In 2008, twins Janice and Sonia Lee began posting videos on YouTube of themselves singing acoustic covers from their bedroom in Australia, unaware of the millions of followers, recording contracts, television appearances and multi-date international tours that would follow. Together they are Jayesslee, and Sean Hebert tracked them down earlier in the month during their three-gig swing through town. They discuss their start, making it online and their surprising reception in Hong Kong.
Sean Hebert: The two of you originally planned to do just one show in Hong Kong, not three. I heard a rumor that your first show sold out in 30 minutes.
Sonia Lee: Less, I think. Hong Kong broke the record—Thailand sold out in 15 minutes but we sold out here in 10 minutes.
SH: Are you surprised by the reception?
SL: Extremely surprised. It’s our first time here, and we didn’t know what to expect. In the beginning, we were thinking, “oh, do you think maybe 100 people will turn up?” But yeah, we’re just so overwhelmed that 4,000 people are going to come out. [Editor’s note: they did.]
SH: When did you first decide to share your songs online?
Janice Lee: YouTube started up in 2005, and 2006 was when we were like, “what is this thing?” We were watching other people putting covers and self-written songs online, and it was so interesting and inspiring to see how free they were to upload their original content. We were kind of testing out our singing as a hobby, and so when we uploaded our first video it wasn’t really to get famous. A friend wanted us to sing a song and he was in Korea, so the easiest way to transfer that song was through YouTube. Once we did that, it started snowballing.
SH: I’m struggling with a mind-blowing statistic here: your videos have been viewed 173 million times on YouTube through the end of 2012. What’s the secret to your success?
JL: I don’t think there’s a secret. We’re pretty much just ourselves, and very honest. I think people enjoy seeing that: just genuine characters and personalities on the net. I can’t really say that there’s some sort of equation to how we got here.
SH: You do a lot of covers of Christian bands, and you’re doing a show at the Baptist University here in Hong Kong. Do you think that having a faith-based slant on your music and identifying yourselves as religious has helped?
SL: To a certain degree. We’re not shy to share our faith, and we found that a lot of the people who come out to our shows actually turn out to be Christians as well. But at the same time, a lot of people who subscribe to us aren’t Christian, so we try to keep a good balance. No one has been offended by our faith or hated on us because we’re Christians. I think they’re very accepting because we’re just honest about it, and if it matters to us and it’s important to us, we find that they really respect that.
SH: Are you finding it difficult to make money as YouTube stars?
SL: It’s very difficult for cover artists. I know there are a lots of vloggers that upload a lot of original content who can actually make a living for themselves just purely from YouTube, but for cover artists it’s difficult because it’s not your content and there are a lot of copyright issues. The main stream of income is touring and iTunes. iTunes is a life-saver. You can do covers the way you like, and then just buy a license and sell it as your own version of the song.
SH: So, does that make this your full-time job now?
SL: YouTube is all we do, day and night. We’ve been lucky enough to call this our full-time job since 2010, because that’s when we started traveling. Before that, Janice and I both had part-time jobs. Janice was scooping ice cream and I was making fruit smoothies.
SH: If you had one word of advice for people out there who are still toiling away on YouTube and hoping to find an audience, what would it be?
JL: I think it would be to just continue to do what you enjoy doing. I feel like a lot of people get lost and figure they don’t enjoy it anymore, because they change themselves to suit an audience. But it’s really important to remain yourself and to never forget the core of why you started. Also, it gets easier later on. We can’t watch our very first videos without cringing. The more you do it, the more practice you get, and the better the results. Persist and endure!
See what all the hype’s about at www.jayesslee.com.