If you’re under the age of 40, you probably know who Gorillaz are. For those in middle or high school in the mid-2000s to early 2010s, it’d be hard to miss them. These darkly drawn cartoon characters are responsible for massive singles like Feel Good Inc., Clint Eastwood, Rhinestone Eyes, On Melancholy Hill, Dirty Harry, and a whole bunch of others.

But you know what’s really weird to me?

They’re still popular. With teenagers, no less. So much so that I noticed the Gorillaz’ music popping up again and again in my travels in October 2022.

As someone who just turned 30 this year, I find it incredibly strange to think that a band that was popular in my teen years is now popular with an age group young enough to be my children. But here we sit in 2023, waiting for the release of Cracker Island on February 24, fans ranged from gray-haired Grandmillenials with reading glasses to literal children who say “the first president I remember is Trump.”

In the 2000s, Gorillaz were thought of as a gimmick. Their aesthetic seemed more at home in Hot Topic than the Top 40. Yet they stand here today like towering unmovable statues looming over today’s pop scene.

What is Gorillaz?

That question right there is so complicated to answer that I put off writing this article for about a year. So I’m going to gloss over a lot of the details here, for your sanity and mine.

Gorillaz is the brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Albarn was the frontman of the ridiculously popular alt-rock/Britpop band Blur (woo-hoo!), and Hewlett was an artist famous for drawing the dark and weird comic, Tank Girl.

Albarn honestly could have sat on his ass for the rest of his life and collected Blur royalties. That’s how popular the band was, but instead, he decided to take his career in a much different direction. In 1998, he formed Gorillaz, a virtual band which pulled in influences from basically every genre you can imagine. Rock, hip-hop, and electronic music are the foundation, but you can find dub, Latin, punk, art pop, synth-pop, funk, soul, and gospel in the music too.

Then you have Hewlett, who created the distinctive cartoon style of Gorillaz. As a virtual band, the band members are works of pure fiction. You have the witless but sweet 2-D on the vocals and keyboard, the Satanic narcissist Murdoc on the bass, child prodigy Noodle on the guitar, and prone-to-being-possessed (long story) Russel on the drums.

Over the years, they’ve released a bunch of albums. Their self-titled one in 2001, Demon Days in 2005, Plastic Beach in 2010, The Fall in 2011, Humanz in 2017, The Now Now in 2018, Song Machine in 2020, and Cracker Island will be coming out in 2023. The list of singles is so long that I’m just going to link you to it.

(Fans will notice I’ve totally glossed over the lore for now. Don’t worry, that will get a mention later!)

Gorillaz have stayed relevant for a weirdly long time

Arguably, Gorillaz peaked in popularity during the days of Demon Days and Plastic Beach. But they haven’t exactly faded away, either. Their new singles have gotten 50 million-plus streams on Spotify. Their new album features artists including Thundercat, Tame Impala, Beck, and Stevie Nicks, showing that they have enough cultural cachet to land massive musical stars from past and present.

So much of Gorillaz’ popularity defies common sense. Creating a virtual band just feels like a gimmick out of late 1990s and early 2000s, but it managed to somehow be ahead of the curve. Their music and style is quite a bit darker in tone than what we would typically expect of pop, and yet people couldn’t seem to get enough of it. The idea of mashing together so many disparate genres should be a recipe for disaster, but instead ended up making wonderful fusion cuisine.

7 reasons for Gorillaz longevity

So what gives? How has this band managed to defy expectations for so long? How has this band managed to transcend its gimmicky background to produce enduring singles and hipster-approved albums alike?

The answers tell us as much about music as they do about business.

1. Their biggest hit singles are really good, as are their best albums.

Marketing rule #1: the product actually has to be good. (With few exceptions.)

What’s interesting is that Gorillaz have succeeded on what are often seen as mutually exclusive planes. They’ve garnered the respect of the masses and hipsters alike.

Like I said before, they’ve gotten a bunch of singles to chart over the years. Feel Good Inc., Clint Eastwood, Rhinestone Eyes, On Melancholy Hill, and Dirty Harry come to mind. Even their newer singles like Cracker Island and New Gold are doing pretty well.

They know how to write hooks! These songs are unbelievably catchy, they get stuck in your head, and the bulk of them are danceable. And yet all of them, despite the fact that most of these could be played at a party to hype people up, they’re still dark and weird, and oddly poetic. It’s not necessarily that these songs are deep, but they’re not exactly shallow either.

But they also know how to make full albums. Demon Days and Plastic Beach are generally regarded as masterpieces. On Rate Your Music, a site that tells me what my music opinions are where music aficionados go to rank albums, these works are the #402 and #773 best albums of all time respectively.

