Lessons in Internet Authenticity With Haley Blais at SXSW

Photo credit: Thanakit Jitkasem/Shutterstock hblaisauce/Instagram YouTube/Wikimedia Commons (Licensed) by Caterina Cox

Vancouver-based indie-pop auteur Haley Blais could be considered a veteran of the vlog generation. Before the music industry strived for trending TikTok audios, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter found a digital home on YouTube, where she could share both her music and snippets of her life.

“I don’t even remember doing it,” Blais told Passionfruit of starting her channel in 2013, which first featured lifestyle content standards like monthly favorites and lookbooks. But Blais always included her quick-witted humor, something that also subtly permeates her confessional music.

And as she stepped away from her classically trained opera path, Blais opted to post covers online, soon making her channel a dual space for both vlogs and music. On YouTube, she could get her music out there when she didn’t really have a footing in the local scene yet.

“I think I just figured someone would listen,” she said. “I didn’t really have a place to do it where I was living. … It just seemed like an easy way to start sharing it with people, and it’s kind of better when you don’t know who’s listening. Anyone could be listening.”

Now, Blais has aged nearly ten years since first sharing her April 2013 favorites online, released a string of EPs and her debut album Below the Salt, and recorded her sophomore effort. 

Going from a softly cooed acoustic cover of One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” to the matured sonics of 2022 single “Coolest fucking bitch in town,” Blais’ musical growth, which landed her across from me in the noisy yard of SXSW official venue Swan Dive, also led her to shed her content creator roots.

Going viral… the right way

A beacon of all things industry, South By Southwest (SXSW) leaned into the increasing crossover of the music world with the creator economy. The schedule was filled with panels on artist authenticity and creator-driven music, in addition to one panel on the ever-burgeoning mystery of internet virality—and the impact it can have on musicians.

The advice from several industry leaders, including T-Pain’s manager Nicolette Carothers and Zekiel Nicholson, founder of a management firm Since the 80s, was resounding: Don’t try to go viral.

“Authenticity is key with any artist,” Carothers said, noting that attempts at online success can quickly turn gimmicky or feel fake. 

However, the panel also recognized that listeners are hungry to connect with artists beyond their music—and social media is now the prime avenue outside of live shows. 

“People don’t connect with just music anymore,” Nicholson claimed.

For artists like Blais, with an established audience base of over 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, the need for a viral stint isn’t as potent. But Blais’ internet presence certainly had an impact. 

She said several long-term fans told her they found her music via her vlogs. However, as she’s shied away from YouTube over the years, she said the relationship is more symbiotic.

“It’s really like a trampoline,” she described of her listeners and YouTube subscribers. “They just hop from one to the other.”

Though she recognizes that attempts at viral success by engaging in TikTok trends or begging for streams could get more ears on her releases, Blais’ inherent authenticity remains a major draw.

“Trying for it feels disingenuous for my brand,” she said, physically recoiling while spitting out the last word. “I wonder if people who do watch me and enjoy me and relate to me or what I put out on the internet would be turned off by me suddenly being like, internet girl business.”

“The fakeness would be just too palpable for me,” she continued. “I’m sure I could do so much and be so much more successful than I am right now if I, like, really played the game. But it’s just not been who I am, and it’s not how I wanted to create my career..”

Still, that doesn’t mean Blais’ nearly 10-year YouTube career was missing eyeballs. She reached viral status a few times, including an early video featuring her grandfather doing her makeup and 2016’s “DIY DRUNKEN BANGS,” a loose chronicle of Blais’ self-hair trimming that has garnered over 919,000 views.

The latter 11-minute clip also sparked an immediate connection among viewers with Blais’ personality. As one commenter wrote, “This was in my recommend and i literally just fell in love with this girl she’s fucking hilarious.”

Blais unintentionally curated a watchlist of her personality via casual vlogs that captured her vegan lifestyle, her obsession with Halloween, and the overall meandering existentialism of one’s early twenties.

“It’s a nice way to discover who I am as a person, too, which I like to share through my music,” she said. “You want to get to know the artists that you like and what they do with their day. And fortunately or unfortunately, you can see what I did with my day, for many years,” she laughed.

Growing out of it 

However, as, Blais delved even more into her music, she also stepped away from YouTube. Her consistent posting until about 2019 marked a trend in both herself and her viewers, Blais said. As she stopped watching other creators’ vlogs, she also lost the inspiration to create them.

“Since I don’t watch it anymore, it feels weird to keep doing it,” she said. “And I feel like a lot of my audience is probably in the same mindset because it’s like the same age group, the same generation kind of growing out of that.”

The vlog era that dominated YouTube in the 2010s shifted into quick-hitting TikTok trends in the 2020s. In the last year, Blais shared only four vlogs on her channel, instead focusing her time on recording her second full-length album to be released later this year. 

“I wanted to take myself more seriously,” Blais explained of her recoiling away from the platform. “I’ve always known there’s, like, a shelf life to whatever I was doing on YouTube, and I didn’t know whether it’d be like me deciding not to or just noticing the drop off—and it’s both.”

If anything, Blais’ trajectory is a reminder of the inability to fake and sustain authenticity online. She’s simply crafting another avenue for listeners to connect with her, and remaining true to herself in the process. 

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