A Reintroduction To SALES, The Unsigned Indie-Pop Duo Making Waves On TikTok
A year ago, Lauren Morgan, one half of the Orlando-based indie rock duo SALES, shrugged off her hometown. As Morgan explained to an interviewer, the Florida city, home to over a dozen theme parks, did not significantly shape her band’s identity. “More than anywhere we’re from the internet,” she said. For seven years, Morgan and bandmate Jordan Shih have been uploading music as SALES, building a fanbase and legacy as a completely independent band. But Morgan’s comment has proved oddly prescient. Nearly a year after that interview, their first ever single “Renee,” originally released in 2013, would be the duo’s second song to go viral via the time-sucking, dance-crazed app TikTok.
“Renee” and another of SALES’ early tracks, “Chinese New Year,” have found new life in a time when the likes of Clairo and Gus Dapperton are becoming bedroom pop superstars. As Cat Zhang illustrated in her excellent analysis of TikTok hits, a “homespun quality — the sense that something was created on the cheap in someone’s bedroom — can be crucial to a song’s appeal on TikTok.” Effervescent, playful melodies and an authentic bedroom pop production — you can actually hear the chatter of outside crickets on “Renee,” since it was recorded in Morgan’s childhood bedroom — are plausible reasons why SALES’ first single has soundtracked over a million videos on the app.
SALES make crystalline pop songs, subdued but sharply crafted. Their lo-fi ease gives them a nostalgic luster, but the winding melodies and propulsive drum machine beats are signatures of their indie rock predecessors, like the xx and Metronomy. The duo met in their high school Latin class in the early ’00s but didn’t start seriously performing as SALES until several years later. They perfected the art and charm of releasing singles independently. Vibrant, geometric collaged artwork by Alan Questell accompanied every one of their initial tracks, and also their self debut EP and LP. Now their story is taking a more idiosyncratic arc, as “Renee” and “Chinese New Year” are reborn seven years after their initial release.
Choreography is the heart of TikTok, the accompanying music is the blood-pumping veins, and the successful viral challenges are like oxygen, fueling a sense of playful camaraderie and bandwagon community. Although many artists have gone viral on the platform, SALES still seem like an exceptionally peculiar case. They aren’t backed by major labels, or any label at all. They’re not brand new artists whose new songs are catching on amidst their rise. Their tracks that went viral were not old hits.
The TikTok videos that accompany SALES’ songs are, as Morgan puts it on a phone call from her new home in Asheville, North Carolina, “benign.” When “Chinese New Year” went viral last fall, the short clips captured fans running out far in the distance in the center of the camera frame as the song builds up to the chorus. As soon as the vocals chime in — “I see you at the movies” — we catch a glimpse of a figure goofily swaying their hips side to side. One video, with 4.3 million hearts, zooms in on a gangly man at the top of the Hollywood sign, moving like a drunken piece of spaghetti or an inflatable Tube Guy. Morgan adds that the videos’ ease is deceiving: “I tried to do our dance to the ‘Chinese New Year,’ and I looked like a fool. It was painful. Trying so hard to do something so silly.”
I looked like an idiot pls don’t let this flop ##foryou
Their other viral hit “Renee” — based on a serendipitous, beer-tinged soulmate encounter — has spawned a more heartwarming trend. The video fad is centered on the song’s delayed chorus where, like an encouraging high-speed carousel ride, Morgan’s vocals circle each other, repeating, “Hey! You got it/ You Got it/ Took too long to get it.” TikTok patrons play with the 30-second clip’s supportive sentiment. Some embody their roles as nurturing teachers, allowing more study time or a sympathetic ear. Some demonstrate the ways in which they will be a better partner, lover, or friend. The most poignant are the ones dedicated to mental health or personal monologues about enduring revisited trauma with a loving support system.
TikTok is no utopia. A report from earlier this year exposed the app’s censorship of imperfection, whether that means thicker bellies or depictions of societal unrest, and even the viral memes have a tendency to become exploitative, appropriative, or extremely disturbing and triggering. A recent POV trend, using the musician Absofacto’s online hit “Dissolve,” hinted at childhood sexual abuse and incest.
