YouTube's quick wick of fame

Good songs may often become hits online, but can artists afford to upload them for free viewing?

Chris Pizzello/AP
Rebecca Black became a YouTube sensation with her song 'Friday.'

Want to be a pop star? The line forms at YouTube, and wraps around the world.

From the Elvis-era 1950s to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" explosion, it was possible to make millions from a hit record. Land an arresting video in heavy rotation on MTV and your sales would compound daily. That formula worked like a charm for decades, for both artists and record companies.

Then, about the dawn of the new millennium, a perfect storm of a rapidly dwindling MTV audience, the rise (and quality) of online digital downloads, and the sudden obsolescence of the CD format struck the music business in one massive wave. Digital sampling and listening sites YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify were left standing in the wake. Now these new kingmakers of pop music have become the place where stars are hatched with astounding speed. Any aspiring musician wanting to jump-start a music career must master the secrets and intricacies of these sites to have a fighting chance against millions of other would-be instant stars.

It would have been unheard of for an obscure pop singer from South Korea to be embraced by the old record company structure, but this is the brave new world into which Psy's "Gangnam Style" was born – a Korean dance music video that has taken the world by storm, garnering 760 million YouTube views to date (and counting) and is headed for a record-shattering billion. "Gangnam Style" was originally posted on K-pop, an Asian dance music and electronica fan site, before one enchanted viewer posted it on YouTube, where it exploded into a worldwide phenomenon practically overnight.

What "exposure sites" like YouTube and fast-growing Spotify – which allows listeners to sample entire songs and store them in folders for repeat listens free of charge – offer is unprecedented, but where's the money?

Many disgruntled artists and songwriters are asking the same question. A well-known songwriter recently received a check for just $80 from YouTube for a song that had more than 9 million viewings. Schoolgirl Rebecca Black, one of the original "viral stars" of "Friday" fame, made about $20,000 in partnered ad revenues from YouTube from 160 million views and $26,000 for 43,000 iTunes downloads. Not a fortune, by any measure, but priceless exposure for someone with talent and staying power. Unfortunately, Ms. Black didn't have enough of either and disappeared nearly as fast as she appeared.

In the digital Wild West, the cream will always Google to the top, but can artists afford to keep giving it away?

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