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Every few years a breakthrough discovery in science will immediately make everything we thought we knew previously completely useless, rendering textbooks, teachers, and training obsolete; like the discovery that Pluto is not a planet, or some physics breakthrough that debunks all previous theories. This is what seems to be happening in music on almost a weekly basis these days, as the industry continues to contract, genres merge, and tastes and trends are subject to wild mood swings.
There is no better example of this than the emergence of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” song a few weeks ago. Her success changed everything. She is the first “viral star”, meaning a star born solely from the strength of a YouTube video that has so far received over 88 million hits. She also changed the rules that pop stars can not only be huge despite their lack of talent or artistic appeal, but because of their lack of talent or artistic appeal. So many people hating Rebecca Black helped perpetuate the viral movement, as critics and opponents generated interest just as much as fans. She also moves the needle of lowered expectations even farther into the bad, as now stars like Justin Bieber cannot be considered the worst, increasing their artistic value and appeal by proxy.
The “viral star”, whether a 13-year-old pop singer, a weirdo on the local news in Alabama, or a water-skiing rabbit, poses a threat to an already battered music industry, and to all artists, whether in music, TV, film, etc. Artists used to be the primary generators of entertainment. Now you might get your entertainment from a YouTube video of a complete amateur. That amateur might be appealing because of their remarkable talent despite their unknown stature, or because they are so bad it is amusing. And in the viral world, if you are not abreast of what went viral Friday evening, the you feel left out Monday morning. So instead of people listening to their favorite new music artist on the way to work every morning . . .
An example of Viral vs. Substance is a video for the artist Caitlin Rose. I recently reviewed her new album Own Side Now, whose title track is supported by an original video of the same name. Uploaded Jan. 3rd, it has received around 70,000 hits.
But a video by a little 5-year-old girl singing Caitlin’s original song, uploaded 6 weeks after the original, professionally-made video, has received 228,000 hits.
Without question, this little girl has talent, and her rendition is remarkable. But at the same time, Caitlin is the originator of this song. She had to write and record the song professionally, and outlay capitol to have a video made. Without the one, the other would not exist. The people who posted the 5-year-old’s video were gracious enough to put a link on their video to Caitlin’s original one, and though it’s hard to tell for sure, Cailtin’s original video may have received more traffic because of the viral video link than it would have all alone. Still, the 5-year-old’s version has received over 3 times the attention in roughly half the time. When I talked to Caitlin about it at South by Southwest, she could see it both ways.
“I cried the first three times I watched the video. I love that little girl. But at the same time, it shows where we are at. I wrote the song and had the video made. But at the same time, her video has also brought attention to my video that there may have not been.”
Just like the problem plaguing the media, that anyone with a cell phone camera is now a journalist, anyone with a cell phone camera can now be an entertainer as well. This new model has created a flood of new content, where the task of trying to find the original content with substance is difficult, and quality is diluted across the board. Meanwhile the entertainment industry is being flooded with prospective talent, as shows like American Idol perpetuate the idea that anybody can be a celebrity, diluting and crowding the talent field even more. There is no need to spend any money on entertainment, when we can now entertain ourselves through technology. The end result is less capitol flowing to the truly talented, meaning there are less resources to create truly original and inspiring art, and less attention for that art once it is made.