BAKER has nearly 5 million YouTube views on his video for “Not Gonna Wait,” good looks and a Top 40 sound, a debut album coming out this spring, and tonight, BAKER only has about 30 people at his concert in the basement studio of New York’s Webster Hall.
BAKER, 25, dressed in a black leather jacket, deep-cut white t-shirt and skinny jeans, has a strong live set with an infectious, if not especially challenging, sound. It’s meant to get people dancing, and quickly. That ethos has carried his most recent video, “Not Gonna Wait,” to nearly 5 million views in as many months. And yet in the real world, things are different. BAKER looks good, sounds good, gyrates and fist pumps along to his hits. The only thing missing is an audience.
Born Chris Baker, BAKER is a growing star on YouTube. Many of his videos have at least half a million views and counting. Still, his sudden online success has been a little surreal. “I wrote ‘Not Gonna Wait’ in May, recorded it in June, and it was out in July,” Baker says when we meet up at City Bakery the day after the concert. “I wore my own clothes, cast my own friends. I said, ‘Let’s go to the High Line, film it in black and white.’ We got a hotel room at the Standard Hotel for the night. That was basically the entire budget for the video.”
The “real” Baker isn’t too hard to find. Baker has used social media to climb to where he is now, running his own Twitter account and responding to individual YouTube subscribers when possible. The new model of pop stardom involves far fewer private jets and far more private messages. The new challenge, however, is translating online fame into real audiences: success as measured not by view but by real bodies in the front row.
At BAKER’s December 10 show at Webster Hall, the front row is decidedly sparse. Model-tall, Baker has the right build (good hair, strong cheek bones) and demeanor to carry an EDM-flavored pop show. He runs through a short set as if the room was full.
“When I’m on stage, I don’t really care,” Baker says, glancing down at his chunky bronze watch in the cafe. “It can be frustrating, but at the same time I have nothing to complain about.” Baker knows the odds of a solo act breaking big online aren’t great. The numbers are even slimmer for a cello-playing Harvard grad like himself.
Baker says he always knew he wanted to go into pop music and adopt the moniker BAKER, capital letters and all: “It was a radio sound that I always loved, and you know that sound is amorphous, but I was drawn to it. This [path] is the big kahuna,” he says.
The guy comes by it honestly. Baker studied cello seriously from a young age, but switched to vocals once he hit Harvard for undergrad. He joined The Harvard Opportunes, a co-ed a capella group on campus. Is he worried a little Glee will ruin his street cred? “Ha, no. Even in the Opportunes all my solos were guys like Ryan Cabrera, Mika or John Legend. It was all pop.”
His junior summer, Baker was in L.A. interning at the Weinstein Company and not doing much of anything. By chance he hooked up with a pair of producers who helped him record an electro cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” The song received moderate pickup but more importantly, it helped solidify Baker’s career path. After graduating, Baker spent three years flying back and forth between New York, his home city, and L.A. before finally moving out West about six months ago. “I wasn’t moving out there in this manifest destiny kind of way,” Baker says. “I went to work. The nice thing is I already kind of had family out there.”
That family was mostly professional, cultivated over a series of years slogging in relative obscurity. (His real family, his parents, comes to as many of his shows as possible. Much like their son, they are slim and well-kept and have a preference for black clothing.) “In L.A., all of my friends are models,” Baker says, quickly rolling his eyes. What he means is that the music scene and its implicit competition is not for him: “I end up feeling like I have to defend my Twitter numbers. I’m a very competitive person anyways. I don’t need to do that.”
What he does need to do is find a way to convert the millions of likes, followers, and views into a real-world audience. Baker is releasing a new single (“Waiting for Love”) in January when he and his team will start chasing down labels to help him release his debut. It’s coming out regardless and it will hopefully signal his first step toward filling up venues with screaming fans.
As much fun as pop stardom may sound, Baker knows it’ll take work. After his Webster Hall show, Baker heads home early. He has to wake up for two magazine meet-and-greets (his first official day of press) and to help finish editing his upcoming video.
When it comes to YouTube stars nabbing legit stardom, Baker doesn’t have a lot of bands to look toward for inspiration. Justin Bieber is a freaking wunderkind, Psy has the near-impossible task of topping “Gangnam Style,” and Karmin just can’t seem to make friends despite their online numbers. BAKER, a solo male pop act with an Ivy League pedigree, is trying to be the first YouTuber to dig his heels into the established music world. Has anyone managed to do it right? “I don’t know,” Baker says. “Wow, I really don’t know.”
Photo Credit: Bryan Alano