How A YouTube Sensation Beat Justin Timberlake And The Music Industry

Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He has started and sold several companies, run a VC fund, and is an active investor in many private companies. His upcoming book is called “Choose Yourself!” For more Choose Yourself stories and updates from the book, you can sign up for his list here.

I wish I had been smarter when I was 23 years old. I did everything wrong: I felt like I needed a college degree. I felt like I needed a graduate degree (I was thrown out of graduate school ultimately). I felt like I needed a publishing company to “choose me” to be a writer. I felt like I needed a big corporation to hire me so I could validate that I was going to be successful.

I needed none of these things.

You need none of these things. I’m going to explain how in a second.

The world has become different. You can choose yourself now. The middleman is on life support and the Choose Yourself Era is fully here.

A great example is Alex Day. I’ll get to the meat of his story in a second. But basically, with no record label and mostly just the support of his YouTube fans, he released his latest album in the UK the same day Justin Timberlake did.

Here’s the result:

(snapshot of the itunes chart today)
Snapshot of the iTunes chart the day after both albums were released.

How the hell did that happen? Justin Timberlake is like the crown prince of the music industry. The labels love him. The radios love him. He tours everywhere. He has a massive marketing machine behind him. And he’s married to Jessica Biel. That’s all pretty good.

But not enough. Alex Day beat him.

So I called Alex up and asked him how he did it. 

Lesson No. 1 About Choosing Yourself: I can choose myself to call anyone I want. If they want to talk to me, great.

Me: Your album released the same day as Justin Timberlake’s right?

Alex: I think mine might’ve been the day before.

Me: And he’s got the entire music industry machine on his side and yet you beat him in the charts. How the hell did that happen? I know you started posting videos in 2006. But it’s 2013. Did you just suddenly get 10 million fans? Did you have fans to your videos and music right away? How did you know in 2006 when you were just 16 years old that your music was going to be big?

Alex: Right from my first 30 subscribers, I began talking to the audience that was there and making videos directly for them and replying to comments, but I never saw it as a ‘fan base’ – I mainly just figured we were all bored kids. My first experience of being treated like a celebrity of sorts was not until four years later in 2010 when I did a few gigs with a band I was in (comprised of YouTubers) and would go to really small parts of the UK like Norwich and there’d be 200 people there all screaming for us and going crazy.

Lesson No. 2: Engage with any and all fans right away. Fans and engagement compound. 

Me: Ultimately, you need money, though, to be an artist. You can’t be a starving artist forever. When you don’t go with a big label you have three choices: YouTube ads, iTunes downloads, and performing. Which of these avenues worked for you?

Alex: Performing wasn’t an avenue for me – the only gigs I’ve done are one-off launch events (to launch my album, for example) or gigs with friends (as I mentioned). I really don’t feel the need to gig when I can reach my audience online and hit everyone at once, all over the world, and not exclude anybody, which a tour doesn’t do. [Lesson Number Three: All the conventional methods for making money and distribution are out the window.]

(from Alex's latest video. Click to get to video)
From Alex’s latest video. Click to get to video.

Of the other two – I released my first musical thing (a compilation of YouTube covers called YouTube Tour) in 2007 I think it was, and it made a couple hundred bucks. Then in 2008 they introduced the YouTube partnership program, and I was one of the first partners.

Back then I made maybe $300 a month. Then it slowly rose, and at the same time my first album came out in October 2009, so with the money from that plus YouTube I moved out in March 2010 to a place with my best friend and we paid £600 each on rent so it wasn’t too bad. It used to be about equal what I made from YouTube and what I made from music, but since Forever Yours got to No. 4 in 2011, my music sales have been way more than my YouTube. Typically I make around £3500 a month from YouTube (I’m on a network so they can sell the ad space higher) and at least £10,000 a month from music and merch sales. I’ve also done other projects – I co-created a card game with my cousin which we sell online, I have a business called Lifescouts I launched this year – which add a bit of extra cash to the pot also.

Me: Isn’t this a little like what Ani DiFranco did? She never signed with a major label. She just did her own thing.

Alex: I think the main difference was she was constantly touring and I never have. Also she got her independence by forming her own label. I don’t have a label at all.

Me: Have the labels ever reached out to you?

Alex: Labels have never known what the hell to do with me. I always went in with an open mind – I don’t like the idea that being proudly unsigned/independent instantly means I’m white and they’re black and we have to duel to the death or whatever. There are a lot of things I do on my own because I have to, so I’ve got good at them, but it would definitely be easier with outside help! So I was willing to hear what they could offer and how we could work together and I still would be, but I don’t think labels are ready to be that humble. They want to control everything. I like being able to decide my own songs and film my own music videos.

I’ve had several meetings with Island Records in the UK, the last of which ended with the guy saying he doesn’t think I’m ready to be on a label yet because “we only sign artists we can sell at least a million copies of in the next three months” – but if he’s waiting for me to get to that point without him, why do I need the label ever? I’ve also met with Warner, Sony, EMI – they were all the same, none of them expected to justify themselves and at best they were just trying to ‘figure out my secret’ and at worst they were completely uninformed and lazy (see my video on the subject, which sums it up better than I ever could.

Me: But what would you use the labels for now?

Alex: I guess it would be great to get their help. I’ll give you an example. I write my music, play my music, make my videos, design the albums, and so on, but it does provide some validation to be in physical stores.

