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Written by Ramsey Brown.
Since the start of YouTube in 2005, the video-sharing social platform has been one of the most prominent resources for independent artists around the world. YouTube has been the launchpad for many successful musicians. It provides upcoming artists with an opportunity to release their music, grow a fanbase, and display their talent for millions of people to see.
Getting a ‘lucky break’ in the music industry has been notoriously difficult. There is a growing abundance of artists, bands, rappers, DJs, and other musicians who are all fighting to make it to the top. Getting discovered among so much competition can seem like finding a needle in a haystack.
However, with YouTube having over one billion monthly users and ranked as the second most visited site on the web (right behind Google) — artists who regularly post on YouTube have a much greater chance of getting their music discovered and finding the fame they’ve always dreamed of.
With YouTube’s massive popularity, it’s the perfect platform for artists to increase their own visibility and popularity. In fact, some of the most famous musicians we know and love today owe a portion of their fame and success to the video-sharing website that helped bring them to stardom.
But who are these lucky artists and what were their strategies for gaining such success through YouTube? In this article, we are going to discuss 15 musicians who got their start on YouTube — all of who, at one point were hungry up-and-coming artists probably very similar to yourself.
It’s important to note that these artists weren’t made successful solely through YouTube alone. With immense talent combined with dedication, hard work, and consistency, they created a fanbase on the platform that eventually launched them into music success. So, let’s take a look at who these musicians are and how how they did it.
One of the most well-known YouTube success stories is that of Canadian pop icon, Justin Bieber. As a pre-teen, Justin would post videos of his music performances, covering artists like Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, and more. Bieber’s popularity on YouTube began to grow and he quickly became a viral sensation.
In 2007, marketing executive Scooter Braun came across Bieber’s YouTube page and was highly impressed by what he heard and saw. When Justin was only 13 years old, Braun introduced him to Usher — who then quickly decided to take the young singer under his wing to help mold him into the superstar he is today.
Since then, Justin Bieber has sold millions of records worldwide, acquired hundreds of music awards and nominations, and is credited with multiple RIAA Gold, Platinum, and Diamond singles. The once young, aspiring musician is now one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Much credit to Bieber’s success is due back to where he first began, YouTube.
The Weeknd’s early approach to YouTube is certainly unorthodox, compared to the other musicians who are mentioned on this list. In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd uploaded three songs to YouTube under the username ‘xoxxxoooxo’.
With no photos associated with the account, the strange misspelled name, and his incredibly unique and captivating sound, the mysteriousness surrounding The Weeknd was a huge part of his initial draw. Within a month, a full mixtape was released with the title House of Balloons.
The Weeknd gained a lot of attention early on, and from the likes of megastar rapper, Drake — adding even more buzz and hype around the Weeknd’s name. Five months after his YouTube debut, The Weeknd held his first public performance at a small venue in Toronto. Today, he has performed at the Super Bowl, The Grammy’s, and sold-out arenas across the world — truly becoming the epitome of a YouTube success story.
Canadian singer-songwriter, Alessia Cara is another perfect example of a YouTube musician success story. When she was only 13 years old, she began posting her acoustic covers of popular songs to the video-sharing site.
Cara went on to collaborate with artists such as Logic, Khalid, Zedd, and others. She has sold millions of singles, albums, and even won a Grammy award for Best New Artist. To this day, she is among one of the youngest musicians to achieve such high success through her start on YouTube.
Ed Sheeran has become one of the biggest household names in music today, but like so many other aspiring musicians of this generation, he looked to social media to find his big break.
After posting his performances videos to YouTube, the British singer-songwriter gained a lot of viewer’s attention through his unique sound and look — which he mentions helped him stick out on YouTube against other hopeful artists.
After building up his fanbase online, Sheeran went to Los Angeles to try and get noticed in person. There he met Jamie Foxx, who helped him launch his career and get in front of live audiences.
In September 2009 while studying at Berklee College of Music, Charlie Puth started his own YouTube channel, CharliesVlogs — where he posted comedy videos and acoustic covers. After covering Adele’s, ‘Someone Like You'.
He went on to become a massive star after recording vocals on the 2015 Wiz Khalifa track, ‘See You Again’, which sold more than 11 million copies in America alone. He’s had six other platinum-selling singles and albums since then and has earned four Grammy nominations so far — which may have never been possible without his first recognition through YouTube.
Before the guys of 5 Seconds of Summer were dominating the American charts, they were just another band from Australia trying to get noticed. They started posting videos of themselves performing covers on YouTube in 2011, while they were still in college.
After a few of their videos went viral, one of them was noticed by One Direction’s Niall Horan. This eventually led to a a series of events that would change the group’s lives and careers forever — signing a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, then supporting One Direction on their worldwide Take Me Home Tour.
James Bay is another multi-platinum artist who was discovered on YouTube. He grew up in England where he learned to play guitar from watching YouTube videos and spent his time performing at various pubs and open mics.
