When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he was standing up for art. Beyoncé, he sincerely believed, had made the best music video of the year: “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” We all remember West’s “Imma let you finish” moment, but what few realize is that, in an odd, roundabout way, his antics had an indelible effect on the future of YouTube: It unintentionally made Pomplamoose internet famous.
In short, the video of West’s interruption went massively viral, and interest in the song spiked. People around the world started digging around YouTube for covers of the track, and Pomplamoose—the YouTube-based duo of Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte—just so happened to have the best one. “Overnight our fanbase quintupled,” Dawn said. “We went from having 10,000 subscribers to having 50,000.”
Today, no one bats an eyelash at the feasibility of a musician looking at YouTube, first and foremost, as the primary avenue for their art. Artists can now operate almost entirely removed from the traditional record label structure through advertising on YouTube, brand partnerships, and crowdsourcing revenue directly from fans. That model was, in many ways, pioneered by Dawn and Conte in what now seems like an eternity ago in internet time. It’s something they’ve alternatively developed, explored, abandoned, and re-embraced.
For the current generation of YouTube stars, Pomplamoose forged a model for how technology and hustle can allow artists from around the world to create art on their own terms. Now, the two have started a new chapter together.
Dawn and Conte, who married earlier this year, met while undergraduates at Stanford. Both lifelong musicians, they quickly started making music together under the name Pomplamoose—a deliberate misspelling of the French word for grapefruit. Watching their Myspace page collect dust as low-quality clips of people playing acoustic guitar in their bedrooms racked up thousands of views on YouTube, Pomplamoose figured video might be the way to go. The duo’s first YouTube track was for an original song called “Hail Mary.”
Driven by Dawn’s pulsing bassline and smoky vocals, the track and its attendant video created a template that Pomplamoose would follow for the better part of the next decade: The recording of every single sound was filmed and then synced to show how it fit into the mix in real time, making it appear as if everything was being played live in a single take. Building a song, especially for a duo trying to construct a full-band sound, requires hours of commitment, laying down each instrument and then digitally fitting them together.
The resulting video was twee without being cloying, folky with only a hint of nostalgia.
They dubbed the style “videosong.” Inspired by the success of friend Julia Nunes, who had a series of Beatles covers on YouTube that were popping up higher in YouTube search results than the original versions, Pomplamoose started releasing videosong covers. They did Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” Simon & Garunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole, but it was their version of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” that changed everything.
As Pomplamoose uploaded more pop cover videosongs, their channel quickly became one of the biggest on YouTube. The band’s following started to rival those of megastars like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga (whose song “Telephone” Pomplamoose has also ably covered).
They created a weekly webseries, very appropriately named Hey, It’s Pomplamoose: A Show About Pomplamoose and Other Things. The band was approached by every record label under the sun, but they rejected all the offers outright. With the internet acting as a publicist and distribution mechanism, what good was a record deal that came with a burdensome tangle of strings attached? Instead, they made a series of TV commercials in the videosong style, most memorably a Christmas-themed spot for Hyundai.
“We had a system in place. We were getting more and more attention from the traditional music scene,” Dawn recalled. “That’s when shit got messy.”
What made Pomplamoose so successful was its DIY self-sufficiency. Yet, Dawn explained, success introduced a new set of voices in her ear whispering words like “management,” “licensing deals,” and “who’s going to be on your team?”
Looking back, Dawn collectively gives those voices a name: “L.A.”
At the time, there was no real path for internet celebrities to follow that didn’t primarily involve using viral fame to vault further along the standard music career path. Dawn started second-guessing herself and all the pressure made being in Pomplamoose seem like a chore.
“When somebody plants a dream in your head and then says, ‘This is how you’ve gotta get there,’ you kind of forget that you were already living the dream. That you already had everything,” Dawn said. “You were making music at home with the person you love. You had a fanbase that was really passionate about your music. That you could, at any point, play a show and 300 to 1,000 people would show up. You’d essentially skipped the shitty beginner phase that most musicians sort of wallow in for the first 10 years of their career. You already have made it, and then L.A. swoops in and says, ‘But it can be this!’ And then you say, ‘Oh, I guess you’re right, L.A.’”
“Every single one of the people on YouTube who have a successful YouTube channel, they started out as small business owners and now they are running businesses.”
Dawn and Conte put Pomplamoose on hold and focused on their solo careers. Conte delved into the world of EDM, and Dawn signed with Warner Music Group imprint Nonesuch for a solo record. The goal of the hiatus was to dip back into the creative wellspring that made making music fun. That wasn’t exactly what happened.
Pomplamoose was first and foremost a “YouTube band,” so shuttering their channel was a scary thought for a project that typically put out a new video every few days. For her budding solo career, Dawn switched from path that embraced the power of the internet, creating YouTube videos, to one that that was largely reactive to how the internet has decimated the market for record sales: endless touring.
