Anatomy of a YouTube Star: How Twelve Singers Found Fame on Social Media

by Amanda Flinner

In 2012, the New York Times told us what we already know: "On YouTube, Amateur is the New Pro." Search for your favorite singer and you'll most likely find dozens of covers by aspiring musicians hoping someone will see their unique and exciting talents. Something that will make them stars.

But it's not just about the number of views; it's also about who's doing the viewing. Before YouTube, amateur performers had to contend with drunken audiences shouting over their music in smoky bars just to try and rustle up a couple of fans. "Three sets, finishing at 3 a.m.," Emily Sailers told us, recalling the early years of the Indigo Girls.

Now, the stage is smaller but the audience is exponentially bigger. Sure there are still a few drunk hecklers in the crowd, but there's the chance of Ellen DeGeneres or Lady Gaga watching a performance. And you never know when Journey might be looking for a new lead singer. It's easier for record execs to gauge appeal by page views than by applause at a dive bar in an out-of-the-way town. It's more convenient for bands (like Journey) to peruse a singer's entire portfolio of work online than to set up single-song auditions for a handful of potential new members. But when it comes down to becoming a star, YouTube isn't a key to success, it's just another tool.

"Being a YouTube sensation doesn't guarantee a successful career," Corey Denis, vice president for Digital Marketing & Social Media at Los Angeles-based TAG Strategic told the Houston Chronicle.

"The road to a successful career arc is the same as it always was," Denis said. "A strategy has to be put in place treating him as a new artist, even if he has all of this attention already. He has to have something to sell to his fans."

Plus, making homemade videos alone in your bedroom doesn't indicate stage presence in front of a live crowd or demonstrate the skills to produce in a professional studio setting.

Here's a look at twelve well-known solo singers who made the leap from social-media platforms, and how they did it.
Colbie Caillat

Not every American Idol winner lives up to the title (Taylor Hicks, anyone?), so Colbie Caillat wasn't too broken-hearted when she was rejected at the audition level. The nervous teenager underwhelmed the judges with her original song, "Bubbly," but it was this very song that would make her a MySpace star. (She told us it only took 20 minutes to write!) Colbie didn't even know how to use the social-media website; a friend uploaded songs for her. When "Bubbly" drew 5,000, then 10,000 plays a week, the singer was suspicious. Could this be for real? When she started performing live and seeing her fans singing along with her, she had her answer. Eight months after her MySpace debut, Colbie was the #1 unsigned artist on the site. She explained her disbelief to OK! magazine in 2008:

"This was so unintentional. I never knew I could get a career out of this. MySpace is what started it all."

Since then, Colbie's star has continued to rise way beyond MySpace: she's released four albums (Coco, Breakthrough, All of You and Christmas in the Sand) and has won two Grammy Awards for her collaborations with Taylor Swift and Jason Mraz.

If there's any downside to becoming a social-media darling with loads of loyal fans, it's being a social-media darling with loads of loyal fans. When you start at the top, where else is there to go? While most artists have to prove their staying power with their second album, singers like Colbie with an established fan base have a lot to prove from the get-go.

"You do have to worry a little because, especially for me, my fans started hearing all my songs from MySpace, so they knew them ahead of time. So, now it's going to be all brand new stuff they've never heard before. And that's the only thing that's a little scary."

Rebecca Black

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but having your debut single dubbed the "worst song ever" is cutting it close. Rebecca Black's "Friday" has the distinction of being one of the most shared - and one of the most mocked - songs of 2011. Its music video, produced by the Los Angeles label Ark Music Factory, was the #1 video of the year on YouTube. Citizens of the internet were outraged, but their viral indignation only fed the beast. "Friday" not only wouldn't die but kept getting stronger. It finally reached its tipping point when Katy Perry gave a nod to the song in her own "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," and Rebecca made a cameo appearance in the video.

In a bid to make it more tolerable (or more annoying depending on who you ask), the song received the Glee treatment in the season two episode "Prom Queen." The show's creator, Ryan Murphy, defended the choice:

"The show pays tribute to pop culture and, love it or hate it, that song is pop culture."

