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Understanding the Rise of the Meme Musician

In an industry where making it big relies on relentless touring and the luck of the draw, some musicians are opting to film parodies and commentary from the comfort of their bedrooms, instead

“I started playing guitar when I was 17,” says Sean Daniel. “My brother had fully monopolized the PlayStation, and all of my friends were going through a very tragic hacky-sack phase. I wanted no part of that, so I decided to teach myself an instrument, as I’d seen some students in my high school replace daunting class projects with low-effort musical numbers. I was pretty into that idea and went full force ahead.”

Almost 20 years later, Daniel has approximately 300,000 subscribers (and counting) on YouTube, where he frequently posts music-inspired videos like, “How to Fake Mad Guitar Skill” and “How to Make Your Guitar Playing SEXY!”

Daniel is one of many musicians who’ve found an audience on YouTube, not only for the music he writes, but for music-related content, too. “I honestly had no idea how YouTube worked when I started out,” he tells me. “At the time, I’d just completed a few musical projects that I was proud of. They were well-received locally, but ultimately, they never got any traction outside of town. I was at the point, career-wise, where I knew that the stuff I was putting out was good enough to be eligible for success, but realized I didn’t have any kind of audience for it. I figured making YouTube videos would be a cool way to get people interested in what I was doing and made a goal to put out at least one video per week. Eventually, the whole thing took off, and now it’s the main thing I do.”

Fellow musician and YouTuber, Nik Nocturnal, who has more than 200,000 subscribers and credits the video game Guitar Hero for his love of music — “I played that game so much, I actually wanted to play a real guitar,” he explains — had a similar introduction to YouTube. “I originally started my channel to have a platform to release only original music on,” he says. “At the same time, I started watching a bunch of guitar YouTubers who did covers, and it honestly just made me want to try to cover songs myself. I was already learning a bunch of songs every week, just because I loved playing the guitar parts from some of my favorite tracks at the time, but thought it would be fun to share it with others on YouTube. Once I started doing that, I was just having a lot of fun, so I never stopped. After around four years of pretty much just doing covers, that’s when I started to expand into other types of content, like meme videos, lessons and reactions, because I felt like I had more to offer the music world.”

When most of us think about music, of course, we think about the songs buzzing in our headphones while we work or run on the treadmill. But musical “meme videos” often poke fun at certain songs or genres, and parody the problems that many musicians face on a daily basis. Take, for example, this video by Rudy Ayoub, which mocks the preemptive excuses musicians often make, suspecting that they might sound less than pleasant, before performing to a crowd:

Or have a gander at this short but potent clip by Kmac2021, which gently parodies, but also accepts people with an extremely wide range of musical tastes:

These are “meme musicians,” and in an industry where finding success often boils down to the luck of the draw, for Daniel, Nocturnal and others, making musical content on YouTube has provided a reasonable alternative to joining a band and crossing their fingers for a record deal. “I didn’t really have another option,” confirms singer-songwriter Mary Spender, who has more than 250,000 subscribers on YouTube. “I wasn’t ever going to be signed by a label or find management via the traditional route. I loved watching YouTube videos from filmmakers and photographers, and then found musicians online making great content about how they made a living and how they used their gear. I’d always loved making videos, too, so I worked a data-entry job during the day, and filmed and edited in the evenings. I really only started in September 2016, with 300 subscribers. Now, it’s escalated and is definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done. I never imagined I’d be reaching this many people with my original music and videos, let alone meeting and working with some of my idols.”

Indeed, the power of YouTube and viral videos is immense. Back in 2010, a grainy video of Greyson Chance, who was 12 at the time, playing the piano and singing Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” went viral. Shortly therefore, Ellen DeGeneres asked Chance to be a guest on her show, later announcing that she’d be starting a new record label, ElevenEleven, and that Chance would be her first signing. To this day, Chance is a career musician, and the video that started it all has more than 65 million views.

