BROOKLYN, N.Y.-The foursome behind YouTube channel Auto-Tune the News just returned from a 27-city tour and are unpacking in their loft workspace in a trendy, industrial section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The Gregory Brothers found YouTube stardom by inventing music video that turns non-songs into songs. By writing music to video clips, they transform regular speakers-news anchors, politicians, celebrities, or regular joes-into what they credit as "unintentional singers." If it sounds odd, so be it. But the business-yes, it is a business-allowed them to quit their day jobs in the last year and to be ranked among the most popular entertainers on the internet.
Their Auto-Tune the News and Songify This channels generate millions of views-and ad revenue that YouTube shares with them (see sidebar below). The not-so-secret sauce to the videos is software called Auto-Tune that studios and musicians use to either correct pitch or add distortion. The Gregory Brothers apply Auto-Tune to talking heads on 24-hour cable channels, to historical figures like Winston Churchill, and current ones like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (though they seem to favor putting words in Republicans' mouths), and to internet trends ranging from Charlie Sheen to a guy marveling in his backyard about "Double Rainbows." The brothers warp spoken words into robotic melodies, laying in their own beats, themes, and back-up vocals. They often inject themselves into the videos in bizarre ways, wearing comedic disguises. The result is wildly popular, leading to some top-selling Billboard and iTunes music hits.
"We're anxious to wake up our YouTube presence," said Evan, 32 and the oldest of the Gregory Brothers. Regular offerings on the video website took a backseat as the group that includes his wife, Sarah, and brothers Andrew and Michael joined the YouTube Digitour that ended in May. Eating bagel sandwiches and juggling various bills, appointments, and phone calls, the group begins to brainstorm about Auto-Tuning President Barack Obama's speech after the killing of Osama bin Laden. And they're planning to launch new videos in coming weeks featuring 2012 presidential candidates.
"We're confident Newt Gingrich has some latent ambition to be the next Katy Perry" of unintentional singers, says Evan, noting that some speakers have a natural musical elocution and Gingrich is one of them: "We intend to honor that."
But there's only one problem. The internet is down. Their desks full of computers, speakers, and keyboards have little use when disconnected from that golden brick road called YouTube. Evan's wife, Sarah, paces the office, while on the phone with Verizon sorting out the problem. She's quit her day job at a web design firm, so she's got time. "The long-term goal for me was to work in entertainment," she says. "So I'm very lucky to be there" already.
The brothers (from Virginia) and Sarah (from Texas) moved to New York City after college to write and perform music (they still do, on the side), learning patience, humility and joy, they say, along the way. They played to small audiences and worked day jobs. Evan, who worked for the consulting firm Accenture, met Sarah through their church-Resurrection Presbyterian in Williamsburg-and he has remained actively involved in the music ministry there. Resurrection's pastor, Thomas Vito Aiuto, and his wife Monique moonlight as The Welcome Wagon, releasing their debut album on Sufjan Stevens' label in 2008. Faith-and-culture website ConversantLife featured Resurrection on its "hipster church tour" for communion out of a common cup "with real port!" and mission-mindedness that includes "local social justice work, HIV/AIDS ministry in Africa, and a leadership development/church-planting initiative."
When the youngest Gregory brother, Michael, moved to Brooklyn in 2007, the couple helped with his burgeoning YouTube projects. Over time, their videos grew from 5,000 subscribers to nearly 1 million. Their biggest hit, Antoine Dodson's "Bed Intruder," drew more than 80 million views-the most watched video on YouTube in 2010.
Dodson, a 24-year-old Huntsville, Ala., man enjoyed a strange jolt of fame after intervening when his sister was assaulted in a housing project. During an interview with a local TV station, Dodson gave a rant both heartwarming and heartbreaking, all the while threatening the attacker and commenting on the state of crime in America. The news clip went viral on its own. But the Gregory brothers turned it into an Auto-Tuned video with Dodson's statement, "Hide your kids, hide your wife," becoming the song's refrain.
The brothers are sharing half the profits from "Bed Intruder" with Dodson, crediting him as lyricist and unintentional singer. "Antoine is probably the most talented unintentional singer of all time," Evan says. The song has spawned T-shirts and covers by a marching band in North Carolina and a man on a Japanese lute.
Dodson told me in a telephone interview that the royalties brought in enough money to move his family out of the projects. He's now opened his own YouTube channel and is working with the Gregory Brothers on other videos. "That's what I want to be around-positive people," he said. He said he believes in a higher power but his family "doesn't go to church. We bring church to us. Where two or three are gathered."
When asked if he sees the group's work as "redemptive," Evan said he thinks the interpretation of Dodson's lyrics helped refine the interest in Dodson's rant from being just a humorous video into something more meaningful. "The song played up the other aspects of Antoine-his courage, his wit, his righteous indignation," Evan said. "It changed the whole way culture viewed" the news story-which is the point of Auto-Tuning the news, anyway.
How big is the burgeoning YouTube economy?
"We have hundreds of partners who make six figures from it," said Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for YouTube. "Thousands more make more than $1,000 a month."
Now owned by Google Inc., YouTube has a program to partner with talented video producers, most of them youngsters. "We want to take more people from the hobby, dabbling space into doing this as a career," said Baxter. Google splits revenues and increasingly is helping to fund and support new talent, teaching video hobbyists how to develop an audience and produce better content.
It also has algorithms that can predict when a video on YouTube is going viral (around 20,000 views in a short period of time is a good indicator). When videos are on that trajectory, YouTube contacts the video producer to sign for a partnership, where producers can make money by selling ads on their video. So even the "Charlie Bit Me" video can earn revenue. "Kids do something cute and get a few million views and are able to get thousands of dollars from that," Baxter said.
Ben Relles, who in 2007 founded the Barely Political channel (producer of the raunchy Obama Girl videos), sold his company to Next Lab in 2007, which was sold to YouTube earlier this year. He now runs channels and consults other YouTube channels on success. "Who knew Auto-Tuning CSPAN clips would appeal to millions of people?" he said. While most popular feeds are music-related videos involving hot topics and innuendo, they aren't the only thing that sells: Other popular channels feature how-to programs on cooking with bacon, crocheting, and putting on make-up.