Justin Bieber

One of the problems in becoming a near-overnight sensation is there isn't any adjustment period. One day, you're a regular kid with a slightly irregular haircut and the next you're a heartthrob to legions of tween girls, and that same haircut is sweeping the nation. Such was the life of 13-year-old Justin Bieber in 2008. Justin was discovered by happy accident when talent scout Scooter Braun stumbled upon his YouTube videos. When he took the singer under his wing, Braun encouraged him to keep uploading videos to build an even stronger social-media fan base. He also brought him to audition for Usher, and he was subsequently signed to Braun and Usher's label, Raymond Braun Media Group.

Bieber fever struck hard and fast. He made history in 2009 when all seven songs from his debut EP My World - including his hit "Baby" - charted on the Billboard Hot 100. For the next three years, the music video for "Baby" held the record for the most watched video in YouTube history until PSY's "Gangnam Style" (more on that later) took the title in November 2012.

YouTube acts have the potential to become stars by their own standards; they can choose their own music, sing it their own way, and dress in their own style. Justin came packaged with a ready-made voice and look that was both popular and bankable; he was a sure thing. But it still wasn't enough. Here's where the "swagger coach" comes in (yes, apparently there is such a person, we're not sure what he studied in college). Most kids wouldn't want an adult choosing a new look for them, but Justin doesn't seem to be complaining. Along with his new haircut and "street-wise" duds, he also adopted an edgier lingo and so cool pose for the paparazzi. Basically, he's Joey McIntyre trying to be Donnie Wahlberg, and Beliebers everywhere are buying it.

In addition to selling over 15 million albums, Justin is also the second most popular Twitter celeb, behind Lady Gaga, with 30 million followers. Forbes magazine named him the third most powerful celebrity in the world. Although he started out as a YouTube phenom, his continued success is the result of being signed to a record label and being molded into a marketable product.

Greyson Chance

When 12-year-old Greyson Chance decided to perform Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" for his middle school's talent show, he never dreamed it would be for an audience of millions - including Ellen DeGeneres.

Just two weeks after his dad uploaded the "Paparazzi" video to YouTube, Greyson appeared on Ellen's talk show and performed the song. Lady Gaga herself even phoned in to give the young singer a piece of advice: "Work really hard, be focused, and stay away from girls."

The staying away from girls part remains to be seen, but Greyson has followed Gaga's advice so far. He became the first artist signed to Ellen's record label eleveneleven (which refers to the date she first viewed Greyson's video on YouTube) and recorded his debut album, Hold On 'til the Night. The album secured the #29 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.

Like other tween sensations, Greyson will have to revamp his image as he and his fans mature.

Esmee Denters

If Greyson Chance proved that it's helpful to have fans in high places, Esmee Denters showed that celebrity support can backfire. The Dutch singer-songwriter was becoming a popular attraction on YouTube with her renditions of songs by Natasha Bedingfield and Justin Timberlake, but she got the real boost she needed when Timberlake himself became one of her viewers. He signed her as the first artist for his new label, Tennman Records, and produced her debut album, Outta Here (perhaps not the best choice of title). Esmee co-wrote most of the songs, including the singles "Love Dealer" and "Admit It."

From 2007 to 2010, things were looking good for Esmee - she toured as an opening act for Timberlake, Enrique Iglesias, Ne-Yo, Honor Society and Stanfour (as a special guest). There was even talk of her getting her own reality TV show.

But even with Timberlake as her fairy godmother, this Cinderella never quite made it to the ball. Although she retained popularity in her own country, she failed to capture the attention of the international fan base she built on YouTube. She was quietly dropped from Timberlake's label after Outta Here flopped. For a while afterwards, the name Esmee Denters could only be found in abandoned online music forums and in old feature articles falsely predicting her assured fame (and, of course, in her aging YouTube videos). Some fans blamed Timberlake's influence, claiming he didn't promote her enough and gave her ill-suited material.

She made a comeback, however, in 2012 with the songs "City Lights" and "It's Summer Because We Say So." Fans were disappointed with the latter's cheaply-produced video and her new makeover to match. Esmee will try to re-inspire her followers with her upcoming album, Screaming Out Loud.

Jayme Dee

If you're not one of her 120,000+ subscribers on YouTube, then the name Jayme Dee might not sound familiar, but if you've seen The Hunger Games, you've heard her hit song "Rules."

The California-born singer began uploading videos onto the site in 2008, performing a range of covers from Adele to Katy Perry to Bon Iver. She got the attention of the Universal Republic label when she uploaded "Love Whiplash," a song she wrote on the way to church about her fickle ex-boyfriend.

