Justin Bieber Aside, It Isn't Easy to Leap From YouTube Star to Superstar

What happened to the other viral-video singers discovered by major labels last decade?

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Sitting under a video screen, Bieber performs in Mexico City (AP Images)

Browse through Justin Bieber's original YouTube page, and you'll come across a time capsule of a video showing how things have changed for Bieber—and for pop—in the last four years. In the clip, the even-scrawnier-than-he-is-now Canuck sings a Chris Brown song for a 20-something girl named Esmée Denters, who sits watching Bieber with what looks like a forced smile on her face, nods along politely, and rewards his performance with an incredulous, "Wow, that was awesome." Everything she does makes it seem as if when this was filmed, Denters was the more established star.

Which, of course, actually was the case in 2008 when the video was posted. Back then, Bieber was barely breaking, but the Dutch ingénue Denters had already amassed an international following of millions on YouTube by posting pixelated videos of herself singing late '90s R&B. She soon appeared on Oprah and was eventually signed by Justin Timberlake in a manner not unlike the eventual Bieber-Usher entente.

YouTube up-and-comers face the added challenge of having to maintain their already extant online following while also pleasing their label.

Today, of course, Bieber is everywhere. The 18-year-old released his third full-length album Tuesday, and in the span of an hour, managed to sell out every single seat of every single stop of his 45-show American tour earlier this month. By most reasonable measures, Denters, on the other hand, is nowhere. The record she released—with much help from Timberlake—failed to chart in the U.S. She's set to release a sophomore disc, but have you heard about it?

Even before Bieber's rise, the image of an amateur singer uploading a performance to YouTube in hopes of stardom was on its way to becoming as iconic as the one-way bus ticket to Hollywood (remember Time's year of "You"?). But the difference in the outcome between Bieber and Denters shows that the road to fame in the age of social media is as tough to traverse as ever—though perhaps for new reasons. The stories of YouTube failures, Bieber epigones, and online also-rans like Denters reveal the difficulties web-originated acts face at major labels and how the shape of Internet stardom can shift in a surprisingly short period of time.

"It was almost six years ago exactly," remembered Terra Naomi, one of YouTube's first musical sensations, referring to her debut web hit, "Say It's Possible." "I uploaded the video, it went onto the front page of YouTube, and got a lot of views. Suddenly people started covering it from all around the world, and before I knew it, I'd signed a deal with Universal."

But things didn't go smoothly from there. Naomi said she clashed with her one-man manager and producer, and that others at the label wanted her to ditch the millions of YouTube fans who had essentially brought her success in the first place.

"The record label didn't really understand the power of YouTube," Naomi said of her stint with Island Universal. "At the time I didn't really know what to do, and the label was like, 'You need to back off of your YouTube presence and be more of a major-label artist now.' So I just listened to them really because I felt they knew better than I did, which was probably a big mistake that a lot of artists make—you know, assuming that a record label knows more about their music."

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Charlie Wells is a journalist whose writing has been featured in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times. He is currently working on a book about the town that was supposed to have been bombed instead of Nagasaki.

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