By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
On the day he created Nyan Cat, Torres had an interview for a job as an assistant at an insurance company. Though he landed the job, he didn't work there for long. Torres had to quit to manage all the deals — and cash — flowing in from Nyan Cat. (He says he splits the money with Reihani and also donates quite a bit to cat-related charities.)
Nyan Cat has appeared in ads for Nike, Sprint and, most recently, Vitamin Water. Hot Topic sells shirts emblazoned with the colorful cat, and Toys 'R' Us will soon offer a line of Nyan Cat plush toys, manufactured by JAKKS Pacific.
There have been so many opportunities that Torres has had to hire Ben Lashes, a former Portland, Oregon, musician who is possibly the first-ever meme manager (he also represents the famous Keyboard Cat). Torres also hired a Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer.
YouTube ads have also brought in money for Mike Bridavsky, creator of the Lil Bub videos. In addition to the ad income, Bridavsky has a thriving online store filled with Lil Bub merchandise like tote bags and T-shirts. Bridavsky says the store brings in between 100 and 150 orders per week. He hasn't quit his job as owner of a recording studio, but mostly because he loves the work.
"I've been doing this since I was 14," he says. "I'm not going to quit my job just because my cat got famous."
Still, even though it's becoming much more common, this type of success is so new that, right now, it's hard to come up with even a rough formula for how to achieve it. According to Torres, it's a bizarre combination of luck, hard work, and whimsy.
"I think the most important thing to know is that it can never be forced," he says. "Whatever you're making has to be spontaneous and random and fun."
A ginger cat wearing a pale blue shirt sits in front of a keyboard, his arms outstretched dramatically. He begins playing a jaunty little tune, throwing his head back and closing his eyes. He presses down on the keys, letting the sound reverberate for a few seconds. He raises his arms high above the instrument, and the camera fades.
The cat is soon back, this time with an electronic drumbeat playing in the background. He pushes down on the keyboard, which makes a familiar, though tinny, sound: "Meow, meow, meow."
This is Charlie Schmidt's famous "Keyboard Cat," recorded on beta film in 1984 and added to YouTube in 2007 when Schmidt digitized all of his old videos before they fell apart.
"I thought, 'Hey, what about that YouTube I've been hearing about?'" says Schmidt, now age 61. "So I uploaded a bunch of my weirdo videos."
Out of all the cat-video creators, perhaps no one more than Schmidt embodies both the old concept of art and the new concept of commerce that's emerging as a result of the internet.
Schmidt is an established artist, the kind the Walker has been dealing with for decades. According to his LinkedIn profile, Schmidt studied fine arts at Nihon Dai Gakku in Tokyo in the 1970s. He has a videotaped performance-art piece called LOVE BOAT in the permanent collection at the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris. Schmidt refers to himself on his personal website as a "multimedia artist, creator, designer, actor, character."
"One of his weird performance-art things got famous and he was once on Jay Leno," says his manager, Ben Lashes, who knew Schmidt while growing up because the artist was a friend of his father, Doug Clark, a Spokane news columnist. "In Spokane, Charlie is known as this Renaissance artist/actor/genius/painter/pop artist."
When Schmidt recorded Keyboard Cat, however, he was still young and struggling.
"I didn't have a job, but I had a video camera and a cat, so I got to work on my portfolio," Schmidt says.
Keyboard Cat was one of the first videos he recorded. He took his cat Fatso, dressed her in a shirt (yes, Fatso was a girl), and manipulated her like a puppet to create the illusion that she was playing the keyboard.
The video was on Schmidt's acting reel for years without much fanfare. When he finally uploaded it to YouTube, it didn't instantly go viral.
But in August 2009, an influential blogger and internet tastemaker named Brad O'Farrell found Keyboard Cat and combined it with footage of a man tumbling down an escalator to create what he called a "fail video." That video went seriously viral. Within days, Schmidt's website went from 300 hits per day to 200,000. O'Farrell had credited Schmidt, and YouTube users were curious.
By that point, Schmidt had for several years been a successful graphic artist and video producer and had his own freelance outfit. Suddenly, the offers came rolling in, and Keyboard Cat eventually landed licensing deals with the likes of Nokia, Samsung, 20th Century Fox, and Wonderful Pistachios. Money also came pouring in from YouTube ads.
Schmidt quit freelancing and began to manage Keyboard Cat full time. He hired Lashes, who had by then achieved his own major-label success with his band the Lashes and had quite a bit of entertainment-industry wisdom to impart. Still, this meme fame was and still is in many ways an entirely different animal than Hollywood fame.