In the late summer of 2018, I was drawn to a music video suggested on my YouTube front page. The thumbnail of the video looked basically like three hipsters dancing inside an aesthetically pleasing warehouse. Even the title of the video, stylized with dots and negating the use of capital letters, felt stylish. Naturally, I did what you would do on YouTube – I clicked. It sounded somewhat like indie pop and the lyrics, which were abstract and relatable at the same time, immediately got to me. What kept me watching was also a never-seen-before style of contemporary dance, with a choreography that had the lead singer of the band dancing his way through the entire video. I watched it until the very end, and I probably watched it again right away. When I found the video, it probably had 800.000 views, the next morning it was already at 1,2 million views. The music video in question is by the band half•alive for their song still feel. and it’s currently at 17 million views. Continue reading for the story of how a music video on YouTube enabled the band from Long Beach to tour all through the States and come across the pond to Europe, where I met them in Berlin for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION to chat about how important their success on YouTube was and how a concept of relatability feeds into that.
These days, what are the options for upcoming musicians and bands to gain a following? With platforms such as YouTube or Spotify, it’s become increasingly easy to put things out and gain a following without a major label. It’s not only up to radio stations or tv channels anymore to curate what people get to listen to. Those days are long gone. It’s the era of the listener’s choice. But there is the flipside of the coin: It is said that every hour of the day around 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. And in 2018, there were already 35 million songs on Spotify. A colleague of mine recently talked with a playlist curator on Spotify who said that they are faced with about 35.000 new songs every week. It would be delusional to think only because it got easier to release music that listeners will also find it. So there’s the real challenge – to stand out from the sheer mass of content being added online every day.
The Era of the Listener’s Choice
When I’m not doing interviews for NBHAP, I work for a digital-first content network, creating video content for social media platforms and gathering expert knowledge on their algorithms. Obviously, there is always some luck involved to create viral hits. But what a lot of people probably don’t think about enough is that most social media algorithms such as the YouTube algorithm, which determines if music videos end up performing well or not, is designed to keep people on the platform.
The measurement of success on YouTube is watch time, meaning exactly how much time in minutes was spent on the platform watching videos. So when people watch something from start to finish, or even better, watch a video all over again, reaching a critical mass of minutes watched in total, the algorithm is highly likely to promote said video, showing it to even more people and have it be viewed even more – and as a result the algorithm will push it even more.
This means that most social media algorithms are all about audiences and what they want to see. In a way, it’s up to the audience to define what quality is by the amount they watch the content. It may be particularly creative or entertaining or gripping, there are plenty of reasons. When a video manages to hit that idea of what quality means to a particular target audience, who will watch plenty of it, fragmented as audiences may be on social media, it can truly change the success of channels on YouTube overnight.
When this happened to the three members of the band half•alive from Long Beach, California, with their music video to their song still feel. taking off on YouTube, it was definitely unexpected and took them on a whole new journey: ‘It changed our entire lives. It was cool because we hadn’t done anything for a while. We hadn’t released any new content. It was kinda dark for a bit. It was just like: We have a new idea – let’s see how it goes. Hopefully, people will still engage. And then it took off really well. And the rest has been just trying to catch up ever since,’ bassist J Tyler Johnson says.
‘YouTube’s been our number one helper on everything. They’re really great over there, too. We met them [at the YouTube space LA] since the video came out, so we got to talk with them like ‘Hey, for your next video… here are some creative ideas… this is how YouTube works in general.’ Just giving us ideas for future stuff and partnering with us for anything we try to do next.’
The interest of the YouTube staff in the music videos of half•alive is understandable. It’s no secret that YouTube racks up a lot of watch time with music videos, so to hear that they don’t only approach the average vlogger or comedian, but also musicians with creative ideas to give them algorithm lessons seems interesting. “They were inspired, in a way, by our music video. It just encapsulated what YouTube is all about. Where we just came together, put it together ourselves and just did this cool video with a bunch of our friends in it. Just low-budget, and it skyrocketed,’ lead singer Josh Taylor explains.
The Power of Threes
Their recent success has pushed listeners over to Spotify as well, but YouTube remains the driving force of the band. ‘We want people to come back to the video,’ J says. The concept to bringing people back to the video, including the cover artworks of their singles including still feel. and arrow, feeds into an overlying aesthetic, which defines the appearance of the band. After the creation and production of a song, they find a colour palette for each song, which they will integrate into the accompanying music video and then create the cover artwork based off of that. J gives away how the different dots connect: ‘It’s the power of threes, you know, your brain connecting. So for instance, with Childish Gambino and This is America – when you see the single you see the picture of the kids dancing and then you think of the video and then you think of the song and then it creates this kind of different connection. Like a third connection, making three things with two. Three connections in your brain. This is sounding more intense then I meant it to be. But so we are also really intentional with the video, we want people to come back to the video. When you see the artwork of the single, you make that next connection and go after the video.’
