Tori Kelly: From bedroom EP to Grammy nominee

February 10, 2016

  • Tori Kelly, who has built her career on YouTube over the past eight years, is nominated for Best New Artist.
  • She’s bootstrapped her community of now 2 million subscribers, built on prolific uploading and YouTube collaborations, a contrast from the tried-and-true strategy of studio releases and radio play.
  • Instead of studio releases, her most-viewed videos are covers (albeit well-timed with official releases) and collaborations, the predominant source for gaining new fans.

At a 2010 “American Idol” audition, Simon Cowell told 16-year-old Tori Kelly that she looked like a human orange, noting, "I thought your voice was almost ... annoying."

Now, at 23, Tori Kelly is nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best New Artist.

She’s built much of her career on YouTube, with subscribers trickling in with every new cover, song, and video uploaded. Unlike most emerging artists, surprisingly, there’s no single track or video that is responsible for her success: her achievements are the result of a steady grind. It’s an aspiring musician’s dream: she has built an enormously loyal fan base at ~2 million YouTube subscribers, and she did it without a major release or significant radio play.

So how did Tori Kelly go from a six-song EP in her bedroom to performing alongside Andrea Bocelli? Of all Tori Kelly-related activities, what attracted the most new fans?

We dug into the data to find out.

First, let’s look at Tori Kelly’s subscribers over the past eight years (shown relative to her fellow Best New Artist nominees, for context).

2016 Grammy Nominees for Best New Artist: YouTube Subscribers
On Artist’s Official YouTube Accounts (including VEVO)

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Tori Kelly’s first real brush with YouTube came much earlier than for the other Best New Artist nominees. In 2007, as a 14-year-old, Kelly uploaded a cover of John Wesley Work, Jr.'s "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

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Tori Kelly’s first upload, singing "Go Tell It On The Mountain"

Over the past several years, she’s released more than 200 videos on her personal account (excluding collaborations with other YouTubers) — that’s more than twice as much as the second most prolific Best New Artist Nominee on YouTube, Meghan Trainor (86 videos). The hustle has paid off: many of her fans have been following her career for years, with roughly a third of her subscribers dating to 2013 or earlier.

Here are the most significant events during this time period, denoted by increases in subscribers to her YouTube channel.

Daily Increase in Subscribers: Tori Kelly’s YouTube Channels
1/1/2010 - 12/31/2015 for ToriKelly and ToriKellyVEVO

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There are some 25 notable “spikes” in the above chart – moments when her subscribers suddenly increased, signaling an important event, such as a new upload, press coverage, or live performance. Let’s take a closer look at each of these spikes.


November 9 (+1,033)
Kelly almost replicates her previous success by collaborating with AJ Rafael and JR Aquino to cover Far East Movement’s “Rocketeer.”


July 22 (+847 subscribers)
Kelly & Todrick Hall cover BeyoncĂ©’s “Best Thing I Never Had.”

November 14 (+608)
Kelly and AJ Rafael cover Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe.”

December 1 (+867)
Kelly joins fellow YouTube musician AJ Rafael to cover Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”


January 22 (+2,815 subscribers)
Kelly duets with beatboxer Angie Girl, performing a cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You.” It goes on to receive over 24 million views.

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Tori Kelly’s most popular video, a cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You”

August 7 (+1,198)
Kelly releases a live acoustic version of “All In My Head," which receives more than 17 million views.

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Tori Kelly’s “All In My Head”

By the end of 2012, a 20-year-old Tori Kelly has more than 250,000 subscribers, almost entirely built on the success of her covers. None of these videos are breakout hits, but they are brilliantly timed and well-received: astutely, Kelly often covers songs within weeks of their release, and seizes on their initial buzz.

Her cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” for example, preceded the official release of the song by three months. Ocean’s track had leaked online in mid-2011, but was promptly removed until its official release in the spring of 2012. Kelly’s cover, meanwhile, came out in January 2012.

Kelly also built off the popularity of BeyoncĂ©’s “Best I Never Had,” releasing her cover weeks after the song’s official debut. Similarly, her second most popular video, a cover of “Suit and Tie,” was uploaded three months after Justin Timberlake released the track.


March 10 (+5,264 subscribers)
Tori Kelly uploads a cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie.”

July 30 (+5,976)
Tori Kelly uploads a Vine of herself singing “Sun Is Out and I’m Feeling OK” in her car on the way to the studio.

September 5 (+2,344)
Scott Hoying (of Pentatonix) and Tori Kelly post a video of themselves covering Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

October 3 (+2,274)
Kelly uploads a lyric video for “Dear No One,” setting it in one of her oldest fan Tumblr sites.

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Tori Kelly’s “Dear No One” lyrics video

November 7 (+3,780)
“Dear No One,” Tori Kelly’s first official Vevo video, is released.

December 26 (+2,947)
Tori Kelly appears as a guest on SUP3RFRUIT, the YouTube channel run by Pentatonix members Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying.


February 27 (+4,044 subscribers)
Kelly premieres “Paper Hearts.”

August 8 (+1,517)
Kelly uploads a video for “Silent,” featured on the soundtrack for “The Giver.”

November 4 (+2,669)
Kelly joins Pentatonix on a rendition of “Winter Wonderland/Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

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February 27 (+1,902 subscribers)
Tori Kelly releases the official video for “Nobody Love.”

March 31 (+1,959)
Kelly releases a Snapchat-themed lyric video for “Nobody Love” on her own channel.

April 28 (+3,036)
Kelly takes part in a live stream with fans from Google NYC HQ.

May 18 (+4,846)
Kelly performs “Nobody Love” at the Billboard Music Awards the night before.

June 24 (+4,026)
Kelly’s first major label album, “Unbreakable Smile,” is released.

August 3 (+24,775)
Tori Kelly appears as a guest on Miranda Sings’ channel for a vocal lesson.

August 7 (+8,587)
Miranda Sings joins Kelly on her channel and the two perform a unique cover of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.”

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August 31 (+6,968)
Kelly performs “Should’ve Been Us” at the MTV Video Music Awards.

October 25 (+3,478)
Andrea Bocelli and Tori Kelly duet at the MTV Europe Music Awards.

It’s worth noting that collaborations with other YouTubers were an important source of subscribers. At the beginning of her career, Kelly would often team up with fellow YouTube musician AJ Rafael, and it was her joint cover of “Thinkin Bout You” with Angie Girl that resulted in Kelly’s most-viewed video. Later, she began to work with members of the prominent YouTube group Pentatonix (10 million subscribers), joining them on their track “Winter Wonderland/Don’t Worry Be Happy.” She also appeared on the popular channel SUP3RFRUIT (~1.9 million subscribers) and collaborated with Scott Hoying. Finally, in August 2015, the first of her two video with Miranda Sings (6 million subscribers) resulted in the single largest daily increase over the past 6 years (~25,000 new subscribers in one day); in sum, both videos resulted in a staggering 33,362 new subscribers.


January 4 (+2,648)
Kelly lands on the cover of Seventeen Magazine.

If there is one common thread running through Tori Kelly’s career, it is her unwavering work ethic.

Percent of Artist’s Views, by Video
On Artist’s Official YouTube Accounts (including VEVO)

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Over the course of nearly 10 years, she has released a multitude of videos for her fans, whether covers, originals, or vlogs. No single video is responsible for than 10 percent of her total views – a stark contrast to the other Best New Artist nominees, for whom one or two tracks are responsible for the bulk of their popularity.

As validating as winning this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist would be for Tori Kelly, she has already achieved what seasoned musicians have managed to foster: a remarkably caring and involved group of fans.

-- Posted by the YouTube Culture & Trends Team