Scrolling through the comments section of Khalid's YouTube videos, you'll find the usual buzz from eager fans. Some claim to know him personally from days at Americas High School in El Paso. Others say they discovered his music ahead of the masses. There are proclamations of love for the rising star and desperate pleas for likes. But one comment, beside a profile picture of a fresh-faced young woman, stands out for its earnestness.
"I hope one day my music will be as big and influential as Khalid's," writes the YouTube cover artist, username Vxctoria.
Were she frequenting another artist's page, her wish might seem like just another YouTube-fame fantasy, where some daydreamers get lucky but most spend years begging for subscribers in poorly lit bedrooms. A role model like Khalid, however, can make an unlikely dream like Vxctoria's seem attainable. Two years ago he was uploading his electro-sheen R&B songs to SoundCloud in hopes that someone — anyone — would hear them.
Another teenager did hear Khalid's music and showed her appreciation for his song "Location" on Snapchat. The snap of 19-year-old Kylie Jenner jamming to Khalid's ode to digital-age young love pushed him into a new stratosphere of fame. Khalid, also age 19 and barely a year past his high-school graduation, has been hyped on every tastemaking music blog's emerging artists list for the past year.
But music blogs alone didn't turn him into an overnight success, whose South Florida show had to be relocated from Revolution to the Fillmore because of high ticket demand, and then sold out the Fillmore. In 2017, word-of-mouth is still the best game in town for artists to break out, but sharing new music with friends has evolved into YouTube videos posted on Facebook walls, Twitter mentions, Snapchat stories, and shared Spotify playlists. This is the story of Khalid's rise to prominence — a story that may signal impending obsolescence for radio programmers and corporate gatekeepers like iHeartRadio.
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At the beginning of the millennium, a teenager like Khalid would have needed constant support from MTV to reach the teen audience that identifies with his music. In 2017, MTV has chosen him as this month's "Artist to Watch," but his appearances are relegated to snippets of acoustic performances adjacent to the Teen Mom credit reel. That a 19-year-old Khalid no longer needs the network to sway an adolescent audience is both an indication of MTV's increasing irrelevance and an illustration of the rapidly changing media landscape.
Khalid's Cinderella story mirrors that of another artist who broke out as a teenager barely out of high school: Chance the Rapper. Unlike Chance, who is to this day a fully independent artist, Khalid opted to sign with RCA Records, a major label. Chance's independent route to success has been touted as the death knell to the traditional music industry blueprint, but Khalid serves as an example of how traditional and new media can complement one another.
Khalid's confessional songs, filled with references to sharing locations, passing out during Uber rides, and keeping exes numbers saved in phones after a breakup, are in many ways the sound and ethos of the younger end of the millennial generation. He's the spokesman, so it's natural they would share him using the apps and means by which they share everything else they deem important to their lives. Traditional radio just isn't one of them.