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Folk-Pop Singer on Hot 100 Hit

Michael Marcagi came to an agreement of sorts with his manager in late 2023. The folk-pop singer-songwriter had just finished a recording session in Woodstock, N.Y., and emerged with three songs he felt captured the signature sound he’d been crafting, inspired by Bruce Springsteen as well as artists like Jim Croce and John Prine.

Marcagi was eager to release one song as a single before the end of the year, while his manager, Alex Brahl, was hoping he would ramp up his presence on TikTok — and advocated for a regular quota of posts to increase exposure. “Five times a week, that was our ultimate deal,” recalls Brahl. “We were coming from zero, more or less.”

The two studied how other artists used the platform to their advantage, and within weeks, Marcagi released his solo debut single, the simmering, acoustic guitar-led “The Other Side,” and had developed a following on the platform. By January, that fandom helped power his breakout hit and follow-up single, the jangly and more uptempo “Scared To Start.”

The following month, “Scared To Start” scored the artist his first Billboard Hot 100 entry, reaching a new No. 54 high on this week’s chart. The song — which appears on Marcagi’s debut EP American Romance — also entered the top 10 on Hot Alternative Songs and Hot Rock Songs charts and marked Marcagi’s return to Adult Alternative Airplay, which he previously graced in 2020 and 2021 with his former folk-rock band The Heavy Hours.

“I knew in the back of my head that I wanted to eventually write singer-songwriter music that was narrative-driven and just talk about what I felt, what I wanted to sing about,” says Marcagi, who mentions that The Heavy Hours amicably parted ways a few years ago. However, the role of frontman primed him for his solo career — particularly amid his viral takeoff. “I needed those couple years of playing shows and getting notches in my belt and learning the ropes,” he continues. “The music industry is weird. It’s a hard, kind of a lonely, intimidating place to be sometimes. I needed the time to get used to it.”

Kate Sweeney

Growing up in Cincinnati, Marcagi was drawn to the production of “simple folk songs and acoustic guitars,” while his midwestern upbringing inspired his lyrics. “I write a lot of songs from that feeling of being from a flyover state,” he says. (His brother and day-to-day manager, Andrew Marcagi, adds that their “blue collar roots, without a doubt, have shaped Michael’s lyrics and songwriting style.”)

Marcagi is well aware that folk-pop is enjoying a mainstream resurgence, propelled in part by new labelmate Zach Bryan as well as Noah Kahan, the latter of whom Marcagi is a major fan. “I think it’s so awesome he’s playing for stadiums of people that are screaming about Vermont,” he laughs. “This style of music is working right now and I’m super grateful that people connected with [‘Scared To Start’]. It has been this wild little rocket ship the past couple months.”

Brahl can trace the song’s takeoff all back to one particular TikTok clip in which Marcagi is playing guitar in a field of dead grass over the “Scared To Start” lyric “let’s lay in the dead grass, stare at the stars.” As Brahl recalls, after uploading the teaser on December 19, the team went out to lunch — and when they came back, the clip had 10,000 views. “I remember talking to Michael and being like, ‘What if we wake up tomorrow and it has 50,000?’,” he says. “It had 100,000, and it was this completely organic thing that just kept going and going.”

Michael Marcagi, Chartbreaker

Kate Sweeney

In the days before the holiday break, Brahl sent the clip around to a handful of labels, and by Christmas Eve, Marcagi and his team selected Warner Records as his label home. He signed his deal the first week of January, and the following week, “Scared To Start” was released as his next single from American Romance, which arrived in early February. “One of the reasons we were so excited about Warner is that over the holidays we were getting on the phone with the digital team and planning. We were moving very, very quickly,” says Brahl. “We had momentum and I’ve seen it too many times where people don’t take advantage of that. We wanted to.”

“We were aggressive out of the gate in attacking the areas we knew would adopt the song with open arms,” says Will Morrow, Warner’s vp of viral marketing and digital development. Plus, as senior vp of digital marketing, Dalia Ganz, adds, the digital teams at Warner were quick to “leverage our deep relationship with TikTok to get increased visibility for the song on the platform,” noting that they are now focused on driving virality for “Scared To Start” across other shortform platforms like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts.

With the hit’s success, Warner has another win and developing star on its roster, joining the likes of Teddy Swims and Benson Boone, who have each enjoyed top 5 Hot 100 hits in 2024. “Warner has emerged as a leader in the championing of this new generation of singer-songwriters and the return of guitars in pop music, and we identified Michael as a standout in that space,” says Warner CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck. “He had a collection of songs we loved and felt he really understood how to authentically market and promote himself online.” (Yet, Marcagi is the first to admit “TikTok is a weird, Wild West for me still.”)

Recently, Marcagi returned to the same Woodstock studio to work on his debut full-length before heading out on tour. He’s currently abroad — with dates in the U.K., Ireland, Germany and elsewhere — and in May will kick off his 23-date U.S. trek in Denver. “It’s been very much like, ‘Quick, go!,’ but still mostly organic,” says Brahl, noting there has yet to be a major TV campaign or concerted radio push, nor any particular challenge TikTok users can opt into.

Even so, Marcagi’s friends send him a photo whenever “Scared To Start” does play on the radio — which he says is perhaps the most surreal part so far. “I remember driving my dad’s car and hearing Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers on the radio when I was in high school,” he recalls. “It’s a weird full circle moment to be like, ‘I can’t believe that out of all of the artists that are putting music out, they’re choosing to play my song.’ It’s really, really wild.”

Michael Marcagi, Chartbreaker

Kate Sweeney

A version of this story will appear in the April 27, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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