There was a time when it was possible to keep track of popular internet memes, but there's a countless number (maybe some neural net behind youtube has a tally while it's not trying to recognize cat videos) being created all the time now. Some marketing folks are trying to mimic viral videos and engineer their own, and it'll probably get harder and harder to spot the fake memes. ICYMI, here are a few links on viral videos of varying seriousness.
I used to think a news item going "viral", where everyone forwards it or shares it with roughly everyone else, was kind of a cool thing. What a neat little way the internet can facilitate the spreading of important of interesting information, I thought. Then I discovered that many of my fellow American internet denizens apparently suffer from a combination of being exceptionally gullible and not knowing what Snopes.com is. That combination results in too many people (read: any people) believing that a combination of soda and Mentos will kill you, that our government is building million dollar housing complexes for illegal immigrants with my Social Security money, and that Muslims are getting cities to ban Christmas lights for reasons unknown to anyone. Every single one of those stories is false, but it went viral so the idiotic masses were outraged.
Mix a bit of satire -- designed to fool just enough of the people -- into that viral explosive mix, and things can get weird.
Take the following, for example, where a satirical news story about a student in San Francisco being suspended for wishing an atheist teacher "merry Christmas" spread far and wide and resulted in the taxpayers having to foot the bill for the immensely stupid backlash. The story appeared in the National Report, a satirical news site, and claimed that the above suspension had occurred at Argon Elementary. There is no Argon Elementary in San Francisco. But there sure is an Argonne Elementary, and those parents were pissed.
But an Internet hoax had people across the country believing it did, resulting in e-mail tirades and more than 75 phone complaints and veiled threats of violence against the fictitious teacher or the actual principal. And taxpayers picked up the tab for beefed-up security and staff time to deal with the phony story.
Because of the threats, Argonne elementary school administrators called an emergency teacher meeting to review security procedures and district officials assigned an extra security officer to the campus. In addition, police have increased patrols around the school this week, said district Assistant Superintendent Leticia Salinas.
Okay, a couple of things. To start off with, if you're the type of person who spreads these kind of "War on Christmas!!!" stories and theories around, I'd like you to do me a quick favor: walk outside. You don't have to go anywhere in particular, just walk outside. Since it's December, assuming you live at least somewhere near other human beings, and I promise you that you won't be able to walk five minutes in any direction without seeing the sickly glow of multi-colored lights, a whole lot of red and green, or that insufferable torture you guys call Christmas music. If there was ever a war on Christmas, which there wasn't, you guys won, mmkay?
Next, if you're of the Christian flavor of homosapien, and a slight to one of your holidays causes you to threaten violence against other people in general, you're doing Christianity wrong. It's "turn the other cheek", not "turn the other cheek, grab your guns, and rain hellfire down upon the infidels." That's your guys' rule, not mine. I'm just asking you to follow it.
But the wider lesson is that the internet has progressed to the point where you should be immediately suspicious of any sensational viral news item, because chances are it's bullshit. But it didn't stop eager people, including a radio reverend, Craig Donofrio, from jumping into the fray:
"Thank you for your monumental blunder, it will provide me weeks of material on my show," he wrote to Argonne's real principal, Cami Okubo. "Keep up the terrible work. It makes my job so much easier! MERRY CHRISTMAS! Craig."
Only later did Donofrio realize he had been duped.
"It is sad that people make up such stories and agitate others into outrage in such a way," he said in an e-mail to The Chronicle on Tuesday, adding that he had apologized to the principal. "I was very happy that I did fact-checking before going on air with this story, and it has not been discussed on-air."
Donofrio doesn't seem to get that it's satire. It wasn't designed to "agitate people into outrage," but to be funny -- and, having people overreact to it is part of how satire works, highlighting how easily some people can be fooled. Hell, even those of us that should know better can be fooled. In the end, if something is so insane as to get your ire up, there's a half-decent chance that it's too insane to be real. Invest some time in verifying whether a story is real before threatening the kind of holy violence that apparently Jesus was a huge fan of. I mean, I know Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but it isn't meant to be a template, okay?
