In the bowels of the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., two D.J.s — Andrew Taggart (short, Ken-doll hair, cocky smile) and Alex Pall (tall, thick-rimmed glasses, cocky smile), known together as the Chainsmokers — were led down a hallway by a gaggle of people in lanyards, followed by their manager and the photographer who travels with them and documents their every move — for their future presidential library, I have to assume. It was late June, and they had just come in from Canada, where they played another gig a few hours before. Had it not been for the double booking, their manager swears they would have been closer to the top of the bill.
The peculiar trajectory of the Chainsmokers — who, in the span of about seven months, went from fledgling D.J.s on the fledgling-D.J. circuit to having a record deal, a platinum song and a few thousand panting tweens in a stadium in New Jersey screaming their names — could not have happened in the pre-Internet era, let alone five years ago. It all began in August of last year, when their manager, Adam Alpert, sent a Facebook message to Oliver Luckett, C.E.O. of the social-media publishing company theAudience. There had been some press about how theAudience was able to get the D.J. Steve Aoki major Internet prominence; he had already been popular on the club circuit, but through data culling and strategic, aggressive posting and brand management, Luckett’s firm had managed to amass millions of followers for Aoki across several platforms. Alpert wanted the same for the Chainsmokers.
In early December last year, Luckett sat down with Alpert and the band. They played him this song they’d made and posted online free. “That’s it,” Luckett said. “That’s your ticket.” But the D.J.s were hesitant. They wanted to be taken seriously as electronic musicians, and that song was a joke.
It was called “#Selfie,” and Luckett had immediately recognized its potential to capture the zeitgeist by lampooning it. In the song, a whiny woman complains to her friend about various problems, real and perceived: a guy she likes, booty calls, nausea, fake models, Instagram filters. At the end of each verse, she threatens to leave whatever restroom she’s in and go back to whatever party she’s at, and she says, in the most obnoxious voice imaginable, “But first, let me take a selfie.” Then the beat drops.
Oliver Luckett, theAudience’s CEO, in the “Fishbowl” area of theAudience’s headquarters in Los Angeles. The office contains more than 200 pieces of art from Luckett’s personal collection. The shark behind him is made of 76,000 Swarovski crystals.
Despite their initial reluctance, the Chainsmokers and their manager believed in Luckett, who, beyond his work for Aoki, was already a big name in music-festival promotion. They relented, and Luckett reached out to Aoki, who agreed to release “#Selfie” on his label, Dim Mak. Then Luckett put his production staff to work on the video, and — most important — he put out a call to his Influencers, theAudience’s stable of young, Internet-popular microcelebrites. He asked them to send in selfies, and they complied. There was the Nickelodeon actor with the rabid tween following named Josh Peck; an online sketch comic named Nash Grier; the “Vampire Diaries” actor Ian Somerhalder; the D.J. A-Trak; lots of Steve Aoki. More than 30 Influencers appeared in the video, plus many of the D.J.s’ friends and fans (like Snoop Dogg and David Hasselhoff), yielding more than 100 selfies stitched into the video during beat breaks, and perhaps hundreds of millions of followers among the people depicted.
The video was released on YouTube on Jan. 29. Owing to the shameless logic of social media, coupled with the glory of proximity to fame, anyone who had a selfie in the video Instagrammed it, tweeted it, Facebooked it, the works. It was a song making fun of selfies and self-promotional oversharing that included and relied on selfies and self-promotional oversharing for its success.
By Feb. 22, the video was in the top 10 of the iTunes dance chart. A few days later, it hit the Top 10 most viral on Spotify. DeStorm and King Bach, social-media celebrities (and Influencers too), loved the song so much they made posts on Vine — the six-second video-sharing platform — with the song in early March, and by late March the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Dance Chart. The Chainsmokers signed to Republic Records, owned by Universal, and as of this writing, the video has had more than 215 million views. Republic pays theAudience a monthly fee to “support” marketing for the Chainsmokers. The company, Luckett says, is on track to gross $30 million this year.
Social engineering notwithstanding, the Chainsmokers believe their fame was preordained. “We knew we were going to be successful,” Pall told me in a lordly tone as he reclined on a sofa at the Izod Center, sipping from a bottle of water. “We just didn’t know how long it would take to get to this point.”
TheAudience headquarters in Los Angeles. The company is on track to gross $30 million this year.
By March, 25 million people were dancing to “#Selfie.” Was that because we liked it, or because our very means for cultural discovery had been manipulated to guarantee that we would?
