Girls Love Me
Can Austin Mahone become a real live global superstar?
Pretty much everything Austin Mahone does—sing, dance, smile, smirk, wink, wave, laugh, sigh, cough, breathe—drives girls completely nuts. Unlike most sixteen-year-old boys, he never disappoints them, and they respond with unwavering adoration. In February, however, he had reason to be nervous. He was about to sing before two of the largest live audiences of his fledgling career—1,300 screaming fans in Nashville, followed by 1,600 outside Chicago—and he still had a lot to learn. The atmosphere in the Nashville rehearsal studio where he was practicing was that of a late-night cram session. As he ran through covers of songs by Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, Ne-Yo, Drake, Adele, and others, his mother, Michele, coached him repeatedly to enunciate and make eye contact. Lori Cox, a local band manager who had been hired as a consultant, told him not to strum his guitar so hard. She also warned him not to eat or drink dairy products before the show, which seemed to surprise him. What was bothering him most was how to begin and end the concerts. “Anybody have any ideas for what I do when I come onstage?” he asked, doing a robotic goose step. “And how do I know if they want an encore? Do they shout, ‘Encore, encore’?”
This was unfamiliar territory for Austin. Most of his singing career has taken place in his one-story brick home on the north side of San Antonio, where, from the comfort of his bedroom, he dances, sings, or makes idle conversation on hundreds of web videos. His dance moves include the Dougie and the Jerk, and he can play guitar, drums, and piano. When he sings, he tilts his head to the side and his voice loops effortlessly, Stevie Wonder–style. Sometimes when he extends a phrase, you think he might not get out of it in time, but he does. He’s like a stunt pilot veering close to the ground and pulling up at the last minute. There was a time when only a handful of people noticed his talent. Not anymore. In the past year, his YouTube channel has received more than 70 million views.
Austin is often compared to Justin Bieber, the young Canadian superstar who was discovered on YouTube. Some people say Austin has too much in common with Bieber: his hair, which is swept forward on the sides; his manner of dressing in hoodies and tight jeans; and his melodic song choices. Austin doesn’t see any problem with the resemblance. He is a Belieber—that is, a Justin Bieber fan. And in the same way that Taylor Swift has Swifties, Selena Gomez has Selenators, and Demi Lovato has Lovatics, Austin Mahone has Mahomies.
Austin is already, in many senses, a rising star. At press time, more than 650,000 people were following him on Twitter. (By the time you read this, that number may well be a million.) And yet in Nashville, he was getting a crash course in how to do the thing that has traditionally been a prerequisite of musical stardom: live performance. He took a break, ate a slice of pepperoni pizza, and then launched into a rendition of the Bieber hit “One Less Lonely Girl.” Though this was one of his favorite tunes, he seemed disconnected, and Cox was trying to pinpoint the reason. As usual, he was singing along to recorded instrument tracks (and, at times, his own guitar playing), so he should have felt comfortable. Only a handful of people were present, so he shouldn’t have felt intimidated. Finally, she realized he was adjusting to his ear monitors. “Is there too much reverb?” Cox asked.
“I don’t know,” Austin replied. “What’s reverb?”
That wasn’t his only problem that evening. Later, as the sound technician adjusted the levels, Cox leaned back in a chair with her arms folded. “What are you thinking about when you’re singing that?” she asked.
“I’m thinking about being in front of a thousand people,” he responded.
“Okay,” she said. She smiled, flipped her long, straight hair over her shoulder, and recommended that he think of somebody special. “Do you have a girl? Or maybe a crush on a girl?” Cox’s daughter, a twentysomething sitting on the floor texting, sat up straight, clearly interested in his answer.
Austin looked like he could die of embarrassment. Michele chipped in reassuringly, “We don’t need to know who it is.”
“I do!” yelled Cox’s daughter, laughing. “I’ll tweet it!”
This was no laughing matter. At last count, roughly half a million girls were in love with Austin Mahone. Some live in Texas, while others hail from London and Dublin and places the singer has never visited, much to their despair. These girls constitute the molten core of his fan base. They mail him handmade cards decorated with hearts and other doodles, which they hope to catch glimpses of on his bedroom wall whenever he posts a new video. When they are lucky enough to see him in person, they tend to lose their minds. Last October, for instance, he was in Chicago and decided to go to Millennium Park with his mom. He tweeted this information, hoping to meet a few fans who were in the area, then pulled on a gray hooded sweatshirt and a red baseball cap that said “Chicago” and strolled down the street. Nearly one thousand girls bolted into action and immediately encircled him like a swarm of bees. Local police, alarmed by the sudden mob of squealing youngsters jumping over picnic tables, swept in and extracted Austin as if he were an imperiled head of state.