These days, Jayme continues to share her own original music. Her debut single was 2012's "Tip Toes." In our interview with Jayme, she told us that she penned the song in just a few hours.

Jayme could convey her charisma in her YouTube videos, but would her confidence withstand a live audience? She was put to the test on her first tour, where she performed in sold-out venues with electronica artist Owl City. She described the experience to Teen Vogue:

"It was my first tour, and Owl City was awesome. It's definitely a rush singing all of the songs I've been working on for so long to a live audience."

Her next test, the release of her debut album, is still pending.

Alexis Jordan

Before she became a YouTube star, Alexis Jordan was a semi-finalist on the reality series America's Got Talent. Before that, she opened for the Motown megastar Smokey Robinson at a tribute concert for Stevie Wonder - all before she reached her 18th birthday.

Alexis, however, wasn't pouring all her energy into YouTube. While her profile was scoring millions of views, she was also pushing her demos the old-fashioned way to get attention from record labels.

Still, it was her social-media popularity that piqued the interest of the production team Stargate. In 2010, they offered Alexis the chance to record with them in New York and meet with rapper Jay-Z. She became the first artist signed to Stargate and Jay-Z's collaborative label, Star Roc/Roc Nation (Bridgette Kelly, Rita Ora and Willow Smith followed).

Her debut single "Happiness" soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Airplay chart. "Good Girl" and "Hush Hush" were also released from her self-titled debut album in 2011.

Austin Mahone

Who would have thought someone could out-Bieber Justin Bieber? San Antonio teenager Austin Mahone did in 2011 when he covered the singer's "Mistletoe," which surpassed the original on YouTube with over three million views. (fun fact: "Mistletoe" is the highest-charting original Christmas song on the Hot-100 since 1989, when New Kids on the Block released "This One's for the Children"). Like his predecessor, Austin used the social media site as a platform for his music, recording covers with his best friend Alex Constancio. But it wasn't until he took on the Biebs that his popularity soared. In 2012, he released his own debut single "11:11" through Universal Republic. A few months later, his second single "Say Somethin'" was a #34 hit on the Billboard Pop Charts. If that's not enough, you know you've made it when your fans earn a catchy nickname. Justin Bieber has "Beliebers" while Austin Mahone has "Mahomies."

It sounds easy, but Austin insists his rise to fame was anything but. He told the Houston Chronicle he spent countless hours promoting himself on various social media sites and interfacing with fans to get his name out there.

"I used everything I could and did anything I could to promote myself," he said.

But for some other YouTube stars like Christina Grimmie, it really was that easy.

Christina Grimmie

Christina Grimmie was sitting in Math class when she got an unusual text from her brother; he said Selena Gomez's stepfather was trying to contact her. Like thousands of other viewers, Brian Teefey saw her cover of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." on YouTube. It was only her second video on the site (the first was another Cyrus cover, "I Don't Wanna Be Torn"). But believe it or not, becoming the next big thing wasn't her intention. She told ClevverTV:

"It's shocking. I didn't go on YouTube for that. I went on YouTube just to see what would happen and then suddenly things blew up."

And she wasn't exaggerating. With over 1.5 million subscribers, she became the fourth-most-subscribed musician on YouTube in May 2012 (as of December, she's closing in on 2 million). She released her debut EP, Find Me, in 2011 along with the hit singles "Advice" and "Liar Liar." She's also toured with Selena Gomez, performed at the American Music Awards, and has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Disney Channel's So Random!. She even started her own web series called Power Up: with Christina Grimmie.

Although she still doesn't know how she became so popular, Christina has some simple words of advice for anyone trying to be a YouTube star: be unique and ignore the haters.

Megan Nicole

Megan Nicole made her YouTube debut in 2009, singing what would become prophetic lyrics from Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" - "I hope it's gonna make you notice someone like me." By 2012, over a million subscribers noticed.

Aside from her voice, the singer is also known for the production values of her videos, which stand out from the webcam creations of her peers. Her popular version of Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song" also boasts a solid recreation that rivals Mars' own. But Megan is known for more than her covers. She released her original song "B-e-a-utiful" in 2011 and garnered over 15 million views, along with the attention of Sean "Diddy" Combs and his label Bad Boy/Interscope Records. It all still seems surreal to the young singer.

