“I can admit that things are getting harder. It’s harder for me as an independent musician to be financially stable nowadays. I played a tour last year where it was 5 cities, and a TOTAL of 300 people came to the shows. The promoter thought I would sell out 500 capacity venues because of my 100 million views and 500,000 subs on YouTube. And that burns a little, to be honest. It hurts when people are so hyped over you selling all these tickets and getting you excited for playing for all these people — and then you get there and it’s not at all how you expected.”
— AJ Rafael
AJ Rafael has always been a great friend to NMR, so of course we said we’d be happy to publish a letter he wrote to his friends, family and fans. It is an official notice from the talented performer/musician that he is taking a hiatus from performing live — possibly forever. As he cites in the letter, the live shows have gotten harder and less rewarding as time has gone on. As such, right now they don’t offer the same fulfillment they used to. And so the talented songwriter and entertainer has decided to hang up his microphone and tour bus for a while. As he points out during the course of his farewell letter, he’ll still be making YouTube videos, though likely not as many as he previously did in years past.
Be sure to read the letter in its entirety — it offers a poignant first-person perspective of the changing landscape of YouTube through a creator’s eyes and soul. According to AJ, companies like Vevo are changing the way that online entertainment happens — and not necessarily for the better. If you’re a performer or even simply a fan, this letter offers a sobering look at how tough the performance space has gotten, even as corporate money floods in.
Of course we’re going to continue following AJ on social media and in his YouTube videos. And as he points out: it’s a hiatus. He could be back on stage connecting with his fans at some point in the future. But until something changes for the better, don’t count on it.
AJ’s entire letter:
Let me start off by saying thank you. Thank you for your support throughout the years for my music. It’s been a crazy 10 years of writing and performing. It all started with a song, “How’s San Diego Pauli?”, and a dream of mine to be successful in music. I have to say … that dream is reality — and while it may not be success in music the way that most people see it, it’s a lot more than I could ever ask for.
I’ve written songs and have had people share videos of them online covering them. People sing along in the crowd at my shows. The best experience is when someone whom I’ve never met before comes up to me and tells me how much my music has affected their life in a positive way and helped them get through hardships. That’s what I do it for.
With all of this being said, I have to explain why I’m taking a break from the live music scene. Shows are a bit different than they were when YouTube was new and fresh and a place to find new artists ALL the time. Back then, fans and artists alike were excited to get together to play music on the same stage. Even non-musicians would all come to these shows, ready to make cameos on stage with their friends. It was a bunch of us having fun and being ourselves. And whoever was watching loved it. They didn’t care if we goofed around on stage, or danced around while our friends were singing. They just loved that we were there, at their school, in their city, and because we could relate to them. We were just like them — just a bunch of kids who still live with their parents, trying to get by, and doing what we love to do.
I grew up around people who were discovering their love for performance. When I first started playing shows from 2004-2008, I met a lot of people through MySpace and YouTube. A lot of them were first-time performers; booked for a gig through their “booking email” with no idea what to do when they got on stage. We were all used to making a persona online, writing songs, covering popular songs and putting them on YouTube. But a lot of us weren’t used to performing live in front of actual people. I mean, most of us were Asian, so of course we had karaoke in front of our parents … but this was different. Still, even though a lot of us got nervous on stage or were perfecting our craft in front of our growing audience, they loved us anyway. There wasn’t a show where people weren’t screaming as loud as they could or making a commotion after the show trying to meet us just to take a picture.
Now, I’m not speaking on behalf of everyone, but a lot of us are experiencing getting back to those days — when everyone was excited and every time we had a new song it would be a huge deal. These days, big companies are seeing that we have the “numbers” to pull crowds so they invest or sponsor us. When people don’t show up — they blame us. They say we didn’t “promote” enough when we were doing the exact same thing we were years ago. But years ago was when the scene wasn’t over-saturated. Before, there were only a handful of us who could gain the courage to put ourselves out there on YouTube and social media. Nowadays, there’s a formula to become a “YouTuber” or a “YouTube cover artist.” There’s not a lot of creativity being showcased.
Listen: Everyone can be talented. But you gotta be different. You gotta be unique. You gotta be you. Because no one else can be you.
