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.

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