When 16-year-old AJ Rafael got nixed by the triumvirate of judges on American Idol back in 2005, the spiky-haired Filipino-American kid from the Inland Empire could have stopped chasing his dream. In this world of instant gratification, after all, striking out on the first effort means you’re doomed, right?
Not so with Rafael.
In the DIY spirit of punk rock, this non-punker (Rafael plays piano every week at his church in Moreno Valley) manned up. Instead of going the archaic route of relentless fliering, tagging and whatever other guerrilla tactics wannabe rockstars before him took, Rafael embraced modern technology.
In early 2006, he posted his first video on YouTube; it was a cover medley of tracks by pop sister duo Meg and Dia. Since then, his videos have generated more than 40 million views combined.
Those 80 million-plus eyes and ears on him have led to a burgeoning career that includes regularly being flown across the country to play for audiences ready to sing along, a gig in his parents’ homeland and a slew of major labels offering deals.
In fact, his YouTube presence has been so immense he qualifies as a YouTube partner, meaning he earns a percentage of ad revenue every time someone watches one of his more than 150 videos.
“The money I make from YouTube has enabled me to do music full-time without having to get another job,” Rafael says. “That and the one-off gigs allow me to put all my energy into this.”
Rafael’s music is pop in the vein of Jason Mraz or John Mayer with a slightly dancier, more-bubblegum-y feel. His sole release, Juicebox, has sold steadily on the Web and at live shows since it dropped in April. Part musician, part marketing-and-self-promotion dynamo, Rafael credits a large part of his success to his heritage.
“I kind of had a niche going in, so it was a little easier for me to build myself up,” he says. “There are a lot of Asian and Filipino kids in the U.S., and there is no mainstream musician out there with the same culture and background. Right away, I had a built-in audience.”
That audience continues to swell as Rafael, now 21, has honed his marketing strategy to maximize his exposure and opportunities.
“I had no real plan when I posted that first video. I just sporadically posted things to see if anyone would watch,” he says. “Now, there definitely is more of a strategy. I know what my fans want, so I try to give them what they want from me.”
This includes regular Twitter updates and contests for fans, such as Twittering what key and tempo they’d like him to play the piano in during a live video. Many of his videos are shot in his home using a MacBook, giving onlookers a reality TV-like opportunity to peer into his life.
While not leaving much to the imagination could be seen as too much access for some, Rafael believes all of the intimate, direct contact with his fan base has been a key component to his success.
“I really think the fact that I’m so open has been a major part of all of this,” he says. “When my fans see me on Twitter,they know it’s really me and not just some intern pretending to be me.”
That said, Rafael knows he’s taken things as far as he possibly can on his own. He recently signed on with a management team and is seeking a booking agent to take his career to the next level.
“With all of these major labels approaching me and all of the offers I’ve gotten recently, I feel like its too much for me to take on by myself,” he says. “I don’t know all of the ins and outs of the contracts and business aspects, so I need someone to help me understand all of it.”
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Still, he’s quick to emphasize that his DIY spirit will never fade, regardless of what trajectory his career takes.
“This is who I am,” he says. “I like doing things on my own at a grassroots level, and I’m never going to stop doing things this way.”
AJ Rafael performs with Jesse Barrera of My American Heart at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sat., 7 p.m. $10. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Video Made the Internet Star: Singer/songwriter AJ Rafael didn’t need a record label to get his music out—he had YouTube."