A capacity 12,500 tickets were sold. More than 70 performers appeared on three stages. There were 150 security guards, a necessity whenever swarms of shrieking teenage girls assemble. Coke sponsored a live Web stream of the festivities.
The latest incarnation of Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair?
Not even close. This was DigiFest NYC, part of a booming corner of entertainment where social media stars – people who have created mass followings on YouTube, Instagram and Vine – step out from behind their bedroom webcams. The festival, which rolled into the parking lot at Citi Field in Queens on Saturday afternoon, was headlined by Our2ndLife, or O2L, a group of guys who became famous by videotaping themselves trying to balance cotton balls on their heads and drinking anchovy and hot pepper smoothies.
“It’s all about bringing the Internet to life,” said Meridith Valiando Rojas, a co-founder of DigiTour Media, a Los Angeles startup that last month attracted Ryan Seacrest and Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast, as investors.
As YouTube personalities grow in popularity and prove more than flashes in the pan, traditional media businesses – talent agencies, book publishers and TV networks – are rushing to capitalize. The biggest push has come from concert promoters betting that millions of clicks on popular videos will translate into ticket sales. DigiTour Media sold 18,000 tickets last year, and it expects to sell 100,000 this year and 250,000 in 2015.
A surge in social media tours and festivals is simultaneously predictable and counterintuitive. Fan bases, whether built the old-fashioned way or online, need tending. Yet many of these YouTube celebrities have no experience performing in front of anyone, much less thousands of people; they make their videos alone in their basements or backyards. And what makes a person a great creator of YouTube videos – like dispensing beauty and fashion advice – does not necessarily translate onstage.
“I worried it would get pretty awkward pretty quick,” said David Malloy, the founder of Teen Hoot, a new Tennessee entertainment company. “These creators, some of them famous for making six-second Vine videos, have to do more than get up there and smile and giggle.”
After a successful run of concerts in Nashville, Teen Hoot – short for hootenanny – has expanded this summer to bring YouTube celebrities to San Diego and suburban Seattle. Playlist Live, a Florida festival dedicated to social media stars, will hold a three-day offshoot at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in November. About 18,000 attendees are expected in August at VidCon, a California event managed in part by Hollywood’s United Talent Agency; online video fans stand in line for hours to get autographs and see YouTube personalities perform.
The growth has gone global. DigiTour has a European division. In the spring, a new traveling festival called YouTube FanFest sold thousands of $62 tickets in Singapore and also traveled to Sydney and to Mumbai, India. Underscoring the popularity: Live Nation Entertainment, the ticketing and events giant, is weighing entry.
“It’s at the nexus of what’s happening in media,” Seacrest said. “Live events, YouTube, old media colliding more and more with new.”
Hormones go a long way here. About two-thirds of the performers at Saturday’s DigiFest NYC were hunky guys – people like Cameron Dallas, 19, who mostly entertains his 4.6 million Vine followers and 3.5 million
Instagram fans by looking pretty. His contribution Saturday was appearing for a question-and-answer session.
“Back in the day, you used to have to be a singer or an actor, but nowadays with social media, you can become well known just by being yourself,” Dallas said.
Connor Franta, 21, an O2L member whose shirtless pictures have their own Tumblr account, said he had not expected such a frenzied response.
“We had to build five to 10 minutes into the start of the show where we just let them scream and scream,” he said, adding, “I like to say that we’re talented in that we have no talent.”
Some of these budding performers sing or perform comedy skits, but many are simply video bloggers who give advice or document their daily adventures. DigiTour solves the problem of what they will do onstage by serving them up in short bursts: A “set” may last a little as five minutes.
“For a lot of fans, just seeing these people is enough,” Rojas said. She estimated that the average time onstage for any one performer was 15 minutes.
In other instances, DigiTour Media helps acts figure out what to do onstage. Before sending O2L on the road this year, DigiTour and the group’s management company, Fullscreen, signed up Franta and his cohorts for improvisational comedy and dance classes.
“It’s actually more difficult than it looks,” Franta said from a stop in North Carolina last week.
Rojas, who runs the 11-employee DigiTour Media with her husband, Chris Rojas, said she booked acts based on their current popularity and what the followers of her company’s own social media accounts suggested.
“I’m constantly on the prowl for the creme de la meme,” she said with a flip of her two-tone hair. “I have to listen to what teenage girls want. I’m not 13 anymore.”
Rojas, 29, and her husband, 31, founded DigiTour Media four years ago after working in the record business. As teenagers began to spend less on professionally produced music and pay more attention to social media personalities, they realized there could be money in related live events.
“As kids have changed their spending habits, there is now a huge budget available for experiences,” Rojas said. “IRL is here to stay,” she added, using an abbreviation for “in real life.”
Seacrest said he wanted to “scale this up and sprinkle in more established stars,” while Andrew Siegel, who leads strategy and corporate development for Advance Publications, said he saw potential ties between DigiTour and Teen Vogue.
“I see our investment as a clever way to participate in this remarkable content creation that’s happening on YouTube right under everybody’s nose,” Siegel said.
Admission to DigiFest NYC is $35, but many attendees will pay $100 for VIP privileges. Payment for participants varied. Lesser-known acts performed free. Some had travel expenses reimbursed. Others were paid a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000.
Along with the three stages, the festival included a range of other activities (and a parents-only “relaxation lounge”). Instagram has sponsored a faux prom with disc jockey and dance floor, while Invisalign orthodontics will ran a kissing booth. Other sponsors included Madonna’s clothing line, Material Girl.
But Belle Gonzalez, 15, bought tickets for one reason: to ogle YouTube stars like Nick Tangorra, a singer, and Franta.
“When you see them in real life it’s totally overwhelming, and I can’t stop the smile on my face,” she said.
By noon Saturday, three hours before DigiFest kicked off, a line of girls snaked through the entire Citi Field parking lot while another throng pushed against the metal barriers of the VIP tent and screamed at the sight of Dallas and Nash Grier, 16, another Vine personality.
“Nash, you’re so tall,” one blonde girl said with a squeal. “Can I climb you?”