If it weren't for the walls covered in handmade signs drawn in bold, glittery letters by hundreds of obsessed teenage fans declaring love and devotion to him, the San Antonio bedroom of Austin Mahone wouldn't be much to look at.
Barely 8x10 feet, with a futon that folds out to a bed and a few basic items of furniture, this is where the 16-year-old burgeoning pop star has slept since he and his manager mom, Michele, moved in with her parents last spring, after she and Mahone's stepfather divorced.
In the past year, he has spent most of his time in this room, facing his laptop, which sits on a rollaway cart adjacent to a professional-quality photographer's lamp he uses for his weekly video chats. Above Mahone's bed there's a framed poster of Michael Jordan on a Wheaties box and another of Justin Bieber that Mahone's grandmother gave him. While that floppy-haired pop star is obviously a role model - as evidenced by Mahone's straight-up pop voice with a little R&B crooning thrown in, and even his wavy hair with its Bieber-like swoop - Mahone doesn't see it that way and has demurred that he's "not trying to copy Justin Bieber" on descriptions of his first videos. Yet a Bieber doll stands on a shelf in the corner - "I didn't buy that," the 5-foot-9 greeneyed teen says, blushing - along with a plaster bust of Austin's head, made by a fan, with a rose in his mouth.
When I visit him at home in late March, he keeps his two iPhones - one for business, one for pleasure - on the desk in front of him while we talk, responding to his mom as she texts him from the next room. Mahone, an only child, tends to be quiet but carries himself with a confidence you might expect from a kid who has been showered with praise by tons of adoring girls. I ask him if I can watch him Skype with a fan. Mahone conducts exclusive Skypes with female fans - for a fee, now $50 for a 10-minute call. ("We've changed the prices so many times because we wanted to be fair," says Michele. "We don't want to gouge people, but the demand was so high.")
The Skyping idea initially came to him because, he says in a half mumble, "I thought it would be cool to Skype with fans on their birthday and spend, like, a half-hour with them. I did a couple of two-hour Skypes. I just hang out with them and play songs and stuff. At first they're kind of shy, but after a while they open up." Mahone adds, "I've had a lot of people tell me I'm doing something no one has ever done before."
He randomly starts calling fans who've contacted him in the past, then posts his Skype name via Twitter. Getting up to go to the bathroom, he says, "The Skype name is out. I'm gonna have to make another Skype now" to control the volume of calls. Within seconds, his computer starts blipping as calls roll in by the hundreds. He finally answers a call from a softspoken teenage girl who retains her composure by nervously fiddling with her long hair. "How was your day at school?" Mahone asks. She tells a story about one of her teachers calling her out for being a "Mahomie" - Mahomies are what his fans call themselves, like Justin's "Beliebers." "Can I play you a song?" he asks before picking up his guitar and playing alt-rock band Lifehouse's 2005 ballad "You and Me." Strumming his guitar and improvising vocal riffs, there is something genuinely magical about the spell he's casting. Calls keep coming in while he sings, and there's a constant beeping sound, but Mahone never loses his cool. When he's done, he thanks the girl for talking to him, says goodbye and closes his laptop with an emphatic slam.
Kara DioGuardi, the former American Idol judge who is trying to sign Mahone to Warner Bros. Records via her production deal with the label, says the thing he's doing most right is connecting with fans online in a way that feels authentic. In addition to his paid Skypes, weekly video chats and the clips he posts on YouTube, the onslaught of tweets and Instagram self-portraits (not a few shirtless), Mahone reaches out to individual fans, responding directly to their comments with heart emoticons and smileys, thanking them for their support, promising to never forget anyone who tweets or retweets.
Says DioGuardi: "He knows how to connect. I think people feel attached to him because he's so genuine. He lets them into his bedroom and talks to them in his videos. He's got their notes on the wall. He's got his mother, his grandmother there.
It's very much what they're going through at that age." Plus, "When you see him perform," she adds, "it's like he's singing to you." It's working: Mahone has 700,000 Twitter followers, 450,000 Facebook fans, 350,000 followers on Instagram and 72 million views for more than 100 of his homemade YouTube cover versions of songs by pop artists from Bieber and Bruno Mars to Adele and rapper Drake. He has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise bearing his name, ranging from hoodies to sticker packs (some that sport the catchphrase "Haters gonna hate. Mahomies gonna love."). Sometimes, when he goes to his favorite San Antonio mall, he has to bring his bodyguard in case he is recognized and swarmed by screaming teens. Recently, $60,000 worth of tickets for his concert at New York's Best Buy Theater sold out in less than an hour.
