Talking to the 17-Year-Old King of Musical.ly Music Videos

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Isaiah Howard. Photo: isaiahxavier/Instagram

When Isaiah Howard joined Musical.ly — a video app beloved by teens — he didn’t want anybody to know. Now, a little over a year, several hundred thousand followers, and one hit video later, the 17-year-old is just starting to get more comfortable with people knowing he’s on the app. Howard, who lives in Japan, had a breakthrough moment earlier this spring, when a Musical.ly video of him lip-syncing to “Addicted to My Ex” by M-City J.r. jumped from being a modest hit on the app to a viral sensation that was freebooted and viewed thousands of times across Twitter and Facebook. Select All caught up with Howard this week to talk about what’s next for the burgeoning star, and exactly how he gets his video transitions so smooth.

Hi, Isaiah! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m still in high school because I’m still 12, well not literally. Since my mom is in the military, we had orders to come out here in the middle of January. So that’s just how it’s been. We’ve been on a military base in northern Japan for the last couple of months.

Since you’re not literally 12, how old are you really?
I’m 17 — actually I just turned 17 today.

Happy birthday!
Thank you!

When did you start using Musical.ly?
I started February 20 of last year. I came home from track practice; I was going through Instagram because I had nothing to do. And then I saw these videos, and I was like, “I could get into this. This seems pretty cool.” And of course, having known nothing about the app prior, I did some random videos and thought they were amazing, and obviously they weren’t. They were probably the crappiest videos I think I have ever done in my entire life. But, I just kept doing them. And obviously — since I was just in the moment — I didn’t realize how bad they were. But I kept doing it, and kept doing it, and kind of — I don’t want to say got a knack for them, but it kind of was a part of what I did on a regular basis. Especially because I only had a couple of followers — I wasn’t getting any recognition whatsoever — but I just felt drawn to the app.

The thing that drew me in so quickly — and that, I think, draws most people in — is that the transitions in your videos are just so sharp. How do you do that exactly?
It’s really funny because people ask that all the time, and I have no clue. I’m going to definitely try to explain it. So, basically, the foundation of a video is 15 seconds because before, that was the maximum amount of time that you could record your video … There’s this huge red record button in the bottom of the screen, and then all that you can see is yourself. When you start recording, you can have it facing the back camera or self — or anywhere basically.

Transitions are basically just a set of starting and stopping recordings at certain moments. So transition can be you doing a clothes change, or you making yourself disappear, or you going to a different location. So to give you those effects, you would have to start and stop recording. So let’s say you do a spin; you rotate your phone away from you — stop recording in the middle of the rotating motion — go to a different location, and then pick up the same motion and start recording and moving, so it looks as if you changed locations in the middle of a spin.

So, for like a minute-long video, how many hours do you need?
Ooh, all right. It definitely depends on the song. So like, the M-City J.r. song I did, “Addicted to My Ex,” that took upwards of, like, seven hours. Continuous, it took seven hours, and it was very exhausting. After that video, I was starving; I had to go take a nap afterward. I had to go take like two naps afterward. You wouldn’t think that recording would take that long, but it was so exhausting moving from place to place, and changing into different clothes.

That video was a viral hit. When you posted it, did you ever think it would blow up as much as it did?
Well, that video, I had posted it in a contest at the beginning of this year or end of last year. I was thinking that my views were going to go up, but only by a couple thousand, because that’s how it had been before whenever I had posted videos in contests. But that one — it got featured, and I got a million hearts on Musical.ly. That’s when I got crowned, or verified, and I was like, Wow, they are actually noticing me. So, yeah, that video blew up at the time, and I got 200,000 likes in that video, and I was like, This is crazy. Because this was the first time I had ever gotten so much acknowledgement for one video, I thought that was just going to be it, but obviously, two months later, it wasn’t.

Do you feel like you could make a career on Musical.ly?
Umm. It definitely pays.

Are you making money from the app?
Yeah, I’m making a little bit, because obviously now there’s been a trend on all social-media platforms where you can go live. And Musical.ly hopped on it a little bit early. Whenever you go live, people view you. And if they like you, they can send gift coins, and gift coins essentially just go to money. So when you rack up 20,000 gift coins, that’s the equivalent of a $100. And I know that, especially recently, I’ve just been casually receiving 20,000 or 22,000 gift coins in one live.ly — that’s what they’re called — so I’m getting $100 in one live.ly — that’s amazing. The fact that I don’t have to work, and can receive that in less than an hour or an hour and half, is ridiculous.

So you can definitely receive money on Musical.ly, and I have been receiving it, but I don’t think — unless you were one of the top people, or you have a ridiculous fan base — that you could really make a career out of it. You have to expand in some shape or fashion in order to really make it lucrative.

So what’s next for you? I hear you’re headed to VidCon.
I was actually live on Musical.ly a couple of weeks ago, and it was basically just recapping everything that had happened … and in the middle of it, Musical.ly, like the corporation itself, showed up, and they were like, “Hey, can you ‘guest’ me?” And I was like, “Definitely.” I wasn’t going to say no, it was Musical.ly! So I guested them, and they were like, “Hey, have you ever thought about going to VidCon?” They invited me to VidCon, and I was like, “I am definitely going to go.” So the fact that they even offered it to me — I was just ecstatic; I was like YES! I couldn’t get enough of that.

What advice would you give to anybody who is looking to perfect their Musical.ly craft?
I just love the fact that someone is asking me for advice — that’s amazing. I feel like people get discouraged really easily whenever they make videos, because what tends to happen to people on the app is, people don’t receive recognition immediately, and it kind of takes away from the fact that they actually like doing the videos. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I love doing these, and I’ve dedicated so much time to it, but I’m not getting the recognition.” If you practice enough; if you make it an effort to actually try to progress in the app, and you try to get other people to notice your work, then the recognition is definitely going to follow.

But as far as tricks and stuff — if you’re trying to do transitions — I would say, don’t try to do too much. A little can be a lot. Try to perfect the small things first, and then work on the big things. I notice that people try to copy who they look up to, and that’s good — use that as a basis for what you do, but you have to be original. Obviously, since I, you know, “went viral” or whatever, people have acknowledged me as being one of the top transitioners, so I’m up there with the people that I used to admire last year. I know that people look up to me on Musical.ly in general, and I know people try to directly copy what I do. Any sort of recognition I get I’m just so grateful for, because a year ago, I didn’t get this. It’s just that, even though you like my videos, I want you to remain original, because each of the top people has their own style. I transition a lot. I’m really smooth, and I can move really fast. I can manage the camera really easily. And there are other people who are very efficient with the way they record their videos, or there are those people who can adapt to the new moves that arrive. So I just want to say, for anybody who wants to get better, make sure you remain original. Obviously, you have the people who inspire you, but in the process of trying to take inspiration from others, you need to remain original in order to get the recognition — because you’re not going to get any recognition if, say, you’re just known as “Isaiah 2.” If you’re trying to be someone else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Teen Musical.ly Star Explains, Well, Musical.ly