Video Makes The Radio Star

With the help of major record labels, a new breed of YouTube weirdos is finding mainstream success

By Jonah Weiner


On March 5 a 16-year-old Texan named Austin Mahone posted a video to YouTube in which he and some buddies dance to Harlem Shake, an electronic single turned viral phenomenon. The song, by the Brooklyn producer Baauer, came out as a free download last spring. In February it became the soundtrack to a giddy Internet craze with an ingeniously simple structure: As the intro ramps up, a single person dances, surrounded by a seemingly oblivious crowd; when the bass kicks in, there’s a jump-cut, and suddenly the lone dancer is engulfed by a mob of people freaking out along with him. Ryan Seacrest, Kate Upton, and the Miami Heat have all participated in Harlem Shake videos, which have been viewed more than 500 million times in aggregate.

Mahone’s version, which has been seen at least 600,000 times, takes the same rough shape as the others — he hops and whirls alone, then in a raucous ensemble — but his video contains two big twists. First, Mahone shot it while performing a sold-out concert for 62,000 people at a Houston stadium. When the jump-cut comes, you can hear the crowd roar. Second, the only reason Mahone was even on that stage is because he’s a viral star in his own right, having built a staggeringly large fan base by posting covers of pop and R&B hits to YouTube. Watching Mahone do the Harlem Shake is like watching the Internet eat itself: The only way it could be more brain-bending is if the sneezing baby panda came out to shake, too.

The Harlem Shake is not simply the latest fad to take up temporary residence in our hips. The craze highlights permanent changes in how the music industry works and looks. Since YouTube’s inception in 2005, the site’s been known primarily as a bottomless Big Gulp brimming with webcam confessionals, cute-mammal footage, and assorted other Web junk. Over time it’s also become a musical kingmaker — a place where fledgling and unfamiliar talent can break through to massive audiences. Mahone is a familiar type — singing, dancing, button-cute — but Baauer belongs to a new breed of idiosyncratic stars such as Psy, Macklemore, and Gotye who’ve used the site as a back door to blockbuster success.

A decade ago the record industry’s gears clicked along more or less as they always had: Labels signed up promising acts discovered by A&R scouts, paid those acts advances against future music sales, and hawked that music through a sprawling network of radio programmers and retailers. Today, with album sales continuing to plummet — in 2004, 666.7 million albums were sold; by 2012 that number was down more than 50 percent, to 316 million — labels and artists depend more than ever on touring and merchandise for revenue. Songs are ads meant to help sell tickets and T-shirts, and YouTube is beginning to rival radio when it comes to breaking those tracks. Recognizing this, the trade magazine Billboard recently overhauled its formula for determining the most popular music in the country, giving YouTube plays more weight. The following week, Harlem Shake topped the Hot 100 chart — the first instrumental track to do so since Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme in 1984. Five weeks later, it was still there.

The best-known YouTube alum is Justin Bieber, once a wee Canadian nobody who began showcasing his angelic whinny on the site in 2007. Bieber was scooped up by talent manager Scooter Braun, who helped wrangle the teen a contract with Island Def Jam. Because of Bieber’s epochal success — his net worth is estimated at more than $100 million — managers and music label executives have since trolled YouTube for fresh meat the way they once scouted coffeehouses and talent shows. YouTube is how Justin Timberlake found unknown Dutch singer Esmée Denters and signed her to his label; how you know that Rebecca Black loves Fridays; and why your grandchildren will be doing the Gangnam Style pony-dance at wedding receptions in 2071. Simon Cowell, the former American Idol judge, just launched his latest talent competition, The You Generation, not on television but on YouTube.

“The young, tween audience sees YouTube as a completely legitimate avenue for an artist to break out,” says Craig Marks, co-founder of the website Popdust and co-author of I Want My MTV. “While someone older might look at it as amateurish to do covers in front of a computer, it makes that audience feel like they own the artist, like they have a piece of them.” Stumbling upon a singer in a webcam performance can feel thrillingly intimate, and labels and managers are capitalizing on that. When Braun wanted to boost his client Carly Rae Jepsen’s single Call Me Maybe, he got Bieber to make a lo-fi video of himself lip-syncing to the song — a Trojan horse of marketing savvy disguised as a spontaneous lark. Call Me Maybe took off to become the top-selling single of 2012, with 12.5 million units sold. Authenticity still matters: The balladeer Lana Del Rey drew notice in late 2011 with a rough-hewn viral video of her song Video Games, which stitched together found footage and shots of Del Rey pouting. When it emerged that she was no DIY outsider but signed to Interscope Records, the same label as No Doubt and U2, the backlash was brutal.

