Artistic empowerment finds a voice on Kickstarter, YouTube

Ka Lia Yang, a senior at Harding High School, records music from her St. Paul bedroom to broadcast on YouTube. Her hope is to pursue a singing career, and perhaps, be discovered through the medium.
“[It] was a really inspiring thing to watch, how it is still possible for an artist to go out and find an audience for themselves and to reach an incredibly wide network." -- Katie Haaheim

Ka Lia Yang has never played an official concert, yet you can find her songs on YouTube.

Katie Haaheim doesn’t have a publisher, yet you can find her poems online and scattered throughout the Midwest.

And thanks to the power of viral video, the world sung along to “Clouds” by Zach Sobiech, a 17-year-old from Lakeland whose recent death from cancer moved millions worldwide.

The Internet has provided a powerful platform for artists to release their work without having to panhandle outside with a guitar case or fear rejection by a big record or publishing company. Better yet, it can all be done from the comfort of an artist’s home.

With the click of a few buttons, singers, writers and performers can directly connect with the general public. Bottom line, the Internet has tipped the scales for artistic empowerment.

“As a poet, I can never, ever hope to have a steady income with it. Like, even famous poets are also professors and do not make money from their poetry,” said Haaheim, a poet from Chaska living in Walla Walla, Washington, who used Kickstarter to fund her project, Drifting Thoughts. “So facing that, I wanted to think outside the box a little bit.”

A NICE START

Started in 2009 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, Kickstarter is a popular website where anyone with an idea can fundraise through “crowdsourcing,” or the ability to raise money incrementally through a large pool of Internet users. Music and film are the two biggest Kickstarter categories, and in fact, account for half of the site’s projects.

Haaheim’s Drifting Thoughts project enabled her to attach original poems to balloons and send them into the sky, all with the goal of landing in random Twin Cities locations. She was inspired by a science project her father used to do for her 3rd grade class, and turned to Kickstarter after seeing a friend raise money for a book.

“[It] was a really inspiring thing to watch, how it is still possible for an artist to go out and find an audience for themselves and to reach an incredibly wide network,” Haaheim said.

After putting her project on Kickstarter for 15 days, she raised $1,475, raising 23 percent more than her goal. Donations from $1 to $250 came in from both acquaintances and strangers, with bonuses coming in the form of a signed chapbook or an invite to attend launch day. Last June, Haaheim and about 20 friends launched her poems into the sky at the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis.

“My project started out with me sending e-mails to family and friends, but eventually it was picked as a staff pick on Kickstarter. It was featured on their blog. So those independent sources singling out my project expanded my audience,” she said.

CHANCE FOR DISCOVERY

Capturing that same sense of discovery applies to another major outlet for artistic empowerment on the Internet – YouTube.

For two years, Yang, a 16-year-old from St. Paul, has posted original songs and covers on YouTube to spur her artistic career. Yang can sit at her cramped bedroom’s computer desk, plug in her microphone, pick up one of her two guitars, and sing her heart out while facing a webcam.

That Justin Bieber, Karmin and Greyson Chance were all discovered on YouTube gives the Harding High School student hope.

“I just started singing for fun, started making songs on my brother’s piano. And I said, ‘You know, this is something.’ I never knew I had this, so I just continued on, playing piano, bought the guitar and kept playing,” Yang said.

The most views on Yang’s YouTube channel are for her song “Sunset,” which boasts 345,895 views. Her channel consists of roughly 50 videos, with her YouTube fame allowing her to reach fans from California to Paris.

“There’s a lot of young people, middle school kids especially, who will message me and ask me questions like, ‘How do you write music?’ ‘How do you come up with chords?’ ‘How do you find what’s meaningful?’ And they’ll say I’m a big inspiration to them, or because of you, we started writing or playing guitar. It makes me feel good,” she said.

For Yang, it’s now about topping “Sunset’s” numbers, which is the part of YouTube she wasn’t prepared for. She’s wary of “dying” on the visual platform since she can’t capitalize on long distance connections and tour or record an album without help.

“YouTube is a really, really hard place because you really, really have to push yourself,” Yang said. “But if it wasn’t for YouTube, people wouldn’t share my stuff. Because it’s all about connections. It goes from one to the other to the other to the other.”

GETTINGOUT THERE

As Sobiech’s well-traveled story shows, the act of putting yourself “out there” is what’s most important for aspiring artists. Without taking that first step on YouTube, Sobiech never would have reached seven million views, or upon his death, hit number one on iTunes.

Though Yang and Haaheim don’t know what the future holds for their art, that they have the opportunity to find a larger audience, all thanks to simple technology, feels empowering.

Haaheim is finishing up her chapbook, which she promised her Kickstarter backers. As for future Kickstarter projects, she’d like to stencil moss on a wall and write more poems, or possibly start a Drifting Thoughts, Part Two.

Yang plans to maintain her presence on YouTube. In addition to crafting two professional-looking music videos for “Sunset” and “Empty Soul,” she has also auditioned for popular reality-singing shows, “The Voice” and “The X-Factor.”

Though she hasn’t received her big break yet, knowing that her songs can reach the masses on YouTube has kept her dream of “being discovered” alive.

“I (have been) been waiting so long for a miracle to happen,” Yang said. “But you can’t just sit there.”

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