Get Lucky, the new single from French electronic duo Daft Punk, is on its way to becoming the official summer anthem of 2013. Since its release on April 19, it’s sold 838,000 digital downloads in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and shot to No. 1 on digital charts in 55 countries. It also set a Spotify record for first-day streams and has since been heard on the service more than 40 million times.
The success of Get Lucky upends many truisms in the music business about artists, taste, and marketing. Most huge summer hits come from familiar names: Katy Perry’s California Gurls, the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling, Kid Rock’s All Summer Long. Another fresh face, Gotye, who had last summer’s unstoppable Somebody That I Used to Know, took almost a full year of media saturation (constant radio airplay, performances on American Idol and Glee, supportive tweets from celebs like Ashton Kutcher) to become a certified hit. How did two obscure, older French guys—their biggest previous single, 2000’s One More Time, peaked at No. 61 on the Billboard chart in the U.S., and they had limited Internet presence and no live performances in 2013—record a disco-inspired song that’s become the most buzzed-about tune of the summer?
Much of it has to do with the catchiness of Get Lucky. Thomas Bangalter, 38, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 39, Daft Punk’s creative core, started crafting the song, and much of their new album, Random Access Memories, in 2008. Get Lucky clocks in at just over four minutes, but it took more than 18 months to write and record. They called in a veritable army of collaborators, from Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to rapper/singer Pharrell Williams to a rhythm section that included jazz drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Nathan East. “Get Lucky has an infectious dance-like feel to it,” says David Wong, a 26-year-old fan from Long Island. “Whenever it plays, I can’t help but bob along to the beat. The song is an absolute ear-worm.”
Just as important as the song is the rollout that introduced it to the world. Although Daft Punk has the PR muscle of Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, they opted for their own small-scale marketing strategy, co-created with a team of longtime allies and business partners: manager Paul Hahn, media director Kathryn Frazier, creative director Cédric Hervet, and illustrator Warren Fu. Rather than follow the music industry’s usual blitzkrieg approach to promotion, they went for minimalism. Or as Bangalter prefers to call it, “a seduction.” The idea, he says, was to make people “excited about the music, and you cannot make people excited by giving them everything. It’s a process of tempting, of teasing, of creating desire.”
The seduction began long before anybody heard a note of Get Lucky, when an image appeared on the band’s Facebook (FB) page in late February, featuring two helmets—one gold and one silver, the duo’s regular costume since 2001—cut in half, with no other information. Hahn says the band has posted “maybe eight times” since the page was created in 2007, and the helmets caused a stir online. The same image appeared simultaneously on the band’s website. The mystery of it—What did it mean? Was Daft Punk announcing a new song? A new album? Something else?—attracted millions to the site on the first day. “It averaged about 50 hits a second,” Hahn says. “The initial traffic crashed our server within the first minute. It was like a crazy wave of people clicking all at once. The site went down for a few hours so we could switch servers.”
Speculation intensified when billboards started popping up in cities such as Los Angeles, London, New York, and Paris. As with the Facebook post, the central image of the billboards featured just the two Daft Punk helmets and a black background, with no information other than the Columbia Records logo. The inspiration for this seemingly antiquated promotional scheme came from a book, Rock ’n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, by photographer Robert Landau, which Bangalter and de Homem-Christo became obsessed with, bringing a copy to an early marketing meeting with Columbia Records Chairman Rob Stringer. “We like how billboards were used in Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s to promote album releases,” Bangalter says. “The way those visuals mixed in with the sky and the palm trees and the Hollywood avenues. They became iconic symbols of that landscape, the panorama of Los Angeles and Hollywood.”
Manager Hahn gets even more wistful when talking about billboards. “We wanted to celebrate an era of music marketing that was not only pre-Internet but also pre-MTV,” he says. “When music labels had a gravitas, and they’d advertise on television and with billboards and other physical marketing. Customers would be waiting for the next Warner Brothers release or the next Casablanca Records release. Music is no less important in people’s lives today than it ever was, but everything around it has been diminished, including the marketing.”
It’s difficult to quantify a billboard’s success—unlike an Internet promotion, you can’t count the number of hits—but photos of the billboards went viral on Instagram and Twitter. One fan even created a Reddit page to map international billboard sightings.
The marketing was meant to reflect the thinking behind the record, according to Bangalter. “When we made the music, we did it with a very old school methodology,” he says. While pop music has become increasingly computer-generated, the songs on Random Access Memories, including Get Lucky, were recorded with live instruments on analog tape. “But we knew the music would be consumed on laptops and iPhones. We used that same approach in promotion. We told audiences about Get Lucky with these iconic, old school marketing strategies like billboards and TV commercials, but ultimately all of those things came through the digital pipeline.” The marketing, he says, became an interaction between cultural media, “almost a duet between the offline and the online.”
