“There are records — like the new Taylor Swift album — I know I have to cover, that I have a responsibility to cover,” Fantano tells TheWrap
YouTuber Anthony Fantano lives up to his nickname as the “internet’s busiest music nerd.”
The 33-year-old, working from his home studio in Connecticut, churns out album review videos at a blistering pace. Rap, pop, indie rock: You name it, he covers it. Fantano puts out half a dozen reviews per week on his “The Needle Drop” YouTube channel, which has racked up about 2 million subscribers in the decade since its debut.
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“The Needle Drop” has become the preeminent YouTube destination for music insight. His sister channel, aptly dubbed “Fantano,” offering what he calls more “think piece-y” videos, adds another 820,000 subscribers to his fold. Altogether, his videos have been viewed nearly 700 million times.
The format is simple enough: Fantano, with his trademark buzzcut, rapidly fires off his thoughts on a new record for about 10 minutes, vacillating between looking away from the camera and breaking the fourth wall. Jump cuts bring viewers from one opinion to the next. The album in question is prominently featured behind him to his right, while to his left are a few records from his seemingly endless collection. As far as aesthetics go, that’s about it.
Ask Fantano how he went from NPR obscurity to YouTube fame in 10 years, and he says it boils down to one word: “trust.” His fans want to hear what he has to say about new music because they can see he’s just as passionate as they are.
“Consistently coming out with content that gives people a reason to think about the music they’re listening to,” Fantano added, when asked his secret sauce. “Building the trust and putting in the effort to stay entertaining, fresh, and consistent is the hard part, really.”
Press Fantano on his favorite bands, and he’ll list several high school favorites, from Public Enemy to Tom Waits to Crass. He still finds time to review niche acts he knows will likely only appeal to him and a small minority of his fans. At the same time, the weight of having millions of YouTube subscribers makes him feel an obligation to cover the biggest releases.
“There are records — like the new Taylor Swift album — I know I have to cover, that I have a responsibility to cover,” Fantano said.
He’s reluctant to talk about his business, other than confirming he’s able to make “six figures” off his channels “before taxes.” That’s between YouTube ads and his Patreon account, which has 981 supporters chipping in at least $2 per month. It’s enough to maintain a “three-person assembly line” that also includes a local video editor and his friend Austin, who helps him pick his topics and craft his content.
TheWrap recently caught up with Fantano to talk about 10 years of “The Needle Drop.”
Take us back to 2009, when The Needle Drop was just getting started on YouTube. What was the genesis of the channel?
It started off as an NPR-affiliated podcast [in 2007] and a regular old music blog that you would’ve found on the Indie blog-o-sphere in the late-2000s. And after doing that consistently for about a year and a half, I wasn’t making much headway and wasn’t seeing it grow that much.
After doing more research, analyzing my competition and seeing what was out there in terms of music journalism, I figured I’d try my hand at talking about albums on camera, and see if it set me apart from the other review sites and bloggers out there. What I had been doing wasn’t gaining traction, so I decided to take a risk. And I was already an avid YouTube viewer by that point.
Was there an “a-ha” moment, where you thought this could really take off?
The reviews have always been a slow, upwards hike (in viewers). There was never a single, big review that blew the channel up. What did enthuse me, though, was around the time I got my first 100 subscribers. And I was like, ‘Okay, as far as I can tell, that’s more engagement and investment than I know is being put into the listeners of my podcast or the readers of my blog.’ There was virtually no way of tracking a lot of times who was reading. I was getting okay traffic, but it wasn’t repeat traffic. People would come on to listen to a song, then leave immediately.
As soon as I was getting YouTube comments and hit 100 subscribers, I was thinking ‘maybe there’s something to this. I could keep going. I don’t know how far I can really push it just reviewing random indie bands on YouTube, but it seems to have more gas in the tank.’
Now, a decade in, how do you stay on top of the “cool” music to review?
The only part that makes the keeping up aspect of it difficult is just the sheer saturation I’m having to deal with. It wasn’t that much of a problem 10 years ago. Every week, I’m faced with, and aware of, 10-14 different reviewable albums that, in a perfect world, I’d be able to pop a review out of. But I’m just one person who, while maintaining my sanity, can only do 5-6 reviews per week
As far as being aware and keeping up with all this stuff – I imagine for someone who is completely on their own and having to do the leg work on their own, yea, it is very tough. But for the most part, a lot of what’s new, what’s interesting, what’s unusual and what’s worth covering, ends up getting thrown into my lap by my audience. Because they’re listening to new stuff all the time, and they’re always in my face on social media, jumping down my throat saying “review this, review that.”
Having those [fans] create a bit of an advantage, in that I don’t have to be following the headlines to see if so-and-so just came out with a record. It also makes me aware of new artists who are on the come up. I just kind of try to stay in tune with that, since I know my fans at the end of the day are genuinely passionate music listeners, and are only suggesting for me to review because they really enjoy them, not because some PR person is telling them to say so.
Occasionally, I’ll want to cover something that’s outside of my audiences’ tastes or interests. Every week or so I have to try and cover at least one or two of those things to keep my sanity. If you’re only reviewing what is in the top album spots on Apple Music every week, you can get kind of jaded.
How do you balance covering smaller acts you may enjoy more personally, with covering mega-releases like the new Taylor Swift album that will drive more views?
I just try to find a natural balance every week between which albums are the most high-demand in terms of attention they’ll get and the discussion they’ll foster, and records that are stylistically and topically are more interesting, despite how popular they are or aren’t.
There used to be a time where it probably wasn’t necessary for me to talk about the new Taylor Swift record because my platform wasn’t really that big and I had free reign to review anything I wanted. But now, as one of the biggest reviewing platforms on the internet, you kind of have to talk about Taylor Swift. Not only because it’s making a big splash and it’s influential – and truly, it’s not that bad, I think it’s one of her better records in a while – but still, to not cover Taylor Swift would be actively turning a blind eye to a significant part of pop culture. As a music critic of my size, it would be irresponsible in a way. It would be malpractice. (laughs).
Conversely, I’ll try to bounce off of that and cover something like the new Vivian Girls record, which I knew wasn’t going to get a ton of views.
What advice would you give to an upstart creator?
Stay on a schedule. Be consistent. If you’re a commentator like me, orient at least some of your content around topics that are buzzworthy so it’s more likely you’ll be stumbled upon or recommended in the YouTube algorithm. Getting people to find you can be a gamble, but there are things you can do to increase your chances.