May 8, 2015 · 15 minutes

Nobody over the age of 19 knows who Connor Franta is.

Then again, virtually everybody under Canada's drinking age -- those teenaged post-Millennials whittling away at their wasted youth one taco emoji at a time -- knows that Franta is among the most popular members of a new breed of digitally-native celebrities who have built absurdly massive, absurdly young followings on YouTube. They're like the Brat Pack of the Internet age; "The Yaass Squad," if you will. By targeting the youngest media consumers on the web, Franta's artless video monologues have attracted 4.4 million subscribers and over 200 million views. And although you and I had never heard of him, teenagers consider Franta and his fellow 8000-kilobit superstars to be more influential than most Hollywood actors and actresses. Not that this should be too surprising: Like the biggest Hollywood stars, Franta has a huge team around him to help him land endorsement deals and, among other things, ensure he doesn't say anything he's not supposed to on the phone with me.

“[Franta]'s someone that has a business manager, a publicist, me, an entertainment attorney,” says Big Frame's Andrew Graham, who as one of top YouTube talent managers represents Franta and other young digital video celebrities. "He’s making much smarter moves than someone three years ago who didn’t have that infrastructure around artists. The money's gotten real."

So what does Franta do?

For teenagers in 2015, such questions are quaint. Is he a musician? A singer? An actor? A comedian? Franta is none of the above: He is a celebrity in the purest sense of the word, possessing fame that is unadulterated by talent or artistry, at least not in any traditional (read: pre-digital) sense. His craft or speciality, like so many of his famous YouTube peers -- or as he calls them, including the ones he's never met, "his friends" -- is difficult if not impossible to define. In this way, Franta's closest pre-Internet antecedents are reality TV stars. Even Graham admitted to me that reality TV is the best point-of-comparison to make when convincing old industry blue-hairs of his clients' selling power.

But still that analogy is imperfect. Unlike Honey Boo-Boo or Kim Kardashian, Franta's fanbase adores him without an ounce of schadenfreude. He and his "friends" are at the vanguard of youth culture's "New New Sincerity," and haters can promptly see themselves out.

So if Franta's not a musician, a singer, an actor, a comedian, nor one of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real... then what is he?

It's a simple question, but how we choose to answer it is significant. The success of creators like Franta speaks to the central mystery of what entertainment means to young people -- a mystery that transcends the ever-shifting tailwinds of technological progress, and a mystery that took shape long before -- and will survive long after -- Snapchat, YouTube, and even the Internet.

As it were, the best and only answer comes from Franta's own YouTube bio, which is delivered with the same charmingly dull literalism as his videos:

"I talk to my camera & post it here every monday around 12pm PST!"

That hardly makes Franta sound like some era-defining artist. But for teenagers whose appetite for these video stars is insensible and insatiable, "I talk to my camera" is enough.

***

YouTube stars for dummies

A typical Connor Franta video goes something like this: Over the course of a three-to-ten minute clip, Franta launches into a lightly intimate, free associative symposium on what's happening around him and in his own head -- which for a famous person is often astoundingly trivial.

Yet that's precisely the point. While Franta will occasionally expound on more universal topics of interest, like how to greet strangers or which non-American candies are the best, in general, Franta's discussions are as commonplace as the average lunchroom conversation. After watching a few of his videos and then spending a little time with a friend and her teenaged daughter -- whose speech patterns and conversational themes were nearly identical to his -- Franta's channel felt almost like instructions on how to win friends and influence people in junior high. Granted, he recently came out as gay, which lends an added measure of significance and pathos to his video catalog, particularly for fans struggling with their own sexuality in the face of the shocking cruelty of young adults.

But frequently, Franta's personality -- and moreover the personalities of some of his most popular camera-talking peers on YouTube -- is like a tightrope act between individuality and conformity, striking a shrewd balance like only the most popular kids in school can. And while entertainment has long functioned as the closest thing to a playbook for teenagers navigating the politics and pressures of high school, the YouTube class of 2015 takes this a step further.

When I was in high school, people of a certain temperament watched MTV to find out how to be "cool." But Franta and his ilk cut out the middlemen -- middlemen like artists and other actual cool people -- and get straight to the point of how to convince people to like you, with many YouTube stars operating as living, breathing templates of uncontroversial likability. It's okay to be yourself, they argue implicitly, as long as "yourself" isn't some hopeless weirdo.

As for the visual style of this genre, In keeping with the casualness of a webcam conversation, Franta's and others' aesthetic is flat and lifeless. And yet the bewilderingly high number of editing cuts, which arrive every two or three seconds, betrays a sense of technique behind the apparent amateurishness -- albeit a technique that's grating and downright antagonistic toward the rhythms and flows of even the most rudimentary student films. These subtle interruptions between nearly every sentence -- and sometimes between dependent and independent clauses, even -- make Franta's verbal rhapsodies feel less like works of oratory and more like restless, churning rivers of disjointed tweets.

