Pity the poor performer. In this music landscape, it’s not enough to bring talent (sometimes it’s too much, in fact). Today, one needs to be a brand. For your Gagas and your Biebers, this is a seemingly effortless task. But for most trying to make their mark, a little outside-the-box thinking goes a long way. Enter Walk Off the Earth.
Since the start of 2012, the Burlington, Ont., band has navigated their way through the cacophony to viral video status. If you’ve been under a rock, here’s what happened: On Jan. 5, the band uploaded their cover of Australian singer Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Hours later, the video had gone viral, and less than a month after the upload, the band was on Ellen and the Today Show and had netted nearly 40 million views. Whew.
But what’s the deal, exactly? That the band is from small-town Canada is not unique, nor is their use of YouTube (see also: Bieber). That they shot to fame in a relatively short timeframe (see above) isn’t special. And yet, their rise fascinates, because in the public imagination, there’s voodoo inherent in the viral video. Sure, what hits and when is a bit mysterious, but in fact, Walk off the Earth’s rise shows what happens when a degree of social media savvy and calculation meets a dose of luck.
Walk Off the Earth (or WOTE, as we’ll call them now) started posting covers online in 2010. The motivation, says the band’s YouTube guru Gianni Luminati, was to get WOTE’s original music noticed outside of Burlington.
“A lot of bands that I like, like Sublime, got big doing cover songs,” he says. “I also knew you could build a fan base on YouTube. But you can’t really do that by playing originals at first, because you need reasons for people to come check out your page.” Luminati learned the ways of YouTube, expecting that his band’s steady uptick in popularity would eventually net dividends. Instead, the Gotye cover hit like lightning.
[Click here to view a full-size version of the Walk Off the Earth timeline.]
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Luminati says. “There were a lot of factors. The song is amazing. The fact that we’re playing one guitar doesn’t hurt. The whole vibe of the video – one take, three singers, the way it came off. The timing, too. We released it just as the song was hitting in America. And we had fans to help support it through the Internet.”
He’s right about all of that, of course. But the fact that he’s even thought about it in these terms says something. An artist can put music first – as WOTE’s members appear to – and still have half a mind or more on promotion. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially now. Necessity births invention. But are WOTE better marketers than they are musicians? Luminati demurs. “I’m just some dude who puts up videos on YouTube, and people really liked one of them. If that means I’m an awesome marketer, then great. But I think people like them because of musicianship and visual content.”
Maybe so, but there’s more to be gleaned by shopping WOTE’s YouTube page. For every cover, the band nets roughly three times as many views as for every original song. If you factor in Gotye, it’s 300 times as many. And now, with the band working on an original album – in their own folk-reggae style – the gap between what’s expected of them and what they produce will surely widen. Luminati may not have planned this path for his fledgling band, but he will have to deal with what his savvy has wrought. The next few months of WOTE’s existence will be telling.
Right now the band, exhausted, is back in their hometown studio. From there, they’ll finish the album and continue to post videos regularly, says Luminati. “In the YouTube community, that’s what you do. You’re running a channel.” But he’s doubtful that WOTE is going to sign to a major. “We already did what a label would do for you and promoted ourselves on a pretty large scale. Now, the labels want to come on board – but we already did all the work.”
UPDATE: On Wednesday, Feb. 8 -after this piece had been filed - Walk Off the Earth signed to Columbia Records. I guess there's more work to be done!
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on Feb 06, 2012