It’s a story that feels like the standard nowadays: an unknown artist uploads a clip of themselves performing on a social platform, which soon goes viral and catches the attention of not only music fans, but the gatekeepers of the music industry — managers, producers, record label execs. The result is immediate superstardom. That is, to varying extents, the origins of some of today’s biggest artists: Shawn Mendes, Alessia Cara, Ed Sheeran, Tori Kelly and 5 Seconds of Summer.
That model of discoverability feels like the new normal now, but that wasn’t the case in 2007 when a young boy named Justin Bieber from Stratford, Ont., uploaded his first video onto YouTube with the help of his mother, Pattie. The clip was grainy and Bieber’s tiny frame (he was only 12 years old at the time) was a mere silhouette moving around a dimly lit church stage. But the quality of the video didn’t matter; the real star of the video was Bieber’s voice, big and bellowing as he reached for the high notes of R&B star Ne-Yo’s song, “So Sick.”
YouTube was in its infancy, just two years old, when Bieber started posting videos of himself performing covers of Lil Bow Wow, Sarah McLachlan and Alicia Keys. While the platform was growing in viewership and hours of uploads — in 2007, approximately six hours of footage was being uploaded every minute; a 2015 study indicated that the number had by then ballooned to more than 400 hours per minute — YouTube wasn’t a place to land a record deal.