He was eight when he got his first smartphone: an iPhone 5c in beaming lime green. He was 10 when his impromptu breakdance at a high school basketball game in Florida went viral. Now, at the grand old age of 12, Seth Vangeldren finds himself juggling marketing contracts in six-figure territory with some of the world’s biggest record labels — who are all clamoring to get him to help break their newest artists.
Vangeldren didn’t set out to become a preteen music mogul. One day a few years ago, he was dancing the NaeNae at home with his sister after school and posted a video of it to social media on a whim. The internet responded with a flash flood of clicks, views and shares. “From that, I just carried on, basically,” the young dancer-and-videographer-turned-rap-influencer, shrugging shyly, tells Rolling Stone on his first visit to New York this week. “It took me like a year to get to 1,000 followers, because nobody knew me, but then it took me five months after that to get to 10,000.” Soon after, he started getting requests from amateur rappers who wanted Vangeldren to dance to their songs — which he did, for $1,000 per song. Then the labels came calling, asking him to promote their own up-and-coming artists. Vangeldren’s follower count on Instagram, where he uploads zippy dance clips set to seconds-long clips of rap songs every few days, now tops 609,000.
Vangeldren started out posting his breakdancing videos to Musical.ly, the wildly popular teen lip-syncing app that is now TikTok, but says he found it “glitchy” and moved to Triller, a music-video-making app that works closely with the record industry and differentiates itself from similar karaoke platforms with its AI-powered features. “We take the biometric movements of the video and adapt them to the beat of any song, so it seems like you’ve spent hours editing a video when in fact it’s done in real-time in a few short seconds,” explains Triller CEO Mike Lu, adding: “While Triller works with labels to help them launch some new songs and artists, Seth’s rise was totally organic.” The 12-year-old’s videos — short, sweet, full of verve — were so catchy that they snagged the attention of rappers like Chris Brown, Lil Yachty and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, and most recently catapulted him to an appearance onstage with Rich the Kid at hip-hop festival Rolling Loud.
“That was fun,” Vangeldren says. “I said I didn’t want to do it at first. My mom was like, ‘Who says no to Rolling Loud?!’ And I said, me, because of all the people and because I’m shy.” (He was persuaded into saying yes, in the end, and will also appear in front of tens of thousands more at Rolling Loud’s next iteration this summer.)
Chaperoned by his mother Michele Slater and manager Tcal Watson, Vangeldren is on the East Coast this week for a round of business meetings with artists and record executives — stops on the trip include Alamo, Def Jam and Atlantic Records — to discuss a handful of promotion deals. After stopping by the Rolling Stone office, Vangeldren is due out in Connecticut later in the night to perform with Lil Durk on Meek Mill’s Motivation tour. “I’m not going to say which label, but we’ve had six-figure deals so far,” Watson says. “It’s basically for campaign things, like helping roll out new singles or singles that may’ve already been released by making one or two Triller videos. It’s just Seth being as creative as possible.” Most of the time, Watson says, artists have been the ones asking their labels to get Vangeldren involved in their music promotion rather than the other way around: “You can tell it’s genuine when even an artist’s bodyguard is like, ‘Hey kid, I love your videos!’ and all the staff and security guards have watched them.”
Choosing which songs to promote and dance to isn’t so much a matter of seeking out the highest price tag. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the song,” Vangeldren says. “Like, if it’s a slow song, I can’t dance to it because there’s no beat to go with it. And it’s hard to do some old songs because those particular dances are hard. But it’s fun to do all this — because I get to meet new rappers and hear songs before they come out.”
Thanks to stars like Vangeldren, Triller as a platform is also rising rapidly as a place for artists to rally public attention directly — especially as many other social media apps turn their focus away from the complex, often expensive, world of music licensing. “Artists are doing promotions on Triller organically,” Lu says. “Cardi B just asked fans to go to Triller to support her songs; Enimem is doing the same. This is not something we pay them for. This is the artist themselves knowing this is where a community lives.” Vangeldren’s Triller views have numbered into the millions for individual videos.
The rise of karaoke-style social media apps as hubs for professional musicians to build out their fanbases is a distinctly modern and post-CD-era phenomenon — as is record labels’ courtship of a 12-year-old social media star to help promote new music. In the digital age, new music, all too easy to make, is constantly hitting streaming services, overloading audiences and causing the industry to look for different routes to push fresh acts to the top. Putting a recognizable personality behind the music — whether an artist’s or an endearing breakdancing preteen’s — is one of the most surefire ways of shortcutting the slush pile, which is why music labels are newly eager to work with figures entirely outside of the traditional entertainment industries. “When I speak to people at labels about recording artists I work with, I mention that I manage an influencer as well and it always works hand in hand,” Watson says.
Fame, for Vangeldren, has had odd effects so far. The other day, he and his mother were shopping at an outlet mall in their hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida, when they were chased down in the parking lot by a gang of teenage girls. “They yelled his name and started running and he was like, ‘I don’t want to be rude, but it’s freezing!’ and ran to the car,” Slater recalls.
Does he think of himself as an influencer? Does he consider his fame on par with that of Instagram fashion bloggers and Katy Perry’s viral backpack kid yet? (Incidentally, that kid also got his start on Triller.) Vangeldren shrugs once more. “I guess, sort of,” he says, looking down at his lap, mildly embarrassed. But, he says, he doesn’t envision himself ever becoming a recording artist, or even necessarily staying in the music industry as a career; currently, he aspires to one day work for NASA and go into space. “I hang out with all the same people at school that I did before I started dancing,” Vangeldren says. “And I just stay in my house, sometimes. I barely go outside.”