The unlikely odds of

Making it big

What three years and 75,000 shows in New York tell us about the chance your favorite band will succeed.

On July 17, 2013, the band Sylvan Esso headlined the 250 person capacity Mercury Lounge. Sylvan Esso was one of over 7,000 bands to play a small show in the NYC area that year. The duo had just released their debut singles Play it Right and Hey Mami. The band had some buzz, but hyped indie bands often come and go.

Sylvan Esso was not one of them. About two years later, they headlined a sold-out show at Terminal 5 — a 3,000 person capacity venue in NYC. There could be little doubt that Sylvan Esso had “made it”.

In the video below, you can see thousands of Sylvan Esso fans sing along to the playful synth-pop of “Hey Mami”.

“That was crazy.” Sylvan Esso’s beat-maker Nick Sanborn told the Village Voice after the show. “I don’t know how to put stuff like that into perspective… I think we both just feel really lucky that people get what we’re trying to say.”

Sanborn was right to feel amazed. What happened to his band is rare.

According to data from the music event website Songkick, of the 7,000 bands that headlined a small venue (less than 700 capacity) in the NYC area in 2013, less than half even played another show from 2014 to October of 2016.

Of the bands that did play again, only 400 of them headlined a show at a venue with a capacity greater than 700 people.

But only 21 out of the 7,000 bands reached Sylvan Esso’s level of “making it”: headlining a show of over 3,000 capacity. Any act that headlines a venue of this size has reached a level of success that they could have barely dreamed of (with the possible exception of Kanye West). The following list shows some of the 21 bands who made it, and when and where they hit it big.

  • A Great Big World
  • Date: July 23, 2014
  • Venue: Manhattan Center
  • Sam Smith
  • Date: September 18, 2014
  • Venue: United Palace Theatre
  • Bastille
  • Date: October 9, 2014
  • Venue: Radio City Music Hall
  • Lake Street Dive
  • Date: November 14, 2014
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • Sylvan Esso
  • Date: January 23, 2015
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • London Grammar
  • Date: January 27, 2015
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • Chet Faker
  • Date: April 04, 2015
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • Chance the Rapper
  • Date: October 23, 2015
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • X Ambassadors
  • Date: May 13, 2016
  • Venue: Terminal 5
  • Mayer Hawthorne
  • Date: June 24, 2016
  • Venue: Terminal 5

And the remaining 11 others who made it...

  • 5 Seconds of Summer
  • Chase Rice
  • Disclosure
  • Gorgon City
  • Houndmouth
  • Lucius
  • Mac DeMarco
  • Misterwives
  • Rudimental
  • Shakey Graves
  • Sturgill Simpson

How long it takes to make it

In terms of how quickly they “made it”, Sylvan Esso are an anomaly. The band rose faster than any other US based band in our dataset—with less than two years between their first NYC show and headlining a big venue.

The long journey to popular success of the indie pop band Lucius is more typical. The Brooklyn based band played 24 small to medium sized shows in New York from 2009 to 2014, before headlining Terminal Five in December 2014.

The bands that make it from outside the U.S. are more likely to have short journeys to “making it”. Bands like Bastille and Disclosure had already seen significant success in their homelands before making their first appearance in the United States, and by the the time they returned for another tour they had really hit it big.

Let’s look at the different paths each band took to make it, including shows they opened and shows they headlined.

Methodology: We decided to use venue size as a proxy for success since most revenue comes from shows. The tiers of success (small, medium, and big) are manual thresholds that seemed appropriate after analyzing the data. Get in touch: or @russellviz.

Band images and samples from the Spotify API.

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