Once upon a time, to make it in entertainment you needed to be discovered. Not anymore. A new generation of DIY entertainment stars have created fame by themselves–and pioneered new models to monetize it.
“Nowadays you can be a fan of someone that’s not an actor or artist, you can be a fan of someone that makes YouTube videos,” says Cameron Dallas, a 21-year-old social media star who got his start posting photos on Instagram to build a following of 8 million on the platform, plus 5.5 million Twitter followers and 8.5 million Vine followers.
Dallas has since taken his URL fame to real life, launching Magcon, a touring company that brings social media stars to IRL meet-and-greets. With VIP tickets costing hundreds of dollars for events which regularly sell out, Dallas is proof that followers can equal dollars.
“With a website you can really be independent,” agreed Tavi Gevinson, editor-in-chief of Rookie, an independently-run online magazine and book series. Speaking alongside Dallas and musician Lindsey Stirling to an auditorium full of 1,500-plus high-achieving millennials at Forbes’ second annual 30 Under 30 summit in Philadelphia, Gevinson preached the virtues of doing-it-yourself.
“Now Rookie is four years old, we have an office in Brooklyn and our fourth book is coming out this month. I still own everything,” Gavinson the 19-year-old actress, founder and budding media mogul said.
Yet before the internet, Gevinson’s penchant for posting quirky outfits to a fashion blog would not have been possible. As with Gevinson’s alternative teen publication, Stirling believes independence allows variety to win through. “I was told I was too far outside the box from what was marketable,” said Stirling, a self-described “dancing violinist,” who produces choreographed videos of herself playing a palatable dance-pop mix on YouTube. Since first posting clips online in 2010, the America’s Got Talent quarter-finalist now has more than 7 million subscribers on YouTube and over a billion views; her second album, “Shatter Me,” reached no. 2 on the Billboard 200.
“The same reason I was told I would fail was the reason why I succeeded. It was different and intriguing.”
Stirling believes social media has democratized music. “Gatekeepers are being taken out of the equation, allowing unique art to come to the forefront that never would have been possible,” Stirling said. Like Dallas, she has monetized her online support with live appearances on her recent Music Box Tour.
Unlike the traditional model of being scouted and signed to a record label, Stirling says record labels are now just one of many ways to make it. “There’s no reason for me to join a record label–record labels have to be able to compete with people in other ways because they’re not the gatekeepers anymore.”
At 32, panel moderator Taylor Hanson joked he was the old guy in the room. He recalled conversations in which music labels questioned why a website was even important to an artist when the “Mmmbop”-singing Hanson was hitting the charts in the late ’90s. Now, he says, artists such as Dallas, Stirling and Gevinson “got a voice through these new platforms.”
“Those that had something to say, something to write about, found that audience,” concluded Hanson.
And those audiences stick with them. For Gevinson, building a loyal, patient following has been important for a polymath whose duties often take her away from writing. When Gevinson was on Broadway last year, performing This Is Our Youth with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin, “actress” was front and center. When she guest edited part of the October issue of NYLON, “editor” came first, just as it has during her four-year run as editor and founder of Rookie Magazine. She’s a new face of Clinique’s #FaceForward campaign, celebrating millennials, and next year will land on Broadway again for a role in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
“Loneliness is this great unifier,” Gevinson smiled. “I write about my own experience and if someone connects with it, great. My best hope is that someone comes away from Rookie feeling safe or inspired or entertained. It’s a bonus to find that when you share or make yourself vulnerable instead of trying to prey on peoples’ insecurities that they connect with that.”
And though these connections make the artists money, they also offer fans intangible value.
“A lot of followers would tell me you’ve helped me through my depression or helped me stop cutting,” said Dallas, ruffling his immaculate hair. “Something as easy as posting a video keeps them happy or talking to them on Twitter helps them realize that what they’re going through is temporary.”