"Who knew just from posting some covers on the internet that I would have a job out of it?" she said in an interview with What's Trending.

Time will tell if Megan can make the leap from YouTube star to recording star. She's currently working on her debut album.

Kina Grannis

If her popular music video "In Your Arms" says anything about Kina Grannis, it's either that she's really patient or she just really likes jelly beans. It took over two years to finish the 2011 stop-motion video and nearly 300,000 Jelly Belly candies.

Kina's decision to start a YouTube account in 2007 was the first link in a chain of events that led to a contract with Interscope Records and, eventually, tours in the US and Europe. Although she feverishly posted videos to the site every day, it was her first video, "Message from the Heart," that won her the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest and the subsequent record deal. It was a short-lived dream come true for Kina, who decided to turn down the contract and strike out on her own. She explained to Seventeen magazine:

"The people at the label were great but at the end of the day our visions didn't match up and I knew I had to do it my way. The potential success that could come with signing with a major label didn't quite outweigh how important it was for me to make my music the way I knew it needed to be made. It was a hard decision to make, but I've never regretted it for a second and it's only become more clear to me after making and releasing Stairwells that it was the right one."

Before any of that, Kina self-released three albums between 2005 and 2006: Sincerely, Me, One More in the Attic and In Memory of the Singing Bridge. But other than a few soap opera fans who heard "Ours to Keep" on General Hospital, no one was clamoring for Kina until she built a fan base on YouTube, making it easier for her to go the independent route for her "official" debut with Stairwells in 2010.

Since then, Kina has released the singles "Valentine," "The One You Say Goodnight To," "In Your Arms" and "This Christmas" (with Destorm).


Unless you've been in a pop cultural vacuum throughout the latter part of 2012, you've seen references to YouTube's most-watched video, PSY's "Gangnam Style." The video's instant popularity earned the South Korean entertainer royal status as "King of YouTube," but it actually took him much longer to reach that throne. In fact, he released his first album, PSY from the PSYcho World!, over a decade earlier to harsh criticism over its controversial content - which became the typical response through the release of four more albums.

"Gangnam Style," inspired by Seoul's Gangnam District, debuted on PSY 6 (Six Rules), Part 1 in July 2012 and its video hit YouTube shortly after. PSY's catchy choreography spawned an international sensation with celebs sending tweets, fans making parodies and even politicians imitating the dance moves. When it surpassed Justin Bieber's "Baby," everyone knew there was a new pop star in town. He was even signed by Scooter Braun, the talent scout who discovered and signed Bieber, to Schoolboy Records.

What's sometimes lost in this story of the cowboy-dancing South Korean is that "Gangnam Style" isn't just a YouTube success story from a popularity standpoint, but also from an earnings perspective. With site ads and iTunes downloads alone, the Associated Press estimated PSY would reach millionaire status in 2012. Add in the kickbacks from parodies and TV commercials and the total reaches around $8 million.

But will PSY have staying power when the "Gangnam Style" frenzy wanes? Stay tuned for PSY 6 (Six Rules), Part 2 to find out if the king will continue his reign.

December 27, 2012
More Song Writing

Comments: 9

  • Sally Crosby from Welshpool, WalesI'm totally unknown on YouTube. Pah.
  • Josh Krajcik Addicts from MaYoutubers should check out Josh Krajcik. He was runner up on Xfactor season one and his voice is like no other.
  • Brian Brennan from Las Angeles Usayeah. they earned what they have, and im not a big PSY fan.
  • Mc from PaYouTubers should check out Ronan Parke from the UK; he did place 2nd on Britain's Got Talent, but he has found a following in other parts of the world due to You Tube vids ...
  • Mark Withers from CarrickfergusKina Grannis has an amazing voice and everyone needs to check her out.
  • Emily from Tomball, TxOnly heard of a few and not very satisfied with the music industry with these discoveries. hopefully it will take a turn for better and can't get any worse.
  • Sdka from FsdfsdfRebecca Black and Justin Beiber came from Youtube? And a song like Gangnam Style is the biggest thing right now? I worry deeply about the future of music...
  • Melissa from Cape Town, SaHeard most of these singers, but it really surprised me to find out Justin Bieber was a YouTube star! Not really a fan, so it surprised me!
  • Karen from Manchester, NhGeesh. I haven't even heard of most of these, and of the ones I have, only Colbie Caillat is worth any time listening to.
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