Even though these visual techniques would likely appall every filmmaker from the Lumieres to Scorsese, they nevertheless constitute carefully-calculated stylistic choices that run counter to the confessional and faux-authentic "turn-on-the-camera-and-talk" anti-pretensions embraced by Franta and his fellow YouTubers. If this "style" had a name, it would be "fake minimalism." And while kids will outgrow the insecurities these videos sometimes feed on, I suspect these clips have forged what will become the dominant approach toward visual storytelling in the post-Millennial age.

***

Behind every great Internet star is a team of suits

The emergent narrative surrounding these new teen idols is that they've upended traditional routes to stardom, ascending to international fame with no resources to speak of other than a laptop, a webcam, and maybe a case of narcissistic personality disorder. One pictures young YouTube personalities like Franta, makeup instructor Michelle Phan, or Swedish gamer PewDiePie sitting in their bedroom at their parents' house and one day deciding on a whim to upload a video of themselves talking about, well, talking about themselves. Hours later they reach millions -- or billions -- of viewers, and suddenly they're bigger than Scarlett Johansson. If we believe in this narrative -- that these young stars are completely independent and authentic lone wolves let loose on an unsuspecting Internet -- it makes the statistics all the more impressive about how YouTube stars are now considered more influential among teens than Hollywood actors and actresses.

But no. The reality behind Franta's success and that of his YouTube peers is not much different than the way the biggest stars of film and television worm their way into our cultural and commercial consciousness. Their videos may look cheap and authentic, but giant teams of business managers, agents, publicists, entertainment attorneys, and platform liaisons are assembled to help these creators build content, audiences, cash, and then even more content, perpetuating this Cash Content Cycle over and over again until we're all dead or the brands go broke -- whichever comes first. Do you believe a 16-year-old YouTube personality like Trevor Moran brokered an endorsement deal with Invisalign -- in which Moran was paid around $1,500 for merely praising the brand in a short clip  -- all by himself, the sleeves of his dad's oversized suit jacket hanging miles below his fingers?

Indeed, the engine driving the success of a teenager on YouTube is just as calculated and full of human machinery as the engine driving the stratospheric rise of superstars like Justin Bieber -- another teenager who got big on YouTube. The only difference for Bieber was that he looked and acted like any other pop star, meaning that his "content" and how it was presented was more familiar to generations raised on MTV -- or even the Ed Sullivan Show -- than the work of a Connor Franta or a Kian Lawley. At a time when social networks strike sweet deals with content partners while demanding others to pony up cash to promote their work -- lest it fade into oblivion under the weight of a million Ice Bucket Challenge videos -- the work of creatives never "goes viral" anymore. For example, you wouldn't say that the new Avengers movie "went viral," despite its immense popularity. The film had a massive marketing budget, tentacles upon tentacles of brand synergies, and built-in name recognition -- not unlike so many of these professedly "paradigm-shifting" YouTube sensations, albeit on a smaller scale -- for now. A YouTube star with a half a billion views is about as disruptive as a summer blockbuster. And behind every great Internet star, there's a team of suits.

But if the celebrities teenagers love aren't so different from the celebrities older generations love, then perhaps teenage media consumers aren't so different from older media consumers. And putting this theory to the test is Franta, who has convinced a demographic who we've been told never pays for media and who we've been told never buys physical goods... to pay for media and buy physical goods.

***

How Connor Franta convinced teenagers to buy CDs again

Last November, Franta released Crown, a compilation album of some of his favorite artists, on iTunes.

"I’ve always wanted to do something with music, but I can’t really sing very well," Franta told me. "But I have good taste in music."

Backed by Franta's enormous built-in audience, Crown -- which was really little more than a mixtape full of pop, indie, and electronic songs he liked -- became one of the 20 best-selling pop albums of 2014 on iTunes. And it's not as if these songs were rarities scraped out of some wooden crate at a crusty record store. All twelve tracks were already released on individual albums, and all of them are currently available to stream on Spotify. Nevertheless, Crown has been purchased over 90,000 times on iTunes for $9.99 each -- which is more than many young consumers spend on media all year.

Those sales numbers may only constitute a fraction of the units moved by a music mega-star like Kanye West -- West's most recent record sold over 300,000 copies in its first week. But for an album full of previously-released material put out by a non-musician, Crown was an undeniable success. And the windfall tied to that album speaks to the power of Franta's brand while providing evidence that pure fandom can translate into real sales -- even when the fans are as young and reluctant to pay for media as Franta's. Moreover, by introducing new bands to his fanbase -- a fanbase that's already proved its willingness to support musicians with real, actual money -- Franta has created a positive feedback loop of recommendation, discovery, and -- with any luck -- sales that, if his project continues to scale could be a boon for the music industry at large. Some of the artists he featured received huge boosts in exposure after appearing on Crown, like the indie band Glass Animals and the electronic duo Odesza, both of whom spent 2014 in relative obscurity before each landing gigs this year at Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Outside Lands.