Mahone isn't the first artist to use YouTube as a launchpad for legitimate entertainment business success - Bieber, who was famously discovered on the user-generated video network, wears that crown - but he is the first to have built such a massive audience without any professional help. Even the Biebs had just a fraction of Mahone's audience and number of clips when he signed with manager Scooter Braun and record company Island in 2008. Bieber's early videos were roughly shot, got a mere few thousand views each and only developed into a phenomenon after Braun encouraged him to film clips of himself or with his friends so that he would appear more homespun. Since Bieber, other YouTube-launched acts have emerged, some as novelties, like Rebecca Black, and some as real talents signed by labels. But as the music business loses its center, fragmenting into ever more genre-specific silos with listeners flocking to independent online distributors, none of the scores of artists trying to break in are quite as poised for success as Mahone. In a post-Bieber world, where a Facebook following and fan fever can precede distribution of the actual music, online numbers are tracked almost as carefully as record sales - or future record sales, in Mahone's case. "One of the first things a label or management company looks for nowadays when they meet with a new artist is whether they have their social-media picture together - how many likes on Facebook and YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers," says Johnny Wright, who manages Justin Timberlake and the Jonas Brothers and launched the careers of Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. "Those numbers are now significant, even when the talent is there.
The labels want you to do that work and pick you up when it's already started." As for the paid Skypes, says Wright: "That's unique and exactly the kind of thing that instantly gets people's attention. For these artists who start online, they need a lightning rod like that." In other words, a social-media presence is another way to get on the radar of talent scouts mandated to sniff out the next big thing. In addition to trolling clubs and keeping an ear on local radio, A&R reps can now look online to find commercially viable new acts, like Mahone, who already has accomplished a social-media profile that many top talents would kill for. But for now, the teenager - who taught himself drums, took guitar lessons for a year and a half and "sang in the shower … until last year when this girl on YouTube helped me with my breath control and taught me different warmups" - is an unsigned artist with virtually no profile beyond the fan base he built online over the past year. He has just started to write his own music, has yet to release an album or go on tour and, until several weeks ago, was managed exclusively by his mother, whose only knowledge of the record industry came from the handful of chapters she's managed to find time to read from Don Passman's classic primer All You Need to Know About the Music Business. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going through quicksand reading it," Michele says, "but I'm not skipping over anything because even if I don't understand it now, it will click later."
It's a Tuesday morning in March, just days before Austin and Michele will head to Orlando for their second Playlist Live convention - a two-day event, in its second year, where fans meet and mingle with their favorite YouTube stars. Mahone will be one of the convention's main attractions, even as he is poised to explode beyond the digital confines of YouTube. Mahone started making videos in summer 2010 with his best friend, Alex Constancio, in La Vernia, Texas (where Austin and his mom lived before her divorce) - silly skits, lip-synced videos, clips of them dancing to the hip-hop song "Teach Me How to Dougie" or re-enacting a scene from a movie like Ghost in the Machine. Mahone would post the YouTube links via MySpace and Facebook, and one time he and Constancio "printed 1,000 copies of a little card with our faces and YouTube channel on it and we cut 'em all up like 10 minutes before we went to the mall and then went with backpacks full of fliers and just passed them out everywhere," Mahone explains. "We noticed a lot of people after that commenting on our channel that they saw our flier at the mall."
In January 2011, he made his own channel and began sharing cover versions of popular songs. His mom helped him shoot videos around the house, in the yard, macking on his grandfather's Ferrari like it was his own. He had 800 subscribers carry over from his shared account with Constancio, and once he had music clips, he says: "I promoted myself on Twitter and Facebook as hard as possible, nonstop. People started realizing that if they commented on my videos, I'd reply to their comment, so I started getting a lot more views and comments." In two months, he was up to 20,000 subscribers. "I've tried to connect personally with the fans as much as I could to make them feel like it's one-on-one," says Mahone, "even though it's like one-on-500,000."
Says Gurj Bassi, digital director at Universal Music's Republic label: "When you've taken the time to do the things Austin has done, it makes a huge difference. I always try to emphasize this to artists because fans love to have direct contact with the person they idolize, and the Internet makes that possible."
