THE 2016 MUSIC ISSUE
The week of March 13, 2016
YouTubeMusicStars_JLongo_31116

The plight of the modern YouTube music star

By Austin Powell

One of the most memorable moments of the Grammys last month never aired on TV.

“We all sing songs about kindness, and we all sing songs about family,” Tim Kubart said in his acceptance speech for Best Children’s Album, giddy with excitement, “and these are the building blocks of compassion and responsibility that we’re trying to teach to the next generation.”

Then he thanked Chica the Chicken and “all the Sproutlets at home.” “I know a lot of this stuff doesn’t make much sense,” he joked from the stage in a livestreamed portion of the event.

Kubart is a rising star in children’s music. He’s the host of Sunny Side Up, a live morning show for kids on NBCUniversal’s Sprout channel that has hosted such guests as Michelle Obama and William Shatner. His band, Tim & the Space Cadets, has performed at major music festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and his last album, 2015’s Home, just earned the biggest prize in the industry.

But despite his many accomplishments, Kubart’s still best known, at least to those over the age of 6, as the “Tambourine Guy,” a recurring character in the viral music videos of the YouTube collective Postmodern Jukebox. He is to tambourines what Will Ferrell is to cowbells: There can never be too much. He dances like nobody’s watching—only everyone is.

“Tambourine Guy is the biggest fan who somehow found his way on stage,” says Kubart, pausing on his way to the airport for another show with his Space Cadets.

Whether Postmodern Jukebox is draping Demi Lovato or Nickelback in vintage Motown, the conversation in the comments always steers back toward Tambourine Guy and his infectious dance moves, “like a gazelle, all limbs and smiles and tambourine,” as bandleader Scott Bradlee put it.

“The fans are the ones who invented Tambourine Guy,” says Kubart, who spent several seasons in the backing band for America’s Got Talent. “Once they reacted to it, I just kept on doing it and making more videos. … I’ve met people on tour in Amsterdam who say they’re the Tambourine Guy of their friends.”

Kubart can’t escape the association, though he tried briefly. When the character first took off, he made a separate Facebook account for Tambourine Guy, only to find that it was far more popular than his own. He quickly decided to merge the two. “There are plenty of times that I post about something that doesn’t have to do with tambourines and I get some comments like ‘Why no tambourine?’” he adds via email.

“Tambourine Guy is the biggest fan who somehow found his way on stage.”

It’s worked out better for Kubart than most, perhaps because Tambourine Guy radiates with the same youthful positivity that’s present in his children’s music and live show. But his situation is indicative of a larger challenge facing YouTube music stars today: It often takes virality and gimmicks to garner significant attention, but that success is fleeting at best and doesn’t easily translate to other projects.

As the stories of contemporaries Linzey Rae, Anthony Vincent, and Rob Scallon illustrate, it’s still a long way to the top—and even more so if you’re starting online.

The Metal Kitchen

You’ll never think of shepherd’s pie the same way again after watching Linzey Rae’s legendary cooking tutorial. She pets a cat resting on the stove, waves to the camera doe-eyed, and then proceeds to growl instructions in a manner better suited for Ozzfest than the kitchen. It would terrify Martha Stewart.

The video turned heads in both the metal community and Internet content factories in late December with its subversive charm and Rae’s deathly vocals. More than 1 million views later, she’s still in disbelief.

“We never thought the video would go viral,” Rae says. “Now that it has, we want to use the YouTube channel to push the band. It’s almost like a gateway video for them discovering our band and our music.”

Her band’s the Anchor, a metalcore outfit from Denver that’s been grinding in the local scene for over two years. The group has seen some tangible benefits since the first installment of its Metal Kitchen series. Whereas previously the Anchor would be lucky to sell 50 to 60 tickets to a show, they’re now landing on bigger bills and are able to ask for higher guarantees. Some fans actually flew in for their recent show in Nebraska, and they sold out their first show locally earlier this year. The band’s next local show in July is expected to reach capacity at 250 people.

The ripple effect has been apparent online as well. The band’s last video, “The Skeptic,” has clocked over 28,000 views. That’s small potatoes compared to “Shepherd’s Pie,” of course, but context is key. “It’s not discouraging at all,” Rae contends. “For a local band with original music, that’s more than we could ever ask for.”

But there’s more to IRL success than a few new subscribers and some ticket sales. The Anchor has found itself stuck between YouTube and a hard place.

“It’s really complicated,” guitarist Cory Jones says. “When we signed with a YouTube agency”—Studio 71, formerly Collective Digital Studios—“they were saying stuff to us like, ‘Everybody wants to see Metal Kitchen. It wouldn’t be wise to put up your original music. Nobody is there for that.

“You look at those people from an outside perspective and think that they’ve made it, but our daily life hasn’t changed, and we still have no time to do anything.”

“On the other side, you have people telling us that we’re turning into a cover band and that we need to be careful. … Even from the local bands in the scene, there’s a lot of animosity towards us.”

