This Sunday, November 3rd, the world will experience the first annual YouTube Music Awards, hosted by Jason Schwartzman and streamed live from New York City. Featuring huge music acts like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and the Arcade Fire, the event seems poised to take on MTV’s long-standing VMAs, with a few internet-focused (“best fan-made response video!”) awards thrown in the mix. But YouTube’s first foray into a massive, live-streamed event mixing traditional stars with people “from the internet” wasn’t a shining success at all. 2008’s YouTube Live was, by most accounts, a somewhat infamous failure that was quietly swept under the rug.
If you were to have visited YouTube on November 22nd, 2008, you likely would have been greeted by an effusive Katy Perry, live from the Herbst Pavilion in San Francisco.
You would have seen Perry and her entourage saunter down a winding staircase, teasing various internet video celebrities. It was the first annual YouTube Live show, but the megastar still went after Chad Vader’s virility (“Are you my baby’s daddy? I don’t think so!”), passed off Free Hug Guy to an entourage member, and grew visibly bored with Jason Latimer, World Champion of Magic.
She then got on stage to perform “Hot 'n' Cold,” mugging a look of mock concern as the YouTube stars passed her by. Right before she sang, Perry bellowed out to her entourage: “Strike a pose… for the first annual YouTube Awards!”
YouTube Live was to be a celebration of the YouTube celebrity: the viral vlogger, the anonymous singer with millions of views, the comedian whose skit or timely observation was being bandied about the message boards. It would air, of course, exclusively on YouTube.
Katy’s entrance, then, was supposed to be symbolic of a few things, says Salli Frattini, producer of YouTube Live: of Perry’s popularity of as an early YouTube star herself — “I Kissed A Girl” was one of the site’s first big hits — and of pop culture “entering the world of YouTube.” The idea of live streaming an event was still rare when Stephen Chen, YouTube’s co-founder, announced it earlier that year. Perry may have gotten the name wrong — YouTube Live wasn’t really an awards show at all — but if you’re going to try to radically shrink the distance between YouTube and television, it makes sense to start by creating a playing field where a YouTube star is celebrated as a megaceleb.
A hard sell to the executives
It may be hard to imagine now, but Live was bigger than anything YouTube had ever attempted, and it was their first production with truly global ambitions. “There was a lot of ambivalence internally at the time about a big TV-like production,” says Mia Quagliarello, who, as YouTube’s then-community manager, helped select many of the participants. The producer of MTV’s Music Video Awards from 2001 to 2005, Frattini was no stranger to spectacle — Madonna and Britney Spears’ infamous kiss fell under her purview. And as the first woman to run a Super Bowl halftime show, she’s something of a trailblazer in the field of high-production pageantry. She knows how to arrange big, shiny pieces in ways people haven’t seen before — at least on the internet.
In 2008, YouTube’s newly appointed, first-ever director of marketing, Chris Di Cesare, approached his new employers with a pitch for something similar in tone to what he’d done with his previous company, Microsoft. His New York launch for the mega-game Halo 3 featured shot glasses sampling Mountain Dew, T-shirt and bouncy ball giveaways, a trio of all-terrain vehicles popping tricks on a closed-off Fifth Avenue, and performances by Ludacris and Bobby Valentino, the duo behind “Pimpin’ All Over the World.” (Di Cesare declined to be interviewed for this piece, as did Google at large.)
The show may have opened with Katy Perry and closed with Akon crowdsurfing to “Right Now (Na Na Na),” but Frattini points instead to the pairing of instrumental guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani with South Korean Lim Jeong-hyun — better known on YouTube as funtwo — as an example of what it was all about. At the time, funtwo had a New York Times profile under his belt — and, maybe more importantly, millions of views.
“There’s always a joy in getting big celebrities together, but something like that was unique,” Frattini says. That performance is one of the few still available online in its totality. Its highlight is funtwo’s dumbstruck joy to be on stage with this hideous monstrosity of a guitar, playing with one of his heroes. Lim Jeong-hyun can’t stop smiling.
In 2008, YouTube was hardly the all-seeing panopticon is it today. “It was still the new kid on the block, with a dominant MySpace and surging Facebook,” remembers Tay Zonday, whose 2007 “Chocolate Rain” video threw him into the spotlight (released in 2007, it currently has over 92 million views). The site was hitting its first real stride: in June of 2008, Forbes projected YouTube’s first-ever revenue profit, somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million that year. But there was still the matter of dedication — the average YouTube viewer spent 15 minutes on the site, compared to the four hours a day the average American spent watching television.
The inmates running the asylum
The chosen tactic, it seems, was to let the inmates run the shiniest asylum the warden could afford. Aaron Yonda, co-creator of “Chad Vader,” a Star Wars parody web series, says that though Google suggested that his team work with the “Will it Blend?” guy, it didn’t “get involved in the creative process.” When Zonday suggested he have his own announcers' booth at YouTube Live to act as a “voice of God,” Google built it for him. And Queen Rania of Jordan was on hand to accept the inaugural YouTube Visionary Award for her work fighting Arab stereotypes — it was the only award handed out all night. “It was the first time a lot of us were meeting,” says Michael Buckley, of the “What the Buck?” video series. “We were just all so excited!”
