By Rhiannon Humphreys
With the rising popularity of social media platforms such as YouTube, Soundcloud, and even TikTok, it’s becoming increasingly easy for artists to share their creations with hundreds, even thousands, of strangers on the internet. But how much power do these platforms really hold for self-made musicians who want to bypass the record label grind?
Clairo is perhaps one of the most successful rising stars of the bedroom pop genre. In an interview with Fader magazine, she stated that “[the] whole ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude is everything that I’m about. […] it’s really important to be genuine and authentic with everything you do”. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Massachusetts got her big break in 2017 when her self-made, lo-fi bop ‘Pretty Girl’ racked up over a whopping 40 million views on YouTube. The video for the track was endearing – filmed on her webcam in less than two hours, the baby-faced singer lip-syncs along to her track while dancing along and pulling silly poses. Her appeal lay not only in the quality of the song, but its coupling with her sweet, fun, ‘girl next door’ persona that other teens could connect with. She’d been posting videos on YouTube for years and publishing songs on other music sharing sites such as Bandcamp and Rookie, but ‘Pretty Girl’ was the first to really get noticed. As a result of her online success, she was discovered by and signed to the independent record label Fader, and seemed to prove to fans that an ‘every girl’ like them could really make it.
Described by Vice as ‘Gen Z’s Ascendent King of Sad Boy Pop’, Conan Gray, like Clairo, also built his popularity on YouTube. Once a quiet, kooky Texan teen, Conan spent his time vlogging about his day-to-day life, alongside posting dreamy covers and original songs, and slowly built up a large, dedicated teen following. In 2018, he released his first EP ‘Sunset Season’ under Republic Records and by 2019 he was supporting Panic at the Disco! on their US tour. Although signed to a label, his success is attributed to years of self-producing YouTube content, which the 20-year-old singer-songwriter does as regularly now as he did before he was ‘discovered’. Always classing himself as having been shy and unpopular as a teen, he’s become somewhat of a hero for weird kids everywhere – and testament to the internet stardom a ‘weird kid’ can achieve from the comfort of his bedroom.
Norwegian born online sensation boy pablo (real name Nicolás Pablo Rivera Muñoz) was another YouTube success, finding fame through his 2017 release of the music video for ‘Everytime’, which racked up millions of views within a few weeks. Soon the iconic image of boy pablo standing in the sea in his pink hoodie, holding a baby blue Vox Teardrop, was imprinted in indie music history. Not just a one-hit wonder, the 19-year-old continues to produce and release music without the assistance of a record label, and has toured Europe, the States and Canada off his own steam, with an intimate band made up largely of his school friends. His catchy, angst-tinged indie bops caught people’s attention not just for their musical quality but also as a result of Nicolás’s ability to tap into raw human feeling whilst also not taking himself too seriously.
It’s also worth taking a look at (Sandy) Alex G, a particularly pure example of the ‘bedroom pop’ phenomenon. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter started releasing his DIY tracks exclusively on Bandcamp in the early 2010s and slowly rose to critical acclaim on the web essentially by word of mouth. He was signed to The Orchid Tapes in 2014, followed by Lucky Number, before settling with Domino Recording Company in 2015. He has consistently remained popular with critics throughout his career and been compared to the late and great Elliott Smith. Aside from working on his own tracks, Alex also arranged and played on several tracks on Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless. Asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer about whether he’ll ever record in a studio, he said “I feel like I’m eventually going to have to do that, but I just don’t want to. Because I don’t know how to work all that stuff, and I don’t want anyone else to have control. I just want to follow my own ideas, and I’m uncomfortable doing it any other way.”. This sentiment encapsulates the appeal of DIY musicianship and why so many artists thrive off it.
Although commercial musical success is clearly possible through the internet, there is no set path that guarantees it, or a particular recipe that ensures your appeal. Conan Gray, for instance, built up a steady following over time, with his popularity spiking during the release of his debut EP. Similarly, (Sandy) Alex G built a following of serious music critics and fans through a regular drip of stellar Bandcamp releases that eventually reached the right people. For artists like Clairo and boy pablo, however, success was more random. Both of them owe at least part of their success not just to their talent, but to YouTube’s mysterious algorithm, which flung their tracks into thousands of people’s ‘recommended’ videos. Despite their inherent talents, some critics still remain sceptical. In the case of Clairo, it turns out that her father, Geoff Cottrill, is a marketing executive for Convese and was involved in setting up a music studio called Rubber Tracks that was supported by the company. As a result, some people found it difficult to believe that her father’s connection to the music industry wasn’t somewhat integral to her eventual success and didn’t rule out the possibility of her being some kind of ‘industry plant’. This theory is unlikely just by the nature of how she went viral; however, her father is connected to Jon Cohen, co-founder of The Fader whose affiliate label she is now signed to, so one can’t deny that his connections did eventually benefit her. It is worth noting that Conan Gray, Boy Pablo and Alex G have not been met with the same scepticism as Clairo has. There is something about a young woman succeeding of her own creative merit, in what is still a male-dominated music industry, that seems to breed suspicion in some music purists.
So, is the music industry changing? Can artists just post their content online and really hope to make it under their own steam? In short, yes. The common appeal of all these DIY popstars is their individuality, which is largely possible because without the creative restriction of labels, producers and publicists, each artist controls their sound and image. Consequently, they can produce content that is really true to themselves – and the result of this, for many fans, is intoxicating, (and not to mention liberating for the musicians themselves). Of course, self-production can be difficult, and success is certainly down to luck as much as it is to hard graft, but it is a viable and accessible option. It’s clear that this isn’t just a trend that will pass over time. With most young people these days discovering new art, new music, and new fashion largely through social media, if they find something they like and can connect with, it can bloom into something much bigger.