So there’s no telling what these girls would do if it was revealed that Austin had a crush on someone. He wisely keeps such things close to the vest. It’s all part of the tricky navigation of the world of teenage desire. During rehearsals in Nashville, after Cox suggested some adjustments to his set, Austin tried out an a cappella rendition of the Boyz II Men R&B hit “I’ll Make Love to You.” He closed his eyes and sang it passionately. “I’ll make love to you, like you want me to, and I’ll hold you tight, baby, all through the night.” The small crowd listened intently, but when he got to “throw your clothes on the floor, I’m gonna take my clothes off too,” he was drowned out by laughter.
“It sounds really good, Austin,” Michele said, “but we won’t do that for the show.”
“Why?” he asked with some sincerity.
“It’s too mature,” she said with a smirk.
Austin thought for a second,then tried some alternative lyrics. “I’ll give hugs to you, like you want me to . . .”
There was a time, not long ago, when a singer like Austin Mahone would have had years to develop his skills before a music label presented him to a large audience. That time has passed. These days, a performer doesn’t need a label; he can reach a massive fan base on the Internet and then build that popularity into a modest business. Austin’s homegrown career—begun, it’s fair to say, on a lark—now supports a small team consisting of an entertainment lawyer, an accountant, a social media consultant, a part-time security guard, and his mom, who was contentedly working as a mortgage loan officer until October of last year, when she realized that being her son’s manager had become a full-time job.
Lately, it’s more than full-time. Michele works around the clock, scrambling to keep up with Austin’s rapidly expanding universe. She shoots the videos, takes photos for the merchandise, answers emails, and sets up meetings (she also homeschools him). The bulk of their revenue comes from merchandise and concert ticket sales, with a smaller amount from sales of music on iTunes and special engagements, including “dates” with Austin on Skype and, back when he had more time for them, phone calls, for which they charged $50 to $75 for ten to fifteen minutes. Michele is not altogether sure how much they made last year, but suffice it to say the number was encouraging, enough to cover significant expenses (travel, venue rental, security fees) and then some. What the next few years will hold is anyone’s guess. “Our focus now is making that transition from him being just known as a YouTube artist to a recording artist,” she explained. In other words, Michele is improvising in a landscape that is quickly changing, with no long-established model for success.
One day in Nashville, as Austin recorded some backup vocals in a studio for a friend, I got a good explanation of these changes from David Malloy, the studio owner. Malloy is a songwriter and producer who has carved out a small niche working with a number of teenage YouTube artists. He explained that, because free music is so accessible, either via YouTube or illegal downloading, very little money can be made on music product anymore. “The industry thought the money was in the object,” Malloy said, referring to compact discs, cassettes, and records. “But the object no longer holds the wealth. The value is in the crowd.”
Malloy has the look of a music industry guy. He wore a silver bracelet, jeans, and a gray T-shirt, and had short, messy, graying hair. But unlike most people in the business, he did not seem beset with suicidal pessimism about its future. In fact, he was downright upbeat. He told me this was because he had learned to focus his energies on making money off the crowd, not off CD sales or downloads. Malloy’s latest venture is something called Nashville Hootenanny, the aim of which is to give new singers an opportunity to perform live. At the end of the week he would be presenting the fifth Teen Hoot, with audience attendance expected to surpass one thousand. “I saw Austin and a couple of kids online and thought, ‘What if I got all these kids together?’ ” he said. “This one is three times bigger than the last one—mostly because of Austin. Intentionally or not, as he gets bigger he takes the Hoot along with him.”
Most of the other performers at Teen Hoot have similar stories to Austin’s. They didn’t come up through Disney, like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus. They didn’t hit American Idol, like Kelly Clarkson, or The Voice, like Javier Colon. Instead, they put up videos on YouTube and watched their popularity grow. They come in all styles. Some are trying out pop-country along the lines of Taylor Swift. Some are focusing on dance songs. A lot of them sing ballads. One is a Californian named Austin Corini, who has been singing since he was two years old and is now managed by Rainman Entertainment, a group that seeks out young new talent on YouTube. A seasoned entertainer, he started recording at age three and later performed some of the voice-overs for the butterfly fish Tad on Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage ride. There’s also a sixteen-year-old named Alyssa Shouse, of Maryland. She had about 2,500 YouTube subscribers in early 2010. Then she covered the pop star Jason Derulo’s song “Blind,” and soon afterward he signed her to his Future History label. Now she has 118,000 YouTube subscribers. Kendra Slaubaugh, from North Dakota, doesn’t have a big industry contact like Alyssa’s, but she is slowly garnering subscribers on her YouTube channel and opening up for acts like the Bellamy Brothers.
