By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
A chance meeting at a mutual friend’s benefit event during high school spawned the birth of a young rock group that was originally a Christian rock group.
Chris Kwak met Travis Graham at a fundraiser for a friend. Almost 7 years later, Federal Way’s New Heights tour regularly, and the band, now a general market band, recently released its first full album.
“We had no idea what we were embarking on,” said Kwak. Kwak and Graham stayed in touch, and what started as a jam session turned into a band hitting its stride in 2012. Tyler “Taco” Carroll and Bobby Walker make up the rest of the group.
In addition to its full-length album, the band has released three other shorter albums. The group has toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada.
How did the band become so popular? Social media was a key ingredient.
“This year was the least amount we’ve toured, but [it was] better in terms of growth,” Kwak said. “Our numbers increased more due to social media.” It appears that the use of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are helping the band. “This year, we did one nationwide tour and one West Coast tour. The shows were great and most were sold out.”
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Kwak said, recalling New Heights’ initial foray into the world of social media. “[And] something[s] that we [thought were] really going to take off [sometimes didn’t].”
After some time, the group figured things out. “We saw a trend, [we learned] that we’d have to be consistent and have to be present and, at the end of the day, keep putting out high-quality content — and numbers will go up.”
“The big thing has been [the fact] that we [were] late to the YouTube bandwagon, but this year, we dedicated time and energy to social media. … Our numbers have tripled on Facebook.” On YouTube, the group went from 0 subscribers to 13,759 in 2011.
The band’s big break occurred when one of its songs was used in a short film for The Jubilee Project, a nonprofit, that went viral with more than 6 million views. Last November, the group created a music video, which scored more than 300,000 unique views.
“Kids want everything at their fingertips every day. They are social media greedy.”
As of the end of 2011, New Heights had 2,555 followers on Twitter and 1.6 million views on its YouTube channel.
Meeting the president
New Heights’ rise through social media has not gone unnoticed. Its online presence gave them an opportunity to meet the president and the first lady. Kwak and Graham were invited to one of the numerous holiday parties that the White House throws each year. They were invited by Associate Director of the Office of Engagement for the White House on Asian American and Pacific Islander Affairs Eddie Lee.
Lee learned of New Heights while working on the Obama campaign in Seattle. Lee stayed in touch with the group and invited the band members to the party as New Heights was becoming one of the top influences in social media.
“It was one of those very surreal things,” Kwak said, explaining his meeting with President Barack Obama. “It was a quick thing. [He was] very personable, very nice.” Each guest had the opportunity to have their picture taken with the president, including Kwak.
Other celebrities at the party included Chris Tucker, Emmitt Smith, Magic Johnson, Lisa Ling, and “Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu.
Collaborating with others
As a result of their online success and their tours, New Heights met other singers that wanted to work with them. Recently, the group worked with Korean American pop star Brian Joo, an artist known mainly in Korea. “Brian is the most humble and down-to-earth guy you’ll ever meet,” said Kwak. They also toured this past fall with Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Clara Chung.
In addition, New Heights recently opened for Korean rock star Yim Jae Beum at the Key Arena on Jan. 15.
With the rigors of making music and marketing themselves, New Heights maintains other responsibilities outside the group. Kwak, 24, is working on completing his degree in communications at the University of Washington, and Graham works at his church.
With the group’s success, Kwak is getting comfortable being an Asian American role model.
“We are seeing a lot more locally [in the Seattle area] and a lot of kids that are younger than us that will come up to us and ask for tips,” said Kwak. “We love hearing that, it makes everything we’re doing worth it.”
“We have a big heart for Asian Americans pursuing a dream that is not status quo. We love encouraging them.” (end)
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.
*This story was edited to reflect that New Heights is not exclusively a Christian rock group.