Is the Internet killing culture as we know it, or is it simply redefining it? Opinions are still divided, but while theorists on both sides of the copyright/ copyleft fence are wondering whether or not the Internet is closing down, the ‘masses’ are giving rise to up-and-coming Internet music sensations. It’s no wonder, given the rising popularity and mass appeal of YouTube. According to official data released by the website, it boasts no fewer than 1 billion unique users per month, with some 6 billion hours of video watched over the same span of time. There are 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute. Of those billions and billions of hours and content, we’ve selected 20 internet music sensations that have, in one way or another, managed to transcend the online medium.
These are the videographers, singers, artists, producers, and comedians that have become famous in the mainstream. Their millions of watches and thousands of subscribers translated into award wins, platinum records, and even spectacular career revivals. How did they do it? Each of them has their own impressive story, so read on to find out what it takes to go from anonymous bedroom performer to superstar status, with legions of dedicated fans from around the world.
20. MysteryGuitarMan (Joe Penna)
YouTube channel: MysteryGuitarMan
Official website: MysteryGuitarMan.com
He may be only 26, but MysteryGuitarMan, a.k.a. Joe Penna, has definitely taken the online world by storm, with his mad guitar skills, perfectly complimented by his talent as a video animator. The amateur filmmaker is a typically handsome Brazilian, who has moved to Los Angeles ever since his ascent to celebrity. How did he manage to find fame at a relatively early age? By uploading videos every Thursday, which, in turn, led him to become the most subscribed to YouTube channel manager in Brazil. As of the date this article was written, in October 2013, Penna had no fewer than 2.7 million subscribers on his first channel. That’s because, yes, he also has a second YouTube channel, jp, launched in early 2010, which became the third most subscribed to channel in Brazil within 6 hours of its launch.
Penna has been slowly but surely rising to fame since 2007, when his video The Puzzle was featured on the website’s front page. He got a repeat of that honor two years later, with his Guitar: Impossible video, which also garnered him a ton of other accolades: coverage on the Netherlands’ highest rating primetime TV show, on an Austrian radio station, and on the front page of MSN. The same video won him $15,000 from Best Buy, and attention from top brands such as Oreo and Ford. The same video has been shortlisted for the YouTube Play, a collaborative project between the website and the famous Guggenheim museum. His T-Shirt War video won him a prestigious award at the Cannes Lions, the most famous competition in the advertising world.
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19. Mac Lethal (David McCleary Sheldon)
YouTube channel: MacLethal
If you’re not into white boys rapping, then the phenomenon best known under the name of Mac Lethal may have escaped your attention until now. However, the Kansas City-native with Irish blood in his lineage has been in the rap game for over a decade now. The 31 year-old seemed off to a promising start in 2002, when he released his first album, which he followed up with a tour alongside hip-hop legend Sage Francis (clearly not a coincidence, since Lethal’s early work garnered him a lot of comparisons with Francis, in terms of style, delivery, and issues he raps about). However, by 2011, it seemed like Mac Lethal was doomed to be an indie artist for the rest of his life.
But in late 2011 Lethal was inspired enough to put out a video of himself rapping in the kitchen while making pancakes, a cover version of Chris Brown’s Look at Me Now (which has come to be referred to as Pancake Rap). The video, which now has well over 30 million views, went viral in a matter of days. Before he knew it, McCleary was giving interviews to CNN and The Washington Post. Nowadays, he is a published author, who has produced a book based on the (allegedly) genuine conversations he has with his cousin Bennett. You can read the text message discussions that lead to the apparition of the book on the Tumblr blog he personally manages and you can buy the book online here.
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18. The Piano Guys
YouTube channel: ThePianoGuys
Official website: ThePianoGuys.com
The Piano Guys are, well, just that: five guys (Jon Schmidt, Steven Sharp Nelson, Tel Stewart, Paul Anderson, Al van der Beek) who make music and videos with a piano background. Their story started in Paul Anderson’s piano shop back in Utah, where he met Jon Schmidt, an aspiring musician at the time. A few months later, Anderson and Stewart started shooting videos of Schmidt rehearsing inside the shop, with no other purpose than their own enjoyment. Soon enough, they co-opted Nelson and Van Der Beek (as the technician), started making music, and posting a YouTube video of their motley group each week. And, just as quickly, they found fame: in June 2011, their channel became YouTube’s ‘Most Up-and-Coming’. In 2012 they signed a recording contract with Sony, which has thus far released their two self-titled albums. And by 2013, as of the writing of this article, their YouTube channel had amassed more than 263 million video views, as well as 1.8 million subscribers.
The Piano Guys have become famous for their mashups between classical and pop music. Michael Meets Mozart, one of their most famous videos and songs, pits classical music against hip-hop, in a genuinely monumental track that allegedly combines over 100 recorded tracks. They have also taken on and adapted Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff, but their most famous song and video by far is the Star Wars-inspired Cello Wars. The song employs several movie themes composed by John Williams, while the video is a recreation of the fight between the Jedi and the Sith – but this time using cellos as weapons.
