New Zealand's YouTube stars

INTERNATIONAL HIT: Greg Locke with part of his mechanised group, The Trons.
INTERNATIONAL HIT: Greg Locke with part of his mechanised group, The Trons.

Despite having built a four-piece robot band in his lounge, Greg Locke lacked the basic technological wherewithal - specifically, a computer with an internet connection - to share his project with the online masses.

In June, when he wanted to upload a three-minute music video of The Trons to YouTube, the global video-sharing website, the Hamilton electronics engineer had to use a mate's Stone Age dial-up connection.

"It took 10 hours," recalls Locke. "I wasn't sure it wasn't going to crash before it got on there."

Once posted, though, things assumed a pace befitting the strange new world of his unnerving, disembodied musical progeny.

A friend posted the link on an online forum; it was picked up by popular tech and music blogs, before someone at YouTube took notice and featured the video as one of its clips of the day, the first thing users see when they access the site.

Suddenly, more than 300,000 people around the world mostly in the United States and Europe had seen it. Locke was oblivious until he arrived at work to find 3000 emails, one for each comment left online. Newspapers and TV started calling. The Trons were internet-famous.

For Locke, who posted the video only to promote an appearance at a Hamilton fringe festival, it was a bewildering lesson in the internet's ability to project the efforts of bedroom hobbyists like himself to an invisible, potentially gargantuan audience. At no cost. More or less as he slept.

"It felt incredibly weird," he says. "I had no idea what was going on, but was aware there was all this action happening that was somehow intangible." It freaked him out a bit. "Part-way through, I did think, `This is too much, I can't handle it'."

Like its robot stars, the clip seems to have taken on a life of its own, passing a million views and continuing to surge upwards in arbitrary bursts. The attention has landed him big gigs, including Friday's Big Day Out, and the Paris Auto Show. There are offers to play in Austria and Kuwait, and interest from record companies.

But internet celebrity has proven hard to leverage into something material. Financially, Locke has made back only what he put into the project. The record companies seem as unsure as he is as to whether the phenomenon is "all flash in the pan, or whether there's actually a solid base to it". He hasn't quit the day job.

"People said I should have something to sell, but there wasn't really any way to make the most of it because it happened so fast," he says. "You have the impression you could just zoom with it, but unless you have a team behind you, it's not realistic."

Now the pace has eased, he can focus on developing The Trons into something more sustainable. He's philosophical about hypothetical opportunities that could never have been seized. "Part of the charm of YouTube is it isn't about selling stuff it's just about sharing things people like."

Exactly how to translate the momentary attention of an audience the size of cities sometimes countries into something tangible is YouTube's enduring conundrum.

Four years after it was founded, the site on which about 15 hours of new content are uploaded every minute, and about 800,000 New Zealanders watch a video every month has yet to make money for Google, which bought it for more than $US1.5 billion two years ago.

Judson Laipply, the man behind the site's second most-watched clip (his "Evolution of Dance" video has had more than 109m views) is still plugging away at a career as a motivational speaker, with neither the wealth nor recognition of the first-place holder, pop star Avril Lavigne, to show for his microcelebrity.

While YouTube stardom might not equate to a big payday, it can get you a lot of air miles and press clippings. Take Lim Jeong-Hyun, the Auckland University student and amateur guitarist known online as "funtwo".

A grainy 5-minute clip of Lim playing a blistering headbanger's version of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in his bedroom is the site's 25th most-viewed video, having been watched by 54m people roughly the population of the United Kingdom since it was uploaded three years ago.

The 24-year-old outed himself to the New York Times after an imposter claimed credit for the video; since then he has had extensive global media coverage, and secured a footnote in pop culture history.

Last year, American band Weezer recreated his bedroom setting for their "Pork and Beans" video, which parodied YouTube viral sensations; in November, Lim shared a stage with guitar hero Joe Satriani at the YouTube Live event in San Francisco, the clip of which has itself been viewed more than 1m times.

Lim has treated the attention as a colourful diversion, rather than a career path. 2009 finds him completing his computer science degree in Auckland in peaceful anonymity; his friends here, he told an interviewer, are confounded by his other life. "They said, `You're not even handsome'."

