As president of Island Records and a veteran A&R man, David Massey would like to think that he can find talent anywhere. His ears are open and his senses battle-tested. In some instances, he says he can tell whether an artist will have a career in music within two minutes of meeting them.
Thirty years ago, Massey might have found the Next Big Thing at an open-mic night in a dimly lit dive. Ten years ago, he and his team were crawling Myspace for signs of life. But these days it's thriving digital platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, and, most recently, Vine — the Twitter-owned social network comprised solely of looping, six-second, user-generated video clips — that Massey looks to as a hotbed for gifted young performers.
"It's a viable way to glance at someone and see if there's magic," Massey told BuzzFeed News of the bite-size video service. "In that short window of time you can get a real sense of their intelligence, their sense of humor, their vocal talent."
Since its launch in January 2013, Vine, which now draws more than 100 million visitors per month, has often felt more like a hyperactive talent show than a social network. Unlike the gaping maw of its bigger cousin YouTube, where videos can stretch the length of a feature film, or even the comparatively generous Instagram Video, which allows for 15-second clips, Vine's unsparing six-second rule seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of exceptionally creative strivers.
In six seconds, an aspiring filmmaker may not be able to tell much of a linear story, but they can use slick editing skills to turn ordinary household chores into treacherous sorcery. In the hands of Vine's many devoted comedians, the service's abbreviated videos become mini-master classes in setup and punchline. When it comes to musicians, the brief runtime affords only the tiniest taste of a song, but it can be more than enough to spotlight a winsome personality, telegenic face, or sticky hook — all important prerequisites for any would-be superstar.
"Getting across your charisma does not take long — even a photograph can tell you a lot about a person," said Massey. "You take a combination of a few great little Vine ideas and a face-to-face meeting with someone, and then you know."
Earlier this year, Island Records signed Vine phenomenon Shawn Mendes, a 15-year-old singer and guitarist with a Clark Kent jawline and a cherubic grin. Mendes migrated to Vine in 2013 from YouTube, which was by then saturated with wide-eyed bedroom crooners dreaming of becoming the next Justin Bieber. On Vine, Mendes posted a video of himself playing guitar while singing the hook to Bieber's song "As Long As You Love Me" and received 10,000 likes overnight. He followed that up with covers of Bruno Mars and other pop singers, and, by this spring, when Island and Massey came calling, had already amassed over 2.5 million followers on the service. (He now has 3.1 million.)
The ability to engage large numbers of fans for six seconds at a time on Vine can suggest a starpower that will translate outside of the service, at record stores and on tour stages. If thousands of users are liking and reposting everything an artist shares, the thinking goes, then those same users can be mobilized to buy a new song or album, or to shell out for concert tickets when the artist comes to town.
"It's a bit like meeting a band who've built an amazing following live and saying, 'Wow this band is really connecting with people and they're self-starters,'" said Massey. "They have their own motivation and they've created their own world already."
There's good reason to believe that activity on Vine has an impact on the marketplace. In July, Mendes' debut single "Life of the Party" sold 148,000 copies in its first week and reached No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, making him the youngest artist ever to enter the top 25 of the chart with his first release. His subsequent self-titled EP, and first collection of all original songs, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on iTunes, selling 48,000 copies in its first week, according to SoundScan.
And beyond minting creative and camera-ready young artists, Vine has also proven an effective, if unconventional, distribution channel for hit songs. Because the service allows users to pair a separate audio track with their video, a song with the right tone can serve as a ready-made soundtrack. DJ Snake and Lil Jon's manic barn burner "Turn Down for What" and the convulsive Martin Garrix floor-filler "Animals" punched up the action in countless Vines before spreading to radio and elsewhere online.
"'Turn Down for What' was initially an independent release, and before we signed it there were bootleg versions of the song already climbing up the iTunes chart," said Imran Majid, head of A&R at Columbia Records. "We put the official version of the song up right before shutting down for Christmas break last year and it shot straight to No. 11. We said, 'If this song reaches 30,000 in sales before we get back, we'll all give each other high fives.' It sold over 39,000 in a single day."
While record labels have moved quickly to capitalize on Vine stars and their built-in momentum, turning a viral sensation into a career artist is still far from an exact science. Especially for those whose songs have taken on a life of their own on the service, repeated success can be elusive.
Though it's still early days; no artist signed to a record deal after spreading virally on Vine — including Sage the Gemini, Dawin, We Are Toonz, PTAF, and, most recently, Bobby Shmurda — has yet produced a hit full-length album. While he enjoyed a reported 583% spike in single sales last summer after his song "Gas Pedal" appeared in numerous dance videos on the social network, Sage the Gemini's debut LP for Epic Records, Remember Me, faltered badly this spring, selling just 7,200 copies in its first week.
But if snapping up Vine stars is a risk for record labels, it's a calculated one.
"There have been artists whose projects I've worked on who'd been signed off some viral sensation, and once you kind of put them through the wringer of what an artist would actually do, like perform and get in the studio and things like that, they haven't really been adept at those kinds of things — but that's the risk you take," said Nick Simmons, digital marketing director at Capitol Records. "They have the talent, they have the personality, but can they actually perform? It's a roll of the dice."
As Vine grows, the music industry's focus on the service will increase — and potentially get more complicated. Currently Vine doesn't allow ads and generates no direct revenue for copyright holders, nor does it actively track and regulate the distribution of copyrighted content, as YouTube and SoundCloud do. Like those services, Vine may one day face pressure from labels to remunerate them for the widespread use of their content, or, perhaps, to implement a "Buy" button below videos that include music, similar to the one recently rolled out by parent company Twitter.
Though the extremely short video clips are often considered to be protected under the fair use doctrine, that will ultimately have to be decided by a judge. In April of last year, Twitter removed eight videos from Vine after receiving a DMCA takedown notice from Prince's record label NPG Records.
"It's tough because it's only six seconds of a song," said Majid. "But I would guess that there are people looking into [monetization] just because it's such high volume."
For now, record labels are looking to Vine to produce the next crossover superstar, if not a financial windfall. Like other new platforms that were originally considered novelties, it may not be long before Vine becomes the music industry's new normal.
"When Myspace happened there were a lot of so-called 'Myspace artists' that people would talk about," said Majid. "But One Republic came out of Myspace, so did Owl City and Colbie Callait. If you're a talented artist on Vine and you come up with incredible songs, you'll do really well. There's going to be career artists that come out of there."