But what's even more surprising is that Franta didn't just sell a respectable number of digital downloads. He sold a not insignificant number of physical CDs -- yes, that most hated, overpriced, and fragile of media formats.

"I enjoy physical books and not just an online book, so I thought it was really cool to have physical CDs and design the covers," Franta said. When asked if he has any data pertaining to which age groups bought these relics of decades past, Franta was unsure. But he also said he doesn't imagine many listeners outside his core demographic of teens and early twentysomethings bought the album in any format, iTunes or otherwise. "But also my mom bought the CD," he quickly adds.

His follow-up compilation, Common Culture, was released last March. And while Franta's team didn't provide aggregate numbers, they say that he sold 1,000 physical CDs through a pre-sale promotion alone. As for Crown, Franta's representation says he sold around 300 CDs associated with that release each week during the last two months of 2014. By any criteria, whether it's revenue or influence, a few thousand units isn't much to shout about. But the number matters because it runs counter to the widely-expressed theory that art -- which is now effortlessly accessed and in overwhelming abundance -- has become a commodity like paper or livestock. And therefore, under this logic, the relationship between fan and famous person has crumbled, along with the "price" of this fandom, whether calculated in dollars or time.

The compilations' success proved, however, that there are still fans who are so devoted to a pop idol they'll pay $9.99 for a collection of songs they can get for free -- and even more for the same collection on an outdated medium that is too embarrassingly awful to be called "retro." And considering the free availability of these tracks elsewhere, it stands to reason that the fans who paid did so because they wanted to support Franta -- which is about the only reason people to pay for anything in the new digital landscape: because "they want to."

(Too bad for those fans because Franta says the original artists and rightholders of each song took home "very close to 100 percent" of the royalties and licensing fees paid on those sales -- as they should have. That's according to an arrangement the rightsholders agreed to when Franta asked permission to use the songs. That leaves a tiny fraction leftover for Franta and Opus, the label that put out the compilation. From Franta's perspective these albums are brand-building exercises, not revenue drivers).

And compact discs aren't the only pieces of physical media Franta is selling to the children. Last month, he published a memoir  -- at the age of 22! Titled A Work in Progress, the book has landed on a number of ebook best seller lists, from Amazon to Barnes & Noble. What's more, the paperback version hit number eight on USA Today's nonfiction best sellers, number four on the Sunday Times' list, and number seven on the Guardian's list. And again, considering Franta's audience, these are teens and young adults who are reading these dead tree tomes.

The art of fandom isn't dead yet.

***

The children are our future... and that's okay

None of this is to say that 2016 will bring about the return of the CD -- at least I hope it won't. Nor would I recommend betting on wood pulp futures to prepare for the impending Millennial paperback revolution -- though I don't expect Maniac Magee to go out of style anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the case of Connor Franta is immensely instructive, probably even moreso than the millions spent on consumer research on youth buying habits. Franta teaches us that if the brand connection is strong, many young people are as trigger-happy as their forebears when it comes to buying things they don't need. And what's more useless than a CD full of songs anybody can already hear for free on Spotify?

Nothing concrete about the music or publishing industry in general should be assumed by the experience of just one creator and his fans. That said, it's heartening to know that rabid, unbridled, and illogical fandom still exists -- because as long as free and unlimited access to music persists, crazy fandom is the only thing that will motivate most listeners to pay for it.

As for the cultural trends surrounding YouTube and its star creators, I'm less convinced that the impact of these performers on both youth culture and the art of visual storytelling will be a welcome one. Sure, my age -- which is 31 but feels like 71 after researching and writing this piece -- plays a huge role in my lack of appreciation for this genre. In any case, many of these videos -- not so much Franta's as his peers' -- perpetuate the allure of normalcy and conformity. These concepts -- while comfortable -- generally aren't very healthy to pursue, particularly not during one's teenage years which is a time for the sort of calculated risks and experimentation that leads to self-discovery. Furthermore, the technical elements of these videos -- from the flat, dull, visuals to the excessive, extraneous edits -- do not necessarily bode well for the future of visual storytelling on the web -- or storytelling in general. In some ways, the YouTube "talent" machine is built on some of the social web's worst impulses, which often encourage creators and publishers devote far greater resources toward promotion, brand-building, and platform synergies than toward creating high-quality stories that are worthy of an audience's love, not its mere "mind-share."

But however the future of storytelling shakes out, the creative landscape of tomorrow will be shaped by the youth of today. And contrary to conventional wisdom, it's reassuring to know that kids are still willing to support creators with cash and not just clicks.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]