Performers find new path to fame through YouTube

August 02, 2012


Japanese musician Hikakin doesn't play any instruments and he's only appeared on television a handful of times. Yet, the 23-year-old performer, who describes himself "shy around strangers," has more online fans than the massively popular girl group AKB48. He receives fan mail from around the world, and on a recent visit to Germany he was mobbed by fans eager for his autograph.

Like many of today's rising stars, he owes much of his fame to a single website: YouTube.

With a global audience of more than 800 million people and 72 hours of video uploaded every minute, the popular video-sharing site is one of the easiest ways for up-and-comers to attract a huge following.

It's not just the dedicated self-promoters who are reaping the benefits, either. Hikakin started posting clips of himself beatboxing--producing sounds of various instruments using only his mouth--for his own amusement. It was only five years later, when Yahoo! featured one of his videos on the top page of its U.S. website, that he became an Internet sensation.

In the five days that followed, his beatbox rendition of videogame sound effects garnered more than 1 million views.

Since then, Hikakin has used YouTube to build his fan base even further. Through online comments, he interacts with fans, responds to audience requests for songs, and has even collaborated on special joint performances.

His goal, he said, is to amass the largest number of subscribers on YouTube in the world. He already boasts more than 360,000 fans, comfortably surpassing the 316,000 tally on AKB48’s official channel.

And while Hikakin has also appeared on television six times, he says he's happier in front of a webcam than a television camera.

"Because I'm shy around strangers, I'm not good at making appearances on live stage or TV," Hikakin said. "But with the Internet, people around the world can continue to watch my performances for many years to come. I want to be famous for all time, not just for a certain period."

Musicians aren't the only performers getting in on the act. Comedian Megwin, 35, spent four years as a live entertainer, but he was unable to hit the big time until he decided to switch venues and present his performances over the Internet.

In one video clip, Megwin tries to cross over a river with two cords hanging from a bridge. In another, the funnyman and his assistant are seen with their hair matted together with hairspray.

Megwin has been posting clips like these every day for the past seven years, and he has no plans to stop.

"There aren’t many people who post videos every day without fail," Megwin said. "Posting every day makes it more likely that I’ll be seen."

Currently, the comedian has about 73,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, and he uses three personal computers at home to produce his short videos.

"I can produce professional-quality shows even though I use my home as a studio. Self-planning is the key. Compared to television, the Internet isn't as highly regarded by the public yet, so it might be possible to achieve the greatest number of views in the world."

Taking a road less traveled to fame hasn't hurt these performers' fortunes, either. Hikakin quit his job in January and is making a living posting monthly videos to YouTube. Megwin, meanwhile, secured financial support from digital scale maker Tanita Corp. and other companies who took note of his online popularity, and last year he set up a digital content company.

Success on YouTube can be surprisingly lucrative, with some video posters taking home a bigger paycheck than ordinary company employees. Through a partnership program, YouTube-owner Google Inc. places advertisements on the video webpage and shares the revenue generated with the video's poster.

About 30,000 posters have joined the YouTube partnership program, including several thousand from Japan.

The advertisements are largely targeted at young people, and range from digital magazines and nail care products to online games. Some ads run like TV commercials before the video starts, while others appear below the video for a certain period of time. So far, the relationship between YouTube and its users has been mutually beneficial.

"The more good content we offer, the more advertisers we can attract," a Google representative said. "Individual posters seem to inhabit a niche section in Japan, but they can hope for a significant business chance outside Japan."

But there is more than money leading performers to YouTube, according to social critic Satoshi Hamano. He also cited the interactive relationship that the online format makes possible.

"Users are not satisfied with just watching performers. Their mind-set is the same as that of fans of AKB48, who can go to their exclusive theater and see them in person. It is a manifestation of the feelings of young people who want to be closer to the celebrities they are supporting," Hamano said.

Creative freedom is another incentive, he added.

"Compared to TV programs, which are susceptible to the opinions of advertising firms and production companies, YouTube is apparently a popular medium where they can do what they like in a way they want," Hamano said.

That freedom lets artists like Hikakin thrive.

"On TV, I was given detailed instructions, and I felt like I was forced to do it. With YouTube, I can create my own shows at my own pace," he said.

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An image of "Human Beatbox" Hikakin from his video clip

An image of "Human Beatbox" Hikakin from his video clip

  • An image of "Human Beatbox" Hikakin from his video clip
  • Hikakin continues to post videos of his beatbox performances on YouTube. (Natsuki Edogawa)
  • A scene from funnyman Megwin's video clip. He and his assistant have their hair matted together with hairspray.
  • Megwin's daily routine is to post a video clip of his comedy sketch. (Natsuki Edogawa)

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