By Audra Schroeder on August 31st, 2014
The sound of a thousand screaming teenage girls is an intense experience. On a Saturday afternoon in late August, at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, this sound fills the old venue like an ecstatic choir, coming in heaves. What starts as an individual scream quickly becomes a hive. It’s the sound of existence.
This screaming mass is here for DigiTour, a variety show of sorts for teen social media stars, which offers “in real life” social media experiences “for Generation Z and millennial audiences.” The Vic, a 1,300-capacity venue, has been sold out for a month. Earlier, a nasty thunderstorm dumped the heavens on Chicago, so the crowd is freshly baptized, soaked hair and handmade fan T-shirts illuminated by the stage lights.
The fans are here to see Jack and Jack, the duo of 17-year-olds Jack Johnson and Jack Gilinsky, who have become one of the most popular acts on six-second video app Vine. There has already been fainting before the show starts. Parents sit and endure, piled with mountains of their daughters’ colorful merch. When the lights go out and Jack and Jack appear on stage, girls hug each other, cry, fan their faces as they hyperventilate. It’s an old rapture, updated for a new generation.
They hold signs asking the performers to follow them on Twitter. Every once in a while, a girl yells, “Take off your shirt!” The performers—all male Vine stars—oblige, several times. These men are performing specifically for them, playing into a certain fantasy that social media has allowed and nurtured.
Still, the number of sold-out shows on the DigiTour shows how much power teenage girls have as tastemakers and needle-movers. They’re always on the lookout for the next big thing, and often know years before brands and mainstream media. They’re virtual soothsayers.
These are the new rock stars, and screaming teenage girls put them on stage.
Chris Rojas and Meridith Valiando Rojas are the husband and wife team behind DigiTour. Meridith worked in A&R at Capitol Records, and Chris served as a producer for the likes of Pink, Backstreet Boys, and Jessica Simpson. While Meridith was still at Capitol, the two started getting involved in the YouTube community, which was starting to evolve and grow in Los Angeles.
“It was very much the Wild West at that point,” Chris said. “There were all these massive YouTubers, and none of them had managers or agents yet. And we just got in very early, and got to know everyone. And then we cherrypicked the best of the best out of the top 15 on YouTube, and put them on the road.”
DigiTour was founded in 2010, and first hit the road in 2011. The first tour featured YouTube stars Dave Days, DeStorm, and the Gregory Brothers, and Chris says it was very “of the moment.” At the time, musicians on YouTube were bigger than Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. That’s still true.
It’s an old rapture, updated for a new generation.
A few months ago, they did a round of strategic financing, and Condé Nast was the lead investor. That made Ryan Seacrest take notice. He recently put his support behind DigiTour and has been promoting it as an American Idol-style competition to find an opener for Jack and Jack. He’ll also be instrumental in finding future DigiTour stars. The company just added three new investors, including Guy Oseary, manager to Madonna and U2.
DigiTour’s roster isn’t quite half Vine stars, but it’s a growing percentage. Many young stars, Chris says, aspire to be on DigiTour. They’ve grown up in that ecosystem, and their fans will reach out in an effort to get them on a bigger stage. This fan-first approach is what gave DigiTour its 2014 headliners, Jack and Jack. The Rojases followed them early on and saw the engagement they had with fans.
There’s also the matter of prepping these social media stars for the stage, and making sure their virtual presence translates in real life. Chris says the Jack and Jack show was initially a “coffee shop-type stage show. They were just up there singing. It wasn’t really a show. So we put them in with choreographers, movement coaches. … And then we take it a step further and build scripted segments into the show, all based around what our fans want.”
He explains that for DigiTour, they expanded on the fanfiction aspect, specifically fanfiction about Jack and Jack.
“They imagine themselves on a date with one of these stars,” he said. “Or in a situation where they encounter these stars, and sometimes it’s as a G-rated as, you know, they’re at a show and suddenly they take the wrong staircase and get in an elevator and the star is suddenly there. And they ride with the star for three stops. And they say, ‘Oh, you’re lost. I’ll help you get back to the show.’ So we created a segment where we bring those fanfictions to life.”
This happens, and it is weird.
The Chicago show is a mix of comedy bits; musical performances, complete with backup dancers; and fan-interactive segments. Fellow Vine stars Sam Wilkinson, Jake Foushee, and Cody Johns are also on stage for different segments. In the first fanfiction reenactment, a fan is brought onstage to act out a love-triangle narrative. In the next, two fans help reenact a prom night bit, and while it’s all very chaste, it also produces some perplexing tweets from fans.
“We think that once you meet a fan, they’re going to be a fan for life.” —Jack Gilinsky
There’s also a speed-dating segment, in which a fan is brought up on stage and has to ask the guys a series of questions about a hypothetical romantic relationship, revising the roles of fan and performer. Boxers or briefs? What is his pet name for her? Will she twerk with him? Would he ever date a fan? More screams.
