Wednesday, May 29, 2013

YouTube covers for fun and/or profit

Covering the songs of other artists is often condemned as being cheap, fast, and populist. Some see it as the junk food of popular culture, others as the American Idol-ization of entertainment, in which technical accuracy trumps creativity, individuality, and the rough and tumble experience of making your mistakes in clubs and cafes on the road, and along the way eventually earning your stripes and learning your craft.

Today it seems we are surrounded by cover songs in greater volume and variety than ever before. The detractors tend to see the exercise as popular culture gone karaoke culture. In the words of the late impresario, designer, and artist manager Malcolm McLaren (not an uncontroversial figure himself) there is a fundamental tension between the authentic and that which can be categorized as karaoke, or inauthentic artistic activity, which he sees as " by proxy....liberated by hindsight and unencumbered by the messy process of creativity."

Others have suggested that this karaoke culture of copying and covering is, in effect, a removal of the ego from the performance, a kind of reversal of the culture of narcissism that the late 20th century was said to embody.

In this anonymizing environment we find people 'loosened up', usually in a bar or nightclub, belting out the well-worn hits of classic rock, Motown, or the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears. Great fun for your friends to observe, great way to get attention without the usual requirement of skill, but nothing upon which to build a career. Similarly, there is the case of the bar band or cover band, musicians who play together either as a hobby or as a fledgling career effort, concentrating on a repertoire of popular hit songs, and possibly working a handful of original songs into the which time most audience members go to top up their drink or take a bathroom break and hope to make it back in time for the faithful rendition of Hotel California. Good times were had by both band members and audience members, but professional careers of any note rarely ensued.

And then along came YouTube, where one of the most popular type of video is the cover song, and everything seemed to change. These cover song performances on video are generally the work of unknowns, whose degree of skill or talent can run from absolutely none to completely remarkable, and much of the time they ring through with a kind of authenticity that is nothing less than striking. The performers might be little kids, or grandmothers, or they might be a 6-person group singing hits of yesterday and today while crammed into a car. Some have lofty ambitions, while others are content just to express themselves.

            7 year old YouTuber JD Violin Boy performs Adele's "Rolling In The Deep", one of more than 40,000 versions
 of the song uploaded to YouTube

There are literally millions of cover songs on YouTube, with more than 10,000 uploaded daily. JD Violin Boy, seen above, is among the legion of YouTubers specializing in cover songs.  He is so named because he started out  making videos of himself playing his violin in his room, adding a looping pedal, and then accompanying himself on piano, vocals, and sometimes ukelele. He's been uploading videos for 2 years, has 91 of them in total, and his most popular by far is a Bruno Mars cover that is closing in on 2 million views. But for the most part JD's covers of songs, by artists ranging from Aerosmith to Train, net views in the single digit thousands or tens of thousands.  He is not a household name, nothing he has done qualifies as having  'gone viral', but what is unique here is that with his YouTube channel he has a global stage on which to perform and a small army of fans -- he has 35,644 subscribers to his YouTube channel as of the end of May 2013 - and those things, combined with a love of doing what he does may actually turn into something bigger for him.

His story is both similar to and very different from that of a teenager named Greyson Chance. You may be familiar with him as the kid that made his way onto Ellen DeGeneres' TV show, and whose version of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi", recorded at his 6th grade school concert in Edmond, Oklahoma in the spring of 2010 did indeed go viral. It now sits at over 50 million views on YouTube, where he has posted 47 videos to channel and attracted 360,000 subscribers. Ellen DeGeneres is but one of his fans, but an important one. So impressed was she by the young man's prowess on the piano that she started a music label, eleveneleven, and signed him. The label specializes in spotlighting the bright young talent found on YouTube and is owned by Ellen's production company, which has affiliations with Warner, as well as the Geffen and Maverick labels. What we have here, then, is the television host subsuming the role of talent scout and producer and bringing all these functions back together, to create a new kind of star, or perhaps more accurately 'microstar'.  Not exactly a case of "entertainment without an entertainment industry", but certainly a rearranging of the usual hierarchies, and an opening up of new possibilities for people that otherwise would probably not have had them.

How did Greyson Chance's album do? Neither blockbuster nor bomb, it peaked at #29 on Billboard, selling 84,000 copies, while his top selling single sold 183,000 copies. To put that into context, see the numbers calculated here, which suggest that 10,000 copies is now, relatively speaking, considered a mainstream success, as, "... of the 100,000 new records that sold at least one copy in 2010, only 17% sold more than 100 copies and a mere 5.5% sold more than 1000 copies...and ~2% sold more than 5000 copies, and a paltry 0.085% sold more than 250,000 copies."

So, if you measure YouTube views on one hand as a metric -- in this case 50 million -- and albums and single sales on the other, you get a sense of where the bulk of the activity now is. And yes, artists can monetize with that level of YouTube views, with my estimate for Greyson Chance's 50 million views being approximately $250,000 - $400,000, with variations for advertising rates and views in different countries, and an allowance must be made for percentages of the revenues that go to any managers, agents, or the label, according to the terms of his particular deal.

And what about JD Violin Boy, the little guy in his room with the keyboard, violin, loop pedal, and ukelele?  He's now 9 years old, his YouTube channel has just over 5 million views as of today, and in the last 30 days he has been averaging ~33,000 views day, which translates to 1 million views per month. This may not be anything like Greyson Chance's payday but if you're 9 it's better than a lemonade stand. Or you could say that a YouTube channel is what the new lemonade stand looks like for those with the talent and initiative.

In follow up posts I'll look at a group of YouTubers that has managed to attract attention, with varying levels of success, by posting videos of cover songs, and will lay out a framework for thinking about this phenomenon as an activity that is particular to this moment in time of participatory culture and demassified, decentralized audiences and producers.

PS As of May 30th, this blog post has been approved by JD Violin Boy.

JD & I started emailing and the next thing I knew I was doing a full interview with him about his life as a prolific young YouTuber. Read that interview here.

For a follow-up post on YouTube cover songs & instant nostalgia click here.

And/or for the follow-up to that post, about performers who started out doing covers on YouTube and ended up being signed by major labels, you can click here.