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How Independent Rock Band Starset Found Major Success on YouTube, Without Even Trying
A sci-fi back story, a cinematic soundscape and an untapped fan base are driving huge numbers on the video streaming service.
It began, according to lore, on Jan. 1, 2013, with the reception of "The Message," a transmission emanating from a star in the Ophiuchus Constellation in the year 2047 that foretold the end of humanity -- and contained the required knowledge to avoid that fate. What followed was a series of events that could have been pulled straight from the pages of a Stephen King sci-fi thriller: The Message was delivered to Dr. Aston Wise, head of the mysterious Starset Society, setting off a chain reaction of violence and obsessive secrecy that resulted -- how else? -- in the formation of a four-piece art-metal band tasked with delivering this Message to the masses. That band was called Starset.
Led by singer/keyboardist Dustin Bates, Starset claims influences as diverse as Sigur Ros, Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park and the film Minority Report. And Bates -- principal songwriter on the group's debut album, Transmissions, released July 8, 2014 via Razor & Tie -- has a research background in the U.S. Air Force, a history teaching at the International Space University in France and a masters in electrical engineering from Ohio University. In other words, he's the perfect man to lead the charge against the end of humanity as we know it.
Or something like that. The reality is, regardless of how humanity eventually decides to hurl itself into oblivion, Bates and his coterie of cinematic doom prophets have a knack for skillful marketing that goes well beyond the scope of the usual music industry spin cycle. Beyond Transmissions -- essentially a Message-driven concept album which debuted at No. 49 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 79,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen Music -- the band maintains a website devoted entirely to the Starset Society that explains its origins, in the studies of Nikola Tesla; has released a graphic novel, The PROX Transmissions, explaining some of the back story of The Message; and has published a 250-page book of the same title detailing the history even further. Their performances are referred to as "demonstrations," complete with the band in spacesuits and masks and Bates controlling things from a large, transparent screen. Everything, in short, builds into the larger narrative.
As a marketing plan, it's certainly worked -- Transmissions peaked at No. 5 on Billboard's Hard Rock Albums chart upon release, while the band's biggest single to date, "My Demons," enjoyed the longest run to the top five of the Mainstream Rock Songs chart in history at 41 weeks, and spent more time on that chart than any other song in 2014.
But that was just the beginning, and only reveals a piece of Starset's success. The band's real revolution happened on accident, through YouTube's gaming community and its penchant for uploading videos set to the band's music.
"It was a very natural thing; it’s not like we manipulated or spent significant amounts of money to cause people to engage in this kind of behavior," says Cliff Chenfeld, co-founder of Razor & Tie, who signed the band after seeing them perform at SXSW in March 2014. "You just started seeing the way fans were posting videos and the comments that they were making and the activity on the different socials, and it was clear there was something that was going on that went well beyond a band that has that level of success at rock radio, or even on the road."
Starset has had success with their own uploads to the platform: the band's two YouTube accounts, which host official music and lyric videos, cryptic Starset Society-related teasers and audio-only streams of each song on Transmissions, have accumulated 85.4 million views over the past three years, generating an estimated $37,000 in revenue. But take into account fan-uploaded videos and the number of views explodes to 534.8 million -- six times larger and global, with cities like Bangkok, São Paulo and Mexico City accounting for the most views (New York City, at No. 6, is the only U.S. city in the top 20). That data comes from YouTube Music Insights, which only tracks views on videos identified via its Content ID system since September of 2014; Starset's first video was uploaded in July 2013, making the actual count likely much higher. Globally, Billboard estimates the total revenue generated from YouTube at $232,000.
Many of those fan-uploaded views have come from the gamer and anime communities on YouTube, which create their own videos and set them to Starset's songs; several have multi-million view counts, with one at more than 28 million views as of press time, almost doubling the highest view count of any of the band's own uploads. YouTube data provided to Billboard shows view counts have had a linear and upward trajectory over the past two years, at this point gaining more than a million new views per day.
