Ali Brustofski -- a 19-year-old singer/songwriter from Oakland, N.J. -- can count Sony/ATV, Clear Channel and Ryan Seacrest among her supporters. She's performed at WHTZ (Z100) New York's Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden. And she's racked up more than 51 million video views on YouTube.
She's done that by singing other people's songs, but on July 10 Brustofski will find out how many of her 238,000 YouTube subscribers and 13,000 Twitter followers she can convert into buyers of her own music, when she releases an iTunes EP of originals pointedly titled "Dream Big." For the moment, Brustofski's iTunes numbers are dwarfed by her YouTube success. Her 28 cover songs have sold 17,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with 11,000 of those accounted for by her version of David Guetta's "Titanium." Her "Titanium" video, though, has racked up 9.5 million YouTube views.
Brustofski started doing musical theater at 8, and quickly graduated to work as a voice actor. At 10, she became the voice of Piper O'Possum, the mascot of Nick Jr. on Nickelodeon from 2003 to 2007. But it wasn't long before she noticed another performer, just her age, making a name for himself on YouTube, and within a few years she wanted to do the same. "I had been watching people like Justin Bieber on YouTube for a while," she says. "I started by putting up choir videos, and from there met a bunch of awesome people that do my videos now."
Her first video to catch fire and reach more than 1 million views was her cover of Katy Perry's "E.T.," a clip that starts in black and white and gradually adds color, but keeps the focus on Brustofski, a keyboardist and a guitarist playing in front of a brick wall. Her videos' production values have grown with her audience, which she built utilizing the key practices of YouTube stars: collaboration and careful song selection.
Collaboration taps directly into YouTube's community. Brustofski has worked with U.K. singer/songwriter Tom Andrews on a cover of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran's "Everything Has Changed," and with Andy Kirk of Runaground Music for a cover of One Direction's "Little Things." "It sends some of their fans to you, some of your fans to them," she says.
Timing and song choice are crucial. Hit it right and one's cover has a chance of showing up in the "Related Videos" section of YouTube alongside the original song itself, which means a significant traffic boost.
"Usually I look at the Billboard charts to see what's doing well," Brustofski says. "If a song is still coming up by the time I want to cover it, then I'll pick that song and hopefully it works out."
What makes it work are Brustofski's publishing deals with two YouTube partner networks, Fullscreen and We Are the Hits. Fullscreen works with Universal Music Publishing Group and We Are the Hits is operated by Sony/ATV. Both allow her to earn revenue from the cover videos she posts on YouTube, sharing some of the earnings from pre-roll advertising that would usually go to the publishing rights-holders. Not many people have a deal with both companies -- she was one of the first to sign with We Are the Hits, and Fullscreen opted to honor her original deal.
Though Brustofski declines to give specifics, it's clear her YouTube business is modestly profitable. "While it's not enough for me to live on my own yet," she says, "it's definitely enough to put back into recording and doing videos with [a bit] of a cushion left over. I know of some YouTubers who are making enough money to support themselves through iTunes sales and ad revenue, and I hope to reach that point soon."
But the popularity of YouTube covers has grown beyond publishing companies compensating the creators with a bit of ad revenue. Brustofski has twice appeared on Clear Channel's "Saturday Night Online" as part of its continued coverage of YouTube cover artists. RyanSeacrest.com, where Brustofski's covers have also been featured, hosted a "Bieber-Off" YouTube cover contest when Bieber's "Boyfriend" single came out in April.
Even major-label artists have embraced the trend, recognizing the importance of YouTube covers and user-generated content in the rise of some of the biggest songs (like "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style") during the past year. Jason DerÃ¼lo has been fanning the fires behind his newest single, "The Other Side," by not only encouraging covers by popular YouTube artists like Tyler Ward and Max Schneider, but also appearing in the cover videos himself.
Brustofski's deal with Fullscreen also affords her other revenue opportunities, which is one of the main benefits many YouTube artists and content creators receive when signing to a YouTube network. Fullscreen helps broker deals when major-label acts are looking for YouTube artists to cover a particular track as part of a promotional campaign. Brustofski did a version of OneRepublic's "If I Lose Myself" in March and a cover of Carly Rae Jepsen's "This Kiss" last December as a part of a Nivea "This Kiss" marketing campaign.
And Fullscreen can connect her with branding opportunities outside of music -- the prospect of a clothing sponsorship (which would amount to product placement in her videos) has come up, though she's not yet attached to any specific brand. "They have a bunch of brands that are contacting them, but they never force anything on you. They just present opportunities." Brustofski says that if it's a brand she likes, she might consider the opportunity.
Now Brustofski is taking the next step on her own. Using producers she's met online through YouTube, she's marketing her "Dream Big" EP on her YouTube page, which pushes views for the iTunes pre-order. To make the album happen, she utilized a lesser-known crowd-funding platform called RocketHub and raised more than $8,000, offering engaging rewards like a Skype video call or backstage hangouts.
"I'm definitely open to management or labels if the right people and the right fit comes along. But right now, it's just me and my really strong support group of family and friends that help me along," she says.
And her devoted fans have helped her win online contests. In December 2011, fan votes helped power her win of Z100's Jingle Ball Hometown Hero Competition, which landed her an onstage performance next to Karmin, Megan & Liz and Gym Class Heroes, performing one of her original songs, "Fall Back to You."
Brustofski's live performances have taken off as well. In June, she was part of two sold-out shows at the Gramercy Theatre in New York on a bill with MattyB and Matti Jane, two other well-known YouTube artists and frequent collaborators. She hopes to do more shows with bigger acts in the future. For now, it remains to be seen if that means singing her own songs, or those of others. "Green Light," the first single from "Dream Big," will make its Z100 debut on July 2.