IN April 2009, a frumpy nobody walked on stage to an audience of sniggering cynics.
With greying hair and a few extra pounds pushing against a plain dress, Susan Boyle sang to more than the auditorium of people gathered for a taping of the TV show Britain's Got Talent.
Unbeknownst to the 40-something unemployed Scottish native at the time, she was also singing to more than 80 million viewers who would watch the arresting performance on YouTube in the few weeks following her audition.
Since the show, Boyle's YouTube hits have creeped well past 100 million, and she has released three successful albums. Two years before Boyle, another ugly-duckling hidden treasure was delivered to the masses when Paul Potts, a cellphone salesman, won the Britain's Got Talent competition after an equally moving audition. Videos of his performance have reached more than 90 million hits on YouTube.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it was déjà vu all over again when a similarly unstylish 17-
year-old singer named Jonathan Antoine hit that same stage, and stunned the audience and judges with his operatic chops. His performance has already been viewed more than seven million times on YouTube.
Regardless of a bit of media backlash questioning just how "undiscovered" they were (Boyle had allegedly been asked to audition by the show's producers), these three against-all-odds triumphs perpetuated an already rooted idea that fame and success are just a click away, with the past three years serving up a host of videos-gone-viral featuring a seemingly unending series of the next great voice or the next great sound in music (and one very talented Keyboard Cat).
This side of the pond on the North Shore, 15-year-old singer-songwriter Asha Diaz knows the numbers count. She has been singing since she was six, taking singing lessons since she was eight, and posting videos of her performances since she was 10. Her Facebook friends count is at 250. It's a good start. Her YouTube hits: 700-800. Good, but not yet viral.
When asked how many YouTube hits her videos would have to get for her to be successful, Diaz says she doesn't know, but getting millions of hits would be "pretty much a sure thing that I'll be known."
Although she admits she hopes one day one of her videos goes "crazy viral," Diaz also knows online fame does not automatically translate to career success.
"You have to be consistent," she says, noting she always wanted to be a singer, but at her age is still growing as an artist, so may not be ready for instant fame.
"Ultimately the goal is for (fans) to put your song on their iPod and listen to it a billion times," she says, but adds: "My favourite part is that people know my songs because a lot of them have meaning."
It's an attitude that will likely serve the young singer well as she moves forward in the music industry, and one that is echoed by Brian Watson of Maximum Music, an award-winning artist management company and record label based in North Vancouver.
"It's always going to come back to the talent," says Watson, noting those performers who believe one hit online is all it takes to gain market success are probably the least talented because they're counting on something fleeting rather than a lasting appeal.
While it sometimes feels like the proliferation of digital media, and now social media, has been around forever, the numbers show a relatively short history.
The three most popular social media sites for sharing talent, talk and trash are Facebook, created in 2004; YouTube, created in 2005; and Twitter, created in 2006.
In less than eight years, social media has caused a polar shift in communication especially affecting entertainment industries and delivery of content.
It felt like an overnight shift, says Watson, who began to notice about 10 years ago thanks to the first generation of P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing, and online sites such as Napster, Pirate Bay and Kazaa.
Watson explains how, about 10 years ago, he could ship 3,000 copies of an unknown jazz artist's album across the country.
"And then you bust your butt to sell those," he says, adding at an independent level that if you sold 3,000 copies at $10-$12 a piece, it was "not a bad chunk of change."
Within about six months, that distribution number went down to 1,000, then 700. Hard copy albums weren't selling.
"It was an almost instant loss of what we were able to ship," says Watson.
He admits the company was caught slightly off guard by the transition to digital distribution, and had to really hustle to replace that lost revenue.
"We were just having a good time, Maximum, at that point. We had won six Junos in six years, Record of the Year here, Record of the Year there, selling a ton of records, air hockey table in the office, little bit a kid-in-a-candy-store, and a little bit of immaturity," says Watson.
"I was so focused on the CD that I nearly had it handed to me by the digital revolution," he adds with a laugh.
Major labels were offering digital distribution by then, explains Watson, but it was still secondary and there weren't many mainstream content aggregators.
In 2001, Apple introduced its first iPod and digital music downloads went mainstream, big time. Today, Apple also corners a big share of the digital download market with iTunes, among many more independent sites for introducing and sharing music.
File sharing is old news, and "growing your tribe," as Watson calls it, has seen emerging artists using social media to grow their fan bases and monetize that sharing in other ways, such as "feeding the tribe" with T-shirts, tour diaries, re-mixes, concert tickets and other peripheral sales.
