Fifteen minutes of fame shrunk by 14 minutes and 54 seconds in 2014. Thanks to the Twitter-owned video app Vine, six seconds were all that a growing number of artists needed to achieve celebrity status. In the same way YouTube took a few years to produce mainstream musical acts from popular users like Justin Bieber, Karmin and Austin Mahone, Vine transcended its status as an amateur comedy platform in 2014, as looped six-second videos proved that rising musicians don’t need full songs — or even a full minute — to grab listeners (and A&R reps).
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Vine’s first wave of stars, much like YouTube’s, was born through covers of hit songs. In March, folk-pop couple Us the Duo became the platform’s first major-label signing when its widely shared Vine versions of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and John Legend’s “All of Me” helped score a deal with Republic Records. Shawn Mendes’ bite-sized renditions of songs by A Great Big World and Lana Del Rey caught the ear of Island A&R rep Ziggy Chareton, who brought the Canadian teen to label president David Massey. Massey signed the singer in June, and Mendes scored a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with his debut single, “Life of the Party” — largely thanks to his online fan base fueling strong sales numbers — soon after. Mendes is now one of the label’s big bets of 2015, with a debut album due in the spring and a gig opening for Taylor Swift on tour in the summer. Massey views Vine as a vital new means of discovery, likening it to MySpace a decade ago. “It goes so much further than Twitter or Instagram in terms of bringing out personality,” he says. “It allows you to get a first impression.”
Indeed, Mendes says he initially started posting songs to YouTube, but “nothing really took off” until he tried Vine in August 2013 and found the newer video platform a better fit to his skill-set. “It’s hard to find a part of a song and intrigue people off of just six seconds,” says Mendes, 16. “I put a lot of effort into thinking, ‘How am I going to sing this so that it sticks in their heads?’ Every six-second song clip I sang, I’d put a spin on it so people would recognize my voice.”
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As Vine, which launched in October 2012, has become ubiquitous (more than 100 million people watch Vine videos every month, according to Google Analytics), artists have conquered the constricting video format by pairing original songs with charismatic visuals. Before Bobby Shmurda scored a top 10 Hot 100 hit with “Hot N—a,” the Brooklyn rapper became a viral star this summer, thanks to a Vine of him tossing his cap to the sky and doing the Shmoney Dance, the year’s most memorable dance craze, to the single. Meanwhile, teen act Jack & Jack have accrued 4.7 million Vine followers thanks to snappy comedy videos they made with their friends, and used that fan base to guide their rap track “Wild Life” to No. 25 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in August.
Since the company’s inception, Vine has added tools to help musicians get discovered more easily, including a Music channel that launched in July 2013 (and later evolved into the Music & Dance channel) as well as a “loop count” metric to help users track the actual reach of their content.
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“We’re a young company, and it has taken a little bit of time to go through the culture for people to realize that there are amazing people on here,” says Jason Mante, Vine’s head of culture. Mante points out that, along with new talent, established stars like Bieber and Ariana Grande have legitimized Vine by using the platform to share music snippets, give behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives and act as curators by sharing unknown singers’ clips.
It’s still too soon to determine whether Vine can build real careers: Shmurda is waiting for a successful follow-up to “Hot N—a,” and for all of the attention around Mendes, the artist has yet to make a dent in top 40 radio. And the success of Vine may have troubling implications for the music industry in a post-iPod world in which album-length projects already seem to be testing listeners’ attentions spans. For Massey, while Vine has made finding potential stars easier, it hasn’t replaced good old-fashioned talent. “Meeting [Mendes] is what made me feel that he was a star,” says Massey. “Vine was an amazing way for him to build a base, but he was signed principally because of his talent and potential. I was blown away.”
This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.