‘I think it just makes the message of the narrative, or whatever we’re trying to portray, multidimensional,’ drummer Brett Kramer agrees. ‘With the video, the song, artwork – all the colours are similar. It’s the same colour palette. Just using art to express the narrative as deep as possible. I think that the choreography really pushed into the narrative of the song.’ He touches upon the choreography, another integral part of the narrative of the music video, especially with singer Josh taking on major parts of the dancing with Jordan Johnson and Aidan Carberry from ja collective. ‘I think for me, I’ve just always loved dancing, just moving my body,’ Josh states smilingly. Surprisingly, the gigs of the band include almost as much dancing as the music videos. Fans expecting some sort of exact representation of the choreography from the music video may get to see something else though: ‘I think we don’t want to copy the music video on stage necessarily, but we want to copy like the total story of the band, which includes elements of dance and movement and colour, and like intentionality in all those areas. We want that to be represented on the stage,’ Josh says.
From their moves to what they wear, representing the same sense of what is cool or stylish within a lifestyle perpetuated by young people these days, there seems to be a relatability. The lyrics are a mix in between abstract and relatable, and it seems just as intentional that they are a bit of both. ‘I think there’s a sweet spot to hit that’s really difficult and I will always be searching for like something that’s very relatable, but still abstract enough to be interpreted for how the listener hears it. It’s difficult to write to both,’ Josh says.
‘One of my favourite things is when someone takes the song, can understand the meaning and then it relates to their life in a very unique way. The message is there, it’s received and then it’s adapted into their story. And it can fit their as well as someone else’s story in a very different way. It’s incredible how that can happen.’
‘Like ‘The hardest place to be, is wherever you are’ means something in itself, but other people can interpret it how it is for them. So that blend is really beautiful,’ J adds, using a line from the chorus of arrow as an example. The songs touch upon topics that seem closely linked to what it means to grow up these days. Specific sentences like the aforementioned line from arrow are directly relatable, but there are also abstract the ideas. It’s what the aim of the whole band is all about, using creativity to rephrase and rethink everyday experiences. In still feel. the idea of losing and finding oneself again becomes an astronaut drifting through outer space and hitting the atmosphere. Almost as if the band wants to help their listeners along in finding themselves and being okay with the struggles of growing up: ‘That’s definitely within the message of the band. Just presenting it like we’ve been here and we know how hard it is to be in the present and not be so hyper-focused on the future or the past but to really be in the moment. It’s a very difficult thing to do. So I think that’s definitely part of the band’s message,’ Josh says. It seems like a good message, in a time where the conversation has opened up about mental health, but also about smaller everyday struggles. To say it loud and clear that everybody struggles, once in a while.
‘I think we want people to feel heard and seen as well as breathe some hope into some things that feel really hopeless. I feel like a lot of people really connect to that hopelessness because they are really feeling it and we want to connect with them, but then help to bring them out of those moments. We want to keep pushing into life with hopeful messages like that. I think now more than ever it’s important to be vulnerable in our music for sure.’ (Brett)
For sure, the vulnerability is another element that makes the music of half•alive resonate well with their listeners. Although there is a lot of intentionality behind the various aspects which make the band what it is, thereby feeding into the needs of a certain audience, it’s surprising to hear that the members don’t spend too much time thinking about what the audience wants, but rather on what they would want to see and hear. ‘At least what I’m trying to do is to build my favourite band,’ Josh says. ‘A band that I would be so excited to go see and really support. That feels like a lot of the decision we make are based on, like what would my idea of the coolest band be like? What would they do? Like this is what I would want, definitely. And then we just do that.’
However, it seems to be a match with what other people their age would want to see, judging from their recent success. Back in the States, they were invited to perform live on Jimmy Kimmel and even there, they were allowed to implement their innovative concept of dancing their way through the studio into their performance. It was great, but seem very unusual for a first-time appearance on a late-night talk show. They are definitely doing things differently and taking risks vocally as well as with the choreography on stage. It sure takes a lot of balls, but it’s paying off, as they just announced another big world tour for the second half of 2019, with even more dates for Europe still to follow. Something is telling me that they are here to stay.