Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The YouTube cover trend: Instant nostalgia & for some a new career path - Part 1

The last couple of blog posts have looked at the phenomenon of cover songs on YouTube. And we're not talking about parody type cover songs -- that's something for a future post perhaps -- we're talking primarily about faithful renditions of well-known songs, by everyone ranging from kids in their bedrooms to musical hopefuls of all ages...and skill levels. More than 10,000 such videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, representing probably hundreds of millions of views monthly, and possibly more.

There are a few really interesting things about this phenomenon. One is the speed with which these cover songs appear. Often within days of a song being released various versions begin popping up online. To wit, there are already several pages of versions of the summer of 2013 fave Blurred Lines (currently at 65 million views). I randomly clicked on the one below, with just 100,000 views in the 3 1/2 weeks since it was posted and I must say it's pretty great. (It even includes a homage to the proto-rap shizzle scatting of Double Dutch Bus.)

My bet is that earlier in the YouTube timeline a version like this would have pulled in way more traffic than 30,000 views per week as it possesses a high shareability quotient (fun, current, imaginative) and the act of circulating it builds the social capital of the sender...those key ingredients people at marketing conferences always cite.  (Ed. Note: Were it that simple).

And so what we are witnessing is the lag time from release to interpretation reduced to almost zero. This is a great example of what writer/cultural commentator Douglas Rushkoff refers to as "presentism" in his latest book Present Shock, though Rushkoff frames it as more problematic than it may actually be. In the context of cultural expression, at least, such presentism has created a vibrancy and volume of output that is unprecedented. With the filtering and distribution done by anyone with a phone or laptop we get a good glimpse of the workings of "entertainment without an entertainment industry", the very theme and inspiration for this blog.

Another thing worthy of note about many of these covers is the level of originality often found. And I know what you're thinking...she just said 'cover' and 'originality' in the same sentence. And that's the point. Twas not always thus. I would argue that as the cover song migrated from being a marketing tool of the music industry to something whose execution was broadly dispersed throughout the civilian population - and publishable via platforms such as SoundCloud and YouTube - that covers have become more imaginative and more individualistic; no longer a genre so often framed as being the domain of the lazy and uninspired.  (Ed Note: For those really really interested in the evolution and role of cover songs in popular music from the mid 20th century to now, see the 2010 collection of essays edited by George Plasketes entitled Play It Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music).

One of the first groups I remember posting more artistic kinds of covers to YouTube was Pomplamoose, the Northern California duo of Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. They started posting and selling digital songs on their website in the spring of 2009, and shortly thereafter landed a spot on the YouTube home page. This led to much linking and sharing -- and eventually sales of 100,000 downloads that year, enough to make a living as they operate without a label, manager, or staff. Their YouTube homepage now lists a booking agent and a licensing agent but it appears that Jack and Nataly handle the rest of their affairs themselves. This sale of 100,000 digital downloads was, then, enough to create the foundation for an independently helmed and managed career in music, including a a series of Hyundai commercials during the 2010 holiday season, a Toyota commercial, and only a minimal amount of touring. In addition to their work as Pomplamoose both Jack and Nataly have solo careers, with songs available for purchase viaYouTube, Amazon, the iTunes store, and their websites.

Earlier this year Jack Conte launched Patreon, an alternative to Kickstarter for supporting creative
projects as he believes that
Pomplamoose's YouTube success is not repeatable and is looking to create new ways for music to be a viable career path. In other words, Conte is saying that what worked for Pomplamoose probably won't work for you, which is laudably honest of him. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to digital platforms is that many try to put forward 'best practices', or edicts, that suggest if you take actions A, B, and C then you will get result D.  And while in the analog world this may have been possible to a certain degree, it's much less likely in the digital domain, as content floods in at an unprecedented pace by the minute (let alone hour, day, and week), platforms and preferences change at breakneck speed, therefore standing out and gaining a substantial following is more challenging than ever. The good news is that such an environment of rapid change and flux creates what Jack Conte refers to as 'momentary opportunities', or a wealth of things to try, at relatively low costs, and what works, works, and what doesn't gets put aside. (For more on this topic see a very candid and reflective interview with Jack Conte here).

And now, here is Pomplamoose's take on Beyonce's Single Ladies, complete with ethereal vocals and jazzy chord subsitutions...some might say wholesome hipsters able to make mainstream songs sound indie. This video has been viewed ~10 million times and Pomplamoose's YouTube channel has amassed 365,000 subscribers and a total of 88.5 million views (as of late June 2013).