His time and dedication to playing music soon paid off when a fan uploaded a YouTube video of Bay performing live at an open mic in London. This video caught the attention of a Republic Records A&R and within a week, he signed to the label.
He has since earned three Grammy nominations, headlined two major tours, and has been touring support for Taylor Swift, The Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, and others.
Before Shawn Mendes was a Grammy-nominated and multi-platinum record selling artist, he was just another kid uploading his music videos to YouTube. The recordings of him playing guitar and signing cover songs eventually led him to millions of beloved followers on the platform.
Mendes started attracting viewers after he posted a cover from Justin Bieber's "As Long as You Love Me’ in 2013, gaining 10,000 likes and as many followers the next day. Shortly after, artist manager Andrew Gertler discovered Mendes online and brought him to Island Records.
The Canadian pop star eventually broke out with his single, “Life of the Party,” in 2014 and was labeled a “YouTube sensation” by MTV, all at just 15 years old.
Similar to Charlie Puth, the members of this musical duo were students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music when they started posting their cover videos on YouTube.
Amy and Nick Noonan’s covers were offbeat enough to get them a lot of attention, as they covered rap artists like Drake and Future in a unique style.
Noonan has said it took a lot of work for them to finally get noticed but it happened with a Chris Brown cover in 2011, that now has more than 100 million views. A year later, Karmin signed to Epic Records and released their debut studio EP, Hello.
In 2010, Tori Kelly tried out for American Idol where she hoped to gain her fame, but never made it past the top 24 finale. Despite her failed efforts on the show, she took a new tack in her music — learning how to play the guitar, creating original songs, recording them herself, then posting her performances on YouTube.
Although the American Idol judges didn’t favor Kelley’s singing, the internet did. She quickly reached over one million subscribers on YouTube. In 2012, she released her first EP, Handmade Songs by Tori Kelly.
Shortly after its release, the EP made it to the Top 10 Pop Albums list on iTunes. One year later, after Scooter Braun became her manager, Tori Kelly signed with Capitol Records and fulfilled her dreams of becoming a famous musician.
Singer-songwriter, Austin Mahone began making a name of himself in 2010 when he began posting performance videos and cover songs to YouTube. After consistently uploading videos and independently releasing music, he signed a seven-figure deal with Universal Republic Records in 2012.
By 2013, he was chosen to be the opening act for Taylor Swift’s Red Tour. Shortly after, he kicked off his own successful headlining tour. As of today, Mahone has more than 4.8 million subscribers on YouTube.
Soulja Boy is notorious for being an internet sensation and music industry trailblazer. Among his many titles, he claims to be the first major rapper who was discovered (and paid) by YouTube. Three months after the official launch of YouTube in 2005, Soulja Boy uploaded his first song to new video-sharing platform — solidly confirming that he was indeed, one of YouTube’s very first early adopters.
By 2007, he was signed to Interscope Records and had a massive Grammy-nominated song, “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Whether you like him or not, Soulja Boy certainly broke major ground on the internet and has helped paved the way for other YouTube musicians today.
Becky G’s first dose of internet popularity came in 2011, when she started posting videos of herself covering popular songs on YouTube. One of her videos caught the attention of producer Dr. Luke, who has worked with artists like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.
Subsequently, Dr. Luke offered her a joint record deal with Kemosabe Records and RCA Records. In reference to her video clip for "Otis", Luke claimed "I would have signed her off that video alone. I was 100 percent in. She has so much personality and her voice just pops out of the speakers.”
Becky G is now among one of the many musicians who gained their popularity and fame through covering songs on YouTube.
California rapper Blueface can thank YouTube and social media in general for putting him on rocket to success. In 2018, WorldstarHipHop featured one of Blueface’s music videos on its massively popular YouTube channel, leading the young musician to go viral.
People became extremely intrigued by Blueface's odd flow and unique style, with a tattoo of Benjamin Franklin on his face. A month following his viral video, he was signed to Cash Money West — the West Coast branch of Birdman's Cash Money Records label.
In just a short matter of time, Blueface became a force to be reckoned with in the rap game. In 2019, he went on to collaborate with rap stars Cardi B and YG, which landed him his first platinum-selling single, only one year after he was first discovered on YouTube.
One of the most recent music stars to go big thanks to YouTube is rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, AKA NBA YoungBoy. Not only did Louisiana rapper blow up on the video-sharing platform, but he absolutely dominated it — with many critics calling him the ‘YouTube King’.
Since 2015, NBA YoungBoy has dropped 24 projects and 350 uploads to YouTube. In 2020, he gained a total of 1.4 billion streams and became YouTube’s number one most-watched artist of the year.
The rapper has been one of the platform’s most successful (& highest grossing) artists since first debuting on the site in 2017. Without ever going on a single tour at the time, YoungBoy jumped on Billboard’s earnings list ahead of artists like The Weeknd, Eminem, and Bad Bunny. Earning majority of his bag through his YouTube success.
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