Ana Free is a YouTube phenomenon. Her video channel has recorded 82,000-plus registered subscribers,nearly 3 million channel views, and her videos have more than 31 million views.
Without label, manager, booking agent or publisher, this young Anglo-Portuguese artist's YouTube performances have led to collaborations and gigs with international stars, chart-topping singles, sold out gigs and an enviable global following. And now, four years since she posted her first video, Ana Free is nearly ready to release her debut album.
"I have been writing material during the last year," the 24-year-old Free, who normally resides in London, said by phone from Lisbon. "Although my fans have wanted a full album, I didn't want to make one just for the sake of it. First impressions count, so I took my time because I want this to be good."
For the album, scheduled to be released this Spring, her independent spirit once again prompted her to link her YouTube channel to the crowd-sourcing website PledgeMusic to raise the required cash. And it's worked.
By Feb. 13, with 79 days still left, Free had garnered more than 157% of the estimated £7,000 ($11,006) needed to record and release her as-yet-untitled debut album in April. Her Facebook page for the campaign has more than 62,000 likes. And she's started the pre-production process in Argentina with producer Rodrigo Crespo, who has worked with Columbian pop star Shakira.
"It is unusual for an act to develop when their only marketing platform is YouTube," says Will Blake, a promoter at London-based SJM Concerts. "But that is what she did - through YouTube, social media and her fans. It shows YouTube can translate into a real live audience."
YouTube phenomenon Ana Free has racked up 31 million page views
and opened up for Shakira without any label or management help.
Guitar-strumming Free, who is fluent in English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Greek, started uploading videos of her numerous compositions and cover versions in January 2007 while studying Economics at the U.K.'s University of Kent. Without any marketing, she had 700,000 views by the first year's end.
"The downfall of social media is that so many artists can access it, that only the cream rises to the top," says Blake, who booked Free at London's Barfly in 2010. In addition to hearing her songs on YouTube, he notes, the video-sharing platform enables people to see her effortless charm and easy-going manner. "She uses YouTube to talk to her fans and they feel they know her. At her shows, people were flying from other countries to see her."
Free has also been able to exploit her dual nationalities, especially her Portuguese heritage, to build her international career. Portuguese telecoms group Zon discovered her singing her composition "In My Place" on YouTube and used the track in a 2008 TV commercial. Public demand led to the song, sold through Apple's iTunes, topping the Portuguese sales chart for three months.
"The Portuguese market is small," Free explains, "so if you make a splash, everyone notices. One way of starting a career here is to get attention online with the traditional media covering it."
By promoting her talent online in the smaller Portuguese market, Free has found doors opening to other countries. The attention was strong enough to attract a wealthy U.S. investor, whom Free declines to identify, to fund her first EP. The five-track "Radian" was released in 2010, promoted at sold-out gigs in Miami and New York, and supported by a massive billboard image of Free in New York's Times Square (see below).
It did not lead to a Billboard hit, but she highlighted the achievement next to her videos on her YouTube channel and soon international stars were calling. It began with an invitation to open up for Shakira at Lisbon's 20,000-capacity Pavilhao Atlantico in November 2010, and soon included performing at gigs with U.K. soul act James Morrison and performing at festivals with Linkin Park.
In 2011, she had the stage to herself at London's famous Borderline club and Ronnie Scott's. This May, Free will be playing the new YouTube Stars Festival in Singapore -- her first foray into Asia and, in June, she makes her debut at the Lisbon edition of Rock in Rio, the Brazil-originated mega festival, with headliners that include Metallica, Maroon 5, and Lenny Kravitz.
These singular multi-territory achievements have made other independent acts take note. When Portuguese DJ Diego Miranda, a 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards nominee, recorded a dance track "Girlfriend" (Vidisco) with Free in October, it reached No. 1 in Portugal for nine weeks. "I had already thought of inviting Ana on to my projects," Miranda says, "but I didn't think she would accept. She is international."
Indeed, Free recently did a version of "Summer Love," an English-language remix of a song originally recorded by popular Brazilian pop duo Claus e Vanessa. Claus (full name Claus Fetter) says: "When I discovered Ana on YouTube, I watched all her videos, one after the other; I couldn't stop."
Her Name In Lights: Thanks to an unnamed U.S. investor Ana Free's visage graced a billboard in NYC's Times Square
Like the music world, brand owners see potential in associating with Free. She is the Face of the Lisbon Oceanarium, where she has performed, and ambassador for its ocean-conservation campaign, which involves the oceanarium's title sponsor PepsiCo, the local Hard Rock Café, plus the Portuguese editions of the National Geographic and Fox TV networks.
Marie-Alicia Chang, head of business development at London-based social-media measurement platform Musicmetric, notes that Free might not necessarily need associations with big names for a long-term career. "When she promotes herself to the people that are interested in her, she does very well," Chang says. "When she does her own thing, she's more successful than, for example, when she opened for Shakira."
Free declares: "I have found it all happening so naturally and discovered I like to be part of the decisions about my career." So, when her first album comes out, what would she do should the labels come calling, the way Atlantic and Polydor did while she was still at university? "I want to break globally. But, at the moment, I'm flying completely solo and waiting for the right partnerships come along. Until then, I am able to make a living and I'm very happy about that."