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Hallelujah! YouTube hits keep indie musicians free

Adrian Chamberlain, The Victoria Times Colonist

Published: Saturday, September 22, 2007


Recorded for a meagre 200 bucks, a video of Allison Crowe singing Hallelujah has attracted more than 460,000 views on YouTube.

That means she's sort of famous. But not rich ... at least, not yet.

YouTube is, of course, the most popular video-sharing website in the world. Any doofus can post a video clip -- there are oodles of folk making silly faces or doing lame-o comedy bits. But unlike many music sites that make money by selling downloadable songs, musicians make nary a loonie from YouTube viewings. It's about publicity.

Crowe's YouTube success doesn't put her on the level of, for example, a U2/Green Day video of The Saints Are Coming, which has reached almost six million hits. On the other hand, U2 and Green Day are massive global acts with multimillion-dollar marketing machines behind them. Crowe -- a Nanaimo native who recently moved to Corner Brook, Nfld. -- is an indie singer-songwriter whose marketing machine is just one guy: manager Adrian du Plessis of Saltspring Island.

It's not hard to see why Crowe's Hallelujah -- recorded in a single take -- is popular. It's one of Leonard Cohen's most affecting songs, and the 26-year-old, accompanying herself on piano, makes it her own with raw honesty and formidable vocal power. It's simultaneously heart-breaking and redemptive, and it has captured the imaginations of people around the world. "The song itself is just so emotionally resonant," Crowe said modestly this week.

The beauty of the Internet is that, for independent musicians, it levels the playing field. Crowe's YouTube viewership tally for Hallelujah is not far from Rufus Wainwright's interpretation of the same tune -- and Wainwright is an international star. Her tally also approaches that of the late cult favourite Jeff Buckley, and tops k.d. lang's Hallelujah by about 400,000.

On the U.K. website Last.fm, Crowe's Hallelujah recently charted at No. 8 -- putting her almost on the same level as such trendy young artists as KT Tunstall and Feist (a.k.a. Leslie Feist).

Crowe's version of Hallelujah was videotaped in 2005 at Turtle Studios in White Rock. On the ride over, her van broke down. Friends were enlisted to carry her equipment in two compact cars. Instead of arriving at 3 p.m., Crowe and company got there at 9 p.m.

At first, only a few thousand people a month viewed Hallelujah on YouTube. Then it was a few thousand each week. Fans on blogs started to talk it up, saying the video was "one of the most amazing things every recorded" and even "the best female vocal performance" ever put to tape. When a writer on the Chicago Tribune mentioned the video in print last June, viewership jumped to 1,000 daily. Du Plessis calls it a "viral" phenomenon, in which the buzz grows and grows like a computerized tsunami.

No one is getting rich. Still, the Hallelujah/YouTube success is a big break for Crowe, who -- while on tour -- occasionally couch-surfs like many a struggling musician. At the same time, it sounds as if she's doing fairly well financially, especially for an artist who has yet to become a household name.

To date she has sold more than 15,000 CDs, grossing a total of more than $300,000. Each of her five albums cost less than $8,000 to make. Compare this to the old-school model of major-label signings, in which musicians typically go into debt over a recording thanks to inflated marketing and recording budgets that financially benefit everyone but the artist.

Crowe sells few discs through record stores. Instead, she mostly sells off the stage and online (both CD sales and downloads). This brings in between $3,000 and $8,000 a month. Her concerts, staged mostly at small theatres, bring in additional revenue -- between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.

Du Plessis figures the singer-songwriter would have to sell hundreds of thousands of CDs to match her current earnings from recordings if signed to a money-sucking big-deal label. And Crowe has the additional advantage of being a free artist, beholden only to herself.

All of this is very good news to aspiring musicians. It is now possible to make a living away from the dictatorship of monolithic, greedy corporations. More and more, musicians realize that the old game -- radio-play, MTV (or MuchMusic) rotations, major-label deals, conventional record-store sales -- doesn't mean as much as it once did.

And hallelujah for that.

Allison Crowe at Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin, Ireland - photo by Billie Woods

Nanaimo native Allison Crowe is the latest indie musician to win fame through YouTube. A video of Crowe singing Hallelujah, made for just $200, has been viewed more than 460,000 times on the popular video-sharing site. Photo by Billie Woods