On an early January night in Orange County, California, Patrice Wilson stands in a small recording booth. In front of him, through the glass, a 21-year-old woman named Angela Cole sings an unfinished track: “Have you ever,” goes the refrain, as her shoulder-length blonde hair bounces with the beat.
“Let’s do it again, and have fun,” the 37-year-old Wilson suggests. He’s wearing a black jacket and blue jeans with frayed hems, nodding his head as Cole taps one black boot to the synth-pop beat. Last year she moved from Ohio to Los Angeles to chase a music and acting career, which is how she found herself on the other side of the glass from Wilson, who listens while sipping his Muscle Milk.
“Try it, but make it more breathy,” he suggests.
Behind Wilson, Cole’s uncle sits on a couch, nodding his head. “I think it’s great,” he says. “I think she’s really easy to work with, great voice. But I’m biased.”
“I like it, but I want you to mean it,” Wilson tells Cole. When she tries for a big, emotive finish, he offers, “Do what Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston would do at the end of a song.”
Later, a 12-year-old named Mia arrives at the studio for an audition. She sits on a couch, dressed in a hoodie and jeans, dark, curly hair framing her face, her mom sitting next to her. Wilson had spotted her singing in a YouTube video and wanted to see what she was like in person.
He asks whose song she’d like to cover. Beyoncé, she says.
“You don’t like Justin Bieber?” he asks.
“I like Justin Bieber but I can’t relate to him as much,” she responds.
She settles on Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” but struggles with the high notes. On a second take, she stops, frustrated, and covers her face to hide her tears. Richard Brown, PMW Live’s head of A&R, swoops in and asks her to do some freestyling, and she quickly rebounds.
Later Mia sits on the couch again with her mom. Wilson, standing behind the mixing board, tries to lighten the mood by asking what she’d want more: a movie deal or record deal. Mia picks the record deal, and her tears start to stream again.
“Are you crying?” Wilson asks.
She wipes away tears with her sleeve and looks straight ahead.
“Yes, it means a lot to me.”
It’s an archetypal scene: the dreamer auditioning for the starmaker, the one who can turn dreams into reality. If you know Patrice Wilson’s name, it’s likely because for a moment he seemed like a new kind of starmaker—a man who could take an awkward teenager singing a silly song and turn her into a YouTube phenomenon. In March 2011, that teenager was the then-13-year-old Rebecca Black, and the song was “Friday.” The accompanying music video featured Black sing-narrating her end-of-week routine, from eating breakfast to getting to the bus stop to deciding whether to sit in the front or back seat while riding to school with her friends. It went viral as an irresistible hate-watch; after a copyright battle, the official YouTube version now has more than 90 million views—and nearly 2 million dislikes.
Given the tools at his disposal—enthusiastic if unpolished young girls, low production values for both music and video—many people cast Wilson as some sort of pop Svengali, pulling levers behind the scenes, forging Black’s quasi-fame from the rawest materials. Or, more prosaically, the whole thing was just a fluke, one of those unpredictable and unrepeatable accidents that’s part of the landscape of fame.
Five years later, Wilson’s stuck to his formula, giving the world a series of achingly simple pop songs sung by young girls—from “Chinese Food” to “It’s Thanksgiving” and “Gummy Bears”—but he’s never matched the success of “Friday.” While making cameos alongside his clients, he’s continued to produce and star in his own videos. His most recent, “Beautiful,” was posted last December, and he says it presents “the new me.”
Given his history of accumulating hate-clicks, intentionally or not, it’s hard not to wonder whether “Beautiful” is designed to provoke. He says he wrote it three years ago, and while he had a concept in mind, he wanted to take a “smart” approach: He wanted to ensure his video was beautiful.
In the finished product, Wilson appears shirtless, seated between a pair of identical twins who are pregnant and going into labor. He comforts the women with song, urging them to “stay strong” while they gaze at animated images of an ultrasound and generally look distressed. Propelled by an urgent house-music beat, they give birth, splattering Wilson with an uncomfortable amount of rainbow-colored paint. Luckily, he’s wearing goggles.
“That part symbolized that giving birth is beautiful,” Wilson says. “It was supposed to identify colors, and everyone takes things the wrong way. … But my whole idea is the colors of the rainbow. It’s beautiful. Twins are coming out, they’re beautiful.” He sees the song as an anthem for pregnant women everywhere, encouraging them to confidently embrace their bodies.
Wilson says “Beautiful” is totally earnest—it’s not an over-the-top provocation. In fact, he says he’s trying to move beyond his viral past, to get people to take him seriously. He’s done wearing panda suits, like he did in the “Chinese Food” video. “No more viral, comedic videos,” he says, though he’s still producing music videos for his young, almost entirely female clientele. For his own work, he’s convinced he can turn negatives into positives, converting the haters, “like Rebecca Black did.”
“My whole idea is the colors of the rainbow. It’s beautiful. Twins are coming out, they’re beautiful.”
It’s hard to say that’s working: “Beautiful” has just shy of 200,000 views—a respectable showing, but a far cry from the stratospheric success of “Friday.” In typical YouTube fashion, the comments include plenty of derision, from “What is wrong with humanity” to “This video nearly gave me cancer.” A reaction video mocking “Beautiful” has about six times as many views as Wilson’s original.
Which brings us to the central question: Just who is Patrice Wilson, and is this the kind of “fame” that he wants?
Wilson was born in Nigeria to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, the youngest of two boys. He attended med school in Slovakia and floated around to various odd jobs, including music, modeling, and acting. He claims he had a bit part in a 1999 Snoop Dogg movie called Urban Menace.
