Redefining the Overnight Sensation
The rapid rise of Ruth B’s music career.
When Ruth Berhe first began uploading six-second singing clips to the social network Vine, thoughts of international fame fell as mere blips on her radar. The 19-year-old Ethiopian-Canadian singer-songwriter started posting videos just for fun, but she soon gained a following of fans who encouraged her to write and post more. Response to her song “Lost Boy” — inspired by the classic tale of Peter Pan — was so strong that within a matter of months, she had amassed such a large social-media audience that commercial attention swiftly followed. Ruth, who now goes by the stage name “Ruth B,” found herself bombarded with contract offers from major music labels. Last July, she signed a deal with Columbia Records — barely a year after she first began singing to a computer screen in her bedroom.
Ruth B’s story stands as a prime example of the new generation of creative talent for whom the internet has become not just a promotional tool, but a platform to launch, develop and maintain their careers. Like many other young performers, Ruth was motivated to pursue music more seriously because of the positive feedback she received online from fans — fans who increasingly expect to be able to directly interact with the artists and performers they watch and follow on-screen.
Additionally, the restricted parameters of platforms such as Vine (which limits video clips to six seconds) and Snapchat (where videos disappear shortly after being posted) have forced artists to release creative output in bite-sized pieces that are are easy to consume and share.
In the case of Ruth B and “Lost Boys,” the first few lines of the song left her followers clamoring for more, and she continued to post the song as she wrote it — in six-second increments. By the time she posted the full version to YouTube and began gaining the attention of record labels far and wide, Ruth already had over two million followers on Vine and hundreds of thousands on Twitter.
Stories like this are turning the traditional music industry business models on their heads. The days of a major label making a big bet on an unknown but talented artist are largely over. Today, independent artists (including teenaged bedroom performers) have access to virtually the same production and marketing tools that are used by the world’s leading media companies. As a result, media companies have begun to scour the internet looking for talented individuals who have managed to connect with large audiences through their own efforts, whom they can then package and promote on an even-larger scale. Whatever this new media economy means for the future of the music industry, for artists such as Ruth B it means that the path from obscurity to fame can be as short as the time it takes to upload a snappy video clip.
And yet, for someone who has gained over two million “friends” in one year, Ruth Berhe has managed to maintain quite a level head. When asked about how she plans to face the challenges that come with increased recognition, she is adamant that fame is “not really something I’m after.” She admits that the music industry “can be tough,” but says that her antidote to the distracting hype of the entertainment business is to “stay grounded and keep your goals in mind.”
One of the things providing her own grounding appears to be her close-knit family. Raising their kids in the chilly Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, Ruth’s parents made sure to keep her and her brother connected to their Ethiopian roots. “I grew up being surrounded by the rich melodies of Ethiopian music and lyrics,” says Ruth. “I think this played a huge part in my musical influence.”
Ruth and her family traveled to Ethiopia a few years ago, and Ruth looks forward to visiting again in the near future. “I would love to perform there soon,” she adds. Thanks to the power of the world wide web, when that next visit takes place, Ruth B may find that she already has an audience of thousands of virtual friends waiting to welcome her.