Just over a year ago, Trevor Powers was still a student at Boise State University, working a retail job at a local Urban Outfitters and saving up to record his debut album at a friends' home studio. He'd been writing songs for months -- hazy adolescent memories and thoughts about anxiety and young love. He called the project Youth Lagoon.
In February 2011 his album was finished, and in March he uploaded one of his songs, "July" to the now defunct Youth Lagoon Bandcamp page. He emailed a few of his favorite indie music blogs to see if they'd post the tune and, to his surprise, they obliged. Other blogs caught on, too. Then Powers posted a second song, "Cannons," which he found was just as popular.
Based on the strength of two spare, atmospheric tracks, with lyrics barely discernible over distorted keyboards and drum machine clicks, a music manager sought Powers out. Then a major indie label did, too. Label representatives flew out to Boise to court him and watch him play a show at a local dive.
"To think it's gotten to this level this quickly," Powers told The Huffington Post in November. "I can't even comprehend."
Cut to the end of this year: Powers has a full-length album approved by the indie rock tastemakers at Pitchfork and he's headlining a major tour across the United States. Jessica Alba is tweeting about him. He's tweeting her back. At Mercury Lounge in New York City, he plays a sold-out show, fans singing along to every track. What sounded distant and subtle on the album is suddenly sparkling and vibrant, even though it's just him and a guitarist up there, alone, playing the songs that barely a year ago Powers was imagining in his head.
The internet gave him attention and a voice. Then all he had to do was actually perform his songs in front of real people. He had to prove he could do everything else a musician does.
That transition -- from amateur-level unknown to monumental explosion -- appeared to happen more frequently than ever in 2011. Lana Del Rey, who was introduced to the world by way of a scrappy YouTube video featuring her sultry, catchy song and her bedroom eyes, made an international name for herself seemingly overnight.
But she couldn't survive on her mysterious video alone. To prove she was a real, human person, she recorded a "live" rendition of her song, "Video Games," and posted it online. People still doubted her, so she began to perform on actual stages. Then, in her own time, she recorded a full-length album, set to debut in early 2012.
The trajectory was specific and spontaneous and all her own.
Mac Miller, a teenage hip hop artist from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, took a similarly contemporary route to success. His black-and-white videos and catchy, energetic style helped him amass legions of fans on YouTube without ever releasing a full-length album. In late 2010, he embarked on his first tour and sold out every show. His recent single "Donald Trump" racked up 30 million YouTube views and became a massive radio hit. Finally, in November, his debut album hit number one on the Billboard charts.
One of Miller's songs even became the "victory song" for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.
In Indonesia, a policeman named Norman Kamaru became a viral sensation after releasing a grainy YouTube video of him lip-synching to a Bollywood song. He scored a $100,000 record contract and appeared on local talk shows.
Indeed, 2011 was a year when "YouTube musician" became a compliment, and success for the unknown came faster than ever -- in both the indie and mainstream worlds. This is all to say nothing (though plenty has been said) of Rebecca Black, whose YouTube hit "Friday" gave her both wanted and unwanted attention and made her the most Google-searched name of the year (above the iPhone 5 and Casey Anthony).
The rules for success in the music industry have changed rapidly over the years. What started with the MySpace craze has now branched much farther out to include lip-synching Indonesians, students from Boise and teenage girls whose mothers pay a pair of fledgling producers to write a song about a day of the week. And as labels lost more of their power, radio lost listeners, and albums became even more of an afterthought, the music industry continued to redefine itself in 2011.