A Shot at Social-Media Fame Lures 50 Million Contenders—and Lorenzo Mitchell

Electronic music producer Lorenzo Mitchell dropped out of college a couple of years ago to seek his fortune through social media. So far, he’s made under $70.

“I was a little overambitious,” said Mr. Mitchell, who is 21 years old and lives at home with his family in San Antonio.

He has 52,000 followers on his TikTok account, @OPRMusic. But it is still tough to command attention. More than a million other TikTok accounts have around the same number, according to Tensor Social, a social-media analytics firm.

Of those, fewer than 100 accounts will yield a social-media career lucrative enough to support someone for more than five years, said Sarah Peretz, who manages social-media strategy for clients at a Los Angeles marketing firm.

The chance at social-media stardom draws bloggers, dancers, musicians, comedians and videogame streamers around the world. Venture-capital firm SignalFire estimates that more than 50 million people identify as independent content creators. Facebook Inc., TikTok, Snap Inc. and YouTube earmark millions of dollars to pay creators.

Yet social-media success is a lot like professional sports: Many people dream of making it to the big leagues. Few do.

That hasn’t stopped Mr. Mitchell and many others from trying. “I have followers. I don’t have the money. That’s all right,” he said. “It’ll come.”

Lorenzo Mitchell works on his laptop every day to create music and videos to post online.

Lorenzo Mitchell at home in San Antonio.

It might take a while. Based on TikTok’s payout rate for people on the platform’s exclusive Creator Fund, a video with 100,000 views may earn roughly $2. TikTok, which declined to comment, offers advice and tips to creators for building an online audience. Content creators on Instagram have historically relied on sponsorship deals with brands and companies to make money. Creators earn income on YouTube from ads that run during their videos.

Mr. Mitchell started making electronic music as a kid, but he didn’t see it as a career until later. During his first year studying computer science at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles, he sketched out what he called “The Plan.” It entailed landing 50,000 Instagram followers and 200,000 YouTube subscribers by the time he was 22. He also hoped to earn $50,000 a year selling beats—musical tracks for songs or other commercial use—and from sponsorship deals tied to his YouTube videos.

He started posting videos in spring 2019 but found his greatest success only this year, on TikTok. On Instagram, he has a little more than 1,250 followers and fewer than 600 subscribers on his YouTube channel.

These days, Mr. Mitchell spends hours at his laptop, mixing sounds and beats for electronic music tracks. He logs into TikTok and concocts ways to make his videos irresistible to his followers.

In one, he hurdles over stacks of plastic cups and rolls of toilet paper that grow higher with each successful jump. In another, a computer-generated rotisserie chicken dances while he throws dollar bills at it, a play on the phrase “chicken strips” and strip clubs. In both, his music plays in the background.

“I’m just using TikTok as a way to get me from making videos in my bedroom to performing on stages and playing my songs on the radio,” he said.

Lorenzo Mitchell’s bedroom in San Antonio.

The Plan is slow going. Mr. Mitchell has earned a few hundred dollars selling electronic beats online. Not a lot, but more than he’s made from online posts. He makes most of his money working part time as a busboy at a local Italian restaurant.

He came closest to a breakthrough hit earlier this year. He started posting “duets” on TikTok, videos of himself alongside a video that had been posted by someone else. Imagine a split-screen view. One duet featured Mr. Mitchell whistling over a video of someone playing an acoustic guitar. It collected 340,000 views.

In June, he posted a duet of himself playing a beat while a frog croaked in the adjacent video. It was viewed nearly 2 million times and earned him about $25, based on the number of views. Mr. Mitchell’s followers asked him to turn the musical snippet into a song.

He made the beat into a full song, “Frog,” and spent days promoting its July release. On the big day, fans couldn’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music. He said he hadn’t realized the song needed to be uploaded to the music distribution site, DistroKid, roughly a week in advance.

“I’m a little bummed about that but it’s just an amateur mistake and my next drop, I’ll fix that,” he said at the time. The song eventually uploaded and has been played more than 90,000 times on Spotify.

Mr. Mitchell continues to chase his dream undaunted, he said.

Lorenzo Mitchell uses social-media app Snapchat to story board his TikTok videos before filming them.

Lorenzo Mitchell creating music in his room for posting online.

Joseph Mitchell, Mr. Mitchell’s father, is a retired Navy man and amateur drummer. “I never got down on him about not completing college,” he said of his son. “If the music thing is what you want to pursue, then go all in.”

Mr. Mitchell’s mother, Corina Camacho, died from Covid-19 this month at age 52. She had been one of his biggest fans. In August, she was in the hospital on a breathing machine, unable to be interviewed for this article.

“I’m heartbroken I can’t do this for my son right now,” she said in a text.

“I want to prove her right and accomplish everything I told her I would do and more,” Mr. Mitchell said after her death.

Mr. Mitchell hit a slump after the frog song was released, but he has bounced back. One of his latest duets gathered nearly 200,000 views.

He said he now plans to release three duets a week and post new music and daily video blogs, hoping something will go viral.

Mr. Mitchell’s short-term goal is simple: Make enough money to quit his restaurant job. And long-term? Win a Grammy, he said. For Mom.

Lorenzo Mitchell recording a TikTok video in his room.

Write to Meghan Bobrowsky at Meghan.Bobrowsky@wsj.com

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