Thursday, August 15, 2013

The YouTube cover trend Part 2: When the indies sign with the majors

This post is a slightly belated follow up to one from earlier this summer, on the proliferation of cover songs on YouTube. I looked at something I referred to as 'instant nostalgia', or the compressed timeline of close to zero between a) a song becoming popular and b) getting covered in bedrooms and basements and then c) being shot out to the world on YouTube.

This process has allowed some to turn their hobbies into small scale celebrity and to make anywhere from a few bucks to a larger pile of bucks by monetizing views with pre-roll or overlay ads. Such a trend is indicative of what I think of as entertainment without an entertainment industry, the ability to make a creative product and get it out to audiences while bypassing the conventional structures of agents, managers, producers, broadcasters, and distributors.

We've already seen some examples here on the blog of people carving out a path for themselves outside of the bulky industry structures, so in this post I thought we'd take a look at a few people who started out posting quirky videos on YouTube and parlayed their ability to attract attention online into offline attention, like network television appearances, and ultimately to major label recording contracts.

Going back to the spring of 2011 we have one of the model groups in this genre, Karmin, a duo comprised of two Berklee College of Music grads, Nick Noonan and Amy Heidemann. The two combined their musical talents and telegenecity with tagging and search optimization and in very short order found themselves the recipients of millions of YouTube views. Followed by an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Followed by a signing to the Epic label. Followed by chart success on Billboard around the world.

Today Karmin have more than 1.3 million subscribers to their YouTube channel and close to 225 million views. Their cover of Chris Brown's Look at Me Now is their biggest video hit, currently sitting at 85 million views, alongside their covers of songs by Nicki MinajLMFAO, and Lil Wayne, that have netted them close to 20 million views each. Perhaps most important is that they've been able to make the leap from what could be thought of as YouTube novelty act to musicians finding success with original compositions. More on the business side of Karmin is covered in this article from Berklee's Music Business Journal, including details such as their licensing arrangements with the NBA and Jay Z's Rocawear and the fact that unlike many new major label signees they were not required to do a '360 deal' in which revenues from ancillary areas such as merchandising, touring, and licensing are also split with the label since revenues from recorded music, the cash cow in the pre-digital days, have fallen so dramatically.

Hailing from Brampton, Ontario, Canada we have the example of Walk Off The Earth, whose early YouTube postings, in true niche-media-looking-at-other-niche-media fashion, were things like covers of songs by The Gregory Brothers, themselves best known for their series of Autotune the News videos on YouTube. First let's take a look at the Gregory Brothers' handiwork...

And now, Walk Off The Earth's take on The Gregory Brothers...

From these humble beginnings the Walk Off The Earth crew morphed into what could be called a 'couch combo' or 'back seat combo', itself rapidly becoming a genre of its own on YouTube. In early 2012 they posted their 1 guitar, multiple hands version of Goyte's Somebody That I Used To Know and things took off from there. 60 million views in 6 weeks, followed by network TV appearances and mainstream press coverage. Their cover of the Gotye hit now has more than 150 million views, and their YouTube channel boasts a total of 350 million views and 1.5 million subscribers.  (Note that the Gotye's own version of the song has, by comparison, just over 420 million views; in other words, the cover has attracted more than 1/3 as many views as the original). 

Walk Off The Earth have since signed to Columbia, a decision that has left some puzzled. Why, some ask, would people who can pull in these kinds of numbers on their own even want a major label deal? What about the Macklemore model, in which we see an artist retaining higher levels of independence and ownership, with the 'buying in' of additional industry services on an as-needed basis. Evidently, it's not for everyone. And there's nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the capacity, inclination, or even the interest in navigating the complexities of the business end of things. My hunch -- and if any readers have any additional information on this point, please chime in in the comments section below -- is that an act/artist that comes to the table with demonstrated knowhow and sizable, and often global, audience numbers in hand cuts a more favorable deal for themselves than those who do not possess these attributes (e.g. Karmin brought with them a mailing list of 80,000). As a result we're seeing more options come into being; not religiously do-it-yourself at one end of the spectrum, and sign away your rights to industry at the other end, but instead, greater elasticity and various tiers of possibility.