Marijke Rowland

Modesto brothers The Johnsons finding singing stardom online

Modesto natives and brothers The Johnsons are making a name for themselves recording covers for YouTube. From left are Clayton, 26; Connor, 23; and Chantry, 25.
Modesto natives and brothers The Johnsons are making a name for themselves recording covers for YouTube. From left are Clayton, 26; Connor, 23; and Chantry, 25. The Johnsons

Used to be that to make it big in the music industry you started out by driving from small club to small club playing (and praying) for a crowd.

Now, as Modesto natives The Johnsons are learning, it’s much easier to just press “publish.” The three brothers have been creating video covers of popular songs and publishing them on their YouTube channel (OfficialTheJohnsons) since last July. So far they’ve amassed more than 50,000 subscribers and 3 million views just on their own channel. But when you include the videos with artists they’ve guested with, that number more than doubles.

The siblings are taking advantage of the very real, and potentially profitable, world of online stardom. What once was considered an insignificant microcosm of celebrity has become a force to be reckoned with. Last month a Vine star debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard album chart.

The Johnson brothers – 26-year-old vocalist and guitarist Clayton, 25-year-old co-vocalist and guitarist Chantry, and 23-year-old drummer Connor – all got their start in music the more traditional way. They sang at their church and then school bands, and started their own garage bands growing up. With their individual bands, they played local hangouts like Sidelines and Kingdom Coffee and Queen Bean.

Clayton earned a Modesto Area Music Association nomination with his group A Mover, A Fighter. He graduated from Davis High in 2007 and a little over a year later moved to Los Angeles to pursue music. He joined the band Stereo Skyline and signed with Columbia Records shortly after that. They opened for bands such as Good Charlotte, Third Eye Blind and Boys Like Girls.

Chantry graduated from Beyer in 2008 and spent a couple years doing music ministry at First Baptist (now CrossPoint Community Church) before joining his older brother in L.A. He also became part of the band The Cab and signed with Universal Music.

But then both brothers parted ways with their respective bands. Last summer, youngest brother Connor, a 2010 Davis grad, graduated from Columbia College Chicago and joined his older siblings in Southern California. That’s when Clayton said they decided to pool their talents and strike out on their own online.

“To be honest, we were seeing these kids on YouTube who in our opinion didn’t necessarily have the skills and talent we felt like we had together,” he said. “Seeing their success and how big they got off YouTube covers, we thought we could do what they were doing but better. We learned music together so it made sense for us to continue our journey and do music together.”

So The Johnsons were born and they began posting videos. They also got some help from famous friends like “The X Factor” finalist Rachel Crow, “The Miley and Mandy Show” star Mandy Jiroux and fellow YouTube sibling sensations Cimorelli. It probably also helps that they’re all three rather photogenic. Their biggest hits as a trio so far are covers of the Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney collaboration “Four Five Seconds” (more than 1,038,000 views) and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” (more than 640,000 views).

The trio conceives, records, films and edits the videos themselves. They divide the labor by skills – Chantry handles recording and producing, Connor handles photography and video, and Clayton handles the business side. They’re averaging a new video about every two weeks. They can turn one around in as little as five hours.

And they’ve done it all without going out and gigging like bands did in days of yore. They have played once live – but of course it was televised. You can watch it this summer on the E! network reality series “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills.” They’re the band playing the magazine launch party for TaylorAnn Hasselhoff (yes, the “Baywatch” guy’s daughter).

“Back in the day, people had to do a lot of touring to be exposed to a new fan base. They had to hit the road, play shows and see maybe 100 kids a night. Now we’re able to get that exposure tenfold,” Clayton said.

The Johnsons recently signed with a high-profile music manager who previously worked with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. But they’re in no rush to sign with another label, hoping instead to keep increasing their audience organically through YouTube. They also plan to begin releasing their original music this summer.

But their immediate plans are to return to their hometown to play the Downey High School prom this weekend. Their father, Michael Johnson, is a longtime teacher at the school. And who knows, maybe some aspiring musicians at the dance will look on stage and think that they, too, can get their break with some talent, hard work and a few clicks.

“I’d encourage other people who feel the need to maybe take that big step and pursue their dreams to try,” Clayton said. “I was in Modesto doing the same thing you were doing a few years ago.”

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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