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17. The Gregory Brothers
Yes, this band actually comprises three brothers (Michael, Andrew Rose, and Evan, plus Evan’s wife Sarah). In their own words, they play “country & soul, folk & roll” and they are the famous four behind the (in)famous series of viral YouTube videos Auto-Tune the News. They’ve been around since 2007, when the brothers moved from Virginia to New York, met Sarah there and decided to start a band. Their initial blue-eyed soul effort was praised by critics, albeit shunned by more recent fans, who are only acquainted with the brothers’ Auto-Tune work. Incidentally, if this says anything about their musical prowess, they have worked with Sufjan Stevens as a producer (on the Welcome Wagon’s 2009 nearly self-titled album).
The Auto-Tune the News series probably needs no further introduction, but it’s worth poring over the accolades and types of recognition the show has received thus far. For one thing, they started being featured on national television as early as the spring of 2009, but they really crossed over into mainstream media in mid 2010, when the Bed Intruder Song made their popularity peak. The video’s first half a year online amassed no fewer than 50 million views and it was the year’s most viewed YouTube material which hadn’t been produced by a major label. As of the writing of this article, the video has over 100 million views. Nowadays, they’re also producing a less politically-inspired series titled Songify This – that is, when they’re not busy appearing at the Academy Awards Ceremony. That’s what they did in 2010, when they auto-tuned segments from the scores of 4 major movies, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I, Toy Story 3 and The Social Network. Their performance was good enough to garner them an Emmy nod for Outstanding Short-Form Picture Editing in 2011.
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16. Princess Chelsea
Chelsea Nikkel, now better known as Princess Chelsea, is yet another example of an artist who had been making music for quite some time, yet only managed to reach mainstream popularity once one of her videos went viral on YouTube. The now famous Cigarette Duet, which you can watch below, firmly planted New Zealand, Nikkel’s homeland, on the map of up-and-coming electro-pop acts. Detractors have been quick to compare her work as Princess Chelsea with her previous efforts. Nikkel was a founding member of The Brunettes, one of New Zealand’s most popular names on the local twee scene.
The Cigarette Duet is twee in its purest form, in that it is repetitive, sugary sweet, and can become downright infuriating from overexposure. However, the song has been praised by mainstream media such as the New Zealand Herald after the video managed to score 10 million views. The Guardian also featured her as the New Band of the Day – and it’s all because of the oddball video which you can watch below, as well as of the witty, funny, and often nonsensical lyrics of the song. As for Chelsea’s future plans, fans can expect a new single with the participation of indie sensations Alt-J, as well as a European tour.
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15. Tay Zonday
YouTube channel: TayZonday
Official website: TayZonday.com
His real name is Adam Nyerere Bahner, but you probably know him better as Tay Zonday: voice artist, comedian, actor, baritone singer, Internet music star and one of YouTube’s most prominent personalities. Zonday is a Math and Science dropout from Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as a former cabaret performer, who realized that fame was his true calling in life. He started out as a guest performer on several web series and TV shows, including shows broadcast by BBC and Comedy Central. After his Chocolate Rain song turned viral, Zonday produced a commercial version, in collaboration with Dr Pepper – the aptly titled Cherry Chocolate Rain.
The history of Chocolate Rain started on April 22, 2007, when the video – and its famous caption “*I move away from the mic to breathe in” – first saw the light of YouTube. For all its simplicity, the video sure earned its fair share of accolades: a ton of parodies at the above-mentioned caption, but also CTV’s hottest viral video title for that summer, the title of 2nd greatest viral video in the world from UTalkMarketing.com, and YouTube’s 2007 award for Best Music Video. As of the writing of this article, the video has almost 93 million views, and it is the same video that garnered his performer comparisons with Rod Stewart. This, in spite of the fact that Zonday has no formal music training. The song likely became popular after having been extensively shared on the infamous internet community of 4chan. Zonday himself has called the song cheesy, but has also explained that the lyrics deal with a serious theme: that of racism. Interestingly enough, the song is licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd, which means it’s not entirely free, but it can be used free of charge in most circumstances.
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14. Tangerine Kitty
YouTube channel: DumbWays2Die
Tangerine Kitty is not a real band, unfortunately for those who enjoyed the wildly popular Dumb Ways to Die song. Yet it is a super-group of sorts and an Internet music phenomenon, born out of an advertising initiative. Clues as to the real identity of Tangerine Kitty can be found in the group’s name: the melody was composed by Ollie McGill, from the Cat Empire, while the vocal track is performed by Emily Lubitz, the lead singer of Tinpan Orange. Both the song and the video reached almost instant popularity: the song charted in the iTunes Top 10 within 24 hours of being released (in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam). It has been dubbed the biggest viral hit in the history of Australia. No fewer than 85 cover versions had been uploaded to YouTube within two weeks within the release of the video.