Being asked to appear at Playlist Live, the YouTube-stars convention, for its first show last year in Orlando was a big deal, even though the company that puts on the event, District Lines, might just have been using the gig as leverage to add Mahone to the merchandise accounts it handles. (Currently, District Lines manufactures and distributes merchandise for more than 1,000 YouTube personalities. Michele says she only signed a contract with the company for one year to avoid being locked into anything long term and that they're transitioning to a new company this summer.) At Playlist Live, about 50 girls showed up to see Mahone, but it jump-started his local fame. "Before, I could go to the movies and not get bothered, like a normal person," he says. "After Playlist Live, girls were running up to me crying and shivering."
Austin and Michele also have taken paid trips for him to play at parties, charging up to $400 for a 45-minute set followed by a 30-minute meet-and-greet. "A lot of times people say, 'I only have $200 to spend,' " says Michele, "and we try to do something to fit into what they need." A family in Chicago paid them $2,000 to fly in and play at a party late last year. The trip became a watershed moment. The day after the party, they announced on short notice that Mahone would meet fans at Chicago's Millennium Park, and nearly a thousand screaming Mahomies showed up. Austin and Michele had to be whisked away by police escort when the throng got out of hand. "That was a turning point, when I started to realize that things were getting crazy," says Michele. "It wasn't long after that I ended up leaving my full-time job to focus on what he was doing."
When she quit her job last fall, Michele had been working as a mortgage loan officer for 15 years. Austin's father died when he was 16 months old, and Michele has largely raised him on her own, not unlike Bieber's mother, Pattie Mallette. "We've been through a lot, and we've had a lot of faith that we'd get through it," Michele says. "I always tell Austin not to take any of it for granted because the minute you do, it could be gone. We always talk about that - feeling blessed because he is blessed."
Thanks to his growing web celebrity, Mahone has been doing his studies from home for the past year. He tried going to public school when he first moved to San Antonio, but it got weird very quickly. "People were taking pictures of me from behind in class and getting me to talk to their friends on the phone," Mahone says. "No one would leave me alone at lunch, and one time this lady pulled me out of algebra class and was like, 'We want to interview you for the school newspaper.' " Michele flipped, and within a week she pulled Austin out of school in favor of an online curriculum, recommended by a family friend, that focuses on Christian values. Every day, after he finishes home-schooling, he practices and does his social-media work.
"I have to give tremendous credit to his mother," says DioGuardi, who has met with Austin and Michele a number of times, including traveling to Mahone's recent show in Aurora, Ill., for a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000. "She is a fantastic woman. Not only did she and her son do it all on their own and have these incredible instincts, she kept it organic, and it all has this really nice grassroots feeling. A lot of people want it so bad for their sons or daughters that they sign the wrong contracts, but she was very smart not pawning him off to the first person who called with a name."
Michele says the most important thing she's done is to talk to everybody in the business she can. "We've done a lot of traveling and met with major labels, independents, managers, producers, writers, all that stuff," she says. "Anyone who's expressed an interest in working with Austin, I've talked to."
Still in braces when he first met this reporter in March, Mahone got them removed just in time to open for pop stars like Adam Lambert, The Wanted, Hot Chelle Rae and Carly Rae Jepsen at Philadelphia pop station Q102's Springle Ball in late May. "Any time we see a huge online fan base get behind someone, we want to be a part of that," says Q102 program director Tim Herbster, who first heard about Mahone last year from a colleague at a station in Tampa, Fla. "We did a poll called The Next Big Thing" - a March Madness contest with 16 major pop acts, including the hugely popular U.K. boy band One Direction - "and he won it, with just his grassroots fan base. That's something else." Thanks to Mahone's mass of online fans, The Next Big Thing poll was the biggest promotion Q102 has ever done on its website, drawing more than 200,000 unique page views in four weeks.
In the past month, Mahone's first original single, a light R&B pop ditty called "11:11" that he recorded in a local studio, has gotten regular rotation on Herbster's station as well as increasing airplay on the nationally syndicated program "Radio Disney." "This is the evolution of radio," says Herbster. "Radio is not just something you listen to in your car anymore. Thanks to streaming on mobile phones and computers, digital ratings are as big a priority as terrestrial.
Austin's fans now stream my station in Philly instead of the station in their city because they know they're gonna hear Austin. We tend to play it after 3:30, when they're home from school." "11:11" has sold nearly 100,000 copies on iTunes.
"To take him to the next level, though," says Wright, "his mother will need to partner with top people who've done this kind of work successfully over and over. They need a smart and aggressive entertainment lawyer and great management who knows how to build artists from scratch." In late April, they finally settled on signing with a Miami-based management team called Chase Entertainment, which handles rapper T-Pain. Chase's Rocco Valdes and his partners impressed them by offering a coordinated effort to help with the creative and the business sides of Mahone's career. After a year spent making videos from that San Antonio bedroom, Austin and Michele relocated temporarily to Miami this spring for rehearsals and artist development.