At the Los Angeles office of theAudience, there are roughly 200 artworks from Luckett’s personal collection, including, in the hallway, a hot-pink neon sign that says “#whatever.” Inside Luckett’s office alone there are at least 47 pieces, many of them iterations of Mickey Mouse (Luckett used to work at Disney). A number of others have an octopus theme. Luckett loves O animals, for his own name, but the particular fascination also seems appropriate: An octopus enjoys the reach of eight arms and the ability to blend into its surroundings by changing color and shape.
Originally, theAudience was intended to work with a more traditionally famous clientele. In 2011, the William Morris Endeavor co-founder and superagent Ari Emanuel invited Luckett for a meal at Mr. Chow. Luckett, who was still working at Disney at the time, wasn’t quite prepared for what greeted him at the restaurant: a discussion about setting up an entirely new enterprise with W.M.E. Emanuel had become concerned about his clients’ inability to interact with their fans online. Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, told Emanuel about Luckett, whom he met through Ashton Kutcher years before.
What Luckett eventually proposed to Emanuel was an independent firm that would control the social-media pages of all W.M.E. clients. They’d run the official Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. pages of these stars, creating content for them — a great picture of Hugh Jackman bicycling with his wife, say, or a glamour shot of Charlize Theron, accompanied by a quote about inspiration. The star would help set the direction for his or her online voice, but theAudience would run the accounts. Then, when a movie with one of its stars opened, theAudience would bill the studio’s marketing department in exchange for having the actor engage on social via theAudience. A three-month activation, as they call it, would cost about $75,000. Luckett also thought the firm could score online endorsement deals for W.M.E.’s talent. With Emanuel’s blessing, he departed Disney with a few colleagues in tow, including Rami Perlman, who managed the YouTube team at Digisynd, Disney’s social-media group. W.M.E. owned a quarter of the new company, but Luckett also attracted a well-connected group of outside investors, including Sean Parker and Guggenheim Partners.
Slide Show | The Land of a Million Selfies How theAudience’s influencers wield maximum influence.
It quickly became clear that Luckett’s initial business model wouldn’t hold up. The studios balked at the “activation” fee, because promotion by their talent has traditionally been unpaid. “How is it different from going on Letterman?” a marketing executive at a major studio asked me. “It’s no different. It’s in your contract to sell the movie. . . . Just because it didn’t exist when we wrote the contracts doesn’t mean it isn’t part of it.” The endorsement plan didn’t work, either; it turns out that people like Hugh Jackman don’t really want to shill for corporations by gushing about new products on Facebook.
If megastars weren’t going to support theAudience, the founders realized, then maybe microstars could. This insight first struck when, during a meeting with a boy band called the Boy Band Project, Perlman was introduced to the group’s social-media manager, a 14-year-old girl named Acacia Brinley (YouTube: 460,928; Vine: 370,056; Instagram: 2,017,149). (All numbers were pulled at press time and almost immediately rendered inaccurate.) Perlman was considering working with the band, but he became drawn to Brinley instead. He was mesmerized by how many people were watching her on Instagram and YouTube. Back at Disney, Perlman had always been pushing the marketing department to try using YouTube stars to promote their projects. These days, he realized, the Acacia Brinleys of the world have almost as much influence as the Charlize Therons, perhaps more, and they engage better with their audiences too. Moreover, they were relatable and willing to use products — just about anything, really — and talk about them. And oh, right, they cost far less than a movie star. “I basically just put on the camera and then start talking,” Brinley said when I asked her to describe her process. “And then whatever happens, happens.”
TheAudience set Brinley up with her first major brand deal, in which she made one tweet and two Instagrams about the Sochi Winter Olympics for McDonald’s. In the posts, she celebrated whatever event she was watching on TV, with an accompanying picture taken from her vantage point. She told me she thought one caption was “Yaaayyyyy Olympics,” but she couldn’t quite remember; she’s almost 17 now, and so that was a big percentage of her life ago. Since then, she has won more brand deals, some with theAudience, some procured by her mother, who now manages her full time.
