For a growing number of UCLA performers, pricey venues, low budgets, agents and red tape are nonissues. Their audience, sometimes tough to please, is a mere click of the mouse away.
In recent years, YouTube and other sites with user-created content are casting light on a rapidly emerging undercurrent of creativity on campus.
Dykstra residents Keith Kupper, Muntasir Khan, Jeff Legaspi, Nelson Perez-Olney and Stephen Abdallah form a YouTube production collective called the Beluga Whale Foundation. One of their first videos, a fan music video of Hellogoodbye’s “Here (In Your Arms)” has garnered over 20,000 views.
“We were just messing around with a camera, and people liked seeing us making fools of ourselves, and our floors got into it,” said second-year psychobiology student Kupper, who’s also a drum major in the UCLA marching band.
Although the group members usually spend almost an entire quarter producing and shooting fan music videos for their favorite artists, they balk at being labeled aspiring filmmakers.
“I don’t have a specific interest in making movies. … I think it’s just something fun to do together that’s not class,” Kupper said.
“We only made the videos for people we knew, but you know, on YouTube, people find out about it,” said Khan, a second-year geography student.
The viral-style popularity that YouTube affords its users helped connect Jon Chau, a second-year physiological science student and singer/songwriter, to an audience of thousands. Chau has obtained a significant following by uploading video covers of popular songs.
“Once I get fans from the cover videos, I can lead them to my MySpace and my original music,” Chau said.
However, Chau hesitates to call himself an aspiring musician.
“I don’t really consider it as a career right now, it’s something I do on the side,” he said.
However, for many students, what may have started out as a casual pastime has turned into a serious bid to work respectably in the entertainment industry.
Third-year history student Olivia Thai dabbled in the industry as a singer and actress for three years before she transferred to UCLA from East Los Angeles College. However, once her studies grew heavier, she took a hiatus from performing.
“I was lacking something during my break, so I decided I should just post videos on YouTube for fun,” the 19-year-old said. Thai began recording simple live songs using the built-in recording features of her computer. She performed covers of songs to send to her roommates and family members. “I just told my sister, and she told all of her friends about (my videos). … It was just a bunch of people telling people,” Thai said.
However, Thai never anticipated the ensuing buzz around her YouTube performances, which include covers of Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Timbaland and OneRepublic. Thai, who also writes her own songs, rose rapidly in the YouTube limelight to become the No. 6 most-viewed musician this month.
Her popularity translated to more than just a lot of comments and page views. Thai will also be performing live at the Tangier Lounge at 9 p.m. tonight with Chicago music artist Verseatile.
“I’m just going with the flow, but I’m also negotiating and talking to a few labels, people from YouTube and MySpace,” Thai added.
Bart Kwan, a third-year psychobiology student at UCLA, and his film partner, a student at California State University, Los Angeles, have generated significant attention for their improvised comedy.
“We just started recording for fun and passing it around to our friends. Our friends passed it on to their friends, and people just started asking for more,” Kwan said. “Our success is definitely because of our fans.”
Because of their popularity, particularly among Asian American youths, Kwan began thinking of professionally producing his work.
Since last August, their improv comedy channel JustKiddingFilms has attracted 200,000 channel views alone and ranks in the top 100 for Most Subscribed and Most Viewed in the YouTube comedians category.
They are perhaps most recognized as one for Vietnamese immigrant characters, “Uncle Same” and “Uncle Chin,” dressed in flashy thrift-store garb. The two have a special knack for ethnic accents, which gives their humor an edginess. Despite their potentially offensive tone of humor, Kwan labels their genre “educational comedy.”
“Our goal is not just for people to watch it and laugh,” Kwan said. “(Our work is to) expose the sores that we have in society and yet make it funny ““ making fun of ignorance instead of being the ones creating it.”
Kwan hopes to fill what he sees as a void in Asian American comedy and are currently working with Saigon TV on a sitcom pilot. “If the pilot is successful, we will have our own full-blown TV show,” Kwan said.
Their target demographic? “The world,” Kwan said.
JustKiddingFilms, along with other UCLA students, seems to be well on its way to national, if not international, fame as a result of its activities on YouTube, whether or not it was the creators’ original intention.
Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfried, the cocreators of the successful online serials “lonelygirl15″ and “KateModern” cite YouTube as a key aspect in their rise to success.
“Although it could be a better social network, YouTube was a great way to get exposure,” said Beckett, who will be describing the show’s success in detail today at noon in Kerckhoff Grand Salon.
The “lonelygirl15″ videos regularly top 2 million page views, and the audience is comprised of an unprecedented mix of demographics.
Students producers are tapping into the same amalgamation of audiences: Chau’s video cover of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” is nearing 100,000 views, and Kupper and his friends have fans as far as Venezuela.
“I’ve gotten this two-page fan mail from a 40-year-old man about how I changed his life. … And then I get a lot of middle school preteen fan girls who are like, “˜You’re so cute! I love your music,’” Chau said.
“You get a really immediate response,” added Chau. “It’s fun to get the criticism, and it’s good to know you’re being heard.”