Last Saturday night, millions of people witnessed the television debut of Karmin, and most of them probably had a similar first reaction: “What’s a Karmin?” (Most subsequent reactions likely varied between mild auditory distress and “Oh, fuck you, Karmin!”) But to at least 750,000 or so people, Karmin’s appearance on Saturday Night Live represents validation and possibly even revolution. Those are the people who subscribe to the YouTube channel that brought the Berklee College Of Music duo of Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan to the attention of the Internet, Epic Records, and apparently SNL’s music booker, and they represent a flux in the way new pop artists are being discovered and manufactured.
As with so many of today’s pop-music discussions, the event horizon for this shift is Justin Bieber, who was discovered via YouTube videos his mom posted of him singing covers of R&B songs like NeYo’s “So Sick.” And while Karmin did have an original radio hit, “Crash Your Party,” under its belt prior to its SNL appearance, the creation of that song was predicated on the popularity of Karmin’s YouTube covers of songs like LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” the latter of which has more than 13 million views and might explain Heidemann’s obnoxiously accented rapping on the original songs she performed on SNL. (Lest you point to Karmin’s impending album of original songs and doubt the group’s raison d’être, please note the name of its most-subscribed YouTube channel: KarminCovers.) YouTube is lousy with young wannabe musicians banging out covers of with varying degrees of skill and musicianship/gimmickry, and thus far, it’s mostly existed in a bubble, a never-ending virtual school talent show.
But with Bieber, the metaphor shifts to something much less charming: a never-ending virtual American Idol tryout week. Suddenly, all those fresh-faced, photogenic teenagers singing into their webcams are doing so not just for their peers/fans, but for a faceless “somebody” who might discover them and yank them into a recording studio beyond the confines of their bedroom setup. Consider Greyson Chance, whose video of him performing Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” at a school talent show (46 million views) earned him a booking on Ellen and a deal with Ellen DeGeneres’ new label. Or Filipino teenager Charice, a first-eliminated contestant on the Philippines’ version of American Idol whose YouTube performances landed her on Ellen and The Oprah Winfrey Show, which led to a self-titled album with Reprise Records and a stint on Glee. Or pre-teen Maria Aragon, whose viral cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” earned her an appearance on—you guessed it—Ellen and an album deal with the same Filipino label that put out Charice’s first album. There are scads of fresh-faced vocalists out there just waiting to be paired up with a hot production and writing team.
What’s notable about all these examples, besides the fact that they all apparently know how to push DeGeneres’ buttons, is that they a) gained exposure (sometimes accidentally) for their covers, not for original songs, and b) they’re all solo pop vocalists, not bands. A couple of bands have made an impression offline, like Karmin (if you buy that it’s an actual “band,” not a vocalist/producer combo) and the insufferable, car-commercial-scoring duo Pomplamoose, but they generally aren’t bands in the classic sense; they’re more like re-arrangers of pop music. Which is totally fine and valid, especially in the guitar-and-drums-light sphere of mainstream pop, but it does raise the question of why so few YouTube acts have busted out specifically for original, self-penned and -played music.
Original music does exist and is popular on YouTube. There’s longtime YouTube musician David Choi, who’s produced several self-released discs and commercial jingles (supplemented by a bunch of popular cover songs), but still functions in more of a songwriter/producer capacity than a performance one. Then there’s the whole spectrum of YouTubers making hip-hop, which has puzzlingly not resulted in any breakout stars (unless you count Karmin, which you most certainly should not). The UK brings an interesting anomaly in the form of popular British vlogger Alex Day, who managed to get one of his original songs to No. 4 on the Christmas Day UK Singles chart almost exclusively through pimping it on his YouTube channel. But that sort of DIY spirit has yet to find much footing offline, even for Day, whose song quickly dropped off the chart after its initial push. Whereas the much more old-school idea of getting “discovered” and groomed for stardom has simply shifted to a new venue. Why does original music have so much trouble busting out of the YouTube ghetto, while cover-reliant acts like Karmin or Cody Simpson, a.k.a. “the Australian Justin Bieber”—who both have fewer subscribers than Choi, incidentally—are attracting A&R types like flies?
The most obvious answer is that people are much less likely to pay attention to someone they’ve never heard of playing a song they don’t know than they are to pay attention to someone they’ve never heard of playing a song they already know and love. So even if YouTube musicians have original songs to peddle, it behooves them to also create covers in the same style as those original songs. It’s the same reasoning behind a successful cover band sprinkling a couple of original tunes among the familiar songs on its playlist: By placing a new, unfamiliar song among familiar favorites, they can make sure the audience absorbs the new song into their consciousness through proximity.