And there are others who use the vehicle of the YouTube cover to promote adjacent aspects of their creative lives, such as jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Scott Bradlee. Some highlights from his bio:
  • Provider of elegant piano music for hundreds of weddings, cocktail hours, private parties, and cabarets
  • His Motown tribute to Nickelback received extensive press coverage
  • Has collaborated with a number of Broadway and off-Broadway performers and writers
If it's well-played, genre-straddling cover songs you're after, then this is the YouTube channel for you. You'll find everything from a country version of Ke$ha, a 1920s version of Psy, and even a Les Mis/Aerosmith mashup, entitled I Dreamed a Dream On. Most of the videos on Scott's YouTube channel have a few hundred thousand views, with one or two in the low millions, and a good portion in the tens of thousands of views. His YouTube channel has a total of ~8 million views and is currently growing at a rate of ~50,000 views per day/1.5 million views per month. Scott is not making a living on YouTube alone, particularly with all the musicians and performers involved, but he has taken something that is usually costs money to do, i.e. marketing and promotion, and has turned into a source of revenue.

"Before things took off on YouTube, I was a jazz pianist," says Bradlee. "When I moved to New York when I was 24, I did the thing all musicians do, played clubs and so on. I had all these ideas in my head since high school, like when would I take classic rock and made it ragtime. I was probably the only kid in my high school who really liked ragtime. I wanted to find a venue for that kind of experience. I didn't find it in jazz clubs—I found it on YouTube."

Coming up in Part 2 of this post: a look at a group that went from a highly trafficked YouTube channel to a major label deal, another that landed a spot on SNL, and in future posts we'll also look at some of the legal/copyright implications of posting and monetizing cover songs online.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The road to 10,000

Just a quick post to commemorate hitting 10,000 page views here on the blog. The management and staff at have been working hard to provide you with interesting and insightful content since launching in late February 2013 and would like to take this opportunity to thank you graciously for your patronage.

This said, I think I can stop counting page views now. I was so taken by the rate of growth on the blog early on (expectations were low to modest; it must be a self-protective thing) that each time a milestone of another 1,000 page views was reached I sent out celebratory tweets. I think I will not burden you with such gloat-tweets after this one. I would just like to say thanks for the page views, the thumbs up, the retweets, and your overall interest in the project. I'm not sure if/what it will turn into, beyond a blog, but as this highly numerical world in which we live provides me with feedback regarding the posts, I am considering the possibility of expanding it to something more substantial.

I have been travelling lately and will be doing a relocation for a chunk of the summer for a research project I'll be working on, so blogging may be more intermittent than it has been, but rest assured that I have a few posts in progress and plan on getting them up in short order. I also tweet individual stories related to the topic of digital disintermediation, and you can follow them here, in the window on the right hand side of the blog, or you can tw-ollow me directly @LK617.

Once again, thanks for your blog support and feel free to drop me a line with comments, suggestions, or any manner of feedback re the topics covered here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Meet JD: The 9 year old boy with dozens of cover song videos on YouTube

Hello again, and welcome to this blog's first feature interview.

In just a few minutes we'll be meeting a 9 year old kid from Colorado who goes by the name JD Violin Boy (because, among other instruments, he plays the violin). I wrote about JD last week in my blog post on cover songs on YouTube, after discovering JD's version of Macklemore's 'Thrift Shop' that featured the young boy's vocals atop his violin loops and keyboard playing.  (Ed. Note 1: As readers of this blog may already know I got a bit caught up in the story of Seattle hip hop sensation Macklemore's ascent to stardom, and ended up doing a 7-part series on it here on the blog.)

I then noticed that JD had been regularly posting videos to his channel for two years, since he was just 7 years old. He has almost 100 videos in total, in which he plays ukelele, piano, and/or violin and sings popular songs by current artists and bands such as The Lumineers, Vampire Weekend, and Bruno Mars. JD loves Bruno Mars, having covered eight of his songs, and one of those covers was even tweeted by Bruno himself. JD's most popular cover of a Bruno tune is now approaching 2 million views. JD is one of a new breed of performers who, without the involvement of broadcasters, agents, or managers, is able to ply his craft -- in his case from the comfort of his bedroom and living room -- and have his work reach a relatively small but global audience. And as he does so he gets better and better at what he does...and also earns a few bucks. In the interview below we'll meet other kids from JD's cohort, a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood of musical youth who seem way more talented than any of us older folks were at that age. Sampling all of these talented kids singing and playing their hearts out makes me wonder if the world is going all American Idol Jr., or if this is more about the ease with which performances such as these can now be recorded and distributed. Yes, some of this posse of YouTubing kids may well become the Justin Timberlakes of tomorrow, others will likely be really good entertainers at office parties, and who knows, perhaps we now have a third category in which a small but sustainable career can be carved out making videos such as the ones you'll hear about and see below.

