Sometimes seminal events that change the course of history are obvious when they happen: the Obama election, for example, or the BP oil spill. Others are only obvious in retrospect. When the Beatles performed on "Ed Sullivan" and in Shea Stadium, who knew music was irreparably changed? Similarly only after Altamont did we realize that Flower Power had wilted.
Last weekend, in the shadow of old-media powerhouse CAA’s L.A. headquarters, the entertainment industry changed forever. Yet few, if any of the old guard were there to mark it.
The baton was passed at a little-heralded event called Vidcon — the first annual gathering of the next generation internet stars born from YouTube, and their passionate fan base. You’ve probably never heard of the stars that met and vlogged, but almost all of them were there — from the pixyish Justine Ezarik (iJustine) to the beguiling Phil DeFranco (sxephil) to luscious Lisa Donovan (LisaNova) to the lovebirds of CTFxC to the oh-so-dreamy Shane Dawson to a baker’s dozen of amazingly talented musicians who are building audiences that rival some of the biggest acts in the country.
The three-day conference celebrated the community and connection between stars and fans, while doling out advice to the up-and-comers and the wannabees. Jump-cut master Ze Frank — the guy who started it all — gave an impassioned talk about the difference between authenticity and popularity. YouTube promised to donate $5 million to help fundinnovative new content, and The Station (YouTube’s version of CSNY, ASIA or The Travelling Willbury’s) wowed the audience with a crazy song-and-dance number that included a bikini-wrapped cross-dresser, guys dressed up as furries, gold-jumpsuited dancers and much more.
It was at once overwhelming and intimate. But the most amazing thing to me was that these new media stars, who collectively deliver more than 50 million views a week, came to the show almost completely alone — without retinue, entourage, sponsors or sycophants. The collective media power in that room surpassed all but a handful of top traditional media stars. Yet no one — apart from their fans, YouTube and a couple of bewildered dads chaperoning their kids — appeared to notice or care.
That will change. When someone like Shane Dawson can drive 3 million views talking about an evil lambchop, or an Annoying Orange regularly commands 5 million views for what appears to be an Adult Swim reject, sooner or later someone is bound to wake up.
But for all their energy and audience, this is still a media in its infancy. This was brought home to me when someone asked the three talented hosts of vlogvetica how they felt about being given a free computer. Their response, which was essentially, "why not take free stuff; it’s not going to compromise me," reveals a disturbing set of ethical standards that could eventually lead to FTC oversight.
But despite growing pains, make no mistake: This is a media that is coming into its own — and has little regard for the trappings or conventions of old media. Few in attendance were concerned about crossing over into traditional TV — and the most creative of the bunch were eagerly pushing the envelope of what’s possible in this new medium.
One of the more engaging announcements was from Dan Brown (Pogobat), who rolled outDan 3.0 — a yearlong experiment where he’ll put his life into the hands of his community (disclosure: Dan launched the show in partnership with my company Revision3). Standing in stark relief against Seth Green’s scripted URule Man — similarly conceived but with writers, directors and "talent" — Brown’s show is 100% authentic, unscripted, and community-powered. The two shows provide an interesting contrast between how Hollywood is trying to spread a patina of community atop its tired formula — complete with big-name actors, sponsors and production partners, while all Brown has is himself, a big idea and a raging community.
I did manage to drag over Mike Vorhaus — who I teasingly call the Father Confessor of the industry, but in reality manages a big part of consulting firm Frank Magid Associates. He was blown away, calling it one of the most important things he’s seen in a long time. As for me, I left the Century City Hyatt humming the top hit from one of the original supergroups, Buffalo Springfield. There’s definitely "something happening here" even if it’s not "exactly clear." Want to know more about Dan 3.0 or the world of Vidcon? Drop me a line: Jim@revision3.com.