Last week, we wrote about some of the copyright issues around the whole "Harlem Shake" meme (and, yes, we know it's not the "real" Harlem Shake, so don't even bother commenting about that). However, a few days ago, I was talking to an old friend who also happens to be an IP lawyer, and he pointed out one of the nuttier things about our copyright system. Yes, he said, Baauer is making tons of money by monetizing all of those Harlem Shake videos with ads. But Baauer actually had almost nothing to do with the popularity of the song or the meme itself. This isn't a Psy situation, where his video/dance created the meme. Instead, as we discussed, there was this video, which led to this video, and then this video and then this video... and then tens of thousands of copycats bloomed.
Yes, they all use 30 seconds from Baauer's song (which itself included many samples from others, some of which do not appear to be licensed, based on Baauer's own statements), but the popularity was because of the original video by "Filthy Frank," and then TheSunnyCoastSkate (TSCS) building on that to create the basic framework, quickly followed by PHLOn NAN and the folks at Maker Studios. In many ways, this reminds me of Derek Sivers' popular discussion of the importance of the "First Follower."
As he notes, it's the "first follower who transforms the lone nut into a leader." And then you have the "second follower" which represents a "turning point" in creating a movement. In this case, none of these key aspects had anything to do with Baauer. Yes, the song was there, but there were any number of songs that could have kicked off a similar dance craze. The reason the whole meme happened had to do with those originators, and the first few followers, turning it into a meme. I don't think any of them are complaining. In fact, they all seem (quite reasonably) thrilled that they're suddenly getting tons of attention and millions of hits (and plenty of new followers) for their role in building the meme.
But, when we step back and look at the copyright system, it does make you wonder why the system is so focused on Baauer's ability to get paid, but not the people who actually made the whole meme what it is. In many ways, this is an extreme example of where copyright may be fundamentally flawed. Content becomes popular through cultural sharing. People talk about something amazing and it gets passed along. The "Harlem Shake" videos are a form of that, where the importance of everyone in the role of expanding the community and making the song/meme a cultural "thing" is that much more clear.
Historically, we've often lumped together the initial creative work with the eventual popularity of it, leaving aside the role of the community in making that work a hit. But the Harlem Shake is a case where we can actually separate out those two things, and realize that perhaps copyright is focused on only one part of our cultural setup, while ignoring what may arguably be the more important part: those who make something culturally relevant.
Now, I'm a big believer in learning to gain benefits without resorting to copyright, and it seems like the folks who really built this meme are being rewarded in their own ways, outside of the copyright system. But, for those who think that copyright is necessary to "reward" creators, and who argue that copyright is all about fairness in protecting the rights of creators, do the people who actually "created" the popularity around this meme not count?
For those of you who have managed to avoid the viral sensation of February, known as "The Harlem Shake," consider yourselves lucky. People still seem at a total loss how this became "a thing," but it involves the opening 30 seconds of a song released nearly a year ago, called The Harlem Shake, by Baauer, with the first half involving someone in a wacky costume (often involving a helmet) dancing while others around them ignore it, followed by a bass drop and suddenly everyone around is dancing crazily, often involving costumes, stuffed animals (or real animals), people in sleeping bags and much much more. It's gone quite insane (and, yes, we know it's not "the real Harlem Shake" but so what?) with way, way, way, way too many people, companies and organizations all doing their own versions. There were reports of 4,000 Harlem Shake videos being uploaded to YouTube every single day, and over 60,000 being on YouTube already. If you want (and I warn you to be careful), you can spend hours going through video after video. The KnowYourMeme link up top has collected some of the most popular ones. I cannot vouch for how many such videos it takes before you are driven insane, so be forewarned.
Over the weekend Baauer's song hit number one on the charts and it appears to be doing fairly well around the globe. Also, the song has resulted in a sold out show in NY for Baauer and what is likely to be a fair bit of money. That's because, rather than freak out about others using "his" song (which includes a bunch of samples), Baauer and his label Mad Decent have a deal with INDmusic, which helps indie labels/musicians claim YouTube videos via ContentID and place ads on them. So, combine a top selling song on iTunes, plus allowing the free use of it on YouTube (and monetizing it via ads) and it seems like a tidy profit is being made.
