We live in different times. It used to be that any kind of large-scale success in the music business was a bit like going through the minors to become a big league ball player. You toiled for a while, paying your dues in local circuits as an independent musician then, if you were good enough, a label came along, signed you to a recording contract, and that's when the world found out your name.
You could make the argument that all that really started to change 20 years ago, when Lisa Loeb became the first unsigned artist to have a song hit number one on the Billboard charts. But the real revolution came about with YouTube. Now, with a decent voice and a little self-promotional savvy, you can conquer the world.
Jacob Whitesides—all 17 years of him—is the most current typification of this.
“In the beginning, I never had any goal for being a “superstar” or anything,” Whitesides said in a phone interview.
Not that the Knoxville, TN native considers himself any kind of superstar now. He's just a surprisingly level-headed kid who likes singing and has found an impressive audience through a combination of Teen Beat good looks, unfettered vocals and social media savvy.
Whitesides didn't grow up with ideas of singing pop songs. His father has spent plenty of time playing in bands, but Whitesides didn't pick up a guitar until he was 13. He learned quickly, though, and did so in the way that seemed most natural.
“It's so easy to learn just from YouTube nowadays,” he said. “There's all kind of lessons and interesting stuff to learn from the internet. You don't have to know much about the guitar to get started, you just need to know Google.”
Whitesides' story moved from playing the guitar in his bedroom to becoming a YouTube sensation in the same way that most good stories are pushed along: he met a girl.
“This was during the height of the Justin Bieber “Baby” days,” he explained. “I wished I could (perform like) that. This girl convinced me to post a video of me performing a Bieber cover for her. I did that, and got a lot of positive feed back from it.”
That led to the confidence to post more covers, which led to more fans, and now this is where we're at: 1.3 million Facebook fans, 1.4 million Twitter followers, and his first national tour of original music.
“I'm still wrapping my head around it, too,” he admitted. “Social media is getting to the point where you don't have to have that major label if you don't want it.”
“I've done three entire tours with no original music whatsoever,” he continued. “It's been an interesting process, going from doing all these cover songs, to having the time to go to Nashville, sit down and really dial into my own sound.”
The internet is a funny place. Memes are ubiquitous one day and completely forgotten the next. We haven't lived in this brave new musical world long enough to know how fleeting success or fame will be for this first crop of YouTube stars. But Whitesides, for one, understands that he's not in a position to coast.
“It's definitely a business,” he said, talking about his life, both in music and online. “You have to own it, and constantly be working on how to improve it and get more fans. Like any other business, if you're putting out bad content, nobody is going to come back. I'm trying to constantly improve myself.”
Originally appeared in Cityview February 11, 2015