Making a YouTube video is as easy as turning on a computer. But to get from zero to 23 million views and an ad deal with an insurance company in just five years? Not that simple. “I realized, I have to be able to be completely self-contained,” says singer Eli Lieb. “The way that I made music, the way that I promoted myself–everything.”
Lieb started with a cover of Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” in 2009. About 23,129,909 views, 213,780 subscribers, and one lucky happenstance later, his phone exploded at an L.A. restaurant when his Lana Del Rey cover was broadcast during the Grammys. Since then, he’s participated in an ad campaign with Allstate Car Insurance and had a song featured on the season finale of ABC Family’s The Fosters.
Lieb has figured out how to use modern digital tools in a way that could be useful whether you’re trying to be the next Justin Bieber or just amuse your friends. “In this day and age, especially with social media, it’s entirely possible for anyone to go from their bedroom to the Grammys on their own,” he says. Here’s how it’s done.
This might seem obvious, but your future YouTube success is impossible without a solid, enjoyable thing to promote–in this case, a music video. “Knowing how to use social media only works if your product is really good,” Lieb says. “I always knew how to write, but writing a song on a guitar and playing it in your room are different from actually putting it down and making an audio file for people to hear. I bought a bunch of software and taught myself how to produce.”
How do you learn? On YouTube, of course. “You can learn how to do anything on YouTube,” he says. “I would look at all of the people who were getting a lot of attention and really study what they did, down to what the videos look like and how they annotated everything on the screen. There’s so much.”
Lieb’s dream wasn’t to remake other artists’ work, but he prioritized attracting an audience. “Covers are a really good way for people to discover you,” he says. “Everybody loves the newest Katy Perry song and people will search for it on YouTube. If you happen to come up on related search and they click on you, then that allows them to go down the rabbit hole of who you are and what you do.” Eventually Lieb transitioned into original music. Once he hit one million views, he was featured on Us Weekly. The only video the magazine included was “Place of Paradise,” an original.
If you want viewers to get hooked on your work, get straight to the point. “The attention span doesn’t really exist anymore, so you have to start off immediately holding them to the screen,” Lieb says. “Eliminate intros in music, eliminate starting off really artistically.” If your voice doesn’t shine through, the masses won’t pay attention.
In a sea of a million dull thumbnails, the goal is to instantly stand out. Lieb has discovered that means a lot of contrast and saturation, and lighter videos usually work better. “It can’t be very flat looking,” he says. Lieb will backlight himself to have light coming forward and give himself more depth.
“There’s always a time and a place to be really artistic, but the YouTube thumbnail is not the place for that,” Lieb explains. “If you’re doing a cover of a One Direction song, you know a lot of their audience is going to be young girls, so the picture that I would want to put up of myself is of my face front and center.”
“If you really want to get seen, you can’t post just one video every once in a while,” says Lieb. “It has to be a very regular thing for a long time.” The second he posts one video, fans already comment about wanting more. For a singer, he recommends two videos per month–enough time to ensure production quality and keep fans satiated. For vloggers, he suggests at least once or twice a week.
“I’ve gone through periods when I’ve done more than two, but they were towards the beginning when it was much more simple. Like where I literally just went in front of the camera, hit record, did one take, uploaded to YouTube. Now, with the popularity of YouTube and the whole concept of a YouTube channel, people are expecting it to be almost like a TV channel, so the quality has to be better.”
Once your face is recognizable to returning viewers, people want to connect. “I needed the social media forums for fans to go and learn everything they want about me and then also interact with them,” says Lieb. “When you do that, they really feel that they are a part of your career. As opposed to just fans, they are helping you create your goals.” Just make sure to diversify your social media output. Don’t post the same picture on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. For Lieb, Twitter is a place to share what’s on his mind or support friends’ projects, Facebook is just about him and his music, and Instagram is an insider look into his life and what he’s up to. “You have to find out what your fans are wanting from you, what they don’t want. It’s a process, an evolution.” How often should you share? “I always say it’s sort of like a balloon that you have to just keep on hitting up in the air with your hand, but the second you miss one swing the balloon goes to the floor.“
Surprisingly, it works. Lieb has formed friendships with Adam Lambert, Lucy Hale, Andy Cohen, Bob Harper, and Robbie Rogers via Twitter. If you do manage to get a celeb to follow back, be chill about it. “If you mention them and tweet to them, their timeline is going to get notifications all the time and then they won’t appreciate that,” he says.
Everyone can tell. If you’ve bought 100,000 followers but get the likes, retweets, and favorites of someone with 100 followers, your deception will be obvious. “If you have a product you need engaged fans,” says Lieb. It’s the immediate, uninterrupted interaction that makes Twitter a useful and necessary tool for artists.
Fans want a face they can latch onto, so give it to them. It’s nearly impossible to thrive on YouTube as a mysterious character. “They really want pictures of me in their Instagram feeds,” Lieb says, even though “sometimes it becomes awkward when you are your own product.” But there is such a thing as too much. Don’t tweet every second of your life. “If I want to follow somebody and I see they have, like, 50,000 tweets, my Twitter feed is just going to be 80% them,” Lieb says. Keep the followers informed, not inundated.