For Bieber and Mahone, whose debut album is due from Universal Music Group this fall, YouTube offered a way around the traditional rites of music-business passage while ultimately enjoying a major label’s marketing, radio relationships, and top songwriters. “It’s the machine,” says Karen Kwak, head of A&R at Island Def Jam. To Kwak, whose accomplishments include securing the smash Umbrella for Rihanna, major labels offer would-be pop idols an infrastructure that no new-media innovation can rival. “We’re in the star business,” she says. “We can take it to the stratosphere.”

Gotye, the 32-year-old Australian songwriter, proves her point. In 2011 he was a nonentity in the U.S. Then he uploaded a transfixing video to YouTube of his off-kilter breakup song, Somebody That I Used to Know, featuring himself and his duet partner, Kimbra, naked save for body paint. It went on to notch 381 million views. “Everything happened on the back of the single and the video,” Gotye says, adding that U.S. labels began knocking down his door “once it hit 3 million views.” He signed with Universal Republic Records, and the single became a No. 1 hit, mostly, he says, because of the “huge mechanisms” that Kwak describes at the major labels. In February, Somebody was named Record of the Year at the Grammys. “Oh, I love this song,” said the presenter, Prince.

Stories such as Gotye’s reveal ways in which YouTube functions not only as a farm team but a wormhole for oddballs whom labels might have otherwise ignored. The most radical case remains Korea’s Psy, whose Gangnam Style is YouTube’s biggest video, with 1.4 billion views. There’s nothing probable about the American ubiquity of Psy, a portly dude rapping in Korean about Seoul-specific class issues. Popdust’s Marks compares YouTube in this regard with MTV in its infancy. “When the network started, they played music by British groups like Flock of Seagulls,” he says. “Radio was not playing them, but MTV did because they were a striking-looking band with funny haircuts. Psy is like Flock of Seagulls.” The obvious corollary, he says, is that “it remains to be seen whether bursting out that way is antithetical to building a longer-term career.”

That might matter less as musical success and sustainability continue to be redefined. Psy reportedly made about $870,000 from YouTube views alone, with a total take of more than $8 million, including downloads and licensing fees, according to TubeMogul, a video ad-buying platform. Jasper Goggins, a label manager at Mad Decent, which released Harlem Shake, explains the system, called Content ID: YouTube pays Mad Decent for the views a copyrighted song racks up. “We’re able to monetize all of the videos on YouTube that use our song,” says Goggins, who declined to name the sum his label receives but said it’s a better rate than the standard deal of 60¢ per 1,000 views. Harlem Shake, having also topped iTunes’ download charts, is, by leaps and bounds, the biggest earner in Mad Decent’s catalog.

Baauer has doubtless seen an uptick in attendance at his concerts and requests for his services as a producer, but his rise also points toward a time in which musical careers will unfold largely online and major-label muscle will count for less and less. Liv Buli, a data journalist at Next Big Sound, a firm that ranks and analyzes musicians’ social media impact, says “radio spins are as relevant today as they’ve always been” but adds that “there are now so many ways to monetize your music online that didn’t exist a few years ago.” (One inventive example: Mahone did brisk business for a time selling 10-minute Skype sessions to fans at $50 a pop.) Buli cites YouTube ads, fundraising sites such as Kickstarter, digital-distribution platforms such as Bandcamp, pay-to-view concert sites such as Daytrotter, and series such as Unstaged, in which American Express sponsors live-stream concerts on YouTube, so “you can sit on your couch and watch Usher.”

There are only so many Ushers. On a smaller scale, the future may look something like another Mad Decent artist, the eccentric rapper Riff Raff, who’s built a thriving career by flooding YouTube with cheap videos for songs he cranks out at a feverish pace. Riff Raff is compulsively clickable, a fount of daffy catchphrases who sports elaborately groomed hair and a live python around his wrist. Mad Decent will release a proper Riff Raff album this summer, but Goggins says the rapper “already gets a consistent check from YouTube every month.” Who needs to be a star when you can be a meme?


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