In the bathroom before the show, 15-year-old Kyle sits in front of a mirror, face illuminated by her phone, wet brown hair framing her face. “No service,” she pouts to no one in particular. She and her mom drove three hours for the show, and she says she just really loves Jack and Jack’s music and thinks they’re funny. She wants to get a good spot up front, but she’s trying to find her friends.
Yes, this crowd is here for Jack and Jack, but it’s also a testament to female friendships and the need for acceptance. There are many groups of friends at DigiTour. They take photos together. They hug each other and tell jokes. It’s late August, and many of them are starting a new school year soon, perhaps away from one another.
To the right of the stage, three girls hold up signs advertising their Twitter handles, asking the performers to follow them. Elsewhere, glittery “I love Jack and Jack” signs are amended with personal Twitter and Instagram handles. They know how to market themselves.
Jack and Jack’s appeal, according to Rojas, is that they’re the kind of guys girls would want to bring home to their moms.
Fittingly, the two have been friends since kindergarten. In fourth grade, they started a YouTube account just for fun, Gilinsky says. They were making short clips and song parodies, mainly for their family, but other people started taking notice.
They eventually amassed 4,000 subscribers. When Vine came along, they decided to try their luck on that platform, confident their fans would follow them. And they did: Jack and Jack currently have more than 4 million followers on Vine, and their nerdy alter egos Eric and Winston made them a name on the platform.
Johnson and Gilinsky both just graduated from high school in May, and plan to move from their hometown of Omaha, Neb., to Los Angeles in the fall. They’re taking a year off to focus on music, which might include a full-length album. Their latest single, “Wild Life,” recently debuted on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and they’re also the creators of Let It Goat, a Flappy Bird-esque game they developed with Omaha-based gaming company SkyVu. It has more than a million downloads.
For all their entrepreneurial success before the age of 18, they still stress the importance of interacting with fans, as seen in the DigiTour fanfiction and speed-dating segments.
“Fan interaction is probably the most key thing,” Gilinksy said. “We think that once you meet a fan, they’re going to be a fan for life. You make that personal connection with them, on that personal level, and they have that mindset that you’re not going to forget them.
“And it’s weird because even though we meet so many girls, if I’ve met you before, I know I’ve met you before. Even though we’ve met probably over 20,000 girls, I’m pretty sure I could say whether I’ve met them or not. It’s like a weird memory thing for me.”
What do they think about girls screaming for them to take their shirts off?
“We both think it’s weird to have fans even screaming our names,” Johnson said. “We never thought it would ever get to this point. We don’t know what life is right now.”
Chris Rojas stresses the importance of that fan interaction as well.
“With social stars, there’s a two-way conversation there,” he said. “While fans might not be able to communicate back and forth with someone as big as a Jason Derulo, Jack and Jack write back to their fans, read what they’re saying. Every so often they’ll point out a fan for posting something great. The fans feel like they’re friends with the talent.”
When asked about DigiTour’s revenue, Chris offers no comment, since they’re a private company. The acts, he says, make money from merch, ticket sales, and brand deals. Often these stars get paid to appear at red carpet events, and there was a heavy DigiTour presence at the recent Teen Choice Awards. Many of the TCA categories were also filled with DigiTour alumni.
“I’m sure the next platform is just around the corner.” —DigiTour cofounder Chris Rojas
Stars on Vine, who may not be instantly monetizable, have to be their own cottage industry, Chris says, and working with brands is a must if you want to be sustainable. For this tour, DigiTour partnered with Material Girl, Madonna’s clothing line, and SkyVu is one of the sponsors.
DigiTour sold 18,000 tickets last year, and this year that number rose to 130,000. Next year, they have plans to exceed 250,000. When asked what might be the next major platform for teen discovery, Rojas says Snapchat is becoming quite popular, but it’s “a little more difficult to spot the trend in Snapchat because it’s kind of a closed network,” and it’s harder to track views. Still, they’ve started watching that platform for new stars.
“I’m sure the next platform is just around the corner,” he said. “Kids are fickle; they’re always looking for the next thing. We’re always on the lookout as well.”
After the show, girls gather by an alley outside the Vic, waiting for a glimpse of Jack and Jack on their way out. Nearby, a father and daughter discuss their post-show strategy. She wants to wait with the rest of the fans, but he clearly does not. He says his daughter, who’s 15, has been to other shows like this, but he doesn’t understand the appeal. He likens it to Beatlemania.
The mother of a 14-year-old fan overhears our conversation. She doesn’t understand the appeal either and isn’t sure what vines are. Her daughter used her own money from a library job to buy tickets for the meet and greet before the show, but their train was late and she missed it. She’s trying to “be a good sport” about it.
As the crowd grows, a venue employee tells the girls the bus already picked Jack and Jack up 15 minutes ago. We all need to go home. Nothing to see here.
A couple blocks up from the Vic, three girls run up the street squealing with laughter. They quickly turn the corner and dart down an alleyway, searching for Jack and Jack’s secret exit. They’re always on the lookout.
Photos by Kyle LaMere