Kina Grannis has racked up over ONE HUNDRED MILLION views on YouTube. Ever wonder about how she did it? Her manager, Jonathan Kalter, tells us how.
Hi Jonathan. Thank you for talking with us today. So you have an incredible perspective on one of the most influential music discovery platforms of our day, YouTube. Your artist’s overall success is directly correlated with her prominent YouTube status. But before we talk about that, let’s start from the beginning. When did you first start to work with Kina?
I started working with Kina a few months before she won Doritos’ Crash The Super Bowl contest, albeit in a more limited capacity.
Was this before or after she already popularized her style of performing directly for her fans via YouTube?
It was definitely after. I’d love to pretend I came across some footage of Kina performing in a coffee shop in Austin, but no, it was definitely after. And, for the record, the idea of “popularizing her style…” feels like a strange phrase to me, since it was very little about creating a style and very much about getting comfortable being 100% Kina with a camera on and recording. I don’t know that what she does would work if she wasn’t exactly who she is. I hope that makes sense. I’ve read the last few sentences back a few times and I’m not quite sure myself…
That does make sense. So how did you hear about her? Did you get in contact the traditional ways or did you actually see her performing via YouTube and then reach out to her?
I think my boss had either stumbled upon Kina’s “Gotta Digg” video or had seen something on DIgg.com about her. I could be completely wrong, but that sounds right in my head. I was introduced to her one day in the office, we spoke a few times, I filmed an EPK for her, we spoke some more and then I watched her perform and saw the way she interacted with her fans… It was too good not to completely throw myself into.
So I’d like to talk about the “Official” videos. “Valentine” incorporates a lot of the initial elements that made Kina’s videos popular in the first place but it really takes them to the next level — production-wise. How did this video come about and what were some of your biggest fears and challenges while making it?
Well…we’d already gotten the album back from Interscope and prepared to self-release, which included Kina soliciting treatments for her own videos. After we’d identified “Valentine” as one of the more polarizing songs on the album – I hesitate to use the term “single” – she reached out to a bunch of directors for ideas that were both compelling and cost-effective. Ross Ching sent Kina his treatment and, if we were able to get the right animation, we thought it would make for the perfect “official” video. Ross and JP McMahon (producer/A Common Thread) did the majority of the heavy lifting on the production end and we worked to make sure the characters fit Kina’s style. The fears and challenges are the same with every video: Will the director pull this off? Will this be compelling enough? Will this serve the song? Will this feel like a Kina video? Will this be a good investment (which becomes important when the artist is funding their own videos)? Will people watch? Will people watch more than once? Kina does supply any potential director a cheat sheet (for lack of a better word) of ideas, colors, adjectives, and objectives so that a director isn’t flying blind in terms of matching her aesthetic and that, despite bringing in an 3rd party, the video will still communicate Kina’s brand.
It’s really a very beautiful video visually. It is simple and yet complex. Did you try and tailor it for a “YouTube” audience in anyway? And did it produce the results that you were looking for?
My response to your statements is as follows: Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly. I take as close to zero credit as possible. The lion’s share of the credit goes to Ross and Kina. As for your questions…
You can’t really tailor something to a YouTube audience. Once you get into the business of manufacturing content vs sharing content, you become a different kind of content provider. This, for us, was an official music video, which, for Kina, is the equivalent of working a single to radio. These songs are her repertoire. The successful videos (in terms of views) are what bring people to the live show. They’re what the audience screams for in-between songs (in addition to obscure songs that rarely get played). As far as the results, well, I think we were all more-than-pleasantly surprised by the result (currently at more than 14-million views).
And it seems that you then took some of the same themes —the complex simplicity— into “In Your Arms.” Again, was this primarily designed for your YouTube audience?
Honestly, I don’t know what audience IYA was “designed” for. Greg Jardin’s brain is way too ambitious to tailor a music video. Actually, we now know for certain that it wasn’t tailored for YouTube since the default setting for YouTube isn’t HD and you really need to see the detail to understand just how magnificently complex and awesome this video is. But yes, I like the idea of complex simplicity being a theme to Kina’s videos…I might steal that from you. But in both “Valentine” and “In Your Arms” the execution is what achieves the simplistic-ness and all the credit goes to the directors there.
