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On Being Justin Bieber in the Age of YouTube

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Walk down the magazine aisle of any grocery store, and you will find a similar scene: a bevy of teen, heart-throb magazines all plastered with the same kid on their covers--Justin Bieber, the musical prodigy with his brushed-forward, Zac-Effronesque haircut.

First discovered at the age of twelve on YouTube by a huge following of fans, Justin later signed a recording contract with Usher and soon became a mega-music sensation. Within just five months, Justin's video for his hit song "Baby" received over 171 million views, making it the third most watched video of all time on YouTube. With the release of his second album, My World 2.0, Justin became the youngest male singer to capture the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200. Bieber has over 3.4 million followers on Twitter, over a million more than veteran pop star Justin Timberlake.

Bieber's everywhere. This past year, the 16-year-old Canadian performed in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, and United States, where he has attracted throngs of worshipping teenage and tween girls. One performance in Sydney had to be cancelled after ten girls fainted and a few fans were trampled amid a scene of mass teenage hysteria. (Don't worry, they're all OK.) And, if Justin's popularity couldn't get any hotter, he is set to take the U.S. by storm on tour this summer. Watch out.

Bieber's success is a good sign for the music industry. Look hard enough--yes, right there on the Internet--and you can find amazing new talent, no glitzy talent shows like American Idol needed.

But Bieber's stardom also raises a troubling question: why hasn't the music industry discovered more talent on YouTube? Just one Justin Bieber in five years of YouTube's existence is not a good percentage, given the millions of videos and many amateur singers on YouTube. A few artists like Esmee Denters and Terra Naomi did get signed to recording contracts based in part on their YouTube popularity. But they are exceptions, not the rule.

So what should the music industry do? It's simple. The music industry should use YouTube and other social media more proactively to find new talent--and a greater diversity of singers. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the next Justin Bieber to bubble up from the crowd, the music industry should set up an official "talent scout" channel on YouTube for amateurs from all different backgrounds and genres to share their music videos and "try out" for recording contracts.

But, in order for this talent channel to work, the music industry must use its copyrights more permissively and transparently. Young amateur singers often sing other people's songs in "cover" versions. The first video Justin Bieber ever posted on YouTube was his cover of "So Sick," a song by Ne-Yo. But Bieber, at the time only 12 years old, probably didn't get copyright permission to post his cover of Ne-Yo--or, for that matter, any of the other artists Bieber later covered. The lack of express copyright permission creates a precarious gray area--is a noncommercial cover video posted on YouTube infringing or fair use? Hard to say, given how open-ended the fair use standard is. In these gray areas of copyright law, YouTube sometimes yanks down the videos, as it did with all of the videos of the amazing fifth grade PS22 chorus from Brooklyn. The chorus covered numerous artists, such as Tori Amos, Fleetwood Mac, Jay Z, Rihanna, and Kanye West, and posted the videos on YouTube--all apparently without copyright licenses. Only after much pleading from the chorus's director, Gregg Breinberg, did YouTube reinstate the PS22 chorus's videos. Of course, YouTube did the right thing, as Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, and other artists later praised the chorus's singing of the respective artist's song.

YouTube's not to fault in this episode. YouTube currently faces a $1 billion copyright lawsuit brought by Viacom and other content producers, so, not surprisingly, YouTube is sensitive to copyright issues. Although a district court recently sided with YouTube and ruled that YouTube properly complied with the DMCA safe harbor, Viacom vowed to appeal the decision. Regardless, there's only so much we should expect from YouTube, given its limited role in influencing how music is licensed. The music industry itself can--and should--do more to make sure copyright doesn't get in the way of discovering new talent. The industry should publicly grant a blanket, noncommercial license to all amateur singers that will allow them to sing and post cover videos of copyrighted songs on YouTube. In other words, what Justin Bieber did to get discovered on YouTube should be what every kid (or adult) should be able to do--without fear of a copyright dispute or the unceremonious removal of the video.

Allowing people to make free cover videos--just as Bieber did--would be a win-win for the music industry. Not only would the industry encourage a greater, more diverse pool of new talent to be discovered, but it also could monetize those music videos through YouTube's ad system that inserts ads into videos and enables the direct purchase of the original artist's recording of the musical work contained in a video.

If the music industry fails to act soon, it may well be too late. The Justin Biebers of the world will eventually realize they don't need the music industry to develop a worldwide fan base. Instead, all they need is the Internet. And other media entities that are more entrepreneurial and tech savvy will soon give the music industry a run for its money. Just a little over a month ago, Ellen DeGeneres started her own music label and signed 12-year-old singing prodigy Greyson Chance as her first artist. Of course, Ellen discovered Greyson singing on the Internet--on YouTube.