So, for a bit, this was looking like yet another story of how letting people build something on your music was enabling a nice way for one artist to make money, without flipping out about "copyright infringement." But... then we learned that it wasn't quite that simple. As highlighted by The Verge, while Mad Decent and Baauer have mostly let people do what they want with the song, they did send a takedown to Soundcloud over Azelia Banks posting her lyrics over the entire Baauer track, and also posting a video:
That quickly turned into a bit of a Twitter fight, with Banks calling out Baauer:
And, from there we get the following exchange:
Of course, it seemed like there absolutely had to be more to this, as it was unlikely that Banks put together that song and video so quickly after the meme took off (especially since the video doesn't reference the meme at all). Indeed, in an interview with the Daily Beast Baauer (real name: Harry Rodrigues) explains:
“I’m not happy about it,” says Baauer. “She had a version that we were going to release because I’m a big fan of hers. We knew she likes to beef with producers. So she laid something on ‘Harlem Shake’ and it was so/so. Didn’t love it. And that was a little while ago, and since all this video stuff happened, our plans all changed. Because of that, we decided to just release the song on it’s own with no vocal version. So we told her, ‘Please don’t release your version.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m going to put it online anyway.’ And we said, ‘Please don’t. We’d really like it if you didn’t.’ And she did.”
Still, while lots of folks are defending Baauer here (in part because Banks does have a reputation for getting into arguments with people, and in part because she also went on a homophobic rant), she did have a point when she tweeted this:
Art is supposed to be inspiring, and you should be happy when someone is inspired by your art. In fact, one might argue that Baauer's statement to Banks that "its not ur song" could potentially come back to bite him as well. In that same Daily Beast interview, he talks about how he created the song:
“I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track,” he says. “And then I tried to just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could. The dude in the beginning I got somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where, and the lion roar just makes no sense.” He laughs. “There’s the sound of flames in there, too, it’s just really low.”
He doesn't know where the "dude in the beginning" comes from -- though, the folks at Reddit have figured it out (because Reddit knows everything). You have to imagine that wasn't licensed, though, if he didn't know where it was from. Who knows about all of the other samples. Personally, I think it's great that he created something by building on the works of others, and was inspired to create something that has become such a huge hit. But you'd think that someone who made the song by pulling bits and pieces from others wouldn't be so fast to sling claims of "ownership" back at someone else who built off of his work. Yes, there's more to it than that and, for the most part, Baauer seems reasonably giddy with all the insanity (and he definitely seemed to do a nice job with his Reddit AMA thanks in particular to this exchange).
It would just be nice if artists who really build on the works of others didn't jump to claiming ownership when others build on their works as well.
Social networks are clearly a very fashionable field of study right now because they provide an unprecedented volume of records for human interactions that can be mined for trends and correlations... and marketing strategies. Figuring out how viral messages spread could teach us how to educate our peers or to notify people about emergencies or to advertise caffeinated beverages. Here are just a few studies on how people behave in online communities.
It's a great little production, because not only does it effectively portray the potential of what is variously called open journalism, citizen journalism and participatory journalism, among other things, it also serves as a good example of a common mantra around these parts: advertising is content, and content is advertising.
I go through huge amounts of links and information each day when it comes to the music business, but this is by far the coolest and funniest way of getting your music discovered I've seen in a very long time (OK Go, eat your heart out).
The idea of The Ugly Dance is very simple. You go to the site, upload your picture, it's placed on top of a (slightly customizable) body and you can choose all kinds of maniacal ways of dancing. Here's yours truly dancing like nobody’s watching:
It’s a project by Swedish band Fulkultur and appears to have been around for about half a year right now. Obviously, this type of thing spreads; getting their music heard by a lot of people (and what a catchy song it is). When I wanted to create a second dancer (to send to a friend), I got the following message:
A very reasonable thing to ask... and since I was in such a great mood and figured the donation would not be much effort anyway, I went ahead and gave them some money, even though I believed clicking the Donate Nothing button would still allow you to create more dancers, although I later found out that this is in fact not so.
These videos are the result of the ecosystem at work! It's a fanbase that co-creates, amplifies and adds value to your original message. It's a perfect example of using something viral to getting your music discovered, but also of creating a movement which is easy to join, because it’s obvious what you have to do to participate (also read Derek Sivers' post about this).
I got in touch with the band and asked about the success. Anders Tjernblom, one of the band members, filled me in (even though he was on holiday!):
"TheUglyDance.com was actually not a result of some great promotional master plan. It just happened.