2. The folks behind the band are exceptionally talented musicians and producers.

“They’re popular because they’re good.” I know that’s the hard-hitting analysis you’re expecting from Weird Marketing Tales.

To get the end product, you have to understand how it’s made. The whole concept of Gorillaz requires stitching together bits and pieces from dozens of genres and – especially in their later years – dozens of artists. Done properly, this can make some of the most unique music in the world. But the catch – it’s damn near impossible to do properly.

But Damon Albarn already got his 10,000 hours in with Blur, which was formed all the way back in 1988. He spent 10 years playing in that band which was itself well respected by the masses and by hipsters. He took his natural talent and his earned skillset, then he merged that with the litany of talented people who he surrounded himself with.

If you look at the liner notes of any Gorillaz album, you’ll see a shockingly long list of people. That’s because it’s not just one guy’s vanity project with a few taggers-on. These albums are team efforts put together by experts in their fields, headed by a guy who has listened to so much music that he intuitively knows what ought to go where. And it usually works! (Except for Humanz – sorry.)

3. They staked out a unique niche early with a gimmick.

Being good isn’t enough to be popular. Lord knows there are ten million brilliant artists in the world suffering in poverty because they haven’t been discovered yet. You need a sense of the vulgar art of marketing for the purer art of music to be heard by the world. We’d be better off if this were not the case and all marketing consultants like me were simply consumed by the sea, but that’s just not the world we live in!

Pop quiz – what’s the fastest way to get noticed in music?

Pick a gimmick. Madonna made a fortune pissing off Christians. Daft Punk rose above the rest of the house scene by wearing helmets and never revealing their faces.

That’s what the whole “virtual band” idea was about. Draw some cartoon characters, give them some backstories, and insist the music was made by them and not the man behind the curtain.

In the 2020s, in our world of Vtubers and curated personas, it’s kind of hard to imagine how strange creating a virtual band was. Music in the late 1990s was about real people. It was about sweaty dudes in flannel shirts doing drugs and rock and roll upstarts playing in their garage, wearing leather jackets. It was about real human interactions, rappers beefing with one another and flesh and blood people jumping into a moshing crowd.

You can’t do that with a cartoon! Fake people can’t have the sordid histories that we would come to expect of our music icons…or could they?

4. Gorillaz built an obsessive fan base with their super complicated lore.

Gorillaz intuited that a huge part of music, as a social experience, were the stories that fans told to one another about the bandmates. These stories were as much a part of the music as the music itself because it helped create the culture.

Gorillaz simply took that concept and put a postmodern spin on it. Early in the days of the internet, Gorillaz started telling a story, building up its lore piece by piece through blogs and videos, forums and eventually social media. The backstory is so complicated that the summary on the Gorillaz Wiki would require FORTY pages to print. The summary!

Let me just pull up two snippets for you, and tell me these are not just amped-up versions of classic rock-and-roll stories that have gotten passed down for generations.

How 2-D and Murdoc met

Stu-Pot was a mentally deficient keyboard enthusiast and part-time employee at Uncle Norm’s Organ Emporium. Satanist hoodlum Murdoc Niccals…ended up driving his Vauxhall Astra through the building and directly into Stu-Pot’s head, permanently damaging (“fracturing”) Stu-Pot’s left eye and putting him into a catatonic state.

Murdoc was sentenced to “30,000 hours of community service, plus 10 hours every week of caring for the injured Stu-Pot”. Not long after, Murdoc again injured Stu-Pot in a car accident in Nottingham’s Tesco car park when attempting a 360° in order to impress some women.

During the initial rotation, he was thrown through the windshield and landed face-first on a curb. This permanently damaged Stu-Pot’s right eye but revived him from his coma. Impressed by Stu-Pot’s new look, Murdoc then recruited the newly recovered (albeit still mentally defective) Stu-Pot as the keyboardist and vocalist for his group, re-dubbing him 2-D for the matching pair of dents in his head from the accidents.

How they moved to a trash island in the middle of the ocean

While searching the world for a new hideout, Murdoc discovered an island in the middle of the ocean made entirely out of landfill stuck together. He sprayed the island bright pink and used the insurance money to build a new Gorillaz HQ on top, renaming the island, “Plastic Beach”…

Murdoc said he tried to recover clues to Noodle’s whereabouts from the wreckage of the windmill from “El Mañana”, but the most he could obtain was a DNA sample. He later used her DNA to create a violent cyborg version of Noodle, who acts as his bodyguard. Cyborg Noodle doesn’t speak, but is adept at firearms and replaces Noodle as the band’s guitarist.

