Stephen Sanchez was made for this moment

It’s been a big year for Nashville’s non-country music scene from the triumphant return of emo powerhouses Paramore to the rabid response to indie queen Mitski. But there’s only one artist who’s racked up a billion combined streams on a single song.

Stephen Sanchez tapped into a multi-generational audience with the throwback sound of “Until I Found You.” It was a hit on the radio, YouTube, and yes, TikTok. While Sanchez is not alone in achieving virality it’s how he’s handled the spotlight and who he’s shared it with that sets him apart.

This summer Stephen Sanchez played one of the biggest stages in the world at the personal request of a very famous friend. Elton John became a fan after hearing “Until I Found You” on the radio in America and eventually reached out to Sanchez and invited him on as a guest on his podcast and as a personal guest at a Grammy event. In a surprise move, Sanchez was invited to perform his own song during Elton John’s farewell performance in front of 250,000 people at the Glastonbury festival.

“I remember closing my eyes and breathing and I just went, ‘Okay.’ And then as soon as he yelled my name. I walked out there and I swear to God, I just felt fearless. Like I could do anything,” Sanchez recalls. “Like, I could split the sky in half. I was so present. I remember every bit of that. I remember how the crowd looked, how it smelled, how cold it was, and then it was over.”

The performance felt like the pinnacle of his rapid, thrilling ascent. So did the backstage response.

“Paul McCartney came up to me and he goes, ‘Oh, man, you have some pipes. That was unbelievable.’ And he just pulls me in for this big, long hug,” Sanchez remembers with a smile. “And I was just like, ‘He’s been hugging me for a while.’ Like, this is crazy.”

Guns N Roses guitarist Slash also gave him a fist bump. Marcus Mumford added a “Well done, mate” and, making it really meta, Almost Famous actress Kate Hudson squeezed his face in celebration.

It was an almost unimaginable scene for the California native who began his career in a different musical direction.

Sanchez came to Nashville at seventeen carrying a singer songwriter sound not all that different from many of his peers. His stylistic turning point came after posting a TikTok of an early acoustic version of the unreleased “Until I Found You.”

“When you look at the way that people are breaking in the music industry these days, it’s heavily centered around TikTok and heavily centered around a moment that goes viral,” Sanchez’s manager Emily Kennedy states. “And it’s really hard to translate that into a fully-fledged career”

She says it was the reaction to that video which inspired the artist and his team to fully lean into the ’50s and ’60s sound for his next recordings and the songs that would eventually make up his debut album Angel Face.

Once that retro-sounding, full-band version of “Until I Found You” came out, it hit in waves. First in solo form and then as a duet with Em Beihold. Sanchez noticed the first wave rising while on a walk with a friend around Nashville’s Radnor Lake.

“I was just checking the numbers of the song that day. It was really weird. It kind of raised its hand,” Sanchez says of the song. “It was at a steady 10,000 streams a day and then it had this massive spike and it went to like 30. I checked again on the walk and it jumped up to 50, and it just kept going and going. I was like, ‘This is crazy, like, what is happening?’”

Sanchez says, at its peak, “Until I Found You” hit more than 3 million streams a day. It’s the new way to measure success. Previous generations have looked to airplay and sales charts. Now, it’s a numbers game – streams, YouTube views, social media followers.

And while those digital numbers don’t always translate to ticket-buying fans, they have for Sanchez. He’s already playing and selling out big rooms and has two shows at the Ryman in November. That’s rare for an artist who just released their debut. Sanchez says a recent experience as a fan helped drive home the reality of the faces behind the numbers. He and his band went to a show at New York’s Irving Plaza, a venue they had recently sold out.

“We were wrapped around the building going to the show, and we’re like, ‘People did this for us!’” Sanchez says. “(They) go and get a drink and freak out waiting for us to come out, like, that is so crazy. So crazy. I’ll never get used to that.”

For Sanchez and others, viral success has proved a curious crucible. These moments happen so fast that next big things can quickly become yesterday’s news especially when they can’t live up to the hype. Kennedy admits translating virality into a fully-fledged career is hard, but she wasn’t worried about Sanchez.

“He always seemed older,” Kennedy says. “Even when he was 17, he still carried himself with such maturity. And I think that’s a testament to his family and his upbringing. But I never really worried about that. I always felt confident that he was going to be able to express himself and stand in front of a crowd. And that wouldn’t be an issue.”

It hasn’t been so far. From TikTok to TV to massive festival stages, Stephen Sanchez seems to be made for this moment.