It was a tactic that made sense for YouTube: community strength was key to the video site’s hypothetical success. This wasn’t the first time Google had reached out to its stars. Since the company had purchased YouTube in 2006, it'd been holding community events. The company’s idea was to let creators know they were different than other websites, that they cared. Soon after Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” went viral, he was invited to YouTube’s offices to attend Videocracy, a crash course on YouTube for advertisers, as well as the 2008 YouTube Awards (an event distinct from YouTube Live).
But both of these events were meant for insiders. Videocracy was intended to bring advertisers into the fold, while the Awards were aimed at those who already saw YouTube as their main source of entertainment — its press tour included both Zonday and Felicia Day. YouTube Live was for that existing community too, but it cast a wider net; its goal was to position YouTube as not just a host, not just a social experience, but as a culture unto itself.
Queen Rania of Jordan was on hand to accept the inaugural YouTube Visionary Award
“It was our first time live in the Vader suit,” Aaron Yonda told me over the phone. One half of “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager” Yonda was among the first wave of genuine YouTube celebrities. Some of the earliest video makers to enter into the YouTube Partner Program, he and co-creator Matt Sloan had already been profiled in the New York Times and had an agent at William Morris. When Google came calling, they were going back and forth between Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, pitching ideas to studios. For Yonda and Sloan, it seemed like the perfect chance to show “Chad” off on a global stage. Back-and-forth talks with Google made it clear that they’d have a stage appearance, which eventually did become a sketch with Tom Dickson, better known as the “Will it Blend?” guy.
In its final form, the skit highlighted YouTube Live’s “variety show” format, as Frattini proudly describes it. The camera cuts to Dickson welcoming to the stage his “friend, Chad Vader!” Chad Vader asks Dickson to blend his broom, and then his lunch. The largest cheers come as Dickson delivers his catch phrases — “That is the question!” and “Don’t breathe that!” Then, abruptly, Chad says he has to go. End of sketch. No punchline. The show continued like a variety show, broken up only by the screening of actual YouTube videos. For all the earnesty thrown into YouTube Live, it was obvious that many of its participants had never performed in a live setting before, let alone in front of thousands of people. That led to many terrible performances.
By April of 2011, nearly the entire event had been taken off the site
Going back and watching some of these YouTube stars’ original videos can elicit an entirely different response. Take the South Korean guitarist funtwo’s rise to fame, for instance. Playing a cover of a song called “Canon Rock,” itself a tribute to Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, funtwo doesn’t even bother to look at the camera.
The video opens with the most basic title-editing possible, giving credit to Pachelbel, original “Canon Rock” performer JerryC, and then announcing funtwo. Some, including the Times, questioned the authenticity of the video due to a lack of audio-visual synchronization. But it turns out funtwo was just bad at synchronizing. He didn’t even post the video to YouTube himself; a still-anonymous uploader humbly named guitar90 did. The video, titled “guitar,” didn’t try to knock anyone off the Billboard charts (it’s since been pulled off YouTube for copyright infringement), but it was an example of the magical democratization that YouTube provided. “Guitar” didn’t try to be Katy Perry’s peer, but it was happy to be an alternative.
A five-year buffer
Frattini says she and her collaborators at Google wanted the live-streamed event to be a “celebration of YouTube talent,” but this was also ultimately the first, last, and only YouTube Live. By April of 2011, nearly the entire event had been taken off the site. The big celebrities’ performances are still available, and you can find long-deserted fan footage shot with Google-provided flip phones, but the majority of the event has been erased from the internet.
Frattini blames a two-year licensing contract, saying the event’s videos were never meant to stay online for longer than a few years in the first place. But it turns out the conventional wisdom — that whatever you do will stay online forever — can actually be avoided when you’re the people who make the internet.
When asked if YouTube Live was ahead of its time, Frattini responded that it was, in fact, “very timely.” YouTube Live couldn’t get made today because we don’t have YouTube celebrities the way we did in 2008. Sure, viral stars still rise up, like Azie Mira Dungey’s suddenly necessary Ask a Slave series. But every single YouTube celebrity interviewed for this piece named YouTube’s editors as crucial to their success. There was no better way to gain viral success than to be featured on YouTube’s front page, and getting there meant a YouTube editor found you. Yonda of “Chad Vader” called it “crucial to our success.” But as it grew larger, YouTube became fractured to match our individual needs. With the On The Rise program in November of 2010, Google started to phase out editors in favor of personalized algorithms. Go to youtube.com now and you’ll only see videos based on what you’ve seen before.
“It’s harder to tell who exactly” would watch all of YouTube Live, said digital strategist and video blogger James Kotecki. It was “really an amalgamation of all these little niche things. Even 20 percent of the niches are going to be enough.” YouTube Live was a grand experiment to unite all the small parts of the internet together in a giant variety show, but people might not have wanted them all together in the first place. Google has found more success focusing on just one genre at a time, like music. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra achieved its goal to become an online-only collaborative orchestra, and the IRL mashup of stars continues in the yearly YouTube in Review series — 2012’s features Psy singing “Rewind YouTube style!” to a remix of “Call Me Maybe.” And so the company has finally fulfilled Katy Perry’s dream by announcing the first “annual” YouTube Music Awards, now just a few days away. The world into which this show will debut is very different than the one of just five years ago, when YouTube Live came and failed to conquer. The giant production, with creative director Spike Jonze on board, will likely pull in plenty of eyeballs on its first try. We’ll see if there’s a second next November.