So what’s the story behind this song? It’s part of a massive ad campaign by McCann Melbourne, devised to act as a safety message for the Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) subway network. The campaign was featured in the trains themselves, on the radio, in newspapers, on Tumblr, YouTube and on outdoor billboards. The campaign had generated some 700 media stories and $50 million worth of media value within two weeks, as well as a 30 per cent cut in near-miss accidents. The song has a karaoke version, an associated mobile device game app, and has been likened to the infectiousness of PSY’s Gangnam Style. It has also given rise to some controversy, when the Russian government agency for Internet censorship decided to forbid the video in Russia. Apparently, the Russian authorities were not all too happy with a song that described several ways of committing suicide, no matter how humorous the video may be.
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13. Rebecca Black
YouTube channel: Rebecca
Official website: RebeccaBlackOnline.com
She’s only 16 and started her career in pop music at the tender age of 14, in 2011, but Rebecca Black is definitely one of the day’s most easily recognizable names and voices on YouTube. Her story is rather a cautionary tale of “all the wrong things one can do to become a star” – although her efforts did, eventually, bring her popularity. Apparently, Black’s mother wanted the girl to become a star to such an extent that she paid producers Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson $4,000 to release the song and video for Friday. The song has been called “the worst song ever” by many, which, in turn, prompted Black to remove it from her channel four months after first uploading it. Yet the video had already gone viral, with some 167 million views amassed in those four months – so Black decided it to upload it again in September 2011.
Interestingly enough, Rebecca Black paints her own life story as one of perpetual bullying. She moved from a private to a public school because of bullying in the 6th grade, she failed her English classes at school because of bullying, and she eventually opted to be home schooled – you guessed it! – because of bullying. After the release of Friday, Black actually did see massive amounts of negative attention: the video initially garnered over 3 million dislikes on YouTube (compared to a paltry 451k likes). The song became the day’s hottest topic on Twitter in March 2011 and Black actually received death threats via phone and email in February that year, all because of the same song. For the time being, Black’s career seems to be on hold, as her debut album, announced for the end of October 2012, has yet to be released.
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12. Buckwheat Boyz
Official website and/or YouTube channel: N/A
The Buckwheat Boyz are no more: the group disbanded in late 2001, when Jermain Fuller, the band’s lead singer and one of its founding members, passed away. However, until Fuller’s death, the Baltimore club band had managed to find fame in one of the most unlikely ways. Their Peanut Butter Jelly Time song, featured below, is actually one of the Internet’s first viral video hits. The video was done in flash, only includes a (hilariously) dancing banana and is the creation of a fan. It has become legendary, however, with recognition coming from popular TV shows such as The Proud Family, Family Guy, and The Regular Show.
Peanut Butter Jelly Time was not the Buckwheat Boyz’ only hit song – they were also the creative force behind the Ice Cream and Cake song, video, and dance mania, which started in 2009, as part of a marketing campaign by ice cream brand Baskin-Robbins. The campaign also included a dance competition, which made its debut with the Guinness World Records Largest Cheerleading Dance event, held at UCLA. Until August 2011, the event held the Guinness World Record title, with no fewer than 225 professional dancers in attendance. The Ice Cream and Cake song has since become the homecoming anthem of the Old Dominion University basketball team.
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11. The Hampster Dance
Official website and/or YouTube channel: N/A
If you’ve been online for a long enough time, there is no way you have never seen the Hampster dance – one of the first memes in the history of the World Wide Web. The video was created by Deidre LaCarte, an art student from Canada, for her personal Geocities page. It includes a sample from the song Whistle Stop, composed by Roger Miller for the Disney cartoon Robin Hood, playing in a sped-up loop in the background. The video was created over 15 years ago, in August 1998, when LaCarte wagered a bet against her sister, claiming she could generate more traffic for her website. She dedicated the video to her pet hamster (whose name was, of course, Hampton Hamster). She created four simple .gifs at first and used HTML (which was quite the novelty in those days) to embed the code of the musical track.
It’s difficult to tell what made the song, video, and website go viral, as it only amassed about 800 views in the first year. However, after being quietly shared over e-mail and blogs, and even becoming a fixture on bumper stickers, that number suddenly exploded at 15,000 visits per day. The song got featured in a TV commercial and a new prank emerged, where co-workers would set each other’s homepage to the Hampster Dance website without warning. Alternate versions of the video emerged, featuring politicians and inanimate objects. Interestingly enough, although LaCarte did produce special versions of the song and even redesigned her own website to support the massive afflux of new traffic, she failed to register the domain name HampsterDance.com, and was beaten to it by an Internet humor company. The video, which was released to accompany the official Hampster Dance single, was named the worst video of the year by MuchMusic, in 2001.
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