YouTube and the modern road to stardom

Lana Del Rey is the latest, and fastest yet, internet sensation. But Elisa Bray wonders what's real in the social-media revolution

If the name Lana Del Rey means nothing to you today, chances are it will by next week. The 24-year-old singer/ songwriter is perched on the threshold of becoming a Top 10 star with her debut single. It all hinges on "Video Games", the video and song that the New Yorker – otherwise known as Lizzy Grant – posted on YouTube in August and which led her to sell out a gig in half an hour, with no releases and no publicity. A debut UK tour was in such demand that it was scrapped for bigger venues two months later, with Madame JoJos in London replaced by the Scala. The video clocked up more than two million hits in one month, and Del Rey is the most blogged artist this past week. By the time her album hits the shelves (it's set for release in January), she will doubtless be a household name.

Del Rey is an internet sensation, sensationally fast even by the standards set by those online wonders before her, which include Kate Nash, Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom. She has channelled her look; sultry, retro femme fatale with smoky eyes (she gave herself the tag "a gangster Nancy Sinatra"), and the video itself cuts between the doe-eyed beauty gazing at the screen (her own webcam shots) and striking clips of video and news footage resembling a Lynchian collage. But it's the song itself, evoking love's broken dreams as someone who's been through it, that has won her an army of fans and has been hailed the song of the year by critics, carried by a voice that has drawn comparisons to Nancy Sinatra, Stevie Nicks and Loretta Lynn. It has had celebrities raving across Twitter, from Jessica Alba ("im kind of obsessed, she sounds like Stevie Nicks"), to Fearne Cotton ("I adore this"), while The Kooks' Luke Pritchard tweeted the video alongside the words "nothing more".

One fan wrote, "I am obsessed with 'Video Games' by Lana Del Rey to the extent that I've had to give up my job and seek counselling". It's a song that has had so much appeal and buzz across the music scene that it has been remixed variously by hip artists Joy Orbison and Jamie Woon, and covered on Radio 1's Live Lounge by indie band Bombay Bicycle Club.

As if aware that she seemed too good to be true, last week Del Rey posted a video of herself performing live in a bare room with just a microphone and a guitarist for accompaniment. Live at The Premises proved that she can sing very well indeed, only affirmed by her debut television appearance on Jools Holland's show, albeit slightly nervous, backed by grand piano and string quartet. After her Jools Holland performance, she was among the most discussed subjects on Twitter.

The power of social-media community sites, by which like-minded fans have been discovering and sharing songs, has been proven ever since Arctic Monkeys burst on to the music scene with the fastest-selling debut album, thanks to a huge online following on MySpace built up before they signed to Domino. Since then, bands and their record labels have been using social media platforms and internet strategies within their overall marketing/promotion plans. These days it's as much about how many Facebook "likes" (Del Rey has 65,000) and how many YouTube viewings an act has, as where their chart positioning is.

A new band's goal is to attract fans with charisma and music via social networking sites, selling their act as a package, which leads to a loyal fanbase and, ideally, success with sales in the future. With the focus shifting from MySpace to Facebook, bands use the latter as a shop-front, with YouTube, Soundcloud and Bandcamp as the go-to sites for hearing the music, while Twitter and Tumblr all help with the word-of-mouth success. It may be one of the worst songs, but "Friday" made Rebecca Black the most talked-about act in America earlier this year, when she posted it on YouTube.

Sarah Richardson, senior digital marketing and online PR at Anorak, who has worked in music digital marketing since the days the department she was working at within Sony Music was referred to as "Futures", says: "I've seen an insane amount of progression. For starters, artists these days are forced for the most part to be much more hands-on and creative with their approach to developing a fanbase. You'll see far more in the way of digital content these days; live footage, free downloads, behind-the-scenes videos, viral clips, remixes. Social networking has also changed things tenfold. Twitter allows artists to engage with their fans in a way that has completely changed the landscape."