I got in touch with JD Violin Boy on Twitter and was impressed with how articulate he was (even in 140 characters) so I thought why not break out beyond the few words we can exchange via tweets and see if he might agree to a longer form interview via email.  Happily he did.

One other thing I should explain before you dive into the interview is the significance of the company Fullscreen, that I talk about with JD below. Fullscreen is a YouTube partner network. This means it is a company that selects videos from the huge pool of people that post them on YouTube, and aggregates them in one place. By doing this Fullscreen acts as a kind of quality filter, for both viewers and advertisers.  

But perhaps the real genius of Fullscreen is the deal it recently struck with Universal Music, the largest holder of music copyrights in the world. Up until this deal was struck, covering songs on YouTube was technically illegal. By negotiating this deal Fullscreen and Universal have been able to move the activity of covering songs on YouTube from the category of illegal and subject to a takedown notice to legal and monetizable. Once everything is legal, ads can be featured in the pre-roll of the video, or as an overlay, and the proceeds can be split between Fullscreen, Universal Music, and people like JD Violin Boy. A bit of the taming of the wild west that is the Internet that prevents superfluous copyright lawsuits and makes it possible for writers and performers to get paid.

(Ed. Note 2: FullScreen's function is an example of what I see as a re-intermediation, or involvement of third parties that mediate the process between video producers like JD Violin Boy and audiences, in this case anyone who watches YouTube. This act of re-intermediation is a topic I will explore in greater detail in future blog posts as it's illustrative of the new types of industry forces that have emerged in a media landscape of abundant, or some would say overabundant, content. There are a number of players fulfilling this function and I plan on examining them here in the coming months.)

And now, here is my interview with 
YouTuber JD Violin Boy:

Me: As you are just 9 years old did you have to get your parents' permission to do this interview? 

JD: Yes.

Me: In your videos I see you in different rooms of your many set-ups do you have at home with the keyboard and microphone, or do you move things around?

JD: My dad moves stuff around.

Me: I think I see a bunk bed in the background of your you share your room with a brother or sister?
JD in his room, which is all his.

JD: The bunk bed is just for me. Nobody ever sleeps in the top bunk. I have a sister. Unfortunately, she is not very musical. She tried piano, clarinet, and drums, but nothing worked out.

Me: You started posting your videos to YouTube 2 years ago, when you were just 7. Whose idea was that?

JD: I don't remember whose idea it was. At first, we just wanted to share videos with friends and family. Then some of my early Bruno Mars covers got a lot of views and we started to get more serious about it.

Me: There's also a video of you on your channel at age 4, singing 80s songs on a karaoke machine. When you look at that video what do you think of your performance? How do you think you've changed since then?

JD: I always give my all when I sing and, watching that video, I think that was true even when I was 4. My voice is a bit different now and I play all kinds of instruments.

Me: In some videos we see your foot & looping pedal in a little box in the video, or in the Everly Brothers video we see 3 of you, harmonizing with yourself. Do you have help with the video recording and editing or do you everything yourself?

JD: My dad does all that. He is teaching me how to do it myself. I have begun using GarageBand and am getting pretty good at it. We are going to learn Logic Pro next.

Me: How many hours per week would you say you spend working on your YouTube channel? Does this ever get in the way of homework or other things you have to do?

JD: It takes maybe 3 or 4 hours per week. That's in addition to time I spend practicing my instruments. I don't have much homework, so it's usually not a problem.

Me: You have around 5 million views on your channel, of which about 2 million are for one of your Bruno Mars covers. And he tweeted it! How did that happen? (I saw your "oh my gosh oh my gosh Bruno tweeted my video" video...but it didn't say how it happened. did that happen?

JD: Bruno Mars tweeted my cover of "It Will Rain", which has about 600,000 views. I have no idea how it happened. As you can see from my video, it was a complete surprise to me!

Me: There's also a video of you on stage with Imagine Dragons, whose songs you have covered. How did that happen?

JD: I entered their cover contest for "It's Time" and won. My parents followed up and were able to get in touch with the Imagine Dragons band manager. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was up on stage with the band. What an incredible night!

Me: Do you have an agent and/or manager?

JD: No. For YouTube artists, there is no need for that.

Me: You are part of the FullScreen network on YouTube. Did they approach you or did you approach them? If the former, how did they find you? What did your parents say when that happened?

JD: They approached me. I have no idea how I came to their attention. My parents encouraged me to sign and we are happy with it.

