How Gen Z star Melanie Martinez is reinventing music distribution

Last week, the singer Melanie Martinez dropped K-12, her first album in four years, with the simultaneous premiere of a 92-minute musical film on YouTube. Within hours, it amassed more than a million views, and a week later, it has climbed to 18 million, and to the top of YouTube’s trending videos list.

The visuals for K-12 are like a mashup of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the 1996 film Matilda, and the anime series Sailor Moon. Like all of her videos, Martinez wrote and directed the whole thing herself. The film weaves dialogue between fantastical musical numbers corresponding to the 13 tracks on the K-12 album. The standalone music videos will premiere on YouTube one by one, every two weeks.

melanie martinez on YouTube

Martinez also inked a deal with YouTube for a four-part mini-series tied to K-12, ending with her episode of an “Artist Spotlight Story,” one of YouTube’s initiatives to promote young talent. Superstars like Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Janelle Monae, and Billie Eilish have all been featured.

The project is a prime example of the stars aligning and powerful entities giving a young artist nearly unlimited runway to create. Atlantic Records, Martinez’s label, spent between $5 million and $6 million on the production. They originally gave Martinez a $2 million budget, which she argued would compromise her vision.

melanie martinez on YouTube

In the wake of her 2015 debut Cry Baby, Martinez’s fandom grew at a simmer, encouraged by the music videos she periodically posted on YouTube. The slow burn paid off both in followers and music sales: an early video for “Dollhouse,” uploaded in 2014, now has 236 million views, and Martinez has 8.3 million YouTube subscribers. Cry Baby eventually went platinum.

K-12 is definitely getting a boon from a clever distribution strategy. YouTube and Atlantic Records meeting minds over a 24-year-old pop star is notable too, considering how the streaming and recording industries are so often at odds.

But Martinez isn't the first artist to drop an album and simultaneously premiere a feature length music video on a particular platform. (The world’s been graced by Beyoncé’s Lemonade for three whole years now.) But Martinez may be a harbinger of an interesting trend. Increasingly, industry power players are open to getting creative about how they showcase artists.

A music exec named Steve Stoute — a titan of 90s rap music who launched the careers of Nas and Will Smith — recently founded a distribution company called UnitedMasters to answer the trend of artists like Chance the Rapper forgoing record labels and managing their own album releases. UnitedMasters helps artists navigate digital distribution, but also gives them the tools to target current and future fans via social media. The company also helps musicians land sponsorships, and presumably takes a cut, but it lets them retain copyright over their music. The artists hold the masters from day one.

melanie martinez on YouTube

There are more ways than ever for artists to distribute music — Spotify, Pandora, actual LPs, YouTube, regular old radio. Focusing on YouTube makes a lot of sense for Martinez’s intended Gen-Z audience. K-12 is an example of all the gears of the internet grinding smoothly to create something cool. Here’s hoping it’s a glimpse of what’s to come in the mainstream music world.