They all want to be stars, of course, and they’re in good company. Right now, thousands of kids with YouTube channels are hoping to break out of the pack. Some of them have 10,000 subscribers—no small feat. But only a handful of them will be signed by labels, and fewer still will become real superstars like Timberlake. And even those who do make it big as teenagers often flame out by the time they hit their twenties and are never heard from again. (Remember Billy Gilman? Didn’t think so.)
Nonetheless, they are gradually transforming the way the business works. The routine they religiously adhere to is not “practice, practice, practice” as much as it is “tweet, tweet, tweet.” Austin tries to tweet (and retweet) at least forty times a day. He will usually start with something like “Goodmorning!!!(:” Throughout the day, he will throw out random thoughts such as “Looking at a photograph and wishing you could re-live that moment” or “That moment when you remember something that you are not sure is real or a dream.” He’ll post photos of himself doing things like shopping, drinking apple juice, or making macaroni and cheese. Often, when he’s tweeting, he’ll drop one of his favorite words, “yee,” which was coined by a kid at his old school and is used to express enthusiasm (e.g., “HALF COURT SHOT!! #YEE”). A wide network of fans with Twitter handles like @iheartMahone_ and [email protected] consider it their mission in life to retweet his every utterance.
This all makes perfect sense to Malloy. “Music is just a way for the fan to get to the artist,” he told me as we watched Austin singing in the studio booth. “Austin’s live performance at Teen Hoot last year got about seven thousand views, but his interview got sixty thousand views. It’s not about the music! It’s this.” He pointed to his eyes and my eyes. “That’s why Austin’s cover songs are working. Because we—the fan and the artist—both love the song. Just get the music out of the way so we can get closer.”
When adults are around, Austin tends to let them do the talking. He might string together five or six words in their presence in order to answer questions, but mostly he keeps quiet. This can make him seem shy, when in fact he’s just polite. One day when we were alone I sat down on the floor, put a tape recorder in front of him, and asked him to describe his ascent. He launched right in: “I started in this little town of La Vernia. Population nine hundred. Very country town. Very redneck. I was out of place there. In about sixth grade I met Alex, my best friend, over shoes. We started hanging out because we had the same Nike Shox. Mine were white and silver, his were black and red. They were pretty cool. Since then we became really good friends, and when we got older we got two more friends in the O.G. group, Zach and Robert. Oh—O.G. is ‘original group.’ We have other friends that hang out too, but the O.G. is the main group that we had, the four of us. We did everything together. So, yeah, as we got older we discovered YouTube and saw people putting movies up and thought it was cool. We wanted to do it and have fun with it. I never really sang that much. I remember the first time Alex ever heard me sing was when we were watching TV, Kim Possible, and I started singing along. And Alex was like, ‘Dude, you sound just like the chick singing it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,’ and he recorded it with his phone. We made a YouTube channel called ShootUsDown. It was just stupid videos. I sang a few covers a cappella and got some positive feedback, so we started posting more. I think we had twenty or thirty videos and eight hundred subscribers, and we were like, ‘Whoa.’ We kept doing it, and in January 2011 I decided to break away from that channel and make my own channel of nothing but singing. In the beginning I put up one video a week, and then by the summer, I was putting up two or three a week. Are you sure I can’t get you a chair?”
He moved to San Antonio that spring, when his mom and stepdad divorced (his biological father died when he was a toddler), and his celebrity quickly spread through the school. “Day one was pretty good,” he said. “I was the new guy. Second day, people were like, ‘Aren’t you that kid on YouTube?’ Third day, tons of people were asking me questions. Fourth day, I couldn’t eat lunch, so many people had questions. ‘How did you get started?’ ‘Will you follow me on Twitter?’ It was crazy. The guys hated me ’cause the girls wanted me. By the fifth day, I was eating lunch and they wouldn’t leave me alone, so I went into the bathroom and called my mom; I was like, ‘Mom, get me out of here.’ She got a call from the principal, who said, ‘Is there something about your son you want to tell me?’ Apparently she told him, ‘He’s on YouTube. I didn’t think it was any big deal.’ But it was all around school. Girls would call their friends and have me talk to them on the phone or take pictures of me from behind, and I’d see them later on Facebook. So I left on the fifth day and now I’m homeschooled.”
Around that same time, his mom got a call from a concert promoter who wanted Austin to perform with other hit YouTube acts at an event called Playlist Live, in Orlando. The request led to his first big show, playing to an audience of 700. That fall, he performed at Teen Hoot to a crowd of 450. Soon after that, he did two Houston shows and two New York shows for crowds of 350 each.