Right now, the five-piece is struggling to reach that critical point where they can afford to quit their day jobs. Jones is a plumber, while Rae is studying full-time at Metropolitan State University in Denver to become a high school English teacher. That makes it difficult to find time to write new material and rehearse, much less maintain the steady churn YouTube requires—or to create the sort of bonus content needed to entice potential Patreon sponsors. (Rae currently earns a mere $85 a month from the crowdfunding platform.)

The Metal Kitchen videos are also deceptively time-consuming. Between the writing and recording of the backing track to the filming and actual baking, each one takes between 30 to 40 hours—and that’s not including the hassle of finding a place to actually film. The 300-square-foot apartment the bandmates share doesn’t even have an oven.

“It’s so overwhelming,” Jones laments. “You look at those people from an outside perspective and think that they’ve made it, but our daily life hasn’t changed, and we still have no time to do anything. … Recording music is frustrating; recording videos is frustrating. It’s a nightmare to get it all together. When you do, it’s great, but then you have to work on the next one. And you still have to be an adult, because you’re not getting paid for it.”

The plan, at least for the moment, is to keep burning at both ends. Rae’s working on a new YouTube series that teaches grammar in the form of metalcore, and she plans to continue with Metal Kitchen and her cover series, Pop Goes Metal, which has proven popular both online and in concert. Meanwhile, the Anchor plans to record a full-length album this summer—and in case you’re wondering, it won’t include “Shepherd’s Pie.”

“Whatever avenue it goes, we’re happy either way,” Rae contends. Jones adds, “We’re being taken seriously as a band, and as a Linzey Rae on YouTube.”

The man of a thousand voices

Watching one of Anthony Vincent’s videos is like seeing an entire season of American Idol crammed into three minutes, or scrolling through the radio and hearing the same artist on every channel. One second he’s covering Adele’s “Hello” in the ’90s grunge of Alice in Chains; the next, it’s a Lionel Richie slow jam or Prince’s Purple Rain.

Against the odds, he somehow pulls it off in a way that’s consistently surprising—and probably educational for those who might not otherwise hear the likes of Type O Negative or Frank Zappa. Vincent thinks of the videos as mashups, contorting the original version to fit his twisted vision for it.

His first breakout video as Ten Second Songs was actually intended to be a promotional stunt. In between jobs and looking for a way to expense his home studio, he started selling custom songs on Fiverr, the freelance marketplace where people sell services for as little as $5 an order (hence the name). He completed over 750 orders—sometimes cutting between 10 and 15 songs a day, mostly various versions of “Happy Birthday”—and boasts a five-star rating on the service.

“That made me realize what I was capable of,” Vincent says, recalling one particularly challenging request to record something in the vein of a Russian military march.

He thought performing Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” in 20 different styles on YouTube would be a smart way to advertise his business and maybe bring in some lucrative jingles. Within a week, it had 4 million views, his channel racked up 100,000 new subscribers, and he had a profile in Rolling Stone. It’s since been viewed nearly 20 million times. Naturally, Vincent thought some of that momentum might carry over to his actual rock band, Set the Charge.

“It was such a shock to the system,” recalls Vincent, who studied briefly at the Music Industry and Technology program at Mercy College near his hometown of Westchester, New York. “I thought, ‘I’m famous now. We need to get our shit together with the band. We’re obviously next.’”

“You think that at first, but then you realize real quick it doesn’t happen that way. People subscribe to my YouTube channel because there’s a very specific thing that people want to see. It’s different when you put out your own original music. It’s not necessarily going to hit people the same way. You have to work just as hard as everyone else to get started on a different project. It’s an advantage, but it’s not going to be your big break.”

It’s been almost two years since Vincent struck YouTube gold, but Set the Charge—in which his brother plays drums—has yet to gain traction. A few labels have sniffed around, but nothing’s panned out. The band independently released an EP in April 2015, Auditory Insemination; roughly two months after premiering the album’s latest video, “Yes and No,” it’s still hovering around 20,000 views. Part of that can be chalked up to the demands of Ten Second Songs.

“I thought, I’m famous now. We need to get our shit together with the band. We’re obviously next.”

“When I first had the success, it was just a viral video. Everything else I was working on came to a screeching halt,” he says. “I had to nurture this buzz. I couldn’t just let it die. I had to follow it up with a new video. I had to keep it growing because it was an opportunity to make it go someplace else.”

But Vincent is also realistic about the ceiling for Set the Charge, whose brand of emotive avant-rock can be as difficult to pin down as Ten Second Songs.

“We’re still in the process of just now figuring out what we are,” Vincent says. “The one thing I’ll say about Ten Second Songs is that without it, the band wouldn’t be taken too seriously, even amongst ourselves. We felt a fire under our ass. We really wanted to go out and play shows.”

As with Linzey Rae and the Anchor, Vincent’s still looking for ways to incorporate Set the Charge into the mix and has a Patreon to ease the burden. He’s started linking the band’s original work at the end of Ten Second Songs’ videos, and the group recently made a guest appearance as one of the 20 styles he reworked Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” in.

While he’s not particularly keen on the idea, he wouldn’t rule out taking Ten Second Songs on tour either, especially given the popularity of pre-packaged outings like DigiTour. In fact, Set the Charge has filmed a live version of one of his most popular videos, Eminem’s tongue-tying “Rap God” in 40 styles, a feat it took him over a year to accomplish.

