How Reddit is launching the careers of unknown artists

Billy the Fridge

Billy the Fridge

William Berry always knew he wanted to work in entertainment. For years, he had aspirations to have a career as a professional wrestler and even began to train for it, but the wrestling scene in Seattle, the city where he’d grown up, was small. There was, however, a strong local hip-hop community, with artists like Macklemore, Grieves, Blue Scholars, and Grayskul reaching national fame, and in the early 2000s Berry found himself working behind the scenes at recording studios and live events. “I wasn’t really trying to be another white rapper,” he told me recently. “I was working with all these guys and we’d go out to these shows and then people started getting me in on their songs because they thought I was funny. It was just something I enjoyed, so I went with it.”

Berry adopted the rap moniker of Billy the Fridge — a reference to his 500-pound frame — and began producing his own music, starting with a mixtape in 2009 and then an actual album in 2012. He built something of a name for himself in Seattle, even getting local radio play, but his brand didn’t extend far outside of the city. That all changed in late 2012.

“Mostly just me and my friends ran out with some video cameras and started filming in places we thought were funny,” Berry said. “We had a budget of next to nothing. It was very do it yourself.” They were shooting a music video for “Just a Bill,” a song from his recent album. Using a remixed version of the classic Schoolhouse Rock song of the same name, the video for “Just a Bill” is a paean to Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a district that was settled by gays in the 1960s and later hosted a vibrant musical culture that exists to this day. Despite its low budget and amateur production, the video is immensely watchable, propelled primarily by Billy the Fridge’s talent as a rapper and the hedonism of his on-screen character.

Berry posted the video to YouTube, and it wasn’t long before Reddit users stumbled across it and began submitting it to the social news site, where it made it to the front page of r/videos, a subreddit with over 9 million subscribers, on three separate occasions. The video’s views ballooned to 50,000 views and then 400,000. Finally, after reaching the front page again last July, “Just a Bill” passed the million view mark.

Almost immediately, Berry began getting recognized on the street, even outside Seattle. “I was in the middle of Indiana at a White Castle one day at 3 a.m. and someone there knew who I was,” he said. “Once the video blew up, anytime I’d go out I’d run into someone who’d call out, ‘Hey Billy, what’s up man?’” More importantly, his phone started ringing. “I’m getting shows booked everywhere. People are hitting me up for TV spots, and I got booked at the Whiskey a Go Go,” the famous West Hollywood nightclub that served as a launching pad for everyone from Metallica to The Doors. His album almost broke into the top 100 for hip hop on iTunes. Berry’s videos continued to do well on YouTube, with several having passed the 100,000 view mark.

With thousands of new submissions every day, it’s not easy to make it to the top of Reddit, but several artists who’ve found their work featured on the “front page of the internet” are seeing their careers blossom as a result.  According to its about page, Reddit receives over 230 million unique visitors a month who generate 7.5 billion pageviews on the site. Making it to the top of a default subreddit — most of which have millions of subscribers — can drive upwards of half a million outbound views, and it’s quite common for content featured on Reddit to then spread across Facebook, Twitter, and news websites. For instance, a humorous video arguing that Daniel, the protagonist of The Karate Kid, was actually the villain of the film, reached the top of r/videos and then was later embedded in over a hundred news articles and blog posts, eventually reaching over 5 million views.  

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Given the size and influence of Reddit’s audience, it shouldn’t be surprising then that it has the power to thrust a previously-unknown artist into the national spotlight. In 2014, a YouTube user named Jake Dietrich uploaded a cellphone video he’d recorded in the New York Subway of a trio of musicians calling themselves Too Many Zooz. After it made the front page of Reddit, the band’s Facebook page ballooned up to over 200,000 followers, and it recently completed a successful Kickstarter in which it raised over $100,000 to fund a new album. In an episode of Upvoted, a podcast hosted by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, a musician who calls himself Smooth McGroove detailed how his acapella renditions of well-known video game music were embraced by the Reddit community. He now makes his entire living from his YouTube videos through a combination of advertising and Patreon subscriptions.

But musicians aren’t the only artists who have built their audiences on Reddit. One of the more popular subreddits, with over 400,000 subscribers, is r/comics, and while it’s common for it to feature already-established comics like xkcd, Cyanide & Happiness, and The Oatmeal, many of its most popular submissions come from relative unknowns. And some of those unknowns, because of their success on Reddit, are no longer unknown.

Chris Grady launched his web comic Lunarbaboon in the midst of what he described as “not quite a midlife crisis.” “I was bored,” he told me. “And so my wife and I had this idea that as a way to communicate better I would draw a comic from my point of view every night for an entire month and she would do the same from her point of view. And then we would share our comics with each other at the end of the month to see how we were looking at the same issues from different points of view. So I started doing it and she decided she hates drawing and didn’t want to do it anymore.” Grady, an elementary school teacher in Toronto, built a Squarespace website and began posting new comics to it.

A Lunarbaboon comic from Chris Grady

A Lunarbaboon comic from Chris Grady

At first, Grady’s viewership was virtually nonexistent, limited to friends on Facebook, but then he noticed that on the share button Squarespace automatically generates for each post there was an option to share to Reddit. “I was like, ‘What is this Reddit thing?’” he recalled. “So I started submitting it there.” This was about three years ago, and his earliest submissions garnered only a few upvotes, driving little traffic. But as he began to get accustomed to the community and what it wanted, he began to see some traction, first on the smaller r/webcomics subreddit and then later on r/comics. “I remember the first time it had maybe a hundred upvotes on r/webcomics. That led to 1,000 views that day …  Once it started doing well on r/comics, then traffic got out of control.” On a particularly good day, he would see upwards of 100,000 visits, and while that traffic was fleeting at first, he began to grow a recurring, loyal audience as Lunarbaboon consistently did well on Reddit. And when Grady began monetizing his work, through both Patreon and Kickstarter, that audience ponied up. His first Kickstarter project, for a printed collection of his best comics from that year, generated $44,000 from backers. The second Kickstarter raised over $64,000.

Most of the artists I spoke to for this piece, while grateful for the attention Reddit has given them, have focused on diversifying their readership across multiple platforms so they’re not reliant on one website. Shenanigansen, the pseudonym for the person behind a web comic called Owl Turd (he asked that I not use his real name), hosts his comic on Tumblr and has grown it to 180,000 subscribers. He also has 30,000 fans on Facebook and 9,000 followers on Twitter. “Most people in my comics circle try to be on every viable platform,” he told me. “I don’t know if I’d recommend using Reddit as a primary platform. It’s not easy to navigate someone’s submissions in their profile, at least not as easy as what you’ll find on WordPress or Tumblr.”

Of course, making it to the front page of Reddit is only half the battle. Many who do only see fleeting fame; it’s those who are able to ride that momentum and continue producing quality work who see lasting benefits. Billy the Fridge, though he experienced a career boost from his Reddit exposure, hasn’t put out a new video in over a year and expressed at least some regret to me he hasn’t done more to capitalize on his own web popularity.  “I’ll be out on the street and a certain group of people will say, ‘Oh wow, Billy, I saw your video on Reddit, it was freaking awesome.’ And then at the same time a lot of people I work with in the city, they’re not Reddit people, so they don’t know anything about it. The internet messes with me. I’m doing something that I love to do and would do regardless. Anything extra is icing on the cake at this point, but maybe I should get out more and start throwing cake in people’s faces.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com