YouTube Hack Day Inspires Students

Hilary Hughes
April 3, 2013
Alumnus AJ Rafael '10 performs during Hack Day.
Ryan Nugent, audience development strategist with YouTube’s Next Lab
Nils Gums, Karmin's manager and CEO and president of the Complex Group
Berklee student and videographer Ben Meyers
Alyssa Bernal, AJ Rafael, and his crew demonstrate real-time video production.
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

When former Berklee students Karmin posted a cover of Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” on their YouTube channel in 2011, the speed-rapping, suicide curl-sporting, keyboard-tapping, and riff-belting duo didn’t think much of it, initially. They’d posted videos of themselves performing on the internet before, but this cover—the one in which Amy Heidemann effortlessly spit rhymes as though she’d been doing so all her life—was what fueled the meteoric rise that would eventually net them more than 500 million views over the course of the next two years.

This astronomical number, among other stats and figures, was what kept a concert hall full of aspiring musicians, writers, and producers on their toes at the Berklee Performance Center for the first annual Berklee YouTube Hack Day: The 21-Hour Video Project. Featuring several speakers, ranging from piano impresarios whose careers soared with the click of an Upload button to YouTube staffers optimizing the platform for the creators who keep it expanding at an uncontrollable rate, YouTube Hack Day offered insight into the multitude of ways the social media platform benefits the music community at large. Students were then encouraged to go out and put their newfound knowledge to work by shooting, editing, and uploading videos of their own within the challenge’s stipulated 21-hour time frame. The final products of the challenge—which include everything from electro-pop dance tracks to feats of guitar-shredding prowess—were then evaluated by the Hack Day panel to see just how viral these videos could get.

For Nils Gums, a Berklee ’06 graduate and the CEO and president of the Complex Group, it’s the accessibility, proficiency, and budget-friendly nature of YouTube that’s provided his clients, Karmin, with a wealth of opportunities they wouldn’t have been presented with otherwise. Working through a series of bullet points that illustrated Karmin’s rise to notoriety through use of the platform for their projects, Gums opened YouTube Hack Day by stressing that a diverse catalog of content, a unique branding point, and a wealth of material will lead to success both on YouTube and offline—and that Berklee is a great place to start down that path.

Read more Hack Day coverage in Boston Magazine

“You have a lot of talent here (at Berklee), and YouTube is a great place to get viral attention,” he said backstage post-presentation. “I love to see real talent succeed through the more traditional media channels, where it doesn’t always get pushed, but anyone can upload a video. The viewer decides what wins, so it’s not necessarily a major label executive that says, ‘You have what it takes and I'm going to put a million dollars behind you and make you successful.’ That talent at the end of the day is going to rise to the top, and so that’s why it’s exciting. There are so many creative people here, and the talent level keeps going up. You look at success stories like Karmin and PSY—they have Berklee in common, so there’s something in the water.”

Speaking from a performer’s perspective, AJ Rafael, who releases his videos as an official YouTube partner and sings to a rapt audience of 445,000 subscribers, emphasized that connecting with his viewers on a frequent, personal level has contributed to his steadily growing fan base. “I don’t have that viral talent,” he said—though the room audibly and good-naturedly disagreed. “For me, it was about making my own moves, putting up videos consistently, and hoping people would like me as a person and respond to my music, as well.” Rafael—who’s got an EP coming out next month—also praised the instantaneous benefits that come with posting your music on YouTube, noting that immediate responses and an artist’s ability to post and edit in real time has had a positive impact on his performance.

“Berklee students are perfectionists," he said. "Even as a former student, I was really worried about what people would think about my music, but to me, that’s not what YouTube is about—it’s about putting yourself out there and accepting the love, the hate, the criticism, the gratification. All that stuff? It comes with the job."

Watch a video of the Hack Day presentation given by YouTube's Ryan Nugent.


Before breaking for the day and sending Berklee students out into the afternoon to get working on their videos, Ryan Nugent, an audience development strategist with YouTube’s Next Lab; Ben Meyers, a current Berklee student and videographer; and Charlie Puth, Berklee student, musician, and regular on The Ellen DeGeneres Show all offered up YouTube advice culled from their collective expertise. For student Melissa Johnston, who’s currently studying songwriting and vocal performance, YouTube Hack Day put her own pursuits into perspective while showing her how to take advantage of the platform as a new musical medium.

“Today reiterated just how important YouTube is,” said Johnston. “It's become a daily routine to look up YouTube videos or upload a video. Sometimes, as music students, you can get discouraged really easily, and you can get bogged down by the stress of trying to make it. When you think about it, Karmin did this—Karmin sat in the classrooms I sit in; Karmin then sat down in front of a camera with confidence. It's interesting to see people you've listened to for years and to know you’ve found them through YouTube. To hear about their success and to just reiterate that you can do it, too—that's really cool."