The success of the video, thankfully, can't be attributed to a growing popular appetite for classical electric guitar music; the appeal is that Lim is an unexpectedly talented nobody. As Locke explains: "People get into seeing stuff that's done by people like themselves; the people that get a say aren't just the ones with corporate backing and money. They're talent that's been hanging around at home."

On YouTube, the everyman charm trumps all, it seems; it's not even necessary to be blessed with virtuoso talent or a novel idea to attract the hits. Patrick Cavill, a video shop manager from Papamoa, has posted his "patrickblog" for the past three years, using YouTube as a very public diary.

He's fulfilling the site's promise of letting its users become stars in their own show, and in doing so has attracted a devoted following. Every video he uploads anecdotes about his day, a winsome paean to an undiscovered soulmate is delivered directly to the accounts of his 5400 subscribers.

His biggest hit is a modified cover of Britney Spears' hit "Piece of Me", a sassy, lurid piece of camp which is at once a sincere expression of identity (his reworked lyrics: "I'm the boy with no father / You'd think my life would be harder") and a calculated gaming of the search engine results.

"There's heaps of tricks you can do," explains Cavill, a telegenic, impressively composed 19-year-old whose accent is a hit with foreign subscribers. "Because Britney's song had just come out, a lot of people were searching for it, so my video got a large number of views."

The clip, which took about a day to make, has been watched by 634,000 people, about the size of the local audience that watched the All Blacks play Italy at the last world cup. Another, in which he appears naked on his bed, shot from the waist up, has had 150,000 viewers.

The masses of unseen watchers, and the potential consequences of the exposure, do not faze him, despite a couple of negative experiences (a stalker got his phone number; some local bozos posted a video declaring: "You're gay, you need a bullet."). Says Cavill: "I wouldn't stand in front of a crowd of 5000 and talk, but in a video, I just turn the camera on and bring out whatever I have in me."

He says most people don't appreciate that, beyond functioning as a sort of online television jukebox, YouTube is also an online community and social networking site. Most of his good friends these days are fellow video bloggers, like Levi Beamish, a precocious aspiring filmmaker from Kerikeri.

Beamish, aka corporalcadet, is New Zealand's most famous video blogger, with 13,500 subscribers signed up for his short films, music videos, and dialogues with his nana. Fans often respond in kind, posting videos declaring their love from Wisconsin, wishing him a happy birthday from Canada.

"When I started, I'd get 1000 views, and think `Wow'. Now, I've got just under 2m video views in total it sort of does my head in a bit," says the 17-year-old, whose appearances, occasionally in eyeliner, have made him a YouTube pin-up boy. "But I'll walk down Queen St and no one will take a second glance at me. I don't consider myself famous in any way."

Although Cavill and Beamish both describe the other as the type of friend they would never have made without their mutual hobby, they have much in common: an inclination to exhibitionism and a desire to speak to the world; a hairstyle, and notion of privacy, identifiably of the MySpace generation; and an embrace of technology as a lifeline to transcend the cultural isolation of their small towns.

Many of their videos play like auditions for an MTV presenting job; the inherent narcissism and banality of the medium tempered by energy, candour and natural charm. To watch them, if you're over 25, is to feel old.

Again, their online celebrity has not translated into wealth or mainstream fame, although each has seen modest, but real, benefits. Cavill has happily relocated to Auckland after he was cast in The Edge radio station's reality show (where he was praised for his self-promotional talents by jock Jay Jay Feeney, one of our greatest exponents of the art); he has since secured a role in a kidult drama pilot.

Acting was something he has always wanted to do, but would have been unimaginable in his pre-YouTube days. "I was very shy, I was never confident. I'm a lot more comfortable with who I am now."

Recent school-leaver Beamish has won a place at film school, and is formulating plans to head to the United States next year to collaborate on a project with YouTube friends and fellow visionaries, "people who have completely changed my perception of life".

As a YouTube "partner", one of the small group of users granted a cut of advertising revenue from their videos as an incentive to upload quality original content, he's also earning a bit of pocket money. But, really, it's not about the cash.

Beamish, the son of a sculptor and younger brother of a painter, is a true believer in the values of the YouTube community. He laments the prevalence of posters who "go off the rails" by submitting to the site's implicit market forces, sacrificing the quality of their content in a lowest-common denominator bid for mass viewership. He wants to make videos you could admire in a gallery.

"That's what fuels me," he says. "You want to find that original thing."


Sunday Star Times