Viral, Schmiral (‘Greatness’ Pt. 2)

Baimurat Allaberiyev – a YouTube sensation – has a major record deal but still has few teeth, literally. And those teeth are planted on the cutting edge of the latest boom-and-bust trend in the music industry: viral-video microfame.

So, let’s get real about the sobering statistics of enduring Web 2.0 success among music artists. To that end, I will explore the verities of the viral-video trend.

But first, this exploration is not meant as a discouragement. It’s simply a reality check. Like a sound check, it gets us in tune, so we can perform at our best. And, as with the old industry, the new music model presents real, if limited, opportunities for enduring success. So, as in the past, the motivation for the serious artist is the very challenge of the overwhelming game itself.

Now, back to Allaberiyev, a former sheepherder from Russia who sang renditions of Bollywood songs all the day long, not unlike early American blues singers who chanted field hollers while picking cotton in the South. Some traditions never die.

Writing in Friday’s New York Times, Ellen Barry, tells how one of Allaberiyev’s signature performances was captured on videophone, eventually making it to YouTube and viral nirvana. But, while this music 2.0 fame led to a record deal with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in London, his manager Ilya Bortnyuk offers the sober summation:

“If there will be disappointment, it’s no big deal. It’s show business. There is glamour; there is disappointment. No big deal. I’m used to it after 20 years.”

Barry goes on to cite examples of viral video flameouts like Tay Zonday and Chris Crocker. She quotes Bill Wasik, author of a new book on viral video and Internet celebrity:

“Virtually all of them have found it hard to parlay the experience into a lasting career… Even a short ride is a kind of gift.”

Allaberiyev’s challenge: his charisma must translate into U.S. sales, since world music doesn’t sell in Russia, the environs of his initial following. Because Bollywood show tunes won’t do the trick, his handlers plan on transitioning his repertoire to Afghan and Central Asian folk songs. So, does the man on what feels like the top now find himself with another uphill climb? Certainly. Does he feel like Sisyphus? Yes. Haven’t we all? Yet, that should serve to raise the fighter mojo in him even more. Let’s face it; only heavyweights will win at this game. It’s the same in the new model as it was in the old. Some traditions never die.

And to rally Allaberiyev (also known as Tajik Jimmy), one of his supporters, Yelena Mirzoyeva, has this encouragement:

“A person that feels he is a star; that person will really go somewhere.”

Wasik himself recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed piece making a case for the Internet as the new New York for aspiring artists. He compares making it in Gotham with getting “the big break” on the Internet. The article weighs in with sobering data, which in the end, appear no better than the old music-biz model.

A senior editor at Harper’s and author of “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” Wasik discusses the recently depressed prospects for artists seeking fortune in the Big Apple, and turns his gaze to the Internet, saying:

“Meanwhile, another destination beckons, a place that courses with all the raw ambition and creative energy that the hard times seem to have drained from New York. I am referring, of course, to the Internet, which over the past decade has slowly become the de facto heart of American culture: the public space in which our most influential conversations transpire, in which our new celebrities are discovered and touted, in which fans are won and careers made.”

He cites such Web successes as the The Gregory Brothers, whose humorous YouTube series “Auto-Tune the News” has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans.

But, in the end, Wasik also concludes:

“Microcelebrity is now the rule, with respect not only to the size of one’s fan base but also to the duration of its love. Believe it or not, the Internet is a tougher town than New York; fewer people make it here (New York), but no one there (the Internet) seems to make it for long.”

As I follow the limited cases of significant Internet success, Bon Iver comes to the fore. Yet, keep in mind that his notoriety was spawned from a combination of both viral and print-media attention, including the Wall Street Journal, with one rolling into the other. Some traditions – in this case, PR-wise – never die.

So what statistical sobriety supplies us artists is the tired-but-true principle: the path to success is fraught with frustration and limitation. Same in the new model as it was in the old. So, buckle up, batton down and stay the course. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t star in the movie version.
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