You probably have a favourite YouTube musician. The platform has, over the last decade, helped independent musicians to find new and creative ways to build an audience, and even a career.
One of them is British singer-songwriter Mary Spender. She has 266,000 subscribers on the platform, and more than 20 million hits in just three years.
We spoke to her over Skype about her YouTube career, and her new EP, Lone Wolf.
“I was in a rut, working a job that didn’t pay and I hated it,” explains the 29-year-old guitarist. “I was gigging at the weekends, but it wasn’t really taking me anywhere, and I thought if I’m still doing this at 30, I’ll have to go back to school and figure something else out.”
Spender, who started her channel in January 2017 with 300 subscribers, realised she could make it a full-time vocation when she hit the 100K mark. She says: “When I was getting 1,000 hits in a day on a single video, my mind was absolutely blown! I obviously wanted to use [YouTube] as a tool to promote my own music, but at the time I wasn’t ready to make any music.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Spender has released the six-track EP Lone Wolf, with each song released as a single every few weeks. “It’s sort of a concept EP, because it starts off happy with someone, and then ends up becoming angry with [latest single] I Am Not Yours,” says Spender, who started writing songs at 15.
“It’s like reclaiming myself after a hideous break-up. It’s saying ‘I’m all right, I’ll be fine after this. You probably won’t be, but I’ll be fine.’ It’s that sort of song.”
Although Lone Wolf refers to the other person in a relationship, the singer sees parallels with the title itself, and is taking ownership of it. She says, “I’m realising when it comes to being a musician and not having a record label, I am a bit of a lone wolf. And I’m happy because if the only option for you is to do everything yourself, then you have to take it and run with it ... no one’s going to do it for you”.
Spender has developed this self-reliant attitude further, and started making videos every week, which has led to an increase in followers.
“I used to encourage everyone to do YouTube, and now I’m realising I won’t [recommend it] unless they’re the type of personality that could actually enjoy some of the harder parts of getting videos out,” she says.
“You’ve got to be okay with all your flaws because you’re opening yourself up to a lot of criticism. It’s definitely a strange profession.”
One of her most popular releases, Primrose, originally written in 2014, eventually gained traction when she performed on popular British music store Andertons Music Co’s channel.
“I was playing that song for so long at shows, and no one cared for it until I went on Andertons TV. That became a gateway to finding my audience.”
The performance gained nearly 200,000 views only a few months after she’d started her channel, making the song an instant fan-favourite. After many requests for a studio version, Spender re-recorded it, and Primrose was finally released last year.
“I can’t believe how it all changed so much. I was singing to the wrong people for a lot of my life – and YouTube helped me find my people.”