2008 was a year of global shifts. Some were symbolic: America elected its first black president. Others were literal: China suffered the most devastating earthquake in decades. The most dramatic shift of 2008 was economic: The burst of the U.S. housing bubble and widespread failures in financial regulation swept economies around the globe into crisis.
Beyond the worlds of politics and financial markets, a subtler but no less radical shift was taking place. In time, it would touch one billion people across the planet. Its epicenter was the Silicon Valley.
YouTube made the video star
On a Wednesday evening, Stanford music program graduate Jack Conte (class of '06) is giving a talk in the studio beneath Bing Concert Hall on campus. A small group has gathered to listen as Conte discusses his latest creative projects, including his band, Pomplamoose, formed with fellow Stanford grad Nataly Dawn in 2008 (the duo has a gig on campus Nov. 1). Dressed in a close-fitted tee and a trucker hat, with a boyish face and a lean frame, Conte looks closer to 20 than 30, though a bushy beard lends him a certain hipster gravitas.
"In 2008, if somebody sent you a YouTube link to a cat video with 500,000 views, you'd watch it, 'cause that would be some funny shit!" he exclaims, stabbing the air for emphasis. The audience twitters. "But in 2014," Conte continues, "I'd want to see at least a few million views. The currency of the view has totally changed." He goes on to share a television versus YouTube stat: AMC's Mad Men has 2.3 million viewers; little-known YouTube vlogger Charlie McDonnell has 2.4 million.
"It's easy to think in terms of views, comments and users," Conte adds. "But you gotta remember it's people on the other side of it all."
This, as much as actually making music, is what occupies Conte these days: the power of YouTube to transmit original creative content to its one billion users across the globe.
It wasn't so many years ago that Conte was working part-time as a tutor, playing music with his girlfriend Dawn and posting their low-budget music videos on the then-relatively new video-sharing website. Their channel garnered a small but loyal following. Then, in September 2009, they posted an understated indie remix of Beyoncé 's hit single, "All the Single Ladies." Within weeks, their video -- shot in Conte's bedroom and featuring footage of Dawn in a batman T-shirt and shaggy pixie cut spliced with Conte at the piano bobbing his head in time to the beat -- had more than 10 million views.
For Conte and Dawn, it was the beginning of a new era. YouTube drove traffic to their website, which drove up sales on iTunes, which lead to "real" money.
"In one month, we sold 30,000 songs and made $20,000," Conte remembered. "That's when we realized this might be a real thing that people actually wanted."
So far, that prediction has proven true. Pomplamoose (the name is an Americanized spelling of the French word for grapefruit) has built on the popularity of its Beyoncé cover with more renditions of well-known hits spanning the decades. Among their recent videos are a remix of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz" and a mashup of Pharrell Williams' "Happy" with Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." These aren't straightforward covers; though they tend to borrow the basic melody of a preexisting work, Pomplamoose alters everything from instrumentals to syncopation, key and lyrics to create something more like a tribute to the original.
At least as important as the tracks themselves are the clever videos that include no dubbing or hidden sounds. If Dawn's voice is recorded twice and harmonized with itself, viewers will see two Dawns singing side by side. In a blatant rejection of the traditional high budget, smoke-and-mirrors style of MTV, Conte and Dawn make no effort to hide their methods of production -- in fact, they often highlight them. Their delightfully ironic cover of "Video Killed the Radio Star" includes shots of the projector and screen and features Conte's shadow scurrying along carrying a camcorder. Even if you're not a fan of Dawn's soft crooning backed up by a blend of folksy instrumentals and electropop stylings, it's hard not to be charmed by the Pomplamoose brand: They're silly, smart and startlingly transparent.
The poster kids of the creative class
Together, Conte and Dawn constitute the poster couple for the "creative class:" a term coined by social scientist Richard Florida and reclaimed by others to describe the writers, artists, designers and musicians who create original content that can be propagated online. What exhilarates Conte about the rise of the creative class, he explained, is that it puts power back in the hands of individuals rather than corporate groups.
"We've turned down record deals with all of the major record labels" Conte said. "We've all seen the trajectory of most musicians," he added, using his finger to indicate a sharp rise and fall. "Why do you think that's the model? I think it's because artists don't know how to do it for themselves."
Though posting DIY music videos online might seem less glamorous than the rock-star trope of being whisked around in a limo, having your gigs booked by a tour manager and letting PR take care of the marketing, Conte says he'd rather be forced to learn than to be at the mercy of a label. It's a start-up mentality, and Conte sees it as part of the deal for the post-recession generation of creative professionals.
"We're always uncomfortable," he acknowledged, grinning. "It's always hard."
Conte is clearly the extrovert of the pair, but Dawn is far more than just a pretty face. She does the majority of video editing in addition to taking the lead on musical arrangements and lyrics. Over the phone last week, still recovering from Pomplamoose's third and largest-ever tour, she spoke about various behind-the-scenes aspects of the job.
"I've learned a lot of what goes into the back end of doing a tour and how many moving parts there are," she said. "There's so much that happens to run a business.
Yet when it's time to make music, Dawn and Conte say they're good at taking off their business hats and dropping into a more playful, creative mode. That's an essential skill for the success of the band, as well as for their relationship.
"When you've been together for this long, working in tight quarters, you get a pretty good idea of what makes the other person tick and how not to push their buttons," she said. "Basically, if we stop having a good time, we're going to stop and do something else."
A sustainable model
Six years in, they're still having fun, their fanbase is steadily growing and neither Conte nor Dawn sees Pomplamoose going anywhere. That means finding sustainable sources of revenue. YouTube alone won't cut it; the two or three million views they get each month account for roughly $200 of income for the band. Yet YouTube has been the foundation for iTunes sales, brand deals (including a lucrative series of ads commissioned by Hyundai) and most recently, patronage.
Last year, Conte joined forced with a software developer to found Patreon, a crowdfunding site that helps artists earn a salary based on pledges by fans. To date, Patreon has raised more than $17 million for 40,000 musicians, webcomics, vloggers and other members of the creative class (including Pomplamoose). Though prospects look good, Conte said much of their recent tour went on credit cards.
It's impossible to predict the future, but the band says some things are certain.
"We know we'll continue making music and videos," Dawn said. "We'd also like to experiment with spending more time and resources on better videos and learning a new program for editing. And I really want to work on putting together a European tour."
Like Dawn, Conte sees a range of possibilities for Pomplamoose's future. He reeled off a few in the form of questions rather than answers: "A chat show? Another record? More music videos?"
But what seems to motivate the duo more than long-range commitments or external markers of success is the ability to keep learning and playing together while challenging the old modes of music and video production.
As Conte sees it, Pomplamoose's story is part of something much larger: the age of connections between musicians and audience members, artists and patrons, creators and consumers.
"This is a cultural movement, a new era in human history where there are direct relationships between people who watch things and people who make things," Conte said.
"It's just such a beautiful thing that this is possible now."
Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford
When: Saturday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.
Cost: $30 general admission, $15 Stanford students with ID
Info: Go to live.stanford.edu or call 650-724-2464.