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The online video-sharing site YouTube is this generation's MTV. Artists like PSY have found mainstream success when their videos go viral. Yet, the numbers of playful cover songs by amateurs showing up online - from toddlers singing The Beatles to teens tackling Led Zeppelin - eclipses original work by a long shot. Somewhere in between PSY and your toddler is an aspiring professional musician using cover songs on YouTube to advance his or her career and try to build a fan base.

Turnstyle News reporter Noah Nelson reports they can earn some money too.

NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: If you've listened to the radio in the last year, you may have heard this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

MAROON 5: (Singing) I'm at a payphone trying to call home. All of my change, I spent on you.

NELSON: That's Maroon 5's "Payphone." If you look the song up on YouTube, you'll find it. You'll also find...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Where are the plans we made for two?

NELSON: And...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) If happy ever after did exist, I would still be holding you like this.

NELSON: And...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

TYLER WARD: (Singing) All those fairy tales I never miss. One more stupid love song, I'll be sick.

NELSON: That last version is by Tyler Ward, a 24-year old singer and songwriter from Denver with an all-American look and a sound that lives somewhere between indie pop and country. Ward uses YouTube to promote his music career.

WARD: I started, actually, doing cover songs in the bar, trying to make ends meet every weekend. So when I figured out what YouTube I was like, I just figured I could put these online, see what happens.

NELSON: What happened was an opening slot for The Jonas Brothers, a performance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and a headlining tour through Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Before that, Ward posted covers on YouTube hoping to draw new fans. Yet he could have made more money back at the bar singing those songs.

GEORGE STROMPOLOS: The challenge is, when an artist decides to cover a song, they don't actually have the rights to make money on that song. They are not allowed to run advertisements and not allowed to make money.

NELSON: That's George Strompolos. He's the CEO of a company called Fullscreen Entertainment. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The company's name is Fullscreen Inc.]Tyler Ward is one of his clients. He explains that since YouTube is free in the same way that broadcast TV is free, the site makes money through advertising that runs with the videos.

Until recently, cover songs were the exception. YouTube couldn't run ads with those videos. An aspiring musician like Ward could put hours of work into a video, hoping for attention, but not get a single dollar.

STROMPOLOS: The problem is also neither will the original songwriter, because again, there are no advertisements.

NELSON: The issue is the legal rights to the song. Those are held by publishers or songwriters, and if anyone wants to make money on a recording of a song, they have to make a deal.

Enter Fullscreen and one of its rivals, Maker Studios. They're in the business of connecting YouTube creators with possible advertisers. These companies put talent agents, video producers, and ad sales all under one roof. Earlier this year Fullscreen and Maker struck a deal with one of the largest song rights holders: Universal Music Publishing Group. This opened up Universal's massive catalog - decades of music, from Fleetwood Mac to Adele - to a revenue-sharing plan. Now the musicians who work with Fullscreen and Maker can earn money on their cover videos.

STROMPOLOS: What we've done with teaming up with Universal Music Publishing Group is allowed the artists who cover those songs to have the license to run the advertisements. And that way if their cover song on YouTube gets hundreds of thousands or millions of views, it's actually worth some money to that cover artist and the original songwriter is also compensated.

NELSON: YouTube pays the music publisher and original songwriter, and the young cover artists also get a little money. They also get to make names for themselves while riding the popularity wave of hit songs. Meanwhile, businesses like Fullscreen and Maker Studios are in a way becoming de facto A&R departments for the music industry. Maker recently got a $36 million injection of cash from Time Warner Investments as YouTube has become an entertainment destination.

Courtney Holt is the chief operating officer of Maker Studios. Before coming to Maker, Holt was with MySpace Music. A serious music fan, Holt believes that there infinite possibilities here to mine the back catalogs of the music publishers. The YouTube generation, after all, hasn't heard everything yet.

COURTNEY HOLT: I think in some ways we have a responsibility to reintroduce this generation to really great music, not just new music. If we have one talent that loves Justin Timberlake, maybe they haven't really discovered the Michael Jackson catalog or the Motown catalog. And you start to think about, what if I go back a little further, what am I going to find?

NELSON: What musicians are finding is that cover songs can simultaneously launch their YouTube careers while helping to - well, cover the bills. No more spending your post-college years singing in bars while living in your father's basement, like Tyler Ward did.

WARD: He was like you've got two years, son. You've got two years, and then you're going to have to get a real job. I said all right. So about a year and a half later I started doing the cover thing and my whole world changed. And I was able to move out to L.A., support myself, buy a car, buy a house. That kind of thing.

NELSON: Music to any aspiring musician's ears.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.

INSKEEP: He's a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, a project of Youth Radio.

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