By Liz Shannon Miller
Web video’s evolution into a global phenomenon has taken many forms, but one universal trend has fueled the international spread of YouTube and other platforms: Music.
Music, after all, doesn’t necessarily require a complex understanding of local pop culture; music doesn’t even really require a knowledge of the language — a fact to which Psy owes his entire viral career. A great song creates an emotional connection quickly. And a really great song? You can listen to a really great song over and over.
So it’s almost surprising that YouTube took so long to dedicate one of its 2013 tentpole events to music, and no surprise at all that the YouTube Music Awards inspired a divided but frenzied response.
Investing in music-related content has become big business for YouTube, MCNs, and other companies built on these platforms, and two major themes are starting to evolve out of the shows being produced. What are they? Let’s break it down.
“The D-word” is often a whipping boy for web video, used as a justification for underperforming content. But the same problem exists for aspiring musical artists hoping to launch from unknown to Macklemore status, and many of the web original shows being produced right now seek to address that concern.
For example, VEVO might be built on bringing mainstream music videos to online audiences, but since 2011, the program “Lift” has been featuring up-and-coming artists with Q&As, music videos, and other behind-the-scenes content. Sponsored by McDonald’s, “Lift” can lay claim to a pretty impressive set of alumni, including Lorde, Avicii, Karmin, and (seriously) One Direction.
There’s also the Electus-run channel LOUD, which launched the series “Road Trippp” this fall. “Road Trippp” uses a reality/documentary format to showcase rising artists, but with the twist of focusing on the tour experience, giving the show a unconventional look at the life of the performer. The first season of six episodes followed rapper Casey Veggies and his friends Joshton Peas and Anwar Carrots as they traveled from Houston to Los Angeles.
In addition, the importance of performing covers for YouTube artists can’t be underestimated in terms of discovery — it’s easier for a viewer to take a chance on an unknown if the song is familiar, after all.
Several networks, therefore, have shows featuring performers taking on more popular artists, including Maker’s “Uncovered,” which mostly takes an acoustic approach to covers of artists ranging from Coldplay to Whitney Houston to Bill Withers. It’s a simple concept, but the black-and-white cinematography elevates it.
What else helps drive the discoverability of new artists — while also basking in the limelight of the well-known?
YouTube, at its core, has always been a platform that encourages a direct, real connection to those watching. Its most iconic visual, after all, is the head-and-shoulders of a vlogger, speaking directly to the camera — directly to you, the viewer.
But there are always ways to get deeper, and some intriguing formats for enabling a stronger connection between artist and audience are being used by these companies.
The key is making the artists feel like real people — something achieved by Vice/Noisey’s “Back & Forth,” which pairs up individual artists for essentially co-interviews. The end result creates the sense that you’re eavesdropping on two friends having a casual, but lively, conversation.
The long-form interview series “CRWN” pairs music journalist Elliott Wilson with well-known hip-hop performers, including Tyler the Creator, Drake, and Macklemore — it’s not a game-changer in terms of format, but the live audience, lengthy conversations, and Wilson’s well-informed questions help create honest portraits of the artists.
More trivia-focused is PitchforkTV’s “Over/Under,” which asks artists including Earl Sweatshirt and The Lonely Island what they think is over-rated or under-rated. It’s hardly in-depth, but it’s a fun and fast look into how those profiled think.
Many of these shows touch on both discoverability and intimacy, an overlap which makes sense, as both themes are the core of what makes music-related video content work online: the possibility that anyone can break through with the right song, especially if they connect with the audience.