In the ever-evolving landscape of the music industry, few artists have managed to reach success in almost every European region. From Tallinn to Lisbon, the global acclaim achieved by Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, can be seen on his tour’s impact.
His post-pandemic resurgence has not only shattered streaming records worldwide but has also solidified his position as an unparalleled force in the European music scene. As we delve into the intricacies of his success on the continent, it becomes evident that The Weeknd‘s journey is characterized by more than just chart-topping hits; it’s a narrative of breaking barriers, forging deep connections with his fans, and redefining the traditional approach to merchandise.
The Weeknd’s dominance on Spotify is nothing short of phenomenal. Continuously holding the title of the most listened-to artist globally, he reached new heights with his 2021 sensation, “Blinding Lights.” This track not only became the most streamed song on the platform, but it also marked the first to surpass 4 billion streams. With this achievement, The Weeknd solidified his reign on Spotify, boasting a record-breaking 115 million monthly listeners, a feat unprecedented in the platform’s history.
His triumph on the streaming front is mirrored by his live performances during the 2023 European leg of the “After Hours Till Dawn” tour. The tour saw The Weeknd breaking attendance and revenue records at various stops, including a remarkable feat of surpassing 80,000 spectators at London Stadium. However, the pinnacle of his European tour success came with the total gross of $158.1 million, making him the highest-grossing black artist in the continent’s history. With over 1.6 million tickets sold across 30 shows, The Weeknd’s tour became a cultural phenomenon, showcasing the artist’s ability to transcend musical boundaries and connect with audiences on a profound level.
What sets The Weeknd apart goes beyond his infectious 80’s- and 90’s-revamped instrumentals. His unique ability to blend nostalgic sounds with contemporary prose creates a magnetic force that draws fans closer, forging a profound connection. This connection is the bedrock of what The Weeknd and his fans affectionately refer to as the XO family, reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters community. The XO family serves as a safe haven for those who share a deep admiration for The Weeknd’s artistry, transcending mere musical affinity. His songs, exploring a love-hate relationship with vulnerabilities, forge a personal connection with fans beyond the music.
To maintain this deep-rooted bond, The Weeknd engages with his fanbase through direct social media interactions and unplanned real-life encounters. The XO family thrives on this reciprocity, creating a sense of belonging. The artist’s holistic approach extends to the creation of elaborate narratives surrounding his musical body of work, offering fans a rich, dynamic, and cross-media experience. Lyrics, graphic artworks, music videos, live TV performances, and social media content seamlessly weave together to form a coherent storyline, enriching the overall fan experience.
Nevertheless, live concert chances are hard to get. Artists usually only tour cyclically and it can take sometimes a decade for them to reach certain countries in the world. On top of that, rising prices, inflation and fan hysteria can make it a very arduous task to obtain one ticket, hoping the internet platform doesn’t crash on peak time when they drop. Given that situation, merch items are the only palpable, touchable thing providing the fandom with an offline experience, at least during some years. That is of great importance since being a fan is something that may eventually fade away due to other life circumstances and then the special chance of creating a memory by feeling connected to an artist’s craft is gone.
Looking into the last years of The Weeknd’ merchandise, there is a clearly special must-have: ‘After Hours Heartless Lollipops’: frog-shaped suckers. During the ‘Heartless’ MV, the Canadian singer licks a toad while the lyrics ‘I lost my heart and my mind, I tried to always do right’ are crooned in the background. Coming from a character who falls to all available temptations in Las Vegas to overcome his loneliness and depression, Abel plays a pessimistic man who attempts to evade himself through substance abuse.
That scene offers different decodings to fans from different generations and backgrounds: on the one side, licking a toad to get psychedelic hallucinations through bufotenin and forget about his self-rejection regardless of the high risks it entails and on the other side, metaphorically kissing an amphibian. The latter one would present The Weeknd rewriting the classical fairy-tale narrative where a princess kisses a toad to find love in an enchanted prince.
From a conceptual perspective, that frame summarizes the leitmotif of Abel Tesfaye: losing control in the name of a forever broken heart that can never be healed by anybody because his impulses, needs and mistakes make him toxic for anyone (also seen when he is making out with a sculpture in the same MV). For that reason, crafting frog-shaped ‘mystery’ flavour lollipops (customized by Californian brand Sparko Sweets) gives the fans access to the most personal moment of the ‘After Hours’ narrative. The Weeknd is selling a celebration of vulnerability and unstable self-rejection in form of apple-flavour (matching the green toad’s color) candy.
Ironically, calling the second flavor ‘mystery’ allows the consumer to unbiasedly experience a sensorial adventure for the first time, just like with drugs. Having him condensing a bitter feeling like ‘self-destruction’ into the sweetest recipient, is per se the most honest reflection of his art: a living contradiction, an oxymoron by nature.
Notably, the idea for the unique merchandise was suggested by a fan on Twitter, signaling a shift towards artists actively listening to their fanbase and incorporating their preferences into commercial decisions. While tailoring merch to different regions may pose logistical challenges, new eras require new standards. Especially in a continent as culturally diverse as Europe, where the idiosyncracies and sensitivities of neighboring countries differ greatly from ech other, a more fan-centric approach would be key.
Banner design by Alberto Méndez
Alexandria, L. (2023, November 2). The Weeknd Breaks Major European Tour Record. HotNewHipHop. https://www.hotnewhiphop.com/731099-the-weeknd-highest-grossing-tour-black-artist-europe-history
Alexandria, L. (2024, January 23). The Weeknd Breaks Spotify’s All-Time Monthly Listener Record. HotNewHipHop. https://www.hotnewhiphop.com/755905-the-weeknd-spotify-monthly-listener-record
Nast, C. (2020, April 3). How One Director Helped Shape The Weeknd’s “After Hours” Aesthetic. GQ. https://www.gq.com/gallery/anton-tammi-the-weeknd-after-hours-interview-2020
The Weeknd smashes Apple Music record, heading towards 1m global pre-adds of new album. (2020, March 19). Music Business Worldwide. https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/the-weeknd-smashes-apple-music-record-heading-towards-1m-global-pre-adds-of-new-album/