From memes to parodies to legitimate careers, the internet has undoubtedly given notoriety to dozens of people over the past few years. Through free video sharing websites such as YouTube, users have been able to upload virtually anything they want in the hopes of launching a career for themselves.
Sure, there have been abusers of this (think of how many times you had to listen to Gangnam Style in 2012 and watch your annoying friends perform their versions of the dance) but the fact of the matter is that with the right combination of social media and video sharing, anyone can launch a career out of anything.
It’s not a guaranteed recipe for success, but it happens. There’s living proof with Australian band 5 Seconds of Summer, who originated in 2011 by posting covers of songs they’d done in their basement of popular hits originally performed by Justin Bieber and Chris Brown. The video reached 600,000 hits in a month, and the band had absolutely no promotion except through a Facebook and Twitter account that they ran themselves. Eventually they’d managed to generate so much buzz, all on their own, that they attracted the attention of a member of One Direction, who then tweeted to his following of over 15 million people that they should give the band a listen. Not long after that, 5SOS signed a record deal with Sony. When they finally did release a single, they debuted at #3 on the iTunes charts, despite still having no formal promotion outside of social media.
Sound familiar? In fact, something nearly identical to this happened to current pop sensation Justin Bieber just three years before, in 2008. His now-manager stumbled upon covers of songs Bieber had uploaded to YouTube and arranged for Bieber to meet and sing for Usher, who then signed him to his record label. Bieber’s first released album went Platinum in the United States.
Is it really possible to attribute all of this whirlwind success to content sharing and social media?
Well… yes. There’s even a book about it.
The thing about becoming famous on the Internet is that people love to claim that they were the first ones to discover a band or an internet personality, and that they “liked them before they were cool.” This almost elitist knowledge is responsible for a lot of the hype that is generated when a person or group begins to self-promote on the Internet. Users share the content with their friends to appear as though they are cutting-edge and up to date with new talent, and then their friends share it with their friends, and on and on until the next Scooter Braun calls them up to get in on the action.
If you can get an audience on YouTube, you can pretty much get anything you want. By Rolling Stones’ estimation, clicks on a video translate directly into cash. Even non-celebrities who become internet sensations are able to get in on the profits — remember the aforementioned annoying Gangnam Style video? It accumulated more than 1 billion hits and Psy made anywhere between $800,000 and $2 billion dollars in revenue from it.
All because people shared the video with their friends.
Videos like Gangnam Style and Rebecca Black’s Friday reached notoriety in a different way than the covers that musicians such as Karmin, Justin Bieber, and 5 Seconds of Summer uploaded to YouTube — these videos went viral. A viral video gains its popularity through sharing on social media or in emails (#StopKony2k12 — whatever happened with that, anyway?) and usually contains some elements of humor or controversy to generate conversation amongst viewers.
But these ‘artists’ are the ones getting the last laugh, on their way to the bank to cash the checks they’ve made off of our obsession with content sharing. Rolling Stone breaks down the idea of ‘Content ID’ and how it related to the monetizing of the ‘Harlem Shake’ nicely in this quote:
YouTube isn’t Napster — if somebody owns the copyright to a song within a video, and demands that the service take it down, it comes down. But first, YouTube offers a different approach: “Content ID.” That means if your wacky wedding video is set to Chris Brown’s “Forever,” Brown and his record label can agree to cover the thing with ads and take a cut of the royalties. This happened with Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” when it broke in February, with 400 million overall cover versions generating cash for the dance-music DJ’s indie label Mad Decent Records (and, presumably, Baauer himself).
By their estimate, Baauer made over $400,000 just from collecting the royalties on the 12,000+ variations that have been uploaded by people around the world.
Ask just about anyone, and they’d probably say that, given the choice, they’d want to have legitimate fame and a record deal over a few months of internet-fame and the chance to be made fun of on a global scale. Though, arguably, there’s no reason why you can’t have both.
Carly Rae Jepsen released the ear-bleedingly awful pop song Call Me Maybe in 2011, to an audience that couldn’t have possibly cared less about her — that is, of course, until Justin Bieber and a band of his famous friends uploaded a lip-dubbed version of the song to YouTube. After that, her success skyrocketed — she even became a meme.
Many people thought her so-called success would be a flash in the pan due to how quickly her song and video went viral, but Jepsen’s net worth is now estimated at about $1 million, and she’s currently starring in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway. Somehow, the 28-year-old managed to turn her viral fame into a legitimate career, thus receiving the best of both worlds treatment from the two sides to success content sharing can bring. From all the success she’s had, I’d wager that she doesn’t quite mind her short-lived career as a meme and a viral video, now that she’s taken slightly more seriously in advertisements and her career.
Still, there’s something to be said about the proven success content-sharing can bring if done correctly. In 2006, internet comedian Bo Burnham began posting his musical comedy songs to YouTube to an audience of over 124 million viewers. It wasn’t long before he was approached by Comedy Central to do a stand-up special, and he became the youngest comic to ever do so. Like other celebrities who got their start on YouTube, Burnham does much of his own personal ‘branding’ on the popular social media outlet Vine, in the form of 6 second videos involving snappy jokes along his style of comedy.
After some of the original buzz surrounding his career died down, Burnham knew the way to keep people interested was to give them something for free. He released a second stand-up special on Netflix and YouTube (where it currently has over 3 million views, despite being up for less than a few months) to wildly positive reviews. Free content-sharing obviously helped him again.
When asked on Reddit why he decided to release the special for free, Burnham replied:
It took so long to make and it was something different than I’ve done before, so I really just wanted it to be as easy to find and watch as possible. Also, if I do it myself, I don’t have to take any notes on what to cut or keep. Within two hours of releasing it, I knew I’d made the right choice.
He certainly did make it easy to find. Often self-promoting it on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, he received celebrity endorsements from Aaron Paul and Dylan O’Brien, which only encouraged more people to click the link he’d been sending around for weeks.
It’s a pretty popular opinion that my generation is seen as self-involved because we make anyone and everyone famous. However, it’s proven that self-promotion and content sharing work. The quickest and easiest way to make yourself famous is to put yourself out there, right?
And I don’t think that a single entertainer performing on stadium tours that are selling out within minutes really cares whether or not some snobby ‘professionals’ think that the quality of the material has gone down now that we share anything that remotely holds our attention for longer than five minutes.