It started off as an idea to get visitors to my band Fulkultur's (meaning Ugly Culture/Crap Culture) Myspace page. I have had this idea about a dance application for about a decade. In January last year I started programming it in my spare time, and a couple of months later I wrote the song Fuldans (Ugly Dance) specifically for the application. It was not the other way around, as most people think.
On May 17 we released fuldans.se and sent the link to some friends. When I checked the stats a couple of days later a few thousand people had made their own dancers. I could feel something was about to happen. Just the day after someone shared a link on a Swedish blog, and it generated a tsunami of visitors. 30 000 people rushed in in just a few hours. The week after we hade a few hundred thousand hits, and it was a continous struggle to keep the server alive. Two weeks after the release, and 700 000 visitors later, I thought everything was under control. Then the Americans came.
Someone had written English instructions for the website, and had published it on some major American website. Our current server could not handle that amount of visitors. We decided to close the server for international visitors, to find a better solution.
During June/July we created an English clone of fuldans.se. It was going to be called theuglydance.com. Even the music was translated, and our aim was to raise money for the band to write and record more music. The clone was released by the end of August.
Now, to answer your question:
TheUglyDance.com have had 7 milllion completely unique visitors. A few very kind people have donated, but they are very few. If we should have done anything differently, we should probably have sold T-shirts or something. Something real for the massive amount of visitors to buy. But we are still very happy for what we have accomplished. We will try to keep the website alive for as long as possible, although it is not a cash cow at all."
I think partly due to the fact that this success "just happened", they never really got the chance to think things through very well. They did a spectacular and exemplary job at getting people's attention and making the initial connection, but there appears to be no focus at all on retention. There appears to be no link to the band's MySpace, which they were trying to promote. Due to the fact that most people are on Facebook and Twitter now, I think it would have been a better idea to put those links in the foreground, but most importantly; there has to be a way for people to connect. A simple Facebook 'Like' button below the Flash application would have gone a long way.
The second part is the business model. I think it's great that the band went into this without a very clear picture of a business model. They just had an exciting idea and executed it and this genuineness shows in the final result (and echoes throughout the ecosystem as you can see through the fan vids on YouTube). From a marketing perspective, asking for a donation or getting people to buy your music out of sympathy is a bad business model. As Mike always says, it's about giving fans a reason to buy. A good thought experiment is to imagine a totally selfish consumer and to see what you could offer them so that they spend money on you. They should spend it for themselves, not for you.
This means making sure you retain as much of the original traffic as you can without getting obtrusive. This means shining a light on the early followers and encouraging them in what they do, because they're helping you amplify your message and are providing social proof. At the same time you should connect these people to each other, forming an ecosystem. You're still the reason why these people are connected, but the communication in the fanbase should be non-linear (as opposed to artist-fan), because that's how the ecosystem can start to come alive (think of it as hosting a party where nearly nobody knows each other). The business models simply come from listening to the ecosystem and playing into their desires (just like Younger Brother did).
In the end, giving fans a great reason to buy is the ultimate way of connecting with them.
There was a time when, if something was viral, it was almost certainly a bad thing. (Now, being viral could mean you're going to be the next Justin Bieber.) With current biotech research, the end of common diseases could be at hand or we could be launching ourselves into the next era of viciously untreatable illnesses that we've had a hand in creating. Hopefully, we're not going to be living out a bad sci-fi movie plot anytime soon. Here are just a few potential precursors to the apocalypse, though.
As he's done before, Ok Go's lead singer Damian Kulash has taken to the NY Times Op-Ed pages to discuss the fact that his own record label seems a bit clueless. Basically, he's repeating what he said a few weeks ago on the band's website, claiming that YouTube only pays royalties on videos streamed on site, rather than embeds (someone from YouTube told me this is untrue, but when asked for specific confirmation I got no response). However, what is interesting, is that Kulash highlights two things:
Their original video (the treadmills one) was made entirely on their own outside of EMI's influence, and the success of that video has helped make EMI and the band a lot of money:
In 2006 we made a video of us dancing on treadmills for our song "Here It Goes Again." We shot it at my sister's house without telling EMI, our record company, and posted it on the fledgling YouTube without EMI's permission. Technically, this put us afoul of our contract, since we need our record company's approval to distribute copies of the songs that they finance. It also exposed YouTube to all sorts of liability for streaming an EMI recording across the globe. But back then record companies saw videos as advertisements, so if my band wanted to produce them, and if YouTube wanted to help people watch them, EMI wasn't going to get in the way.