It’s really interesting because while those 2 videos have over 20 million views combined, they constitute less than 20% of your total overall views. So how do “official” videos fit into your total overall strategy? Are they there to broaden the outreach or to deepen the views on the bulk of the other videos?
Like I said earlier, the official videos are our “singles.” I think sometimes they’re songs that we feel we could market elsewhere (maybe to traditional radio or for television/movie placements) and other times they’re just the songs that may just inspire a video and are songs the directors are drawn to. When Kina solicited for “Valentine,” Greg delivered his “In Your Arms” treatment. We weren’t looking for an IYA treatment. But, I want to add that Kina’s original music constituting a substantial majority of her overall YouTube views is something we’re incredibly proud of.
At the end of the day – have you noticed that the rules are different on YouTube or do people want the same thing that they used to get on MTV? I mean, I guess what I’m getting at is that I want to know if YouTube is a fundamentally different form of consumption or is it just a different medium?
The rules are different because consumption is different and the curation comes from multiple places, rather than just a network broadcasting their favorites. MTV really does an incredible job of exposing lots of music if you’re willing to explore their full range of programming, both broadcast and digital. But it’s MTV and it’s blogs and news outlets and your friends and their Facebook pages and their Tweets and on and on. YouTube is a home for your content, with some really good tools and the ability to share…which is the biggest part of it. You’re still creating something that will still need to be personal and good and shared and you will still need to follow rules (there are best practices to posting, sharing, tagging, linking, etc…) before you can give your audience (which is, literally, anyone and everyone) a chance to listen to and view your content.
I think people overstate YouTube as the strategy, rather than the tool for communicating content. Gotye and PSY, two artists who’d already been incredibly successful in their respective home countries, crossed over to our mainstream with massive YouTube numbers. But I’d been sent “Somebody That I Used To Know” from an Australian friend before seeing the video and my friend Maxine sent me the Gawker article featuring “Gangnam Style.” So it’s about YouTube, sure, but a content and communication strategy that includes YouTube will always outperform a YouTube strategy.
As for what people want: I really believe that all you can do as an artist is be 100% of you and do your art as genuinely and excellently as possible and share it to the best of your ability (with or without help) and let the results speak for themselves.
Do you have any suggestions about things that have worked for you and about things that haven’t?
Ummm… I’d hesitate to give any general advice because strategies should be very specific. What works and has worked for Kina might not work for everyone else. I manage an incredibly talented rock band named Atomic Tom who, musically, is as proficient as anyone, but their moment came from a video of them performing their single “Take Me Out” live on a New York City subway on iPhone apps. Amazing idea. Perfectly executed. But they aren’t vloggers and they would seem insincere recreating pop songs weekly on YouTube. On the other hand, Pentatonix, an insanely talented a cappella quartet that I manage, regularly posts impossibly intricate arrangements of pop songs that don’t just yield fans and followers, but fuel album and ticket sales. I think the overarching thought is to do something unique that feels genuine and do it to the best of your ability and know that, if it connects, you’ll just have so much more to do. And, of course, talk to your fans. All of them. As often as possible.
And lastly, are there specific events that you can point to and say, ah – that happened because of our YouTube position or has the popularity just been an overall boon to Kina’s trajectory in and of itself?
In all honesty, YouTube and Google have both been terrific and important partners for us. They have absolutely invested time and energy in Kina’s career and have been amazing in featuring some of her content, sharing technologies and tools with us and giving us an unbeatable platform for sharing our content. Still, the music, the art and the content all come from Kina. The artwork, the worldwide touring, the hours spent post-show meeting and talking to fans, the Twitter back-and-forth all come from Kina. The successes do become slightly more attainable (to an extent) because of the audience Kina has already built…so there is that…but there are so many pieces to the puzzle. Being good on the other side of a camera and being prepared to make the most of great opportunities is such an insanely crucial part of the story.
And with that, thank you Jonathan.
Jonathan Kalter lives in Los Angeles and is a manager with The MGMT Company. He is originally from New Jersey and complains about the lack of quality Chinese food in Los Angeles regularly, but has made peace with the fact that the sushi in Los Angeles is much better than in New York. He is a Jets fan. He has not yet developed carpal tunnel, which is a testament to genetics and not the fact that he spends far too much time on his phone. Also, he hates every photo he’s ever taken, including the one he sent for this interview…albeit this one slightly less so.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears