoriety, he didn’t pick them out of obscurity. The group, which plays acoustic music influenced by folk, country and bluegrass similar to the sound of The Head and The Heart, had been releasing records since 2000, though the band’s roots go even further back.

At the core of the group are the Avett brothers themselves, Seth and Scott, which have been singing together all of their lives. After their previous rock band fell apart, they released an EP under the title of the Avett Brothers and spent the majority of the first decade of this millennium on the road. And those shows kept the fans coming back.

The fan base grew rapidly as fans responded to the brothers heartfelt lyrics and inspired stage show. By the time Rubin signed them, they had already traded in the tour van for a tour bus and were selling out relatively large venues around the country. Those venues turned into stadiums and arenas after I and Love and You cracked the top 20 of the Billboard 200 albums charts, and there’s no sign of the band slowing down yet.

Zac Brown Band

Starting in 2002, Zac Brown and his band began touring around 200 dates a year, a trying schedule for any band, and particularly one where all the members were struggling to make ends meet. But fortunately, the touring around small venues and college towns quickly garnered an extremely devoted fan base that seemed to come out every time the band came to town.

Finally, all the touring and the self-release of two albums paid off when the band was signed to Live Nation Artists Records. Since that time the band has been one of the biggest on the country music scene, and every single the band has released except its current one has gone to either number one or number two on the Billboard country singles chart.

This trend will likely continue with the release of the band’s third major label album, Uncaged. The record is set to be released on July 10.

The Black Keys

When the Black Keys released their debut album, The Big Come Up, in 2002, they were seen in some circles as just another garage rock revival group trying to grab onto the fleeting coattails of the movement started in the previous couple of years by bands like the Strokes and fellow drum-and-guitar group the White Stripes.

And for a while it seemed like the band was doomed to vanish quietly into obscurity – but the group had plans of its own, and stayed on the road and continued to record records.

By the latter half of the 2000s the band had signed to the major label subsidiary Nonesuch, and when their fifth album, Attack & Release, was released in 2008 it cracked the top 20 of the U.S. album charts. Of course that was nothing compared to what would come next.

The group’s next two albums, Brothers and El Camino, debuted at number three and number two on the albums chart respectively. Brothers won three Grammy Awards in 2011, and the group’s audience continues to grow bigger just like it always has. Only now the growth is exponential.

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