A year ago, Shawn Mendes filmed himself singing a tentative acoustic cover of the Justin Bieber song As Long as You Love Me and put the results on Vine. He wasn’t expecting much response. “I didn’t really want anything to happen; I just kind of wanted to see what people would think,” says Mendes, 16. “I posted that first Vine and woke up the next morning with 10,000 followers. That was pretty cool.”
Mendes’s Bieber cover went viral, and he soon became a popular presence on Vine, a service that allows users to share six-second video clips. He began posting Vines – mostly covers of popular songs – almost every day. “It just started to pick up in this snowball effect to where I am now, which is insane. Everything has come through Vine,” Mendes said. “I went to Toronto one afternoon for this Vine meet-up, and there was 2000 people there cheering my name. That was one of the biggest eye-openers of my life.”
A few weeks later, managers and record labels came calling. Mendes soon signed with Island Records, which issued his self-titled EP late last month. It reached No.1 on US iTunes 37 minutes after it was released.
Mendes is at the forefront of the first generation of Vine stars – singers, performers, dancers, comedians and whatevers who are attempting to use the online platform as a springboard to real-world success. Michael and Carissa Alvarado, the married folk-pop outfit who record as Us the Duo, signed to Republic Records this spring; they are widely thought to be the first Vine stars to land a major record deal.
Like Mendes, they started with cover songs. And like Mendes, they soon found that being “Vine famous” took work. “It wasn’t this thing that happened by accident,” Michael Alvarado says. “We thought about every single post, and changed our outfits for every video, and thought, ‘What’s the most strategic six seconds from this video that everyone can relate to’ ”
Except for Mendes, who seems to have wandered into tween stardom from a Frank Capra film, most Vine stars tend to be pragmatic about their path to fame. For every one who has worked since childhood to become the next Beyonc, there are easily a dozen others who see Vine as a greased path to an amorphous, Kardashian-like celebrity. They are conversant in the language of site algorithms and demographics. They know just which six seconds of just which hit song to cover for maximum impact. Many spend days editing their footage; others enlist video directors. They’re Vegas card counters, gaming the system. “To get on there specifically to be famous, I feel like that is probably the wrong motive,” warns Alvarado. “When you go into Vine with that mind-set, it’s not going to happen like that.”
Except sometimes it does: Recent Casablanca Records signee Dawin got famous after a Vine he made – attaching footage of the much-memed Carlton dance popularised on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to his own track, Just Girly Things – went viral. “I found the right platform at the right time,” says Dawin, an artist and producer from Brooklyn who has spent a lot of time studying the curious science of Vine success, and how to get it. He concedes that the gulf between being famous on Vine and being famous in real life can seem insurmountable. “It feels huge, but I think it’s very possible. A lot of people were discovered from YouTube and then became amazing superstars. Justin Bieber had great success online, then became a global star. I feel like Vine is having the same effect. It’s actually happening faster than it did with YouTube.”
Bieber was discovered on YouTube, and the ensuing gold rush made it difficult for newcomers to that site to find any traction. “It’s really hard to be heard,” Alvarado says. “We had over 20 million views on YouTube, and half a million subscribers, but even that wasn’t enough to break through.”
Vine artists usually start with cover songs, then gradually introduce their own material (if they have any). They use Vine to drive traffic to their longer-form YouTube videos, or their Twitter or Instagram feeds. “All this feeds into building your brand,” says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts and sales at Billboard. “If Shawn Mendes had tens of thousands of re-Vines and millions of views on YouTube, and Facebook impressions and Tumblr followers – when you add up all of those impressions, it becomes a tangible audience of people who are willing to engage with you and become part of your fan base.”
Being Vine famous can be lucrative; many of the platform’s stars are paid to endorse products, for example, but Caulfield says the real money is offline. “If you can move those fans from the virtual world to the real world, where they come to an actual event or buy your merchandise, that’s where you start making money.”
It’s early, but no Vine-spawned pop star has outsold Mendes, a musical novice who must now work backward – learning to write songs, learning to work a crowd – after releasing his first hit album. “Everything’s a learning experience,” says Mendes, who is on the road with fellow teen phenom Austin Mahone. “I think I might be picking up quickly like, how to perform and stuff.”
Mendes, who was raised in Pickering, Ontario, is an angelic teen who posts videos of himself singing soulful acoustic covers in his bedroom: He’s Bieber without the baggage. “He’s wholesome, and I think the reason he’s connecting with fans is the purity of this kid in his bedroom,” says his manager, Andrew Gertler. “I think the Vine thing was just the spark to the beginning of a very long career. I don’t think it puts him at any disadvantage.”
Mendes will resume work on his full-length debut when he gets off the road in the fall. He still uploads Vines frequently, although few hold out hope for the platform’s long-term prospects. “We can’t rely on Vine. It’s already changed in just the six months we’ve been on it,” Alvarado says. “The fan base has changed, the algorithms for how the ‘likes’ are calculated has all changed. Even some of the leaders have already left. They’ve moved on to Snapchat.”