— The first Arianah Brown ever heard of Justin Bieber was when the 12-year-old daughter of one of her friends posted a link of the teen singer performing an acoustic song on Facebook. It didn’t surprise Brown when she learned a few years later that Bieber had become a pop sensation, since he’d already become an online one.
“I thought he had a good image that appealed to 13- and 14-year-olds,” said Brown, an Indiana-based musician. “I believe social media had a lot to do with it because that’s where these kids are.”
Social media, not radio or MTV, has become the way much of the public now becomes acquainted with new music, as anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with Facebook, Twitter or Apple’s Ping can attest. This changing of the guard is now being reflected by MTV’s Video Music Awards, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m., ET.
This year, the program’s Best New Artist nominee Bieber sits at the very top of YouTube’s Most Watched videos rankings as of early September 2010. Last year’s Best New Artist was Lady Gaga, whose “Bad Romance” holds the second spot. Last year’s Video of the Year, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” was a viral sensation in both its original form and the various parodies and tributes it spawned.
The packaged rebellion of the 25-year-old program began to seem passé during the past decade, but renewed interest in music video has given the VMAs a new lease on life. According to MTV, last year, viewership was up 17 percent from the year before, with 27 million viewers tuning in on MTV, MTV2 and VH1. The year before, ratings grew 26 percent on MTV and MTV2 according to Cable Fast National data.
“Tik Tok” by VMA Best New Artist nominee Ke$ha is a good example of a song that became a hit largely because it was a viral sensation, said Jennifer Fowler, the vice president of digital marketing for the RCA Music Group. “Thousands of viral ‘Tik Tok’ videos started popping up on YouTube many of which clocked in tens of thousands of views,” said Fowler by email. “It was clear to us that ‘Tik Tok’ was a certified viral smash.”
Spreading the buzz
If social media doesn’t pique people’s interest in tuning into the VMAs ahead of time, it will sometimes lure them there when the program is in progress, said Amy Doyle, MTV’s executive vice president of music and talent. Doyle said she’s heard tales of people tuning in after receiving messages on Twitter about one of the outrageous events that have become the show’s trademark.
“Say you’re on Twitter and your friend tweets ‘Oh my God did you just see what happened on the VMAs?’ immediately you’re going to go and turn on the TV so that you can be part of that conversation,” Doyle said.
Social media has also bridged the gap between artists and their fans and that’s made a new crop of VMA viewers “feel like they’re really invested” in who wins in the program’s 16 nominee categories.
“You have artists who are tweeting from their seats,” Doyle said. “And you have the fans at home who are talking about what they’re tweeting. So the buzz is happening in real time and it really does continue to bring an audience to the show even if you don’t happen to be there at the beginning.”
Doyle said Bieber is an excellent example of a new performer who has used social media shrewdly because he is “constantly giving his fans a reason to go back to his Facebook page or to constantly check in with him on Twitter.
“He really develops an emotional connection with his fans and that has absolutely helped him develop this very rabid fan base,” said Doyle.
A new video age
Another reason for renewed interest in the VMAs is that there may be a new golden age of music video underway, said YouTube spokesperson Chris Dale. Dale said artists today are raising the bar of the art form in much the way early 1980s artists like Duran Duran and Madonna did.
“I’ll give you a great example: the Arcade Fire did this really cool video for ‘We Used to Wait,’ for Google’s Chrome browser,” Dale said. “It’s experimental and was based on the coding language HTML5. As a guy who grew up on (Van Halen’s) ‘Hot for Teacher’ and Twisted Sister, it is frankly the most amazing music video I’ve ever seen.”
“There’s a renewed interest in video online,” said Whitney Matheson, the author of USA Today’s entertainment blog Pop Candy. “As far as music video goes, it’s in the artist’s best interest to create videos that can be spread and go viral. Lady Gaga is a perfect example of that. Her videos are short films that have all been so incredibly well received.”
One reason videos are becoming more interesting Dale said, is because the global reach of YouTube, music blogs and the Web sites of recording artists have actually expanded the audience for them. “I know Lady Gaga’s manager said recently that when they’re making their videos, they have YouTube in mind,” Dale said. “That’s the place the world gets a chance to see it.”
Dale also said some of the most popular videos of the past few years have made their premiere on YouTube including Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” Justin Bieber’s “Never Let You Go,” Gorillaz’s “Stylo” and OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass.”
Both Dale and Matheson said it’s ironic that even though MTV produces and airs the VMAs, the music channel’s focus has drifted away from music video. “I discover nothing from MTV,” Matheson said. “All the bands that I discovered this year are from music blogs.”