YouTube redefines the word “fake”

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Given the success that some YouTube “stars” have had — with Dutch singer Esmee Denters signed to a boutique label run by Justin Timberlake, and Ysabella Brave also signed to a recording contract — it’s not surprising that some record labels would try to do an end-run around the process and create a YouTube “sensation” out of whole cloth.

0715mariedigby.jpgThat appears to be what happened with Marie Digby, a young singer who was recently signed to a recording contract with Disney’s Hollywood Records. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, the 24-year-old singer was already working with the record company before posting any of her cover versions of popular songs to the video-sharing site.

Her appearances on TV shows and radio shows, for example — which apparently occurred after they saw her YouTube videos — were booked through a record company executive, and the story says that the record label was also involved in choosing the songs she posted to YouTube.

Crass? Yes. Surprising? Hardly. As Wall Street Journal blogger Kara Swisher put it: “Hollywood lies again; also just in — birds fly, fish swim.”

For many YouTube watchers a big part of the appeal of finding someone like Ms. Digby is that they are outside the traditional star-making machinery, and are therefore more authentic and natural. To find out that this isn’t the case often ruins the magic (although Lonelygirl15 continued to be popular once it was revealed to be fake).

Ms. Digby isn’t even the first to be involved in such a scheme: last year, a Scottish singer named Sandi Thom appeared on the scene, playing songs with her band from her apartment and streaming them over the Internet, and after attracting as many as 100,000 viewers (allegedly) she was signed to a recording contract — except, of course, that she had already been signed to a contract before the performances began.

In a post on her MySpace blog, Ms. Digby maintains that the Wall Street Journal story was blown out of proportion (although she doesn’t deny that she was working with a record company before posting her material to YouTube). She says:

“Here’s Lesson 1 for me in Media – The writer will use whatever quote he wants of yours to make it fit his ‘angle’. This loser was desperate for a good story… he knew what he wanted to write before he ever even talked to me.

The guy’s angle is this : that I am a complete phony and fake and a pawn of my record label in some brilliant marketing scheme. IS this guy completely insane. You think it’s that easy? That you get signed and suddenly everything’s taken care of for you!!!??”

Ms. Digby goes on to say that:

“What hurts the most is that this loser took every genuine thing i said and made it sound like I am acting, that this whole thing is scripted. The dude is desperate to be onto the next ‘ lonely girl’ or whatever.. i’ve actually never seeen that but its obvious that’s what he wanted me to be.”

Although some commenters on MySpace and YouTube have denounced her as a fraud, a number of fans have posted comments of support.

Is Ms. Digby a fake? That’s difficult to say. Her version of events seems to be that she developed the YouTube campaign in an attempt to keep the record company’s interest, while the WSJ tries to make the case that the whole thing was orchestrated by the label. The bottom line is that we may never know the “real” story, now that YouTube has become a subsidiary of the Hollywood department of smoke and mirrors.

Jonathan Coulton — who refers to himself as an “authentic Internet superstar” — has some perspective on Ms. Digby on his blog, in which he describes her as being “clotheslined by the thin line between grassroots and astroturf.” Nice line.

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