For decades in the music business, the only way to break in was to blindly send out demo tapes and perform in small clubs long enough for a person at a record label to discover you. Since 2005, there’s been a much more democratic way for musicians to get their big break.
YouTube has helped launch the careers of many entertainers in the past 14 years, thanks to its user-friendly format that allows artists to get their talents in front of anyone with an internet connection. Here are some of the notable musicians who caught their big break after posting videos to YouTube.
The soulful James Bay is another multi-platinum artist who was discovered on YouTube. He grew up in England, far from the American clubs where many acts have been found, and even learned to play guitar from watching YouTube videos. His free lessons paid off when a fan uploaded a video of Bay performing live to YouTube, which was seen by a person from Republic Records. He was signed to a deal in 2013 and has since earned three Grammy nominations.
It’s pretty cool to go from uploading YouTube videos of yourself singing covers of other artists to winning a Grammy for your own work. That’s exactly what happened to Alessia Cara in 2017. She won the prestigious award for best new artist that year, not long after being discovered thanks to her YouTube channel. She started uploading videos of herself singing in 2010, at 13 years old, and signed a record deal in 2013 after her clips went viral. Since then, she’s sold millions of singles and albums and has become a household name in music.
Smooth-voiced singer Charlie Puth has YouTube and Ellen DeGeneres to thank for his big break. In 2011, when Puth was studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a video of him covering Adele caught DeGeneres’ attention and led her to sign him to a record deal on her own label. He became a massive star after recording vocals on the 2015 song, “See You Again,” which went on to sell more than 11 million copies in America alone. He’s had six other platinum-selling singles and albums since then and has earned four Grammy nominations so far.
Another Canadian who expertly used social media to launch his career was The Weeknd. In 2011, the singer lit the music world on fire with his mysterious YouTube music videos, which didn’t show what he looked like or give his real name. The tracks he released on the website earned heaps of praise, as did the free mixtapes he released in their wake, leading to his mainstream success. Since 2014, The Weeknd has earned three Grammys and an additional seven nominations and has sold millions of records worldwide.
In 2011, Rebecca Black was just 13 years old when she blew up on YouTube. Unlike other artists on this list, Black’s fame came from a near-universal dislike of a video she posted, the notorious song “Friday.” The track and its video were mercilessly mocked across pop culture but millions of people knew Black’s name because of it. Since then, she’s continued to record new music and still has a massive online following.
“I feel like because of everything that happened with ‘Friday’ and growing up on YouTube, like I experienced so much, but I was emotionally stunted,” Black told Los Angeles Magazine in 2019, adding that she has a healthy perspective on her big break today, despite her haters.
In the early days of his stardom, singer Austin Mahone was often compared to Justin Bieber. Even dubbed “Baby Bieber” in the media, Mahone made his name as a teenager posting performance videos to YouTube, including his own covers of songs by Bieber. At 16 years old, he signed a seven-figure deal with Universal Republic Records in 2012, leading to a couple of gold-certified singles. As of 2019, he has more than 4.5 million subscribers on YouTube as he continues his music career.
The a cappella singing group, Pentatonix, technically got its big break by winning NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” but YouTube was absolutely instrumental in getting them that far — pun intended. When the group first formed as a trio in high school, member Scott Hoying has said they started by uploading videos to YouTube that got a positive response, urging them to keep working. The group expanded by adding beatboxer Kevin Olusola, whom they themselves discovered on YouTube. Fast forward to today and the group has sold millions of records and is a perfect three-for-three at the Grammys.
It doesn’t get much bigger in music today than Ed Sheeran and he started out like so many other aspiring musicians of his generation, posting performances to YouTube. The British singer-songwriter has said that his unique looks helped him stick out on YouTube against other hopeful performers. After earning plenty of fans on social media, Sheeran went to Los Angeles to try and get noticed in person. There, he found an ally in Jamie Foxx, who liked his music and helped him get in front of live audiences.
With dashing good looks and an Australian accent, Cody Simpson probably didn’t also need musical talents to eventually find an audience on YouTube — but he has them. In 2009, a music executive saw videos of a then-12-year-old Simpson performing cover songs on YouTube and he got him signed to a record deal on the singer’s 13th birthday. He has since worked on Broadway, released three albums (the last of which came out on his own label) and toured with Justin Bieber.
Like Charlie Puth, singer Greyson Chance can chalk his big break up to Ellen DeGeneres seeing a YouTube video of himself performing. In 2010, DeGeneres invited Chance onto her talk show after she saw a piano cover he did of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” as a sixth grader. She signed the kid to a record deal and he’s since released two albums. Nearly a decade after being discovered, Chance has more than 2 million listeners every month on Spotify.
Not only did DJ Alan Walker get discovered by posting his music to YouTube, he learned how to make music by watching others on YouTube. In 2012, when he was about 14 years old, Walker started watching tutorial videos about music production and spent “many many hours” watching them, according to an interview with Festival Sherpa. After that, he started creating his own electronic tracks and uploading them to YouTube for people to use as copyright-free music. He eventually got a record deal and turned one of those tracks into the 2016 smash hit, “Faded,” which has since gone double platinum.
Before he racked up millions of followers on YouTube and Vine as a teen, Shawn Mendes was just another kid hoping to make it as a musician. The Canadian pop idol broke out with his single, “Life of the Party,” in 2014 and was labeled a “YouTube sensation” by MTV, all at just 15 years old. Since then, he’s released multiple platinum-selling albums and singles, has earned two Grammy nominations and has topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Not bad for a YouTuber, huh?
