How Karmin & Other Viral Stars Turn YouTube Covers Into Major Label Deals
Karmin's Style Council

Released by Samples 'N' Seconds/Fairfax/Universal Republic (except in the United States), Australian singer/songwriter Gotye's summer 2011 hit "Somebody That I Used to Know" peaked at No. 1 in Germany, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, but didn't appear on any of Billboard's charts until late last year. The song features New Zealand singer Kimbra and a sample from the Police's 1983 No. 3 Billboard Hot 100 hit "King of Pain."

On Jan. 6, Canadian quintet Walk Off the Earth posted a quirky rendition of Gotye's song to its YouTube channel, walkofftheearth, featuring the quintet playing different parts of the track on just one guitar. WOTE had been posting videos to YouTube since June 2009 to the tune of 4.8 million total views. But the cover video immediately went viral, averaging 3 million hits per day, and at press time, the WOTE clip had registered more than 49.5 million views.

Although WOTE cleared the mechanical rights to sell its cover on iTunes, the group has been engaged in a battle to keep the song up for sale. Since releasing the cover to iTunes through its own SlapDash Records on Jan. 6, the track was pulled several times and reinstated, only after the group disputed the takedown. The band is unsure of whether Universal Music Group or iTunes orchestrated the removal, but some speculate that UMG considers WOTE's cover a wrench in the marketing plan for Gotye's version, which entered the Hot 100 after WOTE's video went viral. At press time, a representative from UMG hadn't responded to requests for comment.

"That has nothing to do with anything that was done on our part. That's pretty much all I can say," WOTE singer Sarah Blackwood says. Since going viral, the still-unsigned group says it has been vetting major-label deals and booked a spot on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." "We're not really sure if it is someone else's camp who's doing that, or if it's iTunes or what. Unfortunately, it's been taken down a few times. And we keep getting it back up. So we're doing something right."

Some label executives have faith that audiences are curious enough to connect the dots between a cover and its original. "I don't particularly see a downside to it," says a top marketing executive who asked to remain anonymous. "I don't know why anyone would. It's not the artist out there doing the song. It's a different version of karaoke.

"If the Gotye cover takes off, people will track it back to Gotye," the exec continues. "There's nothing wrong with that. I'd understand what the issue would be in the short term, but in the long term, it could help the whole thing."

Who knows? Sometimes the charts do. On this week's charts, Gotye's version is No. 27 on the Hot 100, up from No. 31 the week before. It jumps 18-13 (89,000 units, up 24%) on the Hot Digital Songs chart. And Gotye tweeted his approval ("genius and clever," he said) of WOTE's YouTube cover. As for Kimbra, "Settle Down" (Warner Bros.), her debut EP, is No. 26 on the Heatseekers Albums chart.

The other side of the coin: In 2006, 23-year-old Dutch singer Esmée Denters became a YouTube smash after posting videos of covers of hits by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera. Less than a year later, Denters signed to Justin Timberlake's Interscope imprint Tennman and began working with Mike Elizondo, Stargate and Ryan Tedder for her debut, "Outta Here." But as the LP's release date staggered to 2009 in her native Netherlands and to 2010 in the United States and United Kingdom, her steady stream of cover clips slowed to a trickle, a byproduct, according to former Tennman GM Navin Watumull, of Tennman/Interscope's fear of a YouTube account shutdown following a temporary suspension in 2009 due to suspected copyright infringement. Even with more than 166 million views on her personal YouTube account and 19.5 million views on her Vevo page, Denters couldn't cross over. Since its 2010 release, "Outta Here" (which was only released digitally) has sold approximately 1,000 copies, according to SoundScan.

"She was somewhere in the most-subscribed people on YouTube," says Watumull, who exited Tennman in January but still manages label signee Brenda Radney, who also signed to the imprint after posting covers to YouTube. She hasn't yet released her debut. "If you start off doing covers and you get famous for singing covers, and you start singing original music, at that point, the audience is going to question what you're doing,"

For Karmin, the challenge of crossing over to the mainstream with original material was daunting. Heidemann and Noonan, who are engaged, developed artistically while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Describing their initial recordings as "super hippie," the pair built a following before trying its hand at cover songs. Audiences have warmed up to new tracks, including buzz single "Crash Your Party," with fans tweeting their original lyrics at them instead of praising their covers.

"That was definitely a concern, [but] the transition so far could not be smoother," Noonan says of breaking out of the cover mold. "Before, our Twitter account was all, 'Check out this cover video.' Now, it's all quotes from 'Crash Your Party' or from video links of [cover] videos. We tried to do the covers creatively so that people saw that there was a little more than the karaoke thing going."

The pair recently released the Dr. Luke/Cirkut-produced single "Broken Hearted," co-written with Claude Kelly. Like many artists who ditched their cover strategy upon signing to a major label, Karmin doesn't have any immediate plans to continue building its career on the backs of others' songs.

"I wouldn't say that we're past it. We just haven't had a lot of time to do that because we've been focused on these other things," Heidemann says of posting more covers. "It's a natural progression to focus on building up your Vevo channel, which is where all these official music videos live. We're working with YouTube to transition a lot of our stuff. It's where artists are discovered these days. It's incredible. But we're definitely not abandoning it."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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