As the age of viral video dawned, "Here It Goes Again" was viewed millions, then tens of millions of times. It brought big crowds to our concerts on five continents, and by the time we returned to the studio, 700 shows, one Grammy and nearly three years later, EMI's ledger had a black number in our column. To the band, "Here It Goes Again" was a successful creative project. To the record company, it was a successful, completely free advertisement.
Once EMI disabled embedding on that video, the number of views dropped drastically, harming everyone's bottom line:
When EMI disabled the embedding feature, views of our treadmill video dropped 90 percent, from about 10,000 per day to just over 1,000. Our last royalty statement from the label, which covered six months of streams, shows a whopping $27.77 credit to our account.
Clearly the embedding restriction is bad news for our band, but is it worth it for EMI? The terms of YouTube's deals with record companies aren't public, but news reports say that the labels receive $.004 to $.008 per stream, so the most EMI could have grossed for the streams in question is a little over $5,400.
Now, I'll quibble with Damian's final point there. First, it's still not entirely clear if it's true that YouTube doesn't pay for embed streams, but even if that's the case, I'd argue that of the 10,000 views per day, it also increased the number of direct views (I quite frequently will click through on an embedded video to see it at YouTube itself -- often to see more about who posted it, or sometimes the comments on the video). Second, if you recognize that embeds and things that get passed around are quite a bit like radio used to be, you have to imagine that some percentage of the 10,000 streamers per day went on to buy something from Ok Go that resulted in EMI making money. Cutting that by 90% just doesn't make any sense. Perhaps it's no wonder that EMI is on the verge of going out of business.
Damian does go on to claim that record labels are an important part of the business in funding new acts, and helping them do more expensive things early on, while aggregating risk. Indeed. I don't deny that at all -- and, as I've said plenty of times before -- there's still a place for labels that wish to do things like that. The problem is that the labels have set up their business models to rely on a single revenue stream, album sales, that is increasingly less important. The rest of the music ecosystem is thriving and will continue to do so, and if it's not the old record labels giving advances and aggregating risk to promising bands, others will step in to fill that gap. There's too much opportunity and too much money for it not to happen.
Well, well. We've written about the band Ok Go a few times here, as a band that definitely does seem to "get" what's going on in terms of how to connect with fans and promote their music well. Many years ago, the band had spoken out against DRM, and, of course, they produced one of the most popular music videos of all time -- the famous "treadmills" video. I would have embedded that video here, but Ok Go's label, Capitol Records/EMI decided somewhere along the line that no one should want to share one of the most viral videos ever, and disabled all embedding. Brilliant.
So, when Ok Go put out a new album with a new "viral video" EMI once again banned embedding, apparently not realizing how this viral stuff works. Ok Go wrote about it, and basically made it clear that they'd tried over and over again to explain this stuff to Capitol/EMI, and the folks at the label simply didn't get the value of making the video viral.
Well, now, instead of allowing a real "word of mouth" viral campaign with the video, it looks like EMI/Capitol has decided to bootstrap a fake viral word of mouth campaign, by sending around emails (and even submitting directly to us) a request to "get a free Ok Go" song if you just Tweet about it. Seriously. So rather than letting people organically share what they wanted to share, EMI is trying to bribe people into promoting something else.
EMI, you're doing it wrong.
In the meantime, the platform that EMI is using for this is easily defeated. You have to log in to Twitter Connect via a special promo page, and it asks you to send a specific twitter message about how you just got a free Ok Go song... but you can edit the message to say whatever you want. And, here's a little trick: if you edit the message to be more than 140 characters, it doesn't actually send to Twitter, and you still get the free song.
And wait, didn't EMI insist in court that it never authorized free MP3s to be available online?
Anyway, the problem here is that EMI is trying to force people into doing things a specific way (not embedding, must tweet), rather than simply being open, sharing and (perhaps) suggesting they share things if they like with a friend. That's much more authentic and real. This feels very fake and corporate. You build trust by actually putting stuff out there and seeing how people respond, rather than bribing them and limiting how they can share.