"There was absolutely no way I was able to balance everything that was coming at me," says Michele. "These guys are efficiently addressing everything that comes through. What a weight off my shoulders! Of course I'm still directly involved and will continue to be, but with the team I have now, I am extremely confident in what we can accomplish together."
Adds Mahone: "They are very experienced and really cool and funny guys to hang out with. But when it's time to work, they get down to business. They understand me. And they manage one of my favorite artists, T-Pain." Chase also reps an up-and-coming R&B artist/producer called Bei Maejor, who has worked with Bieber and co-wrote and produced Mahone's second single, "Say Something." Valdes says more stations are jumping on board alongside Radio Disney and Q102 every day.
Valdes, who leads the management team, had been following Mahone online for several months and says he continues to be amazed by how quickly the singer's fan base is building. "If you look at his social-media numbers, they have gone up from month to month," he says. "His Twitter right now goes up a minimum of 2,000 followers a day. A lot of that stuff has translated: He's selling out shows - Chicago for 1,500 people and New York for 1,000 people - and they're not buying just a regular ticket. They're selling out of $100 tickets just for the sound check."
Once management was in place, Team Mahone secured a top booking agent, Matt Galle from Paradigm, to set up the New York and Los Angeles shows he will play in late June and to begin planning for dates nation- and worldwide, including a July 13 concert in London and projected shows in Germany and Australia.
According to industry sources, an artist with Mahone's current draw could expect to make guarantees of up to $50,000 per show - and that's before you factor in on-site merchandise sales, which could easily account for another $10,000 a night. Until now, merch has been Mahone's only consistent source of income, but it has been a substantial one. According to Valdes, they are selling an average of 4,000 units per month, from hoodies ($30 to $35) and T-shirts ($15) to lowerpriced items like $4 sticker packs, $5 wristbands and even a $6 generic puka-shell necklace like the one Austin used to wear in his videos. You can do the math: With an average of $13 per item, they'd be pulling in more than $50,000 a month. Says Valdes, "They could retire off the merch they've sold so far."
No wonder labels are banging down the door to sign him to the type of record contract that would draw a commission for Mahone on not just album and single sales but concert and merchandise revenue as well. Most major labels now require new artists to sign 360-degree deals that tap all profit generators, but artists with leverage can negotiate to exclude their merchandise or touring income.
With Mahone's social-media leverage coming out of his ears, some sources estimate he will land a seven-figure deal. "If a record label wants to come in and participate, it's going to take a lot," says Valdes. They want a company with a strong radio unit and with strong international departments to capitalize on Austin's existing - and burgeoning - overseas popularity. And, he says, "there's also a certain premium a label will have to pay to come into something like this, where he already has everything set up."
Though Mahone doesn't see Constancio and his other friends in La Vernia very often, on his 16th birthday in April, he was able to send a Hummer limo to pick them up at school and bring them to the Olive Garden and then bowling in San Antonio. Sometimes he'll play basketball in the driveway, but mostly he hangs out in his room. He hasn't had a serious girlfriend yet, but says at least the interactions he has with girls online "make up for not being around girls at school."
In March, Mahone admitted to feeling cooped up. "It's just that we are at such a crossroads now," says Michele, sympathetically. "It's like, 'OK, let's look at these opportunities and these labels and really weigh it out.' I'm anxious. Austin's anxious. He's done really well in his room. But if too much time passes, he starts to feel like walls are closing in and is like, 'Mom, we gotta do something,' and I keep telling him, 'Just be patient, Austin. It's coming. It's coming.' "
Echoes Mahone: "I think about it all the time. When is stuff gonna get done? I wanna move forward, not sit in my room like I do every day." Only two months later, everything has started moving very quickly. With his first single having amassed more than a thousand radio spins, Mahone is settling into the new pace of his life in Miami, where he's having considerably more real-life interactions than he was in San Antonio. He still spends a portion of every day posting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on his iPhone, but he's also working in the studio with Bei Maejor, practicing with his new vocal coach and with a dance instructor, refining his interview skills (he's just been signed to pr house PMK-BNC) and traveling to meet with labels.
"Everything's gotten better all around," says Valdes, who says the team plans to settle on a record-label partner within the next 60 to 90 days, with an eye toward releasing an album by the end of the year. Valdes says: "We really wanna hit right now, when there's so much momentum. But the most important thing is the label's enthusiasm. How excited are they? Because Austin is ready to go."