How Justin Bieber proved that YouTube can produce pop stars

Discovering music via YouTube seems like the norm now, but a decade ago it was unheard of.

Discovering music via YouTube seems like the norm now, but a decade ago it was unheard of

Justin Bieber was arguably the first YouTube phenomenon turned pop star, shifting the way artists would be discovered and signed to major labels. (Getty Images)

It's a story that feels like the standard nowadays: an unknown artist uploads a clip of themselves performing on a social platform, which soon goes viral and catches the attention of not only music fans, but the gatekeepers of the music industry — managers, producers, record label execs. The result is immediate superstardom. That is, to varying extents, the origins of some of today's biggest artists: Shawn Mendes, Alessia Cara, Ed Sheeran, Tori Kelly and 5 Seconds of Summer.

That model of discoverability feels like the new normal now, but that wasn't the case in 2007 when a young boy named Justin Bieber from Stratford, Ont., uploaded his first video onto YouTube with the help of his mother, Pattie. The clip was grainy and Bieber's tiny frame (he was only 12 years old at the time) was a mere silhouette moving around a dimly lit church stage. But the quality of the video didn't matter; the real star of the video was Bieber's voice, big and bellowing as he reached for the high notes of R&B star Ne-Yo's song, "So Sick."

YouTube was in its infancy, just two years old, when Bieber started posting videos of himself performing covers of Lil Bow Wow, Sarah McLachlan and Alicia Keys. While the platform was growing in viewership and hours of uploads — in 2007, approximately six hours of footage was being uploaded every minute; a 2015 study indicated that the number had by then ballooned to more than 400 hours per minute — YouTube wasn't a place to land a record deal.

Labels then were just starting to experiment with signing artists off of Myspace, a place where hopeful musicians were able to upload oftentimes rough, original songs for people to hear. Lily Allen, Panic! At the Disco and Kate Nash are some of the platform's most successful benefactors. But YouTube, a playground for amateur home-video experimentation, was not considered the birthplace of pop stars. Even Bieber wasn't looking for fame there.

During his first appearance on The Ellen Show, Bieber explained: "I was in a singing competition a while back. I was 12 years old, and my friends and family that couldn't make it wanted to see me so I posted those videos on YouTube and I guess it just kind of blew up." The way that Bieber blew up, though, was a first in some ways.

A precursor to Bieber's YouTube fame was rapper Soulja Boy, most famous for his viral hit "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." The Atlanta artist posted "Crank That" on YouTube in 2007, which not only launched a dance craze but also spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But Soulja Boy's music was released independently without the muscle of a big label to help him sustain the level of fame his first single earned him —  something Bieber was able to secure with more time.

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Bieber's own original music premiered 10 years ago (well after "Crank That" left the top spot on the charts), and his impact proved to be something much bigger and mainstream. Whereas Soulja Boy made a smaller but notable mark on the hip hop world, Bieber would go on to change the pop landscape in a seismic way.

I saw these trends and I thought we can reach people around the world so quickly.- Scooter Braun

Much of this is credited to Bieber's manager from day one, Scooter Braun, who was hired by Jermaine Dupri at the age of 20 to become So So Def Records' executive director for marketing. Braun was in the middle of launching his own marketing business when he discovered Bieber's videos on YouTube. At the time, Braun was beginning to see the potential of social platforms and how they could be used to help musicians, but as he told Fast Company in 2018, "Everyone thought I was crazy."

"I saw these trends and I thought, we can reach people around the world so quickly," he continued. He reiterated this story to the Guardian: "I had ideas of using YouTube to break an artist by making video content, and everyone said, 'You can't take an artist off YouTube and make them into a star — this lo-fi content is not how you break an artist.'"

While many saw Bieber's talent, as evidenced by the number of views his videos were accumulating, few people with industry connections saw enough promise in the young singer to pursue and sign him. Braun spent time Googling Bieber's location by investigating the banners in the background of his videos, trying to call local school boards once he zeroed in on Ontario, and was even told by Bieber's mom to leave them alone because she didn't trust him at first.

But Braun invested his own time and money, even though he didn't have a lot saved at the time, eventually moving Bieber and his mom to Atlanta ("I was paying the bills for school, everything," he revealed) and finding him opportunities to break into the music world using Braun's previous industry connections. In the end, Justin Timberlake and Usher were both fighting to sign Bieber. Usher and Braun then teamed up to create Raymond Braun Media Group Records (whose parent companies are Def Jam Recordings and Universal Music Group), which has released all of Bieber's records, from 2009's My World EP to 2015's Grammy-nominated Purpose. (Many of Bieber's albums are also released in conjunction with Braun's own School Boy Records and Island Records.)

My World was a risk, for Braun, Usher and everyone involved. A quick glance at some of the biggest pop stars in the year leading up to Bieber's debut and you'll notice a different scene of artists. There were the Katy Perrys and Taylor Swifts, musicians who had been discovered through more traditional means of relocating to big cities first and performing at industry showcases. And then there were the TV-turned-pop stars: Disney upstarts like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, as well as American Idol successes like Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks. Digital discoveries weren't guaranteed to be profitable in the long term just yet, but Braun took his time to position Bieber as a star-in-the-making with public appearances, a strong online presence and a powerful Usher co-sign.

In its first week, My World sold 137,000 copies, landing at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, making it the strongest debut by a new artist in 2009. It may sound like a small number now for Bieber, but it was a steady start that solidified him as a rising star who was able to build a big following on YouTube alone. "I took Justin from 60,000 views to 66 million," Braun told the Guardian. Today, Bieber's videos have amassed more than 19 billion views, and his 2015 single, "Sorry," is one of the top 10 most-viewed YouTube videos of all time with more than three billion views. Last month, he became the first musician on YouTube to surpass 45 million subscribers.

Bieber's YouTube channel is home to his polished music videos now, but at first it was the place he posted personal, low-budget clips of himself performing in his bedroom. Those clips created a sense of intimacy for fans, something that didn't feel as attainable back then when musicians would make their big debut with video premieres on MTV, or when they were already perched on big stages. Braun says that was part of the appeal, and the strategy.

"I wanted to feel kind of voyeuristic," he told Fast Company. "I wanted people to feel like they were seeing something that maybe they think they shouldn't see so it became more special." Fast-forward a decade and that style of personally connecting to stars via social media is an integral part of cultivating a fanbase and establishing a brand.

YouTube isn't the only online space to get discovered now. Vine, and TikTok have all emerged recently as places to get songs launched or discover performers, singers, comedians and more. The industry has now caught up to Bieber and Braun's once radical blueprint to stardom. Sure, the internet has boosted the number of flash-in-the-pan viral stars like Ylvis or Psy — remember "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)" and "Gangnam Style"? — but it has also become the default arena for discovery.

To Bieber's own credit, he has continued to use YouTube and other online forums to promote new artists he finds online, from introducing his fans to the music of Madison Beer to creating his own lip-sync video to promote labelmate Carly Rae Jepsen's hit song "Call Me Maybe." Next year, Bieber is slated to launch a "top-secret project" with YouTube, furthering his symbiotic relationship with the top music streaming service in the world.

Technology will continue to evolve, and that will likely change the way we discover music and launch pop stars once again. But the current landscape of mainstream music that's still thriving was partially shaped by Justin Bieber, a boy who simply wanted to share his voice with some friends and family, and accidentally found a much bigger audience as a result.