The first actual meet-up of Internet-famous people didn’t actually happen in real life at all, but in the 2008 episode of South Park titled “Canada On Strike.” The fourth episode of the 12th season features a scene where Britney Spears apologist Chris Crocker, the “What What in the Butt” guy, Tay Zonday, Tron Guy, the “Numa Numa” guy, Afro Ninja, Star Wars Kid, Sneezing Panda and the Dramatic Chipmunk all converge in a room to demand “more money.”
The fictional scene ends with all the first-generation Internet-famous people killing each other (for whatever reason), but the episode concludes with a stunningly accurate statement made by Kyle:
“I learned something today. We thought we could make money on the Internet. But while the Internet is new and exciting for creative people, it hasn’t matured as a distribution mechanism to the extent that one should trade real and immediate opportunities for income for the promise of future online revenue. It will be a few years before digital distribution of media on the Internet can be monetized to an extent that necessitates content producers to forgo their fair value in more traditional media.”
Fast forward nearly seven years after Matt Parker and Trey Stone wrote those statements to today, and you have Playlist Live: a convention that started out of Orlando, Florida, to bring YouTube creators and viewers together in one place for three days of meet-and-greets, panels and general mayhem. All of these people scheduled to appear are well known because of the internet.
Jackson Harries details what the overall experience is like quite well in a video on one of his channels.
This is the first year Playlist Live has come to New York, and Thursday night was the event’s kickoff party at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square, which gave fans the opportunity to “see your favorites the day before the conference starts!” The lineup features all the heavy-hitters: Tyler Oakley, Trevor Moran, Troye Sivan, Ricky Dillon, Rebecca Black and about 20 more 20-something and younger stars took the stage over a three-hour period. A talent/variety show for teens, of sorts.
The sold-out event makes its money through ticket and merch sales, and it’s not cheap. The standard package for the kickoff show and general admission runs for $200, and business passes can run as high as $330. Where the real money comes is through the sale of VIP packages; for the kickoff show alone, where general admission tickets were priced at $40, VIP passes run $125. The 213 percent increase in price required to upgrade to the VIP treatment is almost negligible in the transaction (at least in the eyes of the fans), because attendees actually get to meet the YouTubers and exchange selfies or mentions on Twitter. This is the real currency that matters in this online ecosystem of Internet popularity; a picture or a mention by a famous YouTuber or Internet celebrity could potentially be the gateway to Internet stardom. The audience, which consists of mostly teens, is further united with the performers because they are mostly creators themselves. It’s this sense of sameness that creates the unique sense of community at Playlist Live.
Rounding the corner of the building, the line to the entrance of the Best Buy Theater is mostly silent except for the occasional swell of screams when a star is (maybe) sighted by one of the concertgoers. “Oh my God, earlier I saw Zoella!” squeals a tween girl near the front. She’s referring to the New York subway ads bearing the guise of popular YouTuber Zoe Sugg, which have been plastered all over the city for the past five months as a part of a massive traditional-media push YouTube has been undergoing in order to increase advertiser awareness about the platform. In the lobby there’s a merch table, and a kid wearing a shirt scribed “The Internet Killed TV” is buying a TRXYE shirt, the name of EMI-signed pop star Troye Sivan’s breakthrough EP.
But of the 20 or so famous Internet folks on the evening’s lineup, only a handful identify as musicians. The rest are famous for some variation of vlogging (video blogging), which consists of anything from talking about their day, to shopping, to pranking people.
So what you’re left with is some sort of amateur-ish variety show. Shira Lazar, the host of the popular YouTube channel What’s Trending, served as the evening’s host and kicked things off by introducing SDK (Settle Down Kids), a mostly obnoxious group of boys who persisted to talk over her and take selfies with the crowd before introducing each act.
The selfies and self-promotion aspect of the show was probably the only cohesive part of the evening, and the extent to which it subtracted from what was actually going on onstage almost became an entire event itself. “Hold on, hold on, let me take another one but with better lighting,” Lauren Elizabeth and JenX said to the crowd. Tyler Oakley, a crowd favorite who recently interviewed Michelle Obama, ended his set by taking a selfie, an Instagram video and a Vine.
It seemed that one of the main points of the event was to promote an act’s endeavors elsewhere. “Be sure to check out my new EP coming soon!” said Jessi Smiles. Connor Franta spoke about his trip to Africa for the Thirst Project campaign. “Thank you, and please subscribe and ‘at’ me on Twitter your pictures from the evening,” was the standard response when exiting the stage. Others acts, like Jenna Marbles and Andrea Russett, answered questions from fans on Twitter.
The musical acts offered much more. Sivan put up the lyrics to a brand-new, unreleased song that he taught the crowd. He then recorded the audience singing the phrase (which took a couple of tries without the background music), which he intended to use on the album itself. Meghan Tonjes performed several original tracks, as did Rebecca Black, who also performed an a cappella version of her hit “Friday,” and crowd favorite Trevor Moran brought down the house with his new single (on Vevo) “Echo.”
At one point, I ventured from the floor to the mezzanine, which was filled with tired-looking parents, and struck up a conversation with a mom who brought her daughter and two of her friends all the way from New Jersey.
“In 1972, I flew all the way to Florida to see Pink Floyd, and that was awesome and that’s what people did back then,” she told me. “I know tastes change and things are different now, but somehow this all [gesturing to the stage] just seems bad.”
She’s not wrong. Without naming names, the majority of the folks who graced the stage would never pass the level of scrutiny provided by talent agents or the traditional showbiz industry. Many who are big on YouTube are neither original, novel, funny nor talented — they’re just popular. Even Pewdiepie, the most famous and most-subscribed-to YouTuber, acknowledges this in a RedditAMA, saying, “I’m not the best gamer, or best vlogger, or the funniest or the most entertaining and so forth. But I do a lot of these things pretty ok.”
The best (or worst, depending on your idea of quality entertainment) about all this is that YouTube’s bottom line is not affected either way whether the talent on the platform is good or bad. To compare this to the days of old, record companies would live or die based on the quality of the material they released, so there were rigorous quality standards set in place across the industry’s supply chain. On YouTube, even the most disorganized nonsensical trivial garbage video can attract millions of views, and in turn hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue earned through Google’s robust advertising network. This is the realization of the gatekeeper-free, post-Kardashian world of popular culture: Because everyone can participate, there’s going to be a lot of garbage.
What is YouTube’s culture, specifically? “So many of them are gay,” the woman next to me remarked at one point, and many openly were (Tyler Oakley, for one). There’s an air of acceptance to all, no matter what. Jessi Smiles, who has suffered much adversity herself, sang an original anthem for the first time and advocated “to always be yourself.” Meghan Tonjes, who sang original tunes as well, faced discrimination for her plus-size body and incited a controversial run-in with Instagram. Because everybody is able to participate, more alternative lifestyles and opinions are openly shared and accepted in a truly unprecedented way.
As the spectacle drew to a close, host Shira Lazar proclaimed, “This is the next generation of Hollywood, and we’re all a part of it.” Not everybody is able to be famous, but the fact that normal folks like you and I are able to participate in the creation of art and media in the wake of an industry that was once so exclusionary is an overall positive thing and a massive leap forward for entertainment as a whole.