Along the way he’s picked up his share of detractors. “I get a lot of haters,” he said. “Everyone has haters. They comment on my videos and say, ‘You’re gay,’ ‘You suck at singing,’ ‘You’ll never be famous.’ In the beginning I was heartbroken when I saw that. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been a sensitive person, so I saw that and I thought, ‘That’s so mean. Why would they say something like that?’ Now I’ve hardened up. It’s just stupid. You gotta love the haters too—they get your name out.”
The only thing that would really crush him at this point, he said, is if his fans were to leave him. Without them he wouldn’t have any “Mahomie” artwork on his bedroom walls. He wouldn’t have all the hats his fans have sent him for his hat rack. He wouldn’t have the loads of candy sent to him. Frankly, he’d rather not imagine that scenario.
Anyone over age seventeen might be mystified upon seeing one of Austin’s hour-long live Ustream broadcasts. In Nashville I watched him host a typical segment the afternoon before Saturday’s Teen Hoot show. The Ustream was co-hosted (as it sometimes is) by Austin’s best friend, Alex Constancio. Alex’s clothes and hair are similar to Austin’s, but his demeanor is different. He plays the part of Austin’s puckish sidekick. He has almost 200,000 Twitter followers, a number large enough that radio stations have contacted his mother, Kathy, requesting appearances. He doesn’t sing, though he has considered getting into show business in some abstract way. He is famous, mostly, for being friends with Austin.
As Austin’s regular Ustream time, five o’clock, approached, he monitored the number of subscribers logging on to his site. Having set up his laptop in Kathy’s hotel room, he pointed to the side of his screen: 1,006. 1,169. 2,500. As the number went up, Austin’s smile widened. Viewers were flooding the comments sidebar with smiley faces and hearts and exclamation points and sentiments such as “My heart just raced.”
It was a little anticlimactic, then, when the live-streaming began and Alex retreated to the bathroom to shave. Austin began the transmission by reading some of the fans’ comments appearing on the screen. After a while, Alex joined him for a moment, though he had only shaved his jaw and not his upper lip, which was still covered in shaving cream. After Alex returned to the bathroom, Austin dragged Andrew, Alex’s younger brother, on-screen, only to have him sit mute. “Okay, thanks,” Austin said and pushed him off the couch. This was followed by Austin’s attempting to teach Dave Brytus, his massive tattooed bodyguard, how to do the Dougie. Then some roughhousing. About half an hour in, Austin rapped while playing ukulele, then he sang “One Less Lonely Girl.” This was a normal Ustream, not that different from any of the other weekly episodes in which he has danced the Robot or showed off his hats and “granny weights” or poured a bottle of water into his mouth so quickly that most of it spilled onto his chin. When Alex finally came back, fully shaved, about 45 minutes into the live stream, the gang played a game in which they tried to slap the top of one another’s hands.
It wasn’t high drama. It wasn’t even medium drama. Yet by the time the video was done, nearly 25,000 people had logged in to watch.
“So I wanted you to meet because merch is so important,” said Lori Cox. She was sitting at a big wood table with twelve leather chairs around it. She sat on one side of the table with Michele and Austin. On the other side were four representatives from Music City Networks, a Web design and merchandising company based in Nashville. Michele was not ready to make commitments to any merchandising groups, but she was looking at her options. “I’m very impressed with what you’ve done, the amount of people you have on YouTube, Twitter,” said the CEO, Paul McCulloch. “You want a record deal—is that the goal?”
Michele talked while Austin fiddled absentmindedly with a bottle of water. She is thin and pretty with long brown hair and a beauty-queen smile accented by lip gloss. “It’s not that I’m opposed to going independent,” she said, “and with his following we could probably continue to do that, but we could only take it so far.”
“You want a band?” McCulloch asked Austin.
“That’d be cool,” Austin said.
“Interesting,” McCulloch said, stroking his chin. “You’re part of a new group that can keep their independence. Have y’all met with labels?”
“We’ve met with independents and larger labels,” Michele said. “We’ve felt stronger about some than others. I’m cautious by nature. Austin and I both have to feel good about it. We have to be on the same page.”
“So global celebrity is the goal? You’ll need commercial radio and the pocketbook of somebody big,” said one of the reps. “If celebrity is the goal, you’ll need a label. If you want to make a living and have control, that’s different.”
They waited for Austin for a moment, but when it was clear that he’d ceded the floor, his mother continued. “He wants global fame. And if he wants that experience, I want him to have it.”