Today, roughly a third of theAudience’s business is still running social-media accounts for megastars like Hugh Jackman, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. The firm does the same for smaller stars who value interaction with their followings, like Aoki. (After they culled data revealing that Aoki was big in Mexico, theAudience created an alter ego for him named Esteban Aoki; another time, they linked him up with Bumble Bee Tuna to make some posts featuring the apparently hard-partying insect mascot, Horatio, Photoshopped into Aoki’s show pictures.) But the bulk of theAudience’s revenue now derives from the Influencers, of whom it has amassed some 6,000, everyone from Vine actors to YouTube singers to Instagram models. “There is a classic business model that says that brands support the art,” Luckett tells me. He has brown hair streaked with some gray, a red beard and blue eyes. “That’s what TV is: an art form that’s paid for by Amex and by Dr Pepper and by all these people. We just lost sight of it because it’s media dollars, and they don’t see the direct connection. But that’s how TV began. TV began with product integration in order to pay for it. Then the 30-second spot emerged as the art form to make the ad.”
He is telling me what many people would tell me throughout my travels with theAudience: that this is how it has always been done, and that any historical sense of a separation between mass entertainment and advertising has in fact been an illusion.
On June 4 at the Hammer Museum theater in Los Angeles, Participant Media released a short documentary called “Spent: Looking for Change.” Participant, the movie studio that made “An Inconvenient Truth,” is dedicated to social action, and the film follows four families plagued by bank fees, payday loans and poor access to credit; it is a wrenching look at just how expensive it is to be poor. “Spent” seems like good, socially conscious filmmaking, and it is. At the same time, theAudience orchestrated the film on behalf of American Express, alongside a campaign to promote its new prepaid card, Amex Serve. Amex had come to theAudience with the idea for a movie, and theAudience suggested Participant, which is an investor, to do it. Tyler Perry (Twitter: 3,683,076; Facebook: 12,440,358; Instagram: 464,558) narrated it. The movie was streamed on YouTube by the Young Turks, a popular Internet news channel, subscribed to by more than 1.7 million viewers. Within a week, seven million people had seen it.
“We’re known as a premium, and we’re known for exclusivity,” says Leah Gerstner, Amex’s vice president for public affairs. “Over time, we have been working to become a much more inclusive brand.” Amex had brought theAudience onboard to make sure it could reach the demographic it wanted to; few people in the target demographic liked the company on Facebook at the time.
In the courtyard of the Hammer that night, after the premiere, I met Julia Kelly (Instagram: 652,497; Vine: 663,108; Twitter: 44,104), another Influencer signed to theAudience. Julia described herself to me as a “Vine actress.” Her six-second skits tend to be various permutations of the following: A boy likes her but she likes the boy’s friend; she likes the boy and the boy disses her; she and her friend are fighting over a boy.
Kelly, who is 20, is also prolific on Instagram, where she posts pictures of herself, usually clad in a halter or bikini top and sporting meticulously drawn eyebrows and prosthetic eyelashes. In the comments sections of her Instagram account, people express and lament their “thirst,” or desire, for her; others just say “I wanna touch your boobies” with a loudly crying face emoji for emphasis. Most of the time they just tell her how beautiful she is and ask that she marry them, or simply follow them back. She responds to few of them directly, though she acknowledges that their enthusiasm guides her posts.
“I do comedy and some dancing, whatever the people, these kids, want to see,” says Kelly, who knows exactly who her followers are and what they like: “You know, 13-to-25-year-olds. Mostly guys.”
Hot or Not was the first to pay her to make a post. Around last September, the company contacted her and offered her $500 to make a Vine that incorporated the app. She gets a lot of deals now. She’s made $12,000 or so in the last eight months. She’s not exclusive to theAudience. (No one is; Luckett believes in “ubiquity, not exclusivity.” He doesn’t want to own anyone. “Art wants to be free,” he says.) So you can find her sometimes on Instagram in workout clothes, pushing a diet detox drink.
Kelly had been introduced to Perlman just days earlier by the mega-influencer and photographer Jorden Keith. Her first deal with theAudience would happen a few weeks after the premiere. She’d be asked to make a shocked face and caption it, “When auto-correct changes everything, just as you press send [face screaming in fear emoji] #ONoFace #sextapemovie #sponsored.” Sony had hired theAudience to help push out the ill-fated comedy “Sex Tape,” and the campaign sought to highlight anxieties related to irretrievable digital screw-ups.
Kelly had been invited here with her mother, Robin. She and her family have struggled in the past. Her father invested in a time-share business in Mexico, and Kelly would cry every day because of how stressful the financial uncertainty was. But lately Kelly has been able to contribute. She aspires to be an actress, and she senses that success is within her reach. “You’re going to get so much rejection,” she says. “So many doors that are going to shut in front of you. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times.” But she feels blessed tonight, and her faith in God has been reaffirmed, so she stands in front of the branded backdrop and takes a picture and Instagrams it.
One Friday night at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood, more than 400 people and their smartphones converged for a #whatever party, one in a series given by theAudience. On arrival they were all greeted, in the theater’s entryway, by that neon-pink #whatever sign, which regularly migrates from the office for this event. The attendees invariably wore bright-toothed, dimple-dappled smiles, dewy-tan skin and shiny hair, and in their smartphones were applications for all manner of connection to their collective millions of followers: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, it goes on. A D.J. who calls herself Mahogany Lox (YouTube: 243,393; Instagram: 795,738; Vine: 828,573), and who dresses like a cat, played a set as the crowd mingled.
Smiling exuberantly near the entrance — everyone present was smiling exuberantly somewhere — were Acacia Brinley and Joshua Peck. Julia Kelly came with her friends, Kirsten Collins (Instagram: 52,513; Vine: 40,600; YouTube: 11,362) and her sister Karisma (Instagram: 36,844; Vine: 22,700). Kirsten is 20 and an aspiring musician. Karisma is 14 and has clear braces and a gregarious smile. That night, Karisma wore a navy dress with a silhouette that might be considered conservative, had it not also exposed her midriff. Most of Karisma’s Instagrams are very serious pictures of her in a field, or leaning against a building, eyes wide, mouth slightly open, accompanied by a bumper-sticker sentiment like “Perfect is boring” or “Dare to be different,” or, more inexplicably, “If u could be anything you want, what would u be [penguin emoji].”
Perlman was running around, making sure everyone was meeting. He created these parties in part because Luckett, ever driven by the data, predicted one crucial and indisputable fact about all these people: that Julia and Karisma and Joshua and Acacia, put in a room together, are constitutionally incapable of not snapping pictures of one another and posting them to Instagram. They tag each other in their updates, and their followers cross-pollinate, yielding them even more followers, and so more eyes and ears, and more influence, which is exactly where theAudience wants them, because theAudience can use those higher numbers to broaden the reach of the brands they do negotiations with, and those Influencers could eventually make a living just for posting updates. When the Influencers wield maximum influence, Perlman says, “all boats rise,” cupping his hands and raising them from low to high.
Not too long ago, artists would have been considered sellouts for calling themselves brands, to say nothing of partnering with corporations. Here, though, the artists weren’t just seeking out brands that suit their personal brands; they were positively open about it. At the Lyric, I asked a few of them their thoughts on selling out. “Like what?” one replied. “Like what do I sell? You want to know what I sell?”
“Traditional celebrities who came up through the traditional star system are immigrants when they’re participating in this medium,” Sean Parker told me the week before. “These kids” — the Influencers — “are natives.” Parker encouraged me to consider this less like an ad and more like a sponsor. It’s not a commercial; it’s the price of admission. “I think it probably feels a little bit like going to see an event and that event is sponsored by a brand and you understand that. It’s not so much like the person is endorsing it.”
As Luckett sees it, the money Kelly and Brinley and the other Influencers are paid is merely enabling their art. And yes, to him, they are artists. Julia Kelly and Acacia Brinley and Hugh Jackman and Steve Aoki are all creating content of some sort, which puts them on nearly equal footing in his mind.
“All of this might not be art art,” Luckett says. “But it’s brand art. It’s pop art. It’s their personal self-expression. And how is that different than more traditional definitions of art? Viners like King Bach and Nash Grier perfected the six-second comedy sketch. Acacia perfected the selfie. You have 10 million people watching. You are now the entertainment.”
A few weeks later, the Chainsmokers filmed the video for their second single, “Kanye.” “I want to be like Kanye,” the song goes. “I’ll be the king of me always.”
“It’s everything,” Luckett told me of the Kanye concept. “It epitomizes the action, the verb, the noun. It becomes everything.” (It’s also a good way to make sure the song comes up in a search for the real guy.) In the video, a maid dresses up in fancy clothes and spends a night out on the town, ending up at a pool party at a fancy house (Luckett’s, in reality). At the party are all manner of Influencer, brought there in exchange for the chance to network with one another and just have a good time: Julia Kelly, Jorden Keith, Mahogany Lox, all the favorites. The video made its debut on Aug. 27, and as of this writing, more than 600,000 people have seen it.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a founder of William Morris Endeavor. He is Ari Emanuel, not Emmanuel.
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