Young Performers Look to Apps for Stardom

By BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 07/04/16

ANAHEIM, Calif. — At VidCon, a sprawling conference here for the young stars of online video, success has a particular sound: a sudden, earsplitting shriek, signaling that a legion of tween-age fans have spotted one of their idols and are making a frantic selfie run.

Hailey Knox, a 17-year-old singer from Carmel, N.Y., who was visiting VidCon late last month to promote her debut EP, “A Little Awkward,” has not cracked the shriek level of fame. But the team of music and technology executives behind her is betting that, based on her budding popularity online, she could soon be enjoying a screamfest of her own.

Ms. Knox is one of the stars of YouNow, a live-streaming mobile app on which she broadcasts a few times a week, usually from her bedroom. She plays quirky cover tunes, along with earnest songs she’s written herself, all the while interacting with her 80,000 followers. Her popularity on the app helped her land a record deal and a tour, and now Ms. Knox is poised to become the live-streaming world’s first crossover music star.

“There’s social media fame, and then there’s Justin Bieber fame,” Ms. Knox said at VidCon. “I’d love to break out the way Justin Bieber has, through his YouTube to where he is now. That would be cool.”

Pop stars were once crowned on “American Bandstand” and MTV, but in the YouTube era the connection to fans has been much more personal. The newest talent incubators are apps like YouNow, Musical.ly, Flipagram, Snapchat and Vine, which satisfy millennials’ preference for rapid-fire interactivity.

“This is the new farm club,” said David Hyman, a longtime digital music executive whose latest enterprise, Chosen, is a talent-contest app.

Hailey Knox broadcasts on the mobile app YouNow a few times a week, usually from her bedroom. She plays quirky cover tunes and earnest songs she’s written herself, and interacts with her 80,000 followers.

Increasingly, the apps are also live, giving users a sense of taking part in something immediate, and creating a new class of performance stars on Facebook Live, YouNow and Twitter’s Periscope app who may make music, dance or simply chat.

Their clientele is very young. On YouNow, where the broadcast streams are festooned with emoji and comments, 74 percent of the users are between 13 and 24, according to the company. Musical.ly, which has bite-size videos of teenagers lip-syncing to pop hits, said it has 90 million users, and Flipagram, which attaches soundtracks to slide shows, said it has 200 million.

“This generation was born with screens all around them,” said Adi Sideman, the founder and chief executive of YouNow, which said it streams 50 years’ worth of video each month. “Performing live, and being live, is completely natural to them.”

The music industry got a taste of the power of video apps a year ago when 16-year-old Shawn Mendes, who got his start on Vine, had a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. Few other acts have graduated from the app world to significant sales, but that may be less important as the music industry shifts toward a streaming model that makes money from every click.

YouNow also lets performers make money from virtual gifts from fans; one performer, Brent Morgan, a 28-year-old from Alabama, said he makes $10,000 a month from these tips.

“There’s a perception among brands that all of a star’s audience will migrate from their YouTube channel or Instagram feed,” Ms. Johnson said, “but what we are seeing is that those numbers don’t always meet expectations.”

Ms. Knox’s label, S-Curve Records, wants to position her as a credible singer-songwriter whose experience as a live streamer can prepare her for wider audiences.

Petite but with a snarky edge, Ms. Knox began playing guitar when she was 7. By age 12, her YouTube videos had attracted two experienced producers, Mike Mangini and Peter Zizzo, who have worked with artists like Avril Lavigne and Joss Stone.

They decided then that she was too young, but a couple of years ago — just as she was beginning to use YouNow — they reconnected with Ms. Knox and began bringing her to New York for regular writing and recording sessions. With her parents’ blessing, Ms. Knox left school during her senior year and is finishing her course work online to focus on her music career. At VidCon, her entourage included her mother and father, a police officer whose job at the conference was carrying his daughter’s guitar, and her younger sister, Samantha.

In the more than 300 videos she has made through YouNow, she banters with other users, mugs for the camera on her phone, plays guitar with surprising polish and uses a feature of the app to perform split-screen duets with her viewers. In one video from April, she sat at a deli, eating a salad and fielding questions.

She has learned that singing viewers’ names as they watch her helps keep her play counts high, but that what works best is simply “being yourself.”

“Showing my goofy personality,” she said. “People can relate to that.”

A year ago Ms. Knox signed with S-Curve, whose founder, Steve Greenberg, has worked with acts like Hanson, Ms. Stone and, most recently, Andy Grammer. Mr. Greenberg described YouNow as an accelerated way for an artist to develop the skills of performance and crowd interaction.

“In the old days, an artist would have to find some club to get good about relating to an audience,” he said. “With YouNow she can just go online and play, whether it’s for hundreds or thousands of people, and get real-time feedback.”
Ms. Knox’s career so far has been a mix of do-it-yourself online promotion and connections in the traditional music business. Her manager, Darin Harmon, used to work with Coldplay, and she secured a slot this fall opening for Charlie Puth, known as the guest singer on one of last year’s biggest hits, Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.”

Yet Ms. Knox has also rejected parts of the Hollywood machine. She was approached to be a contestant on “The Voice,” “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” but turned them all down, favoring YouNow and the freedom to sign with a label of her choosing, according to her mother, Jamie.

At VidCon, Ms. Knox shuttled between performances, promotional appearances and impromptu broadcasts at YouNow’s dedicated booth, but she seemed most excited about meeting other young live-streamers, most of whom she had developed extensive online relationships with.

“It’s funny seeing faces that I’ve seen before all over the internet,” she said.

At the YouNow booth, while Ms. Knox performed on a couch with two new friends, Nick Bean, a 21-year-old who is part of 5quad, a performance group made up of YouNow heartthrobs, described the importance of the app to his growing business portfolio, including an app of his own that he said he was on his way to San Francisco to pitch to tech investors.

“When I’m live, I’m relevant,” Mr. Bean said.

Given all that, is simply releasing an album a little, well, old-fashioned?

“Not really,” Ms. Knox said. “They’re all just ways of promoting yourself.”

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