Online is also where A&Rs increasingly go to find new talent. "I definitely use social networking to find new artists now, much more than traditional routes", says Anthony Shaw, who used to manage Muse and is managing director of Best Before Records Limited, and recently discovered his latest signing – a new Norwegian band called 22 – via the internet. "I never would have come across them without the help of the internet, for sure. I was checking out another band called Arcane Roots and, while on their MySpace, I came across 22 and their video. I instantly fell in love. Upon hearing more tracks, I went to Norway, saw them play three tracks live and offered them a deal on the spot."

There is another side to the internet, however. While it gives artists the platforms to launch their careers, it is also a treasure trove for dissenters wanting to dig up old facts about a burgeoning star. Few might know of Katy Perry's beginnings as a singer signed to a Christian label, but you can readily find such information online – and buy the album on Amazon. Lana Del Rey was once singing less bewitching songs. A couple, such as "Kinda Outta Luck", can still be found online, although the debut album itself, produced by David Kahne, was scrapped and has been mysteriously deleted. That she has been repackaged, and enhanced (the suspiciously plump lips remain under scrutiny), sheds new light on the authenticity of the artist. Still, we can thank the power of social networking for bringing to our attention what might well be the best song of the year.

Big in cyberspace: Four new acts (and ONE OLD ONE) who launched on the net

Birdy

Still at school in Lymington, the precociously talented 15-year-old Jasmine Van den Bogaerde winningly picked Bon Iver's 'Skinny Love' for her first cover and it has garnered more than 6.5 million views on YouTube since April. As a schoolgirl, she has never toured, so all the buzz has been generated online. In the last three months she has averaged more than 80,000 views a day of her soulful piano renditions of songs including Cherry Ghost's 'People Help the People', Ed Sheeran's 'The A Team', becoming the second-most-viewed UK artist on YouTube, while her giveaway of her original track 'Without a Word (Demo)' has been downloaded 10,000 times. The daughter of a concert pianist, she was signed to Atlantic in March, and her first album featuring her interpretations of songs by Bon Iver, Phoenix, The National, The Postal Service and The xx is out on 7 November.

The Weeknd

He's still unsigned, but the 21-year-old Canadian R&B artist was commanding £15,000 fees for shows before he had even played in America. Furthermore, he managed to get everyone in a tizzy over the EP he released on his own website this summer. His success is, in part, thanks to a certain producer friend named Drake who shouted about his music to his own fans via networking sites. The Weeknd performs his first UK dates at the end of this year.

2Cellos

Croatian duo Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser posted a self-made video of their compelling, frenzied cello-only version of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' on YouTube and within two months the video had more than 5.5 million views, they had performed on 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show', and received a phone call from Elton John inviting them to join his European tour – all before their debut album on Sony was released late July. The Royal Academy of Music graduates' classical twist on pop and rock has seen them reworking Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', Guns & Roses's 'Welcome To The Jungle', Kings Of Leon's 'Use Somebody' and Muse's 'The Resistance'.

Rizzle Kicks

As children of the internet generation, at just 17 Brighton rap duo Harley Alexander-Sule and Jordan Stephens (left) took on the internet as complete unknowns. They began with a blog site Your Daily Kicks, while simultaneously getting their MySpace up to scratch, using YouTube, Twitter and Bandcamp, where they posted a home-made mixtape. On their YouTube channel they created a number of lo-fi videos for their early bootleg remixes. Their DIY approach saw them doing all the things online that a marketing team would do. With 12 million YouTube hits and a Top 10 single, 'Down the Trumpets', and now19 years old, their online activity has paid off. Their debut album 'Stereo Typical' is out this month on Island, and to keep up their online presence, there are videos.

Lily Allen

The singer-songwriter found fame on MySpace where she found herself with more friends than anyone else in Britain. Allen had posted a selection of her demos that she recorded in 2005 on the internet, attracting thousands of listeners, and a rush release of 'LDN', on limited edition seven-inch vinyl, ensued.

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