Now, none of this is to say that any musician can find success on YouTube. In fact, even for those who’ve been able to cultivate a large following, simply being a YouTuber can, at times, take precedence over making music. “If you look at any music YouTuber’s most-watched videos, you’d find that very few of them pull in big numbers with original music compositions,” Daniel says (you can see, for example, that a video of one of his own songs has less than 10,000 views, whereas “How to Fake Jazz Guitar” has more than 40,000 views). “The success of your ranking with the YouTube algorithm is so dependent upon casting as wide of a net as possible to get people to click, and most people aren’t actively looking to click on music they haven’t heard before. This results in the temptation to make content that’s more widely accessible than something that might be more artistically challenging. The whole reason I even started YouTube was to grow an audience for my original stuff, so I always make a point to make myself post originals, even if I know a lesson video or something more sensational will perform better.”

Furthermore, despite many of these musicians being astonishingly skilled — like, seriously — within the competitive and often egotistical world of music, people can sometimes look down upon YouTubers. “I know making videos of me dancing like an idiot while doing breakdowns doesn’t help people take me seriously,” Nocturnal admits. “There’s no doubt a stigma of being a ‘YouTube musician,’ where a lot of artists think you can’t actually write or play your instrument properly. It’s become a lot more accepted nowadays, though, especially seeing how a lot of bigger bands are embracing covers and reaction videos. It’s a great thing to see, because there are a lot of really talented musicians on YouTube.”

Nonetheless, many of these YouTube musicians find themselves walking the line of being a YouTuber and being a musician, which can be overwhelming at times. “I had a career as a bass player and session musician before becoming well-known on YouTube, and I still stay active in a wide network of musicians outside of YouTube, so I don’t feel like I’m not taken seriously,” says composer and bassist Adam Neely, who has almost one million subscribers on YouTube. “I’m also known as an educator and music communicator on YouTube, which carries with it a certain level of respect. However, I feel that it can be a trap to stay on YouTube because of a perceived ‘respectability gap,’ and for that reason, I make a concerted effort to tour my original music now with my band, Sungazer.”

Still, for many of these YouTube musicians, it’s the YouTube side of things that funds them and allows them to keep doing what they love. “It used to be binary — you either made millions or made nothing,” Spender explains. “You either ‘made it’ or didn’t. Now, you can make a healthy living by making music and videos online.”

Again, though, that’s not to say it’s easy. “You can definitely make a comfortable living making videos for YouTube, but like anything new worth doing, it will require a lot of work — and a lot of luck,” says Neely. “The space changes frequently and relentlessly, though, so who knows what it will look like five years from now.”

Daniel, too, warns of constant change. “In the era of social media, it can be dangerous to build the idea of a career around a platform that (1) you don’t really have any control over, and (2) leaves your ‘success’ to be determined by the fickle viewing tendencies of the general populace,” he says. “You see a lot of YouTubers get burned out trying to feed the machine, so I always tell people to only try it if making videos is fun for them.” 

“Of course, I want every video to perform well by the metrics,” he continues. “But ultimately, that’s out of my control, so it’s just a bonus if it makes money.”

All in all, though, these musicians — at least, the ones I spoke with — credit YouTube for their success, as well as their ability to follow their musical dreams. “It’s honestly given me everything as a musician,” says Nocturnal. “It’s given me so many amazing opportunities to share my music and videos with a huge range of people that I never would have reached if I just went the band route. Without YouTube, I honestly don’t know if I’d even still be a musician today. I’d probably be working some corporate job that I hate, instead of following my passion for music.”

Neely feels similarly, saying, “Because of my success on YouTube, I’ve been able to talk about music at South by Southwest and at Ableton Loop, go on tour with Sungazer and meet a lot of really amazing fellow YouTube musicians. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to make the videos I want to make, and it’s been immensely rewarding.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Spender adds. “My music is being heard, and my videos are being seen. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”