In 2016, an Italian millionaire named Gianluca Vacchi – middle-aged with tanned abs and a wardrobe full of skimpy speedos – posted a video of himself dancing to Ricky Martin’s “La Mordidita” on Instagram. The clip took off, so Vacchi continued to upload more material in this vein, eventually scoring a part in the music video for J Balvin’s insta-classic “Mi Gente.” Mainstream pop music is usually a young person’s game, but earlier this year, Universal Latino signed the 50-year-old Vacchi to a record deal, and in April, he dropped his first official single, “Love,” with rising Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra. The video has earned over 100 million views and counting.
Vacchi’s unorthodox path into the music industry is a long way from the days of A&R scouts sifting through demos and hanging out at grimy clubs hunting for the Next Big Thing. But in the digital era, record labels are eager to look far and wide to nab fresh talent first. “[Vacchi] is a very clear example of how we are able to identify these types of celebrities and work with them hand in hand to develop an artistic career,” says Horacio Rodriguez, SVP of marketing for Universal Latino who works with Vacchi. “We’re always looking at different platforms, not just social media but all the music apps, and trying to identify talent that, combined with their influence, can develop a career in this business.”
Universal Latino is not alone in that hunt. “It’s a frothy market, a hot market,” Jeff Vaughn, vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records joint venture APG, tells Rolling Stone. “There are bidding wars on artists that have no music out. There’s been some instances of old-school A&R, where you either identify a talent or intelligent visionary who may not have had means of recording music. There are people doing covers on Instagram, or covers on YouTube, or freestyling, and they get picked up by different channels and identified as someone with potential.”
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With streaming services and other digital platforms spewing out so much real-time data on rising artists, record labels are getting creative with what that “potential” looks like. Take the case of Bhad Bhabie. In 2016, a Dr. Phil interview with Florida teenager Danielle Bregoli went viral, spurring that teenager’s seemingly out-of-nowhere rap career – which grew into an Atlantic Records record deal and several hundred million streams.
The English comedian Big Shaq had a similar trajectory: When his “Man’s Not Hot” went viral, the track was snatched up by Island Records and he subsequently released another major-label follow-up. YouTube stars Rudy Mancuso and Lele Pons both released debut singles within the last year (they’re currently unsigned), as did Instagram and Musical.ly star Malu Trevejo (Universal Latino). In a scenario that might’ve been dreamed up by a bunch of stoned staff writers at Saturday Night Live, Mason Ramsey won a deal with Atlantic Records after a video of him yodeling outside Walmart took the internet by storm.
“We’re living in the clout age,” says Angelo Torres, A&R manager for Marc Anthony’s label Magnus Media. (Magnus has not signed any media celebrities.) “These kids have a big social media game, and the labels are in this game of, who has the numbers? Millions of followers on Instagram – ‘I’m pretty sure if this person drops a song, it’s gonna reach millions of views.'”
These signings initially seem like a new phenomenon; another symptom of our strange digital age. But as Vaughn and others point out, the impulse behind the deal is the same, even if the technology is different. “In pop music, people have always looked for vehicles on which to project units and songs they can sell,” says one veteran A&R executive who preferred to remain anonymous to discuss signings that were not his own. In recent decades, Jamie Foxx, Jared Leto, Ariana Grande, Donald Glover, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Drake and more have used television or film as springboards to successful music careers.
These media-celebrity signings are also more likely in an era of robust growth for the music industry (Remember Shaquille O’Neal’s 1990s rap career?) “The music business has seen these cycles before, where labels are just signing more,” says Jeff Worob, a leading music industry lawyer. “The business is healthier than it was five, 10, 15 years ago; labels are doing better, and they’re spending more. They would do it even if technology had not advanced and given them a way to find a viral yodeler.”
But although the industry is rebounding, it’s not back to business as usual – it has changed dramatically relative to its Nineties peak. One reason Instagram and YouTube function as a farm system for pop’s big leagues is that the lengthy music industry contraction of the 2000s decimated labels’ funding for what’s known as “artist development,” the costly, time-intensive process that involves both helping an artist hone her skills – as a singer, writer and performer – and building her public following. “Development became too much of an economic burden on some of these major labels, so they were just focusing on artists that were already developed,” Torres says.
“Real artist development, in my opinion, the last big thing was L.A. Reid back when he was at LaFace Records,” writer-producer Tricky Stewart told Rolling Stone in 2017. “That stopped in about ’98, ’99. We’re almost 20 years out from there.”
That’s where Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Twitch and other platforms come in. “A way to go around developing the talent is finding talent that only needs to be developed in the music part,” Torres says. “When you grab a talent from zero, you need to develop every aspect – social media, content creation, plus the music. When you have somebody that already has the other parts, you just have to focus on the music and put it out. It’s a safer bet for some people.”
And while development remains costly – building a fanbase is more competitive than ever since so much new music is instantly accessible every week – recording and releasing songs has never been cheaper. “Finding a good songwriter is straightforward; good songwriters are 10 a penny,” says the veteran A&R. “Finding someone who people actually like, are invested in, want to engage with and stream, that’s more difficult. You can’t cultivate that, in a way.”
The new generation of media-celebrities-turned-singers also benefits from a consumption system that their predecessors could only dream of. “The whole ecosystem is geared towards them,” the A&R executive adds. “Streaming a Mason Ramsey song, which leads to a spot on the Spotify Viral Chart, is far less of a commitment as a fan. You don’t have to go out and spend however much on a single, shamefacedly go to the counter and commit to saying, ‘I’m a Mason Ramsey guy.’ Maybe you play it once at a party at 2 A.M. for your friends. Maybe you’re a young dad and you play it in the car for your kids like, ‘this is the yodel kid.’ It’s such a low-level commitment, but that’s rewarded in the streaming ecosystem.”
Nonetheless, executives are adamant that, as Rodriguez puts it, “you can’t just sign anybody and think that they’re gonna become a music star.” “Music has to run in their veins,” he adds, pointing out that Pons is a classically trained singer.
The recent crop of would-be pop stars appears to be off to a strong start. “Whether you hate her, love her or love to hate her, Bhad Bhabie put some numbers on the board,” artist-producer-A&R DJ Drama says, pointing to her three Hot 100 hits and the Gold certification for her single “Hi Bich.” Ramsey’s debut, “Famous,” also cracked the Hot 100 – and in the country world, which has been slow to adopt streaming, the track arrived at the Hot Country Songs chart at Number Four, easily out-streaming veteran hitmakers three times Ramsey’s age. Lele Pons’ “Dicen,” a duet with Matt Hunter, is now on one of Spotify’s biggest playlists, Baila Reggaeton, and it has amassed over 100 million cross-platform streams.
These successes practically guarantee that more of these signings are imminent. “In the Latin world, we’re seeing a lot of athletes turn to music,” Universal Latino’s Rodriguez says. “If you’re a gamer with millions of followers, labels may take a risk on that,” adds Worob. “If I’m a gamer and I’ve got a fanbase that exists, yeah, let’s put out some music and see if it connects. If they react, labels are gonna react.”
The A&R executive describes this transition as “the future of mainstream one-off music.” “The other thing is, someone might turn into Justin Bieber,” he points out. “That’s why some of these corporations take a punt – Mason could turn into Justin. It’s a low-risk, high-reward strategy.”
Additional reporting by Amy X. Wang