Virtual Sensations

How social media and television talent shows changed performing arts programming

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iLuminate placed third on the sixth season of America’s Got Talent.

Some baby-faced tween covers a Chris Brown tune on YouTube. It goes viral. R&B superstar Usher sees the video. Signs the kid to his label.

The kid’s name? Justin Bieber.

Beliebe it: so much of our culture rapidly evolved and adapted once folks figured out the marketing and promotional power of the internet, a virtual worldwide “people’s media.” Suddenly, everyone with access to a recording device, an internet connection and a computer could launch their own free channel on YouTube and be connected to billions of other people. There was absolutely no quality control, but the YouTube market and social community could, would, did and does—make people famous.

YouTube and other social media like Facebook, Instagram, Buzzfeed and Twitter remade pop culture into its current, over-saturated, digital shape, creating a parallel virtual world to real life, with many of us living in both—and almost everyone capitalizing on “see-me” wonderworld of the internet’s mass media platforms. On social media, it’s obvious what people like because videos go viral, shared repeatedly on Facebook or re-Tweeted, until hundreds of thousands or millions of people have viewed someone’s song, rant, dance performance, comedy routine—you name it. Then, sometimes, if you’re a Justin Bieber, you land on Usher’s iPhone and become a megastar.

The show business part of performing arts programming overlaps with pop culture because tickets must be sold, and there must be an audience who wants to pay money for the tickets. This fundamental formula of supply and demand eventually pushed performing arts centers to mine the talent fields at play on social media, following audience trends and taking social media seriously as a legit launch pad for performing artists with popular appeal.

Perhaps one of the biggest acts to launch itself onto the real-life stages of great performing arts centers is Postmodern Jukebox, a YouTube sensation of talented musicians and vocalists who make retro adaptations of popular songs. We had them here at The Straz last season, and the tickets went like hot cakes. YouTube also brought attention to musician Bo Burnham, who also performed here last season, and many of our Club Jaeb artists rely on YouTube and their self-promotion platform online to demonstrate their selling power when programmers, like our director of programming Chrissy Hall scouts talent.

“Well, the influx and prominence of YouTube has greatly increased the number of stars, but it tends to create a 15-minutes-of-fame-scenario,” she says. “So, the trick is finding a measure for whether the success will be more than a flash in the pan. A lot of it comes down to their prominence on social media—if they have a strong number of followers. Those numbers could indicate success in a live performance experience.  I watch the views their videos have on YouTube and the likes they get on social media, which informs the decision to book them or not. This process for fame is still relatively new, so a lot of it comes down to instinct, but, as analytics become more reliable, they help.”

The forerunner to social media, of course, was the TV talent show, an old-time game show template resurrected by Star Search, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. The same populace-meritocracy thread—that average people’s votes determine the winner—laid the foundation for the success with social media since winning-the-Internet depends on mass popularity.

A very interesting connection between these types of TV shows and live performing arts exists between American Idol and Broadway. Several contestants on the show later found a place for themselves on the Great White Way thanks to their ride on Simon Cowell’s gravy train. Constantine Maroulis, who ended up in sixth place in season four, pulled a Tony® nomination in 2009 for Rock of Ages. Jennifer Hudson made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple this year, and other notables include Clay Aiken in Spamalot, Jordin Sparks in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton hit In the Heights and Todrick Hall, who took over the lead role as Lola in Kinky Boots on November 1.

In our season and in the seasons of other prominent performing arts centers, you’ll find artists and acts from America’s Got Talent, The Voice and other road-to-stardom television talent shows. iLuminate, a dance performance company performing here November 20, stunned studio audiences with their high-tech, minimalist lighted costumes and hip-hop dance. Their talent and popularity was the right balance to propel them to a national tour. “We try to see if these groups from TV shows have the ability to convert their popularity to a following of ticket buyers. I monitor them on social media as well, but the sure bet is always peers in the industry. They’re the best resource for knowing who of this type of artist is best to book until our analytics processes get more developed,” Hall says.

With the cancellation of American Idol this year, it’ll be interesting to see what next-big-thing emerges from the screen-based entertainment industry and how that may affect what we see on performing arts stages around the nation. While we wait, we’ll just mind the gap with YouTube dance videos.

NOTE: Remember, fans, take a few minutes to learn about what is fair use and what is copyright infringement before you become famous on YouTube. Wired breaks it down in this article or you can just read over YouTube’s explanation.