"If you had put together a marketing plan for how this record was going to work two or three years ago, you would not even have a line for this kind of activity," Chenfeld says. "I think the cinematic nature of the music, Dustin’s perspective and where he’s coming from, connected to a wide group of people who include people who are into gaming, are into science fiction, are into anime and the like, and you have this very cinematic, dramatic music that fits very well with that sort of sensibility."
Whatever the reason, Starset's music has tapped into a powerful community. Gaming is the second-biggest channel on YouTube, with 77 million subscribers, second only to Music's 95 million. PewDiePie, a gamer, runs the largest YouTube account for an individual, with 49 million subscribers to his channel; Justin Bieber, in third, has 25 million. (No other individual account is within 20 million subscribers of PewDiePie.) A rep for YouTube notes that gamers watch more than 144 billion minutes of gaming videos and live streams on the platform each month, the equivalent of one person watching videos 24 hours a day for 270,000 years.
"I don’t think I have [worked on] anything that compares to that," Chenfeld says. "The volume on our UGC videos -- it compares to the Foo Fighters or Muse, bands that are household names. It’s really at that level."
The limits of YouTube's available Music Insights data, not to mention the longevity and number of videos released by the Foo Fighters and Muse (64 and 92, respectively, compared to Starset's 30), make a direct overall comparison difficult. But focusing on all three artists' most-viewed song since September 2014 paints a picture of Starset's UGC advantage. Muse's "Uprising" has accumulated 81.1 million total views in that time frame; Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" has 143.0 million. "My Demons," by comparison, has racked up 285.4 million total views since September 2014, while the four versions of the song uploaded by the band to its official accounts -- two music videos, a lyric video and an audio track, the latter two of which were posted in August 2013 -- have accumulated a combined 16.2 million views. Those numbers mean views of UGC videos set to "My Demons" outstrip the total views for "Uprising" and "The Pretender," combined, over that period -- and it's not close.
By this point, the most eyebrow-raising number recounted here should be $232,000 -- the amount of money Billboard estimates has been generated worldwide for those 534 million YouTube views.
Meanwhile, the video service's payouts have been at the center of a battle between YouTube and the music industry that erupted in full across this year, with labels, artists and managers coming out publicly against the rates as YouTube's contracts with the major labels expire and the U.S. Copyright Office conducts a review of its DMCA safe harbors provision. ("It's a system that is rigged against the artists," mega-manager Irving Azoff told Billboard in May.) YouTube's Chief Business Officer, Robert Kyncl, has said that Google, which owns the company, has paid out more than $3 billion to the music industry over the years. Chenfeld, while diplomatically declining to weigh in on that battle, stresses the importance of a solution.
"I think this is why so many record labels feel that YouTube is so vital, but at the same time [why] much of the industry is getting into to it with YouTube with regard to how these things are monetized," Chenfeld says. "Because you also connect to a group of people that may not be tapping into traditional sources. In other words, these 550 million YouTube views, I’m not sure these people are streaming on Spotify. I’m not sure that they necessarily are listening to Sirius XM. And this may be a way of getting those people that you’re not getting any other way, or a lot of them."
Now the challenge becomes moving that energy towards Starset's second album, Vessels, announced days ago and due out Jan. 20, 2017. At Comic Con in New York this October, the group announced, ahead of its first-ever headlining show in the city that night, an upcoming second graphic novel in collaboration with Marvel, an extension of the narrative that will be out by next fall. Vessels, in turn, will further the story of the Starset Society. Lead single "Monster" has already racked up 600,000 YouTube views since its Oct. 28 release. And Razor & Tie hopes to bring Starset's strongest fan bases -- among the rock radio crowd, and the online crowd -- closer together, or at least to broaden each base's awareness of the band's presence.
"I think part of it is marketing, so that people who are hearing them on the radio know how exceptional they are live, and the people who are connecting to them on the more visual and cinematic aspect know they actually have hits on the radio," Chenfeld says. "But generally, I don’t want to mess around too much with something that’s not broken. I just want to add on to it."