So a 10-year old kid who liked my stuff told his dad he should work with me. The dad was with distribution with Universal. So I did a one-off distribution deal with Universal where I did everything, but they got me in every HMV. It was great. Nobody said I could sell physical CD singles but I sold 10,000 in the UK.

Lesson No. 4: Everyone will say you CAN’T. But if you pick and choose how to work with the entrenched system, you CAN.

Lesson No. 5: The power of the community you build will be felt in ways you can’t predict (a 10-year old fan, for instance).

Me: You clearly have a long-run view of what artists should be doing and where the industry is going. Where do you think the music industry will be in 10 years?

Alex: I don’t think it matters where I see the music industry in 10 years. I look at where the music industry is now and it’s not helping me, so I’ve learned to exist without it! What I’d like in 10 years is for the music industry to be in a place where it supports me more, but that’s a long time to hope for that. The thing with the long-run view is that it’s actually a series of short spurts. It’s more like the general public are on the second floor of a building and every single/music video I release affords me a bounce on a trampoline outside. So for a second I’m up to the window saying “heyguyslookatme” and then if they don’t see me I just fall down again and make a new song and try again. If one of my tracks catches fire, it’ll all happen very quickly, but when it doesn’t you just have to try again.

Lesson No. 6: More important than industry validation is persistence. 

Lesson No. 7: Focus on what you can do for your art/business right now instead of trying to aim for things 10 years for now.

Me: What should most artists/creators do to keep going when things look their most frustrating. Most people give up. And, frankly, most people are no good. How did you keep going from 2006 to now, even when things looked bleak?

Alex: To help with knowing if you’re good or not, you need a mentor. [Lesson No. 8] You have to have someone who either knows the industry or knows what’s commercial or successfully experimental or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve with your music and can tell you honestly whether or not you’re meeting that standard. I have a now-very-close friend who used to work in the industry a lot, broke songs like Who Let The Dogs Out and I Get Knocked Down (But I Get Up Again) – we met through a mutual friend and I would just send him songs and he would say “not a hit, not a hit, not a hit” until eventually I sent him Forever Yours and he said “you’ve done it! Now break it.”

He didn’t help me, he just advised, but you need someone like that who you trust. The other thing with giving up is that I simply can’t. Sometimes I have low points and I spend a month or two not working on music at all, but then someone will play me an amazing new song, or I’ll watch one of my music videos back, or watch the Grammy’s and I think “I have to be doing this.” I can’t give up because I want it too much, and however hard it might be, it’ll be worse if I wasn’t pursuing what I love.

Lesson No. 9 (a repeat of Lesson No. 6): Persistence.

Me: How did you get into all of this. How did you build the so-called “10,000 hours” to be an expert?

Alex: I grew up with my mum listening to the radio whenever we were around the house, driving to and from school, etc. Music’s always been a huge part of my life. And there’s so much more to learning about good songwriting than the actual writing, in the same way writers tell you to read a lot if you want to be a good writer. My favourite part about developing as an artist is spending hours listening to music, listening to every Michael Jackson song and looking for commonalities, patterns, the way the production sounds, how the style varies. I’ve been known to draw out graphs that plot the melody of a chorus so then I can see visually how a song moves and how it varies from track to track.

I started writing songs when I was 13. I started writing not-bad songs when I was 17. I wrote Forever Yours when I was 22 and the rest of the songs on my new collection last year at age 23, so I’ve been doing it 10 years now and I know I still have a lot to learn. In a way that’s the most exciting thing – to hear the difference in the songs I’m making between this year and the last, and then think “what will I be making by NEXT year?” – there’s always room to grow and that’s exciting.

 Me: How do you engage your fans outside of your music? How do you “build the tribe” in Seth-Godin-speak.

Alex: It’s just YouTube. I have Twitter and Facebook only because I sort of feel I have to, because I need to reach people in those places. That’s not to say I’m just on auto-pilot on those places, but I’d much rather not have to use those services. Part of why it’s necessary right now is that I don’t have enough reach in the “real world” for me to allow other people to promote what I’m doing on my behalf, but my Twitter and Facebook are effectively work accounts that just update people on what I’m up to. For the personal connection, it’s all YouTube. I love it there. It’s such a creative outlet. I’ve been making videos seven years and never got bored of it — one or two videos a week regularly all that time.

It genuinely saddens me when YouTube isn’t lumped in as one of the essential social metrics with Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr (I do have a Tumblr too but like the others I don’t really know how to use it). I understand YouTube and it’s changed my whole life. The main thing is that I don’t always talk about music, in fact I try to keep a 3:1 ratio of music videos to non-music videos. Other YouTube musicians spend all their time just doing covers or videos from tour, but it means what you can enjoy about that channel is reduced to whether or not you like that person’s music. I just released a new music video and loads of the comments say “I never got into your sound/liked your music before but I really love this song” and those are long-term subscribers of mine – they’ve stayed because I can offer them other stuff, but it also means they’ll give each new song a listen and sometimes they like it.

Lesson No. 10: Pick your social media outlet, master it.

It’s not enough to master your art form. You have to personally master how you will distribute through some social media, engage with fans, etc.

I admit I’m jealous of Alex. And I’m a big fan. So…

Lesson Number 11 (which is really hard for me): Talk to your big fans. 

Congrats to Alex for choosing himself and not being shy about explaining the specifics, even the money, on how he did it. Everyone is going to eventually have to follow that path in the new economy we live in.

[You can follow James on Twitter, or at his blog.]