How Years & Years Made It Big in America

"It's really insane."

Written by Live Nation Staff • Photography by Sarah Rix • October 14, 2015

Don't look now, but one of the UK's most celebrated new pop acts is quietly conquering America, and they're doing it without a lot of fanfare. In a two and a half week stretch that concluded earlier this month, the synth-pop trio Years & Years sold out all eleven dates of its North American tour. This is an impressive feat for a band that previously only played a handful of US shows and has received scant American radio support for its debut album Communion, released this past June. Clearly, Years & Years are doing something right.

"It's really insane," declares Years & Years vocalist Olly Alexander; he's on the phone from Los Angeles, where he, band mates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Turkmen, and touring drummer Dylan Bell played for a crowd of almost 2000 at the Wiltern Theatre two nights previous. "I was like, 'Fuck! How is it that you people are all here?'" The insanity Alexander refers to is measured not only in numbers but in devotion—these are the sort of fans who already know every word of every song. "I've been really overwhelmed by the response," says Alexander. "We have never had a tour where everyone knows all the words."

This is all very remarkable considering that Years & Years have previously spent very little time performing live in the US. What's more, it initially seemed as if Communion, arguably one of the strongest pop collections of the year, was destined to be overlooked in America: although it hit number one in the UK, the album peaked at number 47 on the Billboard 200 and to date has only sold 17 thousand copies in the US, according to Nielsen Music.

Keith Caulfield, Billboard's Co-Director of Charts, says radio hasn't helped Years & Years either—not that it matters: "They haven't been warmly embraced by mainstream radio in America. But that doesn't mean they don't have a significant fan base, especially in the social media sphere." Caulfield reasons, then, that Years & Years have been packing major US venues with fans who aren't necessarily listening to radio. "They're listening to songs through Twitter and Spotify and they go to shows. They've built a fan base through word of mouth on the Internet."

Alexander agrees that the band has "A very dedicated fan base" but also acknowledges that "Some artists who have lower social media numbers than us sell more albums." According to Caulfield, that disconnect is simply a sign of the times: "[The fans are] used to consuming music for free. They reply to the concept of paying for music with, 'If I get it for free through Spotify or YouTube, I'm still a fan—I still Tweet about you and go to your shows and buy your T-shirts.' I think that's legit."

Regardless, it's clear that Years & Years have tapped into a sizable, sometimes underestimated American alt-pop audience that gravitates towards similar radio-marooned artists like Marina and the Diamonds. "She plays, massive venues here and she never gets played on the radio," Caulfield notes. "There are certain acts who are turning out great pop music, sell out shows, and sell boatloads of merch. Mainstream American radio just isn't on the bandwagon yet."

While a big-time US radio hit would undoubtedly be a boost, Years & Years are clearly doing fine without one. Alexander, for his part, is more optimistic about the band's US prospects than he was a few months ago. "We're not at the same level [in the US] that we are in the UK, which makes sense," he concedes. "I actually like that feeling, though, because I'm excited about where we might go."