Fortunately, the use of SALES’ music on the platform has been “super wholesome,” Shih says. “It’s rare that I encounter one that’s disturbing or perverted that’s utilizing our music.” Morgan agrees: “We’re lucky! There was a really weird like kitten in a sex toy video to ‘Chinese New Year.’ That was disturbing. The kitty was fine. The kitty wasn’t doing anything. No harm came to anybody.” She adds, “The content to our songs isn’t exploitative or inherently negative. I feel like people have a really hard time using our music for evil. I don’t see any content that I’m like, ‘We have to take this down.'”
This is how I run my classroom. ##tiktokteacher
They also never would have thought to post their music to TikTok in the first place. “I would have never engaged with the platform,” Morgan says. “We were really good about it [before]. Prior to TikTok, we put all our music on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, the streaming platforms like Spotify. We got Instagram. I remember we weren’t gonna have an Instagram, because it was like a photo app for photographers. And so I was like, ‘Yeah, why would we do that? We’re a band.’ Now, it’s our biggest platform.” Similarly, “We’re really lucky that people actually put our music on TikTok because we never intended to,” Shih says. “I never thought one of the lyrics in our song would be a trending hashtag.”
“We haven’t put out music in like three years and our music is doing better than ever before,” Morgan exclaims gratefully. (Their last album was their sophomore release forever & ever from 2018.) “I have noticed there are people when their record cycle starts they have this huge surge on their Spotify but then it goes away. So every time Jordan and I have had a surge, I know it’s going to go away, and it ultimately does, but ours dies down and levels out way higher than it ever was. Our numbers are so level and growing steadily. I think it’s because we don’t have a bunch of resources being pumped into our music for like two months and then it goes away.”
“Like Kacey Musgraves says, ‘It’s the slow burn,'” she adds. The virality on TikTok has led to an increase in their music streams and kept them alive on major playlists. They haven’t been paid royalties from TikTok yet, but that should be coming in soon.
Here are some Phrogs to make your day better! Some of the backgrounds are done by the amazing @copicmechanism 🎺🐸💕
As sole proprietors of their music, SALES are in the music industry for the long haul. Both have come from modest backgrounds: Shih’s mother was a waitress and Morgan’s parents are salespeople that make money on commission. “We had everything to lose,” Morgan says of their early days. Not only has TikTok virality financially benefited the duo, it’s validated them and brought them even closer to these initial recordings. Morgan says these early songs carry more weight because they were made when both members were juggling mundane jobs and sorting out how to be a band.
“The interesting thing is with ‘Renee’ and these EP songs, we have this whole legend, between me and Jordan. It’s this whole saga, this whole coming-up story that nobody has ever told because we don’t have a publicist and it’s been piecemealed in random interviews,” she pauses. “We were not doing well. I’m working two jobs. Jordan’s getting up at four in the morning to go to a call center and we’re meeting up after the job. We’re scraping to get somewhere with our music. We had our only free time. We were working on this music together and it brought us together with other friends.”
While SALES’ sudden TikTok success is striking, it doesn’t seem like it’s changed the duo’s approach too much. They have been working on new material but won’t rush it out just to capitalize on their viral moment. They still trust the patient approach they’ve taken with their music. Similarly, if a new host of labels come calling, you might not see SALES take any big, seemingly lucrative deals. Shih’s talked about being inspired by independent hip-hop artists and the cautionary tales he and Morgan took away from interviews with artists like Prince and Trent Reznor, musicians famously plagued by label difficulties. It’s an exploitative system in their eyes, and things are working out just fine without that whole apparatus. After all, their recent resurgence on TikTok was as organic as their songwriting.
“The same way we make our music is the same way we run our business,” Morgan explains, alluding to the careful approach the two have taken so far. TikTok and whatever comes next won’t change that. Joking but also completely serious, she adds, “We’re going to do even less PR than we did in the beginning.”