Me: Without asking you how much money you make on YouTube (you can tell me if you'd like to, but don't have to) are you happy with what you're making? Are other kids at school envious of you....because you have your own YouTube channel *and* you're now getting paid?

JD: I don't pay any attention to that. Actually, I have no idea how much money I'm making.

Me: Do you spend the money on things like upgrading your gear and/or instruments?

JD: No, my parents pay for all that stuff. (Thanks, mom and dad!)

Me: Because the amount of money you make is based on how many views you get what have you concluded about why some videos get more views than others? (How closely do you watch the number of views, or are you just trying to have fun and to get better at what you do?)

JD: I keep an eye on page views to see what people like, but for me the most important thing is to have fun and express myself musically.

Me: Do you know any/many other YouTubers (people with their own channels) like making videos on their channels?

JD: Yes, I got to collaborate with Ryan and Emily, two of the most talented kid drummers on YouTube. I admire them so much.

Drumming Emily has 17 videos up on YouTube and over 613,000 views

I also really like Jasmine Thompson and Jasmine Clarke. Both are amazing singers.

                                     Singer Jasmine Clark has posted 53 videos on YouTube and has 3.5 million views

Jasmine Thompson has written one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard ("Just in Time for Tea"). I think she pulled it from YouTube. I hope she will release it again soon.

Me: Are there any YouTubers in particular that you look up to, or follow? (e.g. Greyson Chance...was he an inspiration to you?)

JD: I follow hundreds of people and bands on YouTube. In addition to Ryan, Emily, and the two Jasmines, I look up to Bryson Andres and Daniel Park. They inspired me to start using a loop pedal. 

I also look up to Roomie. He is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who does covers and has also written some great original songs. His videos are creative and he has a great sense of humor. My goal is to make my videos look as good as his.

Sweden's Roomie has 46 videos on YouTube and is closing in on 7 million views

Another one I like is Walk Off the Earth. They are signed to a label now, but they got their start on YouTube and still do covers. My favorite YouTuber, though, is Miranda Sings. She is "beautiful" and has "great" vibrato!

I know who Greyson Chance is. He got on Ellen's show and hit it big, but that's not really something most YouTubers can do. Look at Roomie, Walk Off the Earth, and Miranda Sings. These are people who worked hard, day in and day out, to build a big YouTube following. That's what I am trying to do.

Me: Do kids at school or other friends suggest songs for you to cover, or is everything your idea?

JD: I try to cover new songs, because that's what most people like to watch and hear. The kids at my school are a little out of date. Some of them are just discovering "Gangnam Style."

Me: Do you find the sheet music online or do you sometimes sound things out by ear?

JD: I used to use sheet music, but now I play everything by ear.

Me: How many takes do you generally do before you're happy with the video? I ask because I like the way you leave in things like the page flip, as you did in your Adele/Rolling in the Deep video. (Some people might have edited around that but you didn't and that's cool).

JD: On average, about 2 takes. Sometimes more. Take a look at the end of this video.

Me: Have you been contacted by any TV shows?

JD: An NBC show, "The Voice Kids", contacted me but my parents and I decided against it. I don't feel like that's the way to go for me. Things are going well on YouTube. Spending a lot of time competing on a TV show would slow me down.

Me: Are there any shows you'd really like to be on?

JD: I don't spend much time thinking about TV. I just try to do the best I can on YouTube.

Me: Ellen DeGeneres seems to specialize in having kids from YouTube on her show...has her show been in touch with you?

JD: No. It's flattering when my commenters say I should go on Ellen's show, but I realize that's not very realistic so I don't focus on it.

Me: You also do live performances around where you long of a set do you do? How much of a celebrity are you locally? (for example, do you ever get recognized on the street?)

JD: My set is half an hour. Someone recognized me at an Imagine Dragons concert a few weeks ago. Other than that, I've never been recognized.

Me: Do you have help with things like uploading the videos, responding to comments and fan mail, etc....or do you do all of that by yourself?

JD: Yes, my dad helps me with all that.

Me: You seem to like to wear different hats in your videos. Do you wear hats a lot off camera or just in the videos? What is the story behind the tartan hat you wear in the video for "When I was Your Man"  by Bruno Mars?

JD: Bruno Mars is one of my musical role models. Not only because he is a great singer and dancer (I like to dance too), but because he writes amazing songs. He wears hats sometimes, so I do too. There is no special story about the hat I wore in my "When I Was Your Man" cover. I liked it so my parents got it for me.

JD's cover of Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" is almost at 2 million views on YouTube

For a follow-up post on people who went from posting cover songs on YouTube to major label record deals click here,