“I almost had an aneurysm doing that song,” Vincent says. “You’re not going to convince everybody that it’s real. It’s frustrating, but it’s something I’ve learned to deal with. The Internet is full of people who lie, and there’s definitely technology available to shift people’s voices. But that’s not me.”

While YouTube has opened doors and enabled sponsorships, Vincent clearly has larger ambitions. When asked if he would you rather have a hit record with Set the Charge or another five viral videos, he doesn’t hesitate. “Nothing against Ten Second Songs, I have a great time, but who would not choose a hit record? You can do so much with a hit record. That lives forever.”

The Internet’s own guitarist

Rob Scallon has no interest in spending nine months a year on tour. He describes himself as a guitarist for the Internet. He’s more comfortable on either side of the camera—producing or starring in his own production—than he is on stage, and he’s perfectly content connecting with fans over social media instead of at the merch booth. When he does tour, he prefers to backseat on drums, as he does with Hank Green & the Perfect Strangers, a supergroup of sorts of YouTube celebs.

“I love being able to put a lot time into one thing—one song or one video—and then never having to play it again,” Scallon, 25, says in a Skype call from his apartment turned studio in Chicago, where most of his videos are filmed. “I don’t want to be the center of attention in a room full of people, really at all.”

Alongside contemporaries Jared Dines, Ryan “Fluff” Bruce, and to a lesser extent MysteryGuitarMan Joe Penna, Scallon is redefining what it means to means to be a music star in the YouTube era, where video views largely trump traditional record deals. His weekly uploads run the gamut from poignant, original instrumentals for electric guitar (see “For That Second”) to more one-off hijinks (like “Shovel Metal” and “Flight of the Bumblebee” performed on all open strings), or as Scallon puts it, “playing weird instruments in weird ways.”

Scallon first found success online with “30 Songs in One Minute” in early 2008, but he didn’t make the leap to full-time commitment June 2013, after he reached 35,000 subscribers. “Which I don’t recommend unless you have a lot of savings and a backup plan,” he laughs, as his cat vies for screen time on his lap. Scallon says he’s been able to double “all of the numbers associated with this” each year, but he’s quick to clarify that “he’s not one of those PewDiePie millionaire stories,” referring to the insanely popular vlogger who reportedly earns $4 million a year for his video game commentary.

“A lot of people, when they decide they want to do YouTube full-time, think they just need to get to a place where AdSense can carry them. And I think that’s absolutely the wrong way of going about doing it. … It’s not necessarily about finding one revenue stream that’s going to make a lot of money. You’re going to have to find a lot of small revenue streams that are going to make a small amount of money. Doing this as a job, everything is going to fluctuate, and nothing is reliable.

“It’s this puzzle that you have to piece together to make work.”

Scallon laid out his model like chapters in a textbook for surviving in the new music economy. There’s AdSense, of course, YouTube’s automated system for distributing ad revenue from videos, but “it’s really complicated just to get into that,” he says. “The amount you make per 1,000 views is all over the place.” He sells his original material through iTunes, and licenses it where he can. He has sponsorships and merchandise, including a signature guitar coming this year from Chapman Guitars (helmed by YouTube star Rob Chapman), and he utilizes Amazon affiliate links, which cut him a percentage of the sales he generates from his YouTube page.

“I love being able to put a lot time into one thing—one song or one video—and then never having to play it again.”

Most importantly, there’s the crowdfunding platform Patreon, where 414 patrons have cumulatively pledged $845.22 for each video he makes in return for perks that include early access to videos, song downloads, video credits, and bonus commentary. That built-in baseline offers crucial flexibility and breathing room.

“The idea of virality used to influence me a lot more before Patreon,” he acknowledges.

In fact, Scallon could’ve just been a one-hit wonder on YouTube. His backwoods, banjo cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”—solos included, it should be noted—actually trended on Facebook in May 2014, and its obvious followup, “Angel of Death,” tacked on another 2.6 million views. The gimmick could’ve lasted a few years at least—and Scallon does have a whole series of “Metal on instruments that aren’t metal,” like Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell” on ukulele—but he was careful not to pigeonhole himself.

You could chart Scallon’s steps like a chord progression. He followed the Slayer covers with “Binary Metal,” a quirky video with Ryan Bruce that mimicked a text exchange through riffs and binary code. Then he followed it with “Metal in Inappropriate Places,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and steadily worked his way towards completely original material, like “Envy,” an original thrash metal track that rips on a nine-string guitar.

“The short-term benefits would be there, but I don’t think five years from now I would have had a career in music,” he says. “People are watching Slayer on banjo because they’re already familiar with 95 percent of the video. They know the song. They know what they’re in for. But if I just went, ‘Oh, hey, you like Slayer on banjo. Here’s this thing I did that’s nothing like it.’ No one’s going to care. They’re not going to switch over. …

“This is something I’ve learned from making mistakes on YouTube over the last eight years, but in order to take YouTube virality … and turn it into support for your original music, you have to do it in really small steps. People aren’t going to take giant leaps with you.”

Illustration by J. Longo