‘These digital lives of theirs, it’s definitely a living.’
The young men of 5Quad stand onstage, doing the Nae Nae. Then they play a timeless game, Never Have I Ever. After asking the audience, which is 95 percent tween and teenage girls, a series of normal questions, things take a turn.
“Never have I ever… worn lingerie.”
A dad, carrying nachos and bottles of water, does a double take at the stage.
This is DigiFest, an arm of DigiTour, an IRL event for social media stars. On this Sunday afternoon, Dallas’s Southside Ballroom is essentially a mall for fans to engage in commerce and interact with their favorite Vine or YouTube stars. It’s not uncommon to see a performer wandering around in the wild, sans security, as girls scramble to take selfies with him or her.
Many of these stars are simply famous from social media, but they have to do something resembling a performance on stage. Forever in Your Mind does an “Uptown Funk” cover, and then, inexplicably, a cover of “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band. They also do the Nae Nae. The Nae Nae happens onstage a lot.
Near the Benzac Acne Solutions social media booth, where viral construct Alex From Target will be appearing later in the evening, fans quickly surround a blond boy wearing a backwards baseball cap.
“Who is that?” I ask the fan to my left as a clutch of phones goes up.
“Cole,” she replies.
Fans are on a first-name basis with performers here, thank you very much. Parents make up the rest of the population, but they mostly stand in parent-designated or VIP areas downing drinks, looking at their phones, and holding merch as their children scream for boys named Tez and Cole.
This is an “IRL” event, a way for fans to meet performers like Jack and Jack, Nash Grier, Maddie Welborn, Aaron Carpenter, and Sammy Wilk. Performers ask fans to take a selfie with them from the stage, and the social media circle of life continues. Vine commodity Nash Grier will give you a kiss and pose for a picture, if you pay enough money. Alex From Target might take a selfie with you.
Last year, according to DigiTour co-founder Christopher Rojas, the event series sold around 130,000 tickets, and leaders were setting their sights on 250,000 this year. He told the Daily Dot they’re on track to hit 200,000 tickets for 2015, adding that the company has doubled in size in the last year. In 2016, they’re planning on producing a tour every month. In January, they’re going overseas for the first time ever. And while Snapchat was the emerging platform for talent discovery in 2014, he says this year they’re working with livestream video app YouNow, and five of its top stars were on the Texas DigiFest tour. However, he stresses that there isn’t the “next Vine or YouTube just yet.”
While this show was a little more diverse than last summer’s DigiTour (meaning there were actually female performers), Rojas says the audience demographic is still 90 percent female, 10 percent male. Ages 13-18 represent the main fanbase, but ages 9-12 were heavily represented in Dallas as well.
Grier is DigiTour’s creative director, which means he’ll help produce and shape content for the website. At DigiFest, he announced several of the acts, and he has become a “go-to,” Rojas says, for meet and greets. The Grier event in Dallas largely consisted of girls handing phones to an intermediary, snapping a shot or two with Grier, and then being shuffled off.
Grier faced criticism last year for old videos that showed him yelling a homophobic slur, and in 2013 he came under fire for a video that featured him and two other YouTubers offering advice on how women should look and act. Another DigiTour-related artist, Matthew Espinosa, showed up at this summer’s VidCon in what appeared to be blackface. I ask Rojas if they’ve seen fans react to those controversies.
“Our relationship with the fans is very tied to our events,” he says. “So we’re mainly talking to them about how excited they are to come to the next Digi, and what the roster’s going to be, and fielding all of those sort of customer service questions.”
He says for many performers, “DigiTour and DigiFest are the very first thing that they do offline. And through us, we’re able to get them their first brand deals or their first piece of press, and we always pride ourselves on helping them get to that next level, whatever that may be for them. We’re not their managers; we’re not their agents. We see them as friends, and the bigger they get, the better it is for DigiTour. And the bigger DigiTour gets, the better it is for them. There’s a symbiotic relationship there.
“These digital lives of theirs, it’s definitely a living.”
And what of the digital lives of their fans?
The cost of being a fan no longer hinges on buying a ticket and carpooling to a show. General admission tickets for the Dallas DigiFest cost $50 plus fees. However, if you want to participate in the three-hour private meet and greet with Grier, that would be $100. VIP tickets, which include backstage and meet and greet access, ranged from $195-$324. If you happen to live outside Dallas, there’s the cost of commute and gas, possibly a hotel.
The father of a 13-year-old and 11-year-old fan sits near one of the designated parent zones, draped with merch. They drove in from New Mexico, and while he’s hesitant to reveal how much they spent on DigiFest, he concedes that “if it makes [them] happy, and I only have to do this once a year, it’s OK.” Other chaperones, like the woman wearing an “Official Fangirl Transporter” shirt, seem to have a more defined role.
This new economy has forced fans looking to get to shows to find other ways to fund their dreams: Many fans are turning to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe to bankroll trips and concert tickets. The YouNow app has become an especially vibrant place to facilitate this. There, fans often exchange info on Vine and YouTube stars for comments and likes, connect with performers and other fans, and detail the minutiae of their lives.
“Fangirls” are often portrayed as obsessive, but that term somewhat minimizes the larger contributions fans have made, the intricate system that teenage girls have devised to get their favorite to No. 1 on the Billboard charts or iTunes—to click them into relevance. This organization of women and girls also came into play last year, when YouTube celebs like Sam Pepper and Jason Viohni were accused of sexual harassment, and fans encouraged other fans to speak up. You can’t discount the power that comes from having a collective voice.
The Alex From Target experiment was an especially interesting exploration of the fan-led push. In November 2014, a photo started circulating on Twitter of a handsome young cashier named Alex, who was quickly plucked from the obscurity of his North Texas Target job and turned into a meme. The photo was then labeled a hoax with a marketing campaign behind it, and many began to wonder if Alex From Target (real name Alex Lee) was even real. It turns out two 15-year-old girls from Texas were the first to tweet about him, and now Alex From Target is doing the worm shirtless at DigiTour.
In May, Billboard reported the track “picked up 1 million U.S. streams in the week ending May 17 […] while its sales rose by a mighty 1,674 percent to 5,000 downloads.” The band discussed PNC at the Billboard Awards and during their appearance on “The Late Late Show”. Last week, “No Control” earned the band a Teen Choice Award for Best Party Song. All this because a passionate, predominantly female fanbase was savvy enough to identify a) that the band’s critical reputation would not change on its own, and b) the amplification required to chart a new track.
They didn’t just want to consume the band’s music; they wanted to control what was on the menu.
Rojas explains this is how largely DigiTour and DigiFest work as well.
“The rosters come about very organically,” he said. “We listen to our fans; they very much evolve as our fan demand evolves. …They’re emailing us, they’re tweeting us like crazy. On any given day, there’s 100,000 fans tweeting us something. And we’re there constantly listening.”
That’s a two-way street, though.
“[DigiTour] has become an aspirational platform for a lot of the talent who want to become social stars in some form, whether it’s a musical social star or a personality or a vlogger,” he said. “When they buy that first camera to start vlogging or vining, they… want to one day be invited to Digi, so much so that once they gain any sort of [fanbase], they have their fanbase tweeting at us, and they’re engaging their fans to tell us to book them. And sometimes they make enough noise that we take notice.”
In this hall of commerce, phones were the lifeline between IRL and online: fans were always filming, tweeting, livestreaming—making sure they got noticed. Making sure they had a voice.
Photo by Andi Harman