Five years before Christina Grimmie finished third on NBC’s “The Voice,” she built her own road to stardom on YouTube. In 2009, when she was just 15 years old, Grimmie started posting videos of herself doing covers of songs by Miley Cyrus, Jason Mraz and other artists. The videos earned her a lot of fans and led her to get spots performing with Selena Gomez and appearances on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show before she eventually landed on “The Voice” in 2014. Sadly, Grimmie was shot and killed by a man at an autograph signing before one of her shows in 2016, just as her career was really taking off.
Rapper Soulja Boy can probably claim the title of the first major artist who was discovered because of his YouTube channel. He posted his first video on the service just three months after its launch in 2005 and would become a big star in the website’s early days because of his energetic dance moves. In 2007, he was signed to a major record label and had a massive hit with the Grammy-nominated song, “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” The stuff Soulja Boy was doing on YouTube in the mid-2000s looks downright primitive compared to the stuff unknown artists post today but it helped pave the way for them.
All the hopeful pop stars who post their cover videos to YouTube are hoping to achieve just a fraction of what Justin Bieber has accomplished since he started that way. As a pre-teen kid, the Canadian singer became an early viral hit by posting spartan videos of his performances on YouTube in 2007. The clips eventually caught the eye of music executives, including Usher, who signed him to a major recording contract when he was 15 years old. Since then, he’s become one of music’s biggest stars, with dozens of platinum-selling hits under his belt and even a Grammy win.
Two-time Grammy winner Tori Kelly was another early YouTube success story, posting videos of herself performing as a teen in 2006. Those videos got even more viewers when she appeared on “American Idol” in 2010 but somehow failed to make it to the live shows. Her 2012 YouTube cover of a Frank Ocean song went viral and eventually led to her signing a major record deal. Today, she’s recognized as one of the most talented singer-songwriters in pop and has even recorded a hit gospel album.
5 Seconds of Summer
Before the guys in 5 Seconds of Summer were dominating the American charts, they were just another band from Australia trying to get noticed. They started posting videos of themselves performing covers on YouTube in 2011, while they were still in college. After a few of their videos went viral, one of them was noticed by One Direction’s Niall Horan — and Horan’s bandmate Louis Tomlinson tweeted his support of 5SOS, with a link to to a video, in 2012. It wasn’t long after that 5SOS saw themselves opening for One Direction and releasing their own music, including four platinum-selling singles.
Similar to Charlie Puth, the members of the musical duo, Karmin, were students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music when they started posting cover videos on YouTube. Amy and Nick Noonan’s covers were offbeat enough to get them a lot of attention, as they covered rap artists like Drake and Future in a unique style. Noonan has said it took a lot of work for them to finally get noticed but it happened with a Chris Brown cover in 2011 that has more than 100 million views as of 2019.
“I was actually surprised how long it took to get noticed on YouTube and how hard it was,” Noonan told Mashable in 2012.
In terms of musicians who blew up on YouTube, Psy was a late bloomer. Like others on this list, the rapper had attended Berklee College of Music in the 1990s before landing a record deal in his native South Korea. He recorded five albums before cutting the song “Gangnam Style” and its infamous music video in 2012. That video eventually surpassed 3 billion views, making Psy a global sensation. If not for the success of “Gangnam Style” on YouTube, Psy would’ve probably remained a star only in South Korea.
As with Psy, singer Arnel Pineda was already a performer in his native Philippines but he can thank YouTube for his big, international break. In 2007, Pineda got an email from Neal Schon, guitar player for the beloved band, Journey, asking him if he’d want to fly to America to audition to join them as their singer. Schon had only heard of Pineda because of videos of him singing Journey songs on YouTube. A dozen years later and he’s still singing with the band to rave reviews from fans.
California rapper Blueface can thank YouTube and social media in general for helping him rocket to fame. In 2018, WorldstarHipHop featured one of Blueface’s music videos on its massively popular YouTube channel, leading the young musician to go viral. People who hadn’t heard him before were especially interested in his odd flow and the tattoo of Benjamin Franklin on his face. All that made Blueface a human meme and led him to have a platinum-selling single, his first, in 2019.
Singer Mia Rose was another early YouTube star, turning videos of herself singing covers into a successful music career. In 2007, when she was a teen, Rose shot to fame and was in talks with a major American label, despite some claims that her viral fame was inflated. She is British but has Portuguese heritage, which led her to become a judge on Portugal’s version of “The Voice” in 2011. She still maintains popular YouTube music channels in English and Portuguese.
Sophia Grace & Rosie
The lethal combination of YouTube and Ellen DeGeneres once again made stars of these two young artists. Cousins Sophia Grace and Rosie are a duo from England who were invited onto DeGeneres’ talk show in 2011 after the host saw a video of them covering Nicki Minaj on YouTube. The pair then became frequent guests on the show, with views of their performances racking up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. In 2019, Rosie turned 13 years old, showing just how young these two were when they became overnight stars.
Singer Becky G is one another massive YouTube success story. She started posting videos of herself doing covers of other artists in 2011, when she was a young teen, and one of them eventually caught the eye of producer Dr. Luke, who signed her to a record deal. Since then, her videos have been viewed more than 2 billion times on YouTube alone and she’s become one of the biggest stars in Latin music, releasing a steady string of hits since 2017.
YoungBoy Never Broke Again
One of the most recent music stars to go big thanks to YouTube is rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again. He seems to be living up to that monicker because early this year, he became the most-watched musician across all genres of YouTube. He’s been prolific in his ability to make viral hits, with 12 platinum singles to his name already in 2019 alone. His reach into the social media world extends to Instagram as well, with this recent shot of him earning more than 1 million likes so far.