So now the days of copying everyone else is here — with the same cover songs being put out there, in the same style and on the same HD format and the same camera angles. Remember when YouTube first came out? It evened the playing field for all of us. No one was doing what we were doing — writing songs and putting it out there, or just singing or playing our instrument in front of a webcam. It would do just as well as other “mainstream” artists and a lot of us were even in the top 50 channels of YouTube next to artists we grew up listening to. Now it’s back to where mainstream and YouTube independent-ness is once again as far from each other as the Earth and Pluto. YouTube gives the help they once gave to independent creators all to the record labels who are mad that their artists aren’t getting the views they think they “deserve.” Vevo is taking over, and artists doing parodies is getting old. And you see a lot of creators with their quality of video being the highest quality ever made in the history of highest quality, on a song that isn’t theirs. Don’t get me wrong — I love doing covers. And doing covers has helped me so much in my career. But that’s not what I’m about. And people know that. Now, covers are taking over and the artists who are doing them are being called “cover artists” when they know damn well in their heart that they want to be original. They want to be what they’ve always wanted to be; respected as much as the artists on the radio — the artists who are doing their own songs (or songs that are written for them).
So for the artists who don’t want to completely give in to the system, we struggle. We struggle with monetizing our own original material. And we try to put up this front as if we’re still doing the same as we were even two years ago. Yeah, our views are still growing — but not nearly as fast as 2008-2011. Our subscriber count doesn’t mean a thing when the videos aren’t even popping up into our subscribers’ feed. A video of mine can max out after two weeks around 50,000 views, when before I could upload a video on a Friday and know it would get at least 100,000 over the weekend. Announcement videos for shows max out at 10,000 or less, and those are the important ones for the shows we’re promoting. Things aren’t the same, even for some who are growing exponentially as artists. You see their music mature but the view count doesn’t show that — it shows a decrease — even though we’ve been working hard to write new material and work with producers and engineers to make our music even more listenable. We are becoming “irrelevant” to some fans because we don’t get the views we used to get — or it’s the fact that we can’t sell out 500-people venues anymore. We just won’t admit that things are getting harder.
But I can admit that things are getting harder. It’s harder for me as an independent musician to be financially stable nowadays. I played a tour last year where it was 5 cities, and a TOTAL of 300 people came to the shows. The promoter thought I would sell out 500 capacity venues because of my 100 million views and 500,000 subs on YouTube. And that burns a little, to be honest. It hurts when people are so hyped over you selling all these tickets and getting you excited for playing for all these people — and then you get there and it’s not at all how you expected. But then again, when you do meet the 30 or so people who did come to that show — you have the satisfaction you’ve always wanted — the fact that people relate to your story, and listen to what you’ve created. That makes up for it all, really. But realistically, you can’t make a living off satisfaction alone. We need to have a business mind set as well if we want to survive outside of our parents’ home. And that’s just reality.
So I’ve decided to take an indefinite hiatus from performing live and booking shows. Not sure if I’ll ever come back to it because I’ll be exploring a lot of different options. I have four or five last shows that I’ve committed to, some with my band and some solo gigs, and I’ll be posting all that information on my social media outlets. The last show will be at the end of August.
My band has been nothing but amazing to me. I love them all like brothers and I wish them the best of luck. But it’s time for us to focus on the separate paths we’ve chosen, with all of us choosing to live on opposite sides of the country. It’s not easy having a band that doesn’t get to practice, write together, or even just hang a lot. All the gigs we’ve played recently have either had one night of practice or no practice at all. It’s like we show up for work and then bounce right after. We have to find that spark again. And whether or not it comes back, just know that I remember every moment on stage with you guys. It’s been one hell of a ride.
I won’t stop posting videos on YouTube, though it won’t be as frequent as it was last year. Nothing will ever keep me away from making music, so you’ll still be seeing me around — online. It’s been an awesome 10 years of playing shows all around the world … The people I’ve met and the musicians I’ve played with over the years, I won’t forget.
I’ll still be doing what I love, writing songs and making melodies … so actually, this hiatus is not as dramatic as you may think it is. I just need to reassess and focus on myself. This last year has been tough on me with a lot of personal things happening. I just need to focus on why I was called to play music in the first place. If I find that again, I’ll let you guys know.