There’s also the issue that YouTube is still a visual medium more than an audio one. While a cover artist might be able to get by with just singing into the camera, relying on the public’s familiarity with the song they’re singing, original songs usually need some sort of visual hook to keep people from clicking to another video. Very few people use YouTube to discover new music the way they would use Pandora or Spotify, clicking around until something catches their ear; they need the hook of either a familiar song or a flashy visual gimmick to draw people in. Covering familiar songs is relatively easy; creating flashy visuals, less so.
And even artists who do have the chops to create interesting visuals for their songs run the risk of becoming more about the visuals than the music. Brazilian guitarist and video artist Joe Penna, who uploads YouTube videos under the regrettable name Mystery Guitar Man, creates music more as sound experiments or to score his inventive stop-motion animations, while rapper-beatboxer-producer DeStorm frequently creates his original content based on viewer suggestions. (And yes, they both also do—surprise!—lots of covers.) It’s harder to figure out how this sort of thing translates to a traditional, real-word music setting than it is to find pretty young things with great voices, sit them down with a cadre of songwriters, and start pumping out singles until something hits.
YouTube has broken original songs into the mainstream consciousness, but they all exist along the novelty spectrum: “Chocolate Rain,” “The Bed Intruder Song,” and most notably Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 through the Internet’s sheer force of ill will. But Rebecca Black didn’t draw attention because she was a promising artist; she drew attention because she was a joke. And on that note, there are plenty of humorous original YouTube songs that also have one foot in the comedy/sketch arena, with creators who are just as or more eager for a TV writing gig as they are a record contract. But there remains a dearth of “serious musicians” getting solid YouTube play, and even fewer translating that to mainstream careers.
YouTube may still be a viable route for those willing or wanting to go the independent, DIY route. (Not everyone producing music is doing so with an eye toward a deal with a major label, after all.) Musicians who create and share original music through YouTube can gain a following without a record deal or even having to play live shows; and thanks to YouTube’s Musicians Wanted affiliate program, some of them can even make a living off of it—though they likely have to supplement their music with other, personality-driven vlog-type content (or, ahem, cover songs) to keep the subscriptions rolling in.
Musicians Wanted features around 100 independent musicians of varying degrees of popularity—including viral-video-generating band OK Go, which joined the program after leaving its record label—but so far none have expanded beyond that insular arena. (OK Go excepted, due to its pre-YouTube success.) A lot of Internet users are discovering new, original music via YouTube, but the music industry thus far seems mostly uninterested in seeking them out. It’s sort of understandable: It’s generally much easier to create a video in one’s bedroom and share it online than it is to go the old-school, pavement-pounding route of booking, promoting, and playing gigs to build an audience. So the pool of YouTube musicians is even bigger and more diluted than the pool of aspiring singer-songwriters lugging their gear from coffee shop to coffee shop. That’s way too much chaff for even the most ambitious A&R reps to wade through, especially when the front page of Buzzfeed will probably be featuring another cutie-pie with a viral Rihanna cover in a couple of weeks.
What does this all mean about the effects of YouTube on mainstream music? Well, as of right now, not much. Justin Bieber is an anomaly, and Karmin currently isn’t much more than a music-blog talking point. The mold may have been broken, but no new one has been created to shape the millions of grains of YouTube sand that came pouring out into something profitable.
In the meantime, smart independent musicians can use YouTube as a supplement to their careers rather than a foundation, posting music videos and pimping songs they play and promote in other venues: Like Choi, singer-songwriter Kina Grannis, who won a deal with Interscope in a Doritos-sponsored contest but left to pursue an independent career, is very active on YouTube, but also tours and records regularly. But in the same manner as televised singing competitions like American Idol, YouTube can also be a tempting shortcut for aspiring vocalists with passable chops, a marketable look, and a killer cover that can get promoted to YouTube’s front page. Cody Simpson might have needed to spend a couple years touring the shopping-mall circuit to get to where his YouTube popularity got him in a matter of months, and Karmin would never get booked on SNL based on “Crash Your Party” alone, without its built-in YouTube audience. In the end, all YouTube provides is an alternate route to stardom, one that’s probably ultimately no more reliable than any other long-shot plan… unless Ellen happens to see your video.