Now, if your reaction to that is “wow, that’s so complicated I can’t follow it,” then you’re not alone. But coherence isn’t the point. The point is just to put these weird stories out there so that people retell them.

I only have passing familiarity with the Gorillaz lore and I’ve no doubt not even scratched the surface when it comes to crazy stories. But the point is that Gorillaz are successful at least in part because they established a loyal community early on of people who are truly, obsessively interested in this kind of storytelling.

Once you have a loyal community, every product launch – in this case, every album launch – becomes infinitely easier. You have evangelists willing to spread the good word far and wide, meaning your marketing team doesn’t have to work so hard.

Music doesn’t just show up in the mainstream. Someone has to stan for it, and Gorillaz stans are hardcore, rivaling Swifties in their loyalty.

5. Gorillaz are constantly collaborating with some of the hottest names in music.

If you look at the tracklist of any Gorillaz album, it doesn’t take long to see that one of their trademarks is collaborating with other popular artists. They’ve been doing this from the very beginning of their career, no doubt taking advantage of Albarn’s popularity and connections.

The list of collaborators is so long that it would take eight pages to print. In the early 2000s, they were working with De La Soul, Deltron 3030, and Massive Attack. Later they started working with Danger Mouse, Soulwax, MF Doom, and even Madonna. Then they pulled in André 3000, LCD Soundsystem, Lou Reed, Mos Def, and Snoop Dogg. They’ve worked with Danny Brown, Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kelala, Little Simz, Popcaan, and Pusha T.

Old artists. New artists. Everyone in between. And again – I’m omitting a lot of details for sanity’s sake here.

This approach to collaboration has a couple of advantages that contribute to Gorillaz’ longevity. For one, it’s built-in comarketing. They’re always pulling super big names into their orbit, and no doubt getting a lot more attention because of it.

But the collaboration also keeps the music fresh too. By having a revolving door of musicians, Gorillaz have managed to keep from going stale by wallowing in some outdated backwater genre. They stay fresh because they’re working with fresh artists.

6. They were making “dark pop” before it was mainstream.

Gorillaz’ music is dark in a way that much of the popular music from the 2000s and even early 2010s was not. It’s easy to forget in the era of Billie Eilish that dark, moody pop music has not been popular for that long.

If you look at Rate Your Music, the closest thing you can find to describe what I’m talking about is a chart detailing the number of albums released in the genre of “alt-pop” by year. You can see a marked increase starting in 2014, followed by an explosion in the pandemic year of 2021.

Gorillaz have been making dark and weird, but nevertheless catchy songs since 2001. Because their genre of choice is getting more popular and they were ahead of the curve, Gorillaz benefited from it and has proven to be a surprisingly enduring band as a result.

Personally, I believe this is what kept them afloat during the 2010s, after the lackluster reception of The Fall in 2011, Humanz in 2017, and The Now Now in 2018 (which I frankly feel is a bit underrated). The rising tide of dark pop bought them enough time to release a true winner in 2020 – Song Machine, Season One, which seemed to me like a major course correction.

7. Gorillaz is constantly reinventing its image, which makes it easier to stay relevant.

Whether you’re talking about David Bowie or Taylor Swift, it seems that the surest path to being a culturally relevant lifer in the music business is to keep changing genres. I think Gorillaz do the same thing as these two.

This strategy isn’t without its risks, like Bowie and Swift, Gorillaz have put out some stinker albums. But they’ve also put out really excellent ones. That’s just the cost of experimentation – sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t. But people tend to forget the failures in the long arc, and remember the successes. Being aware of this and brave enough to stay the course, though, takes a rare level of dedication.

Their sound started out based in rock and the grimy urban UK hip-hop scene of the early 2000s. It morphed into something between dance music and underground rap by the middle of the decade. Then it turned into full-blown synthesizer-heavy art-pop by 2010. Cracker Island looks like it’s going to be a dance-heavy release, slotting it in nicely with the disco revival fever of the 2020s.

Even their art style has shifted from comic-style flat characters to CGI models. The fictional characters are even aging, with Noodle having gone from being a small child to a woman in her early 30s.

This plays a huge part in why we’re still talking about them when we’ve forgotten about other 2000s radio staples such as, say, the Black Eyed Peas.

Final Thoughts

Whenever a musician or a band stays popular for more than a decade, it always gets me wondering. To pull that off is incredibly difficult, and very few manage it. Yet here we are, in 2023, talking about Gorillaz just like it’s 2005.

To me, this isn’t just a story about a popular band and their antics. This is a marketing tale, and one we can learn from. So next time you hear Feel Good Inc. on the radio, think about what you can do to create a community willing to vouch for your business two decades later.