Dawn traveled the country opening for Ben Folds, and while that’s a remarkable opportunity for most, the entire process was draining. “The problem that we had with touring, even with Pomplamoose, is that you just push and push and push and push, and every night you’re in a different town,” she said. “It’s a matter of pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion—emotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion.
“The shows are great and connecting with your fans is this wonderful experience that I love having. … It’s just a lot of work. A couple months a year, sure. But if we’re talking half the year touring, which is what it would need to be, the thought was just oppressive.”
After about a year and a half, Pomplamoose returned to YouTube, revived and reinvigorated. “We approached it completely differently,” Dawn recalled. “We had an idea of what had ruined it for us the first time around. So we were very attentive and paid a lot of attention to the fun of making music. [We were more] careful about what songs we did elect to cover. We didn’t just want to cover something and then just be like, ‘Oh I guess we just slap this piano line on here and this beat and whatever; it’s a cover, just put it out.’ We were much more committed to having a good time.”
She’s especially proud of a cover that transforms James Brown’s funk classic “I Feel Good” into three and a half minutes of slinky electro-pop.
Conte also came back from Pomplamoose’s hiatus with an idea. Fashioning a viable career out of making cool YouTube videos is difficult because the shared advertising revenue distributed by YouTube is often far less than the cost of making the video in the first place. Putting content behind a paywall makes it hard to grow your fanbase. Crowdfunding each project necessitates a constant scramble for cash that quickly burns out fans by asking them to donate time and again.
The solution was Patreon, a crowdfunding startup that allows fans to donate a set amount of money to an artist every time they release a new piece of content—giving online content creators a new degree of stability. It’s an idea, now embraced by the millions of artists and fans who use the platform, that only could have come from someone intimately familiar with using the internet as their primary medium.
The intersection of Patreon and Pomplamoose, however, has sparked controversy. The band did a 28-day national tour on its own terms, packing venues across the country, but came out in the red. If the conventional wisdom is that touring is how bands make money, a tour like the one Pomplamoose mounted was supposed to put the band ahead of where they started. When that didn’t happen, Conte published a blog post laying bare the financials. “The point of publishing all the scary stats is not to dissuade people from being professional musicians. It’s simply an attempt to shine light on a new paradigm for professional artistry,” Conte wrote.
The post went viral but quickly provoked a backlash from critics who charged that Conte didn’t disclose that he was also the founder of Patreon—for which the post could be read as an extended plug. In an interview the Daily Dot last year, Conte asserted his main goal was get to encourage more artists to be open about how their art is financed.
“That post was…my way of shaking things up,” Conte explained. “As an independent artist, it’s really unfortunate that people think art and money are different things and should never be joined—that art lives in this perfect vacuum, unaffected and unchanged by money. That has never been the case; it’s not the case now. Money funds everything. I don’t care if you’re a tech startup; I don’t care if you have an…[electric] bill to pay; I don’t a care if you’re an artist. If there’s no green, it’s not going to work.”
YouTube has evolved dramatically since Pomplamoose began posting videos to the platform, and Dawn, who has revived her solo career to go alongside her work in Pomplamoose, has evolved with it. The community has expanded dramatically, and content creators like Rachel Bloom can now go from YouTube phenom to creating and starring on their own network TV show with few batting an eye.
Dawn, for her part, has taken a lesson from the generation of YouTube stars that have popped up in her wake and reevaluated the way she collaborates with other artists.
“I’ve [always] collaborated with other artists because they’re really good musicians and I like working with them or they have a certain skill set that I think is really handy, like they’re really good at production,” Dawn said. “[But] when I collaborate with [someone like] Kina Grannis, not only is she a great musician with a beautiful voice, but she also has fanbase. I feel like her fans would enjoy our music, so let’s share. It’s a more strategic collaboration than, ‘I like you, you make art, I make art, let’s make art together.’”
It’s a model Dawn learned from watching the generation of YouTube stars who surfaced in Pomplamoose’s wake, many of whom regularly pop up on one another’s videos on a regular basis. “I consider that to be the equivalent of playing a show for 2,000 people who haven’t heard of my music and they all like it. It makes so much sense.”
For Dawn and Pomplamoose, thriving in the YouTube era necessitates an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Every single one of the people on YouTube who have a successful YouTube channel, they started out as small business owners and now they are running businesses; they are hiring and they are creating their own team,” said Dawn, whose second solo record, Haze, is slated for release Aug. 30. “You see a girl playing a guitar with 500,000 hits, you think she’s just in her room playing her guitar. But she has someone manning the camera, she has someone editing the video, she has figured out how to make this work.
“It’s a slow process of growing your business,” she added, describing, with more a bit of awe, an ecosystem of YouTube artists she helped model. “I just have so much respect for these people.”
Illustration by Tiffany Pai