"The consumer, the music fan globally, has asked for respect and power and autonomy to be able to make their decisions on what they're consuming instead of having stuff pushed down their throats, "says Watson, "So if you can offer more products to your tribe and lead your tribe through super-serving them, then who cares about a 99-cent song? And everything else falls into place."
Easy access to fans through social media has created an entrepreneurial do-it-yourself environment among artists that may or may not be a good thing depending on who you talk to. The proliferation of talent online is also something that may or may not be a good thing. Watson says he used to receive boxes of cassette tapes each week from hopefuls back in the day, and he's now inundated with emails, tweets and posts.
"It has created a sort of huge avalanche of white noise coming your way, which is problematic, and it creates a bit of a pushback and it sort of dulls the senses a little bit," he says.
Jordan Ardanaz is the album review editor at Discorder magazine, which has had a mandate to support independent and local music in Vancouver for the past 25 years. He receives at least a half a dozen emails from emerging artists a week asking him to review their work. He says he doesn't feel it's his place to totally discount any one of those artists, encouraging even the questionable ones to keep trying, preferring to believe the more someone does something the better they learn to do it. He does, however, pay attention to those artists who sound good and seem sincere about their craft.
"I don't think the lustre is lost, it's just harder to find," he says about the onslaught of artists readily available for public consumption and its affect on the allure of the industry.
However, both Watson and Ardanaz agree, social media is a sign of the times and an effective business tool for emerging artists.
Ardanaz says it's not common to be able to make a living as an artist within the Indie music culture, and social media is a way to encourage or manage the business end of the art. He doesn't fault artists for trying to make money off their craft, doesn't think there should be any elitism in the industry about that, and says to some extent "everybody wants some attention," it's part of why they write and perform songs.
"I think that social media is, at its best, a lens into the culture of an artist, where we can experience their work from a deeper perspective and hopefully gain a better understanding for what they have to say about the world around us. At its worst it's just white noise," he says. "It's likely that with the direction things are going, more emphasis will be put on connecting through social media. Already, there's been more of a focus on following an artist or band's experiences through blogs, photo albums, tour diaries, etc., and I think that this is a reflection on the broader cultural changes that we've been going through in the past 15 years or so with the Internet and our general level of connectivity."
As Watson explains, it's somewhat business as usual in the music industry, and he is as busy as he ever was.
"People often mistake; they say the music industry is in the toilet, but it's actually the record industry that's in the toilet. The music industry is humming along, doing really well because you no longer need to monetize copyright," he says. "It's not about ownership, it's about emotion. A song is not a copyright, it's an emotion, and social media allows you to monetize that emotion."
It's a new business model in which revenue comes from capitalizing on the content of a song, rather than the sale of the song itself.
"So maybe you offer a remix, maybe you offer the digital downloads for free, but if they really like the artist, they'll pay for the album," adds Watson.
Ardanaz, himself a singer and a writer, says social media provides more room for multifaceted creative output, but he hopes the current trend in quantity and convenience will make room for more quality and appreciation of art.
Easy access to publicity and distribution also makes traditional industry gatekeepers, such as major labels and producers, seem unnecessary.
Diaz suggests releasing raw talent to the public un-vetted is a good thing.
"It's like listening to a song without any special effects," she says. "I think it's great we can easily show what we have."
But Diaz doesn't have plans to DIY her entire career, and says she hopes to one day get signed by a major label.
"Definitely, yea, that would be amazing if it happens," she says, noting a label could help her grow a bigger fan base and help with promotion. "And I'd like to perform more because it's amazing."
Watson warns against DIY strategies. He says there are three stages of an emerging artist, and the first stage is about developing some traction with social media stats.
"As soon as they come out, as much as you like their music, you've got to think, OK, well, half of the traction they've got, the stats, are going to be family, friends and lovers," says Watson with a laugh. "And then once you see the staying power and you see continual output or the use of the social media, then you start to go, 'OK, these guys are serious about what they're doing.'"
The third level for emerging artists is when they seem successful and are ready for a broader-based distribution. That's when the labels come in to play.
"You will always need a record label. It's not a matter of if, it's now a matter of when," says Watson. "It's not so much (about) the pipeline that the labels used to control, labels are now marketing experts, so if you look at a label like that and say 'I need one at a certain point in my career. I'm an army of one, I will need a bigger team, then I'll go and find a label.'"
Watson says he likes to tell emerging artists to grow in public.
"Develop the product, develop your craft, treat yourself as an entrepreneur, and then you get to look at labels."
Not so much as distributors of content, he adds, because now anyone can distribute worldwide, but as marketing experts.
It's a directive Diaz seems to know intuitively. At the end of her interview, when asked if she has any parting comments, the budding entrepreneur says: "Watch my YouTube videos and 'like' my Facebook page."