He eventually met Ibrahim Maiga, a Mali-born musician residing in Slovakia, who became a mentor of sorts. In 2009, he founded a production company and started scouting for talent. He held his first audition with the goal of finding artists to get to Maiga and potentially make them big in Eastern Europe.
Initially, $800 got clients a single and a music video, but he says he wasn’t focused on getting the tween demographic then. But he imagined Ark Music Factory, his production company, as a network akin to MySpace, where he’d promote his stable of talent. Some early success on YouTube led him to Rebecca Black; Wilson claims Black’s mother, Georgina Marquez (who did not respond to a an interview request), paid $4,000 for the song and video. He wrote the song, and then filmed the video at Black’s house in Anaheim Hills, which was filled out with her real friends to keep costs down.
The video went viral in March 2011, and the negative comments started rolling in, criticizing her voice, her looks, the song, and Wilson’s rapping skills. He says he started getting emailed death threats; Black received similar vitriol. He grew suspicious of cars that drove by his home in Huntington Beach, or “fan mail” that came to his house.
As we sit outside a Starbucks in Laguna Niguel, an upper-class Orange County suburb where Wilson lives with his wife, he says “going viral” was never deliberate. He saw himself leading artists through a traditional path to a major record-label deal and pop stardom, comparing his young charges to Katy Perry. “Never was it going to go viral in a negative way,” he says. “That was not the goal with the viral stuff.”
After “Friday,” he tried to make “haters” a part of his business strategy, saying to the Daily Dot, “The haters are there, 80 percent, but then there are 20 percent fans. And you’ll get the haters to become lovers.” The video for “Shush Up,” for example, features a then-11-year-old girl getting arrested, sitting in an electric chair, and being taken to a mental hospital. Two days after its release, Wilson’s company pulled the video from YouTube; a press release implies the singer’s mother asked for the video to be pulled.
“You have more girls who want to be pop stars than boys. We’ve tried to find the boy artists… but the boy artist usually doesn’t go viral.”
After the “Shush Up” fallout, Wilson started to shift his strategy away from viral content. He admits negative comments still bother him. “As you get older it’s like, I really don’t like what people say,” he says. “I’m not going to go ahead and respond to them. … Back then I didn’t care; they can say what they want to say. Today, I don’t care still, but it’s beginning to like… not get to me, but I don’t like this.”
He laments that while Rebecca Black’s career did a 180—she’s built a successful career on YouTube, performed on DigiTour, and appeared in an episode of the Netflix docuseries Chelsea Does—his career hasn’t quite done the same. “Will I turn it around? I hope so,” he says.
While he figures out his own career path, he continues to produce young talent. His production company offers clients a package deal: a song and a video, image consultation, promotion, and a “music consultation” with longtime A&R rep Don Grierson, who’s worked with the Beatles and Tina Turner. Grierson says he was brought in to provide some “broader perspective.”
“My name has some relevance, so they use that in some advertising,” he says. He also goes to auditions, which have been taking place nationally and typically draw performers ages 12 to 20. Grierson offers input on artists, though he doesn’t make any final decisions, and receives a consulting fee that he says varies depending on his involvement. He sees himself as helping to educate young would-be pop stars. “They’re not ready, but they have potential,” he says. “So you have to have them understand what goes into it. The problems they have to face with regards to reaction in the marketplace.”
Wilson acknowledges that “it takes time to make the mainstream and be taken seriously.” Bringing in Grierson is part of that progress toward being taken seriously; Grierson had more “old-school” ideas about music, according to Wilson, while Wilson knows social media and virality. Wilson says they try to release at least one viral video a year, if he’s “inspired,” but suggests he’s looking beyond YouTube clips, with movies and TV shows on the horizon.
He stresses that few of his clients are “rich.” Instead, they’re “average” parents, and while $7,400 is the average price for the package deal now, Wilson’s team often spends six to eight months on video production and voice consultation.
Marian Heinkel’s daughter, Camryn, did a video with Wilson in 2012, when she was 13. She auditioned and got a callback, then another, and though she admits the then-$5,400 price tag was a little steep for the recording and production, she thought it would be a good experience for her daughter, if she was looking to get into singing. While there were “nasty” comments on the video, Marian says Wilson “was actually concerned with how she was feeling. He didn’t like reading the negative things about him, comments calling him a pedophile.” The comments bothered her more than Camryn.
“I think she could read them now and just laugh hysterically,” she says.
Wilson brushes off comments that he’s exploiting young girls. While auditions are open to all, he says, “You have more girls who want to be pop stars than boys. We’ve tried to find the boy artists… but the boy artist usually doesn’t go viral. People are like, ‘We like the female artists. The little girl pop artists.’”
And yet, he says he eventually wants to have kids and is concerned that they’ll Google him one day and see all the negative comments. Wilson claims he tells parents: “Is she going to want this video online when she’s 17 or 18? If I had my own child, would I put them on the Internet?”
He worries that his artists might be misunderstood. That misunderstanding would become negative, hateful comments, which would lead to hurt feelings. It’s the risk he takes for himself every time he posts a video of his own: that he’ll be misunderstood, hated. What he wants, finally, is for audience to care about his work as much as he does. “To at least appreciate the work and know where I’ve been coming from the entire time,” he says. To look back over the old and new material and say, ‘I get it.’”
For all his attempts to get past the online negativity, he ultimately has to admit that it’s never going to go away. For both him and his young, unschooled artists, putting themselves before an audience is a risk. There will always be detractors—especially if you court them. When it comes to dealing with them, Wilson falls back on his old formula. “The haters make you stronger,” he says. “I tell all my artists that.”
Photos by Erika Paget | Illustration by J. Longo