McCulloch noted this. “What’s the goal in the next twelve months?” he asked. “Perform? Have you signed a booking agent?”
“We don’t want to just throw him out there,” Michele explained.
Throughout the meeting, it was evident that no one had solid answers about the future of the music business. There was talk about how a new model was needed to protect and incubate emerging singers. There was talk about how labels were not in the talent-scouting business anymore (that was done for them by YouTube). There was talk about how Spotify or YouTube would drive radio in a year. It was all anyone’s guess.
Marketing and sales, however, were clearly going to be important, and the group told Austin and Michele about what they could provide on that front: direct artist-fan management and promotion, mobile apps, e-commerce and fulfillment, touring and retail merchandise, presale and general event ticketing, digital download reporting. Michele nodded as they spoke. She knew that Austin could use some expertise in these areas, but he wasn’t doing so badly on his own. After the group watched some of Austin’s videos, she offhandedly remarked that she wasn’t sure what to do with the mailing list she had amassed. It had two million addresses. The men looked at her in amazement.
“You have email addresses for two million people?” asked one rep.
“How did you get them to email you? How did you entice them?” McCulloch asked.
“We didn’t,” Michele responded.
“Excuse me,” said a woman in her fifties, sheepishly approaching the table where Austin and Alex were eating their lunch the day of the big concert. “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I have five girls that I just drove to Nashville from Charlotte, and we have literally been all over the city looking for you boys.” She looked at Austin. “Would you mind if they said hello?”
“Sure,” he said, getting up out of his chair to walk in their direction.
They weren’t the only ones to approach him that day. In the space of two blocks between the restaurant and the Hard Rock Cafe, where he was supposed to meet up with a few die-hard fans who had driven from Chicago, he was asked to pose for pictures by roughly ten separate groups of girls. A talent manager for Warner Bros. Records named Greg Federspiel was now tagging along with the entourage to study Austin. I asked him if this reaction was weird. “That usually doesn’t happen until we get bigger artists,” he said. “And even then . . .” His voice trailed off while another group of girls ran up to Austin, squealing. “Labels are good at getting singers from twenty to one hundred, but zero to twenty is hard,” he went on. “He’s already at sixty.”
Word was out on Twitter that Austin was in the area. Some girls, thinking he was still eating lunch, were rushing toward the restaurant he had just left, moving in small, huddling packs and giggling as they bumped into one another. Others, who had given up on the hunt, were surrounding Rocketown, the venue where he was scheduled to play that evening. A few girls had been braving the 30-degree temperatures since the early morning just to get a good spot in line.
Austin loved this attention. Around the girls, he was confident, never tiring of the cameras and the hugs and the autographs and the screaming. After he arrived at Rocketown, late in the afternoon, he occasionally peeked outside just to hear them go bananas. Once, he even walked out and threw some candy suckers at the crowd. He had his picture taken with some fans who were standing near the front of the line as those near the back rushed the barricade. They were all yelling some version of “I love you so much!” and “Austin! Austin!” and something less decipherable that just sounded like “Bwaaaa!”
Before the concert started, I wanted to interview a few of the girls, some of whom were wearing homemade Austin Mahone T-shirts. One of Austin’s friends tried to explain the futility of this endeavor as I headed toward the crowd. “I’ll tell you what they’re going to say,” he laughed. “They’ll say, ‘Oh-my-God-he’s-amazing-I-love-him-so-much!’ ”
He was right. I’m not sure if any of the girls used that exact phrasing, but the sentiment didn’t leave much room for variety, save for one 12-year-old, who said, “My sister is in love with him and she showed me his videos, so I watch his Ustream now and I just love him.” I wandered through the crowd and asked which of the teen acts they were there to see. The answer: Austin Mahone, Austin Mahone, Austin Mahone.
When he finally did hit the stage, the girls screamed and sobbed and shoved their way up to the metal stage barrier with arms outstretched, hoping he’d touch their fingertips as his hands grazed the audience. As planned, he made three costume changes over the course of the concert, mixing and matching various oversized T-shirts, hats, and puffy sneakers. When he sang, he ditched his ear monitors and hit his notes comfortably over the din of the crowd. In a chorus, the girls chimed in on every line, from “There’ll be no sunlight if I lose you, baby” to “It’s like an angel came by and took me to heaven,” and followed his spins and slides as he worked the stage. They took pictures and videos and formed little hearts out of their hands, and after the concert, they stayed for a mad-dash meet-and-greet before walking out into the cold darkness, squealing as they clutched signed posters and T-shirts to their chests, many of which were autographed with just one person’s name. Some of the other singers had their fans, of course. Maybe, someday, one of them would even be as big as Austin Mahone.