The rise of the YouTube artist

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 6:30pm

Troye Sivan

Troye Sivan Buy this photo
Capitol Records

YouTube. It’s big. It’s bad. It’s been integral to the discovery, incubation and popularity of some of today’s most relevant musical artists. Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube and some of his music videos are now among the most viewed on the platform. As a student at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Maggie Rogers rose to fame when a video of her masterclass with Pharrell went viral, which resulted in what is now “Alaska,” her most popular single with over 61 million plays on Spotify. Troye Sivan, an international LGBTQ icon, was a YouTuber before his fame. In fact, if you scroll to five years ago, before he collabed with Ariana Grande, before he came out and before he released TRXYE and Blue Neighborhood, his channel still has relics of his past, including two self-created songs: “We’re My OTP” and “The Fault In Our Stars.”

What do these three artists share? They’re almost the same age. They’ve all reached the level of fame where Billboard has written articles about them. But perhaps the greatest hallmark of their talent is that all three of them currently use music as their careers. Sivan in particular gained a following from the vlogs and music covers he posted on his channel, which propelled him to develop a career outside of the YouTube space. In recent years, however, there’s been a new category of YouTube music — releases that are often nowhere near the same level of artistry and skill that Sivan embodies in his songs, often by creators with channels that cover everything except music or singing. And interests are subjective, sure, but some of these creations are unequivocally bad; autotune can help immensely with overall sound and key, as can production quality, but neither will ever truly replace a gifted voice.

It makes sense why vloggers would start making songs. For one, they’re a relatively low-effort way to rake in more money, as music videos tend to offer not only a departure from the creator’s norm but also a way to hook in new viewers, both of which boost views. Jake Paul’s “It’s Everyday Bro” ticks pretty much all of the standard boxes, except it also emphasizes the idea that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. With a ratio of 3.8 million likes to 2.5 million dislikes, it’s evident that I’m not the only one who feels that way. From an annoying chorus (“It’s every day bro!” repeated three times, followed by a single “I said it’s everyday bro!” which originates from how Paul ends his vlogs) to lyrics about dropping merch, flaunting a Rolex and a jab at PewDiePie, “It’s Everyday Bro” boils the bougie lives of high-earning YouTubers down to an essence and unpleasantly force feeds it to viewers. It’s genius, in a way — by making a song flaunting his success, Paul is essentially capitalizing on it to become even more successful, regardless of whether or not the song is good. And who’s to say that he didn’t make it bad on purpose? Despite the uneven like-ratio, the music video currently has 210,632,789 views, which according to tubecalculator.com equates to around 390 thousand dollars in revenue.  

Perhaps one of the most significant differences between YouTubers making music and “real world” musicians is that there might be more of an expectation for YouTubers to produce videos that are truly over-the-top — the whole label of being a YouTuber relies on them producing video content creators, after all. As a general rule of thumb, I can usually figure out whether or not I’m going to end up liking a song from the first 10 seconds. But listening to music put out by a YouTuber means I’m more likely to watch the music video first rather than audio only, and my initial judgment hinges much more heavily on how good the video is. Guy Tang, a YouTuber and hairstylist known for his colorful hair transformations, recently released a music video for “#Naked2U,” a remixed version of his single. Upon my first watchthrough, I caught myself cringing at everything from the neon paint smothered on the dancers to Tang’s ultra-dramatic facial expressions and awkward dancing. But on my second and third run, I began to pick up little details that I hadn’t noticed before. Unlike “It’s Everyday Bro,” Guy Tang’s creation preached a message of honesty, self-love and confidence: One of the most significant lyrics in the piece is “There’s no regrets / I’m proud of who I am.” None of this made the choreography any less clumsy or the acting any better, but I realized that most of my negative reaction was almost entirely based on the visuals rather than the audio; although Tang’s vocals weren’t record-breaking, they weren’t as bad as they could have been, and I actually liked the instrumental hook. Still, if not for this article, I can’t say that I would have willingly listened to “#Naked2U” for fun.

What does it mean to go viral in the modern age? At one point in time, the Cinnamon Challenge was revolutionary, and one of the reasons it spread so quickly was because of how reproducible it was — everyone has a spoon and a vial of cinnamon in their cabinets. But as we graduated from eating cinnamon to chugging gallons of milk and eating Tide pods, what qualifies as unique enough to grab attention has become more and more extreme. Before, it was sucking on shot glasses to get Kylie Jenner’s lips. Now, Internet creators — the very people who jump-started the “challenge” trends that ruled the web five years ago — are going to absurd lengths in their attempts to stay relevant.

One of YouTube’s calling cards is its bite-sized content and the variety of styles available. Movies demand at least an hour and a half of sustained attention in order for all the plot devices to hit where it counts while TV shows require even more of a time commitment from viewers, not to mention that episodes usually follow a strict linearity. For now, YouTube music is just another way the platform has evolved to assimilate new versions of media. But as with nearly all trends in the world, there will be a point of oversaturation, which raises the question of what comes next. Then again, there was a time where it was impossible to make a career out of recording your everyday life — and if something as banal as vlogging can become mainstream, then so can anything else, really.