The Mastermind Behind Karmin

Karmin's manager Nils Gums talks about his marketing strategy for the band and how Berklee prepared him for the business.
February 6, 2012

It's an internet fairy tale: Berklee-educated duo Karmin uploaded some covers to YouTube, the Ellen DeGeneres show came calling, then Lady Gaga's agent, and this week they'll perform on Saturday Night Live.

But behind their seemingly instant success is a man with a marketing strategy: fellow Berklee alumnus Nils Gums '06.

Gums met Amy Heidemann (Karmin's main vocalist) in gospel choir while he was a music business/management major here. When they reconnected more than four years later, it was the summer of 2010. Heidemann and Nick Noonan, both 2008 graduates, had just released an EP and Gums had spent the prior several years designing and testing a system to launch artists by having them cover pop songs on YouTube.

The idea is simple. People are searching for popular songs on YouTube all the time. If they happen upon a cover of a song, they might become fans of the artist. But Gums's plan was more sophisticated, and involved scouring Billboard charts and making projections for the right songs, tagging and retagging the videos to maximize their searchability, and creating an illusion that their rise was organic, by slowly increasing the quality of the video as they were released.

His plan also hinged on choosing an act that possessed three key factors: talent, work ethic, and personality.

That talent is required might be obvious, but the other two are critical, as well. Gums worked Karmin like a drill sergeant, requiring them to produce two covers and one original video every week. They were also producing other videos, too: hair tutorials for fans of Heidemann's vintage 'dos, funny commercials for their t-shirts, and a spoof of MTV's The Real World. Personality needed to come through in the music—some artists fail at this marketing strategy by using it as a platform for karaoke—and in their presence generally.

"From the very first video, even though it was a cover, the listener experienced what their original music was like," said Gums.

Music business faculty member Stephanie Kellar is writing a case study on Karmin to use, in part, to teach her students about creative marketing in the brave new music business world.

As she sees it, the real beauty of this model is that a band can build a significant fan base for a small investment.

"You don't have to gig endlessly, selling CDs out of the trunk of your car anymore," said Kellar.

That said, she doesn't see this as a way around paying your dues.

"The bottom line is—and there's no substitute for it—Karmin worked really hard," said Kellar.

Gums believes that Berklee ignited his entrepreneurial spirit. Few have access to such a wealth of music business resources and talent, particularly as an undergraduate. Many of his first clients were Berklee connections.

Gums's plans for Karmin include a clever reversal of the cover strategy: They're inviting others to cover Karmin's original songs.

The submissions of "Crash Your Party" covers on YouTube are surprisingly heartwarming. Scores of fans and aspiring musicians participated. In one, an 11-year-old who sang along with prerecorded music has already garnered nearly 20,000 views. It's evidence, perhaps, that all the discipline and strategizing has yielded another enduring outcome—real fans, their hearts captured and their sights set on creating fairy tales of their own.