“Get Lucky” made its auspicious, heavily excerpted debut on March 2nd, in the first of two 15 second commercials that premiered during a broadcast of Saturday Night Night. The second commercial arrived on March 23rd. Both spots, which aired only once each, included just instrumental music, and never a mention of the song’s title or release date. “If you see something and you see it everywhere, then you’re less compelled to tell your friend about it,” Hahn explains. “But if you see something once and there’s no real context and it seems a little out of place, you ask yourself, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It’s that WTF moment we were trying to create with the Saturday Night Live commercials.” The lack of any clues, he says, either in the commercials or online, was entirely intentional. “People went to Google and Daft Punk’s website to figure out out what the hell they’d just seen, but there was nothing,” Hahn says. That lack of information only wet their appetites. “In this age of hyper-communication and hyper-accessibility, being denied answers is unusual and it compelled people to want to talk about it and understand it and share it.”
Even those within the industry had limited access. Frazier, Daft Punk’s media director, didn’t send out digital files of Get Lucky. She delivered the album personally in a titanium briefcase. She’d visit journalists or executives in their offices or homes, listen to it with them, and then leave with the album in the case. “The president of Columbia didn’t have his own copy,” she says. “We kept it very secret.” From January until the release, Frazier traveled at least a couple of times a week, going from Japan to Australia to Latin America to the U.K. The titanium briefcase and CIA-style security weren’t just to prevent leaks. They also controlled the context in which critics heard Get Lucky. “They had to sit and listen to it all, sometimes twice,” Frazier says. “You shouldn’t write about a song without a thoughtful and uninterrupted listening experience.”
Get Lucky took off in various incarnations—on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, among other social networks—but none of it was directly orchestrated by Daft Punk. “A lot of music marketing in this day and age is done online,” Hahn says. “Partly because it’s inexpensive and seemingly because it’s effective and efficient. But in our minds, social networks are just that: They’re networks of interconnected people talking.” Hahn says marketing to potential customers on social networks is the equivalent of home solicitation, like a telemarketer making a cold call during dinner. “It’s annoying at worst,” he says. “At best it’s just white noise in the background that people have learned to ignore.”
The online promotion of Get Lucky has been almost nonexistent. The song still doesn’t have an official video (although the audio-only YouTube video has been viewed more than 62 million times), and Daft Punk’s website has two pages with almost no content. A third trailer for Get Lucky, a one-minute excerpt with vocals that aired in mid-April on both the Coachella music festival mainstage and on Saturday Night Live, had its online debut when a fan took a video of his TV screen during the SNL broadcast. “The press picked up on it and embedded the fan’s posting,” Hahn says. “They basically reported on a fan’s home video. Any Internet marketing for Get Lucky was incidental. It wasn’t what we were doing.”
Inspiring audience participation may be the most important rule in the Daft Punk playbook. Bangalter calls it “a flirtation”—a relationship that’s rarely exploited, much less understood, by most big label promotional machines. With so little information about Get Lucky available, fans and curiosity seekers had to create their own content for a song that existed only in fragments. Everyone from British comedian Steve Coogan to Russian guitarist Igor Presnyakov posted covers of the song online when they just had a handful of lyrics and a few chords. One fan even took the 15-second SNL commercial and looped it into a 10-hour video (which has been viewed more than 274,880 times).
“The song’s success was really about the audience’s response to our marketing, more than the marketing itself,” Hahn says. If there’s one vital lesson he’s learned from the campaign, it’s the importance of leaving empty spaces. “The mystery lets the audience’s imagination fill in the gaps,” he says. “What it tells us is, there’s a great unexpressed desire in audiences worldwide to be active and to participate and not be spoken to as just a passive entity. You have to engage an audience in a way that inspires their imaginations. You have to invite them to participate.” We don’t want to be treated like consumers, he says. We want to be treated like dance partners.
Wong, the Long Island fan, is one of those dance partners. He’s been involved in two video covers of the Daft Punk hit, one an Irish waltz with other musicians and the other a solo effort, a reinterpretation of the song with electro-acoustic violin. Both videos have hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. (Wong isn’t a professional musician. He earns his paychecks at the Long Island Violin Shop and Connolly Music, a bowed string instrument distributor in East Northport, N.Y.) He’s aware that his covers of Get Lucky are essentially unpaid advertisements, and he’s fine with that. “I think Daft Punk produces quality content,” Wong says, “and I’m happy to market it for them.”
He agrees with the dance partner analogy, but he’s even more enthusiastic about Bangalter’s assertion that Daft Punk is not so much marketing to its fans as seducing them. “Absolutely,” he says. “It was a constant ‘come hither’ act. By the time they gave it all to you, you couldn’t help but eat it up.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)