This is a turning point in the history of music on the internet. I know, I know, it feels like a regular Friday, but trust me, things will never be the same again. The forces of capitalism, social networking and goofing off have converged at the perfect time to create the magic that is the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon. What's so special about another internet meme that will be played out by March? That's just it: The template that has been created out of the Harlem Shake is continuing to redefine our relationship to the music that we consume. Simply put, this viral sensation is selling records, lots and lots of records.
See also: - The ten best Colorado Harlem Shake videos on YouTube - Dubstep for Dummies, a primer for freshly-minted dubstep fans - Grammy tape delay versus realtime Twitter reaction: What's with the East Coast bias?
So what is the Harlem Shake?
Where did this whole Harlem Shake thing come from?
Astute pop culture enthusiasts will remember a dance called the Harlem Shake from the late '90s. Back when P. Diddy wouldn't stop, because he couldn't stop. Kids were "Harlem Shakin' it" in the background of most rap videos made around 2001. The dance was created in the '80s and performed at the Rucker basketball courts by a gentleman simply known as Al B. It consists of sharp shoulder and arm movements accentuated by your feet. G.Dep's video "Let's Get It" has some of the best "Harlem Shaking" known to man.
If it's more than a decade old, why does anyone care now?
Fast forward a decade when a 23 year old DJ from Brooklyn named Baauer (who was at City Hall a few weeks ago, incidentally, for Snowdown) creates a thunderous trap record called "Harlem Shake" on Diplo's Mad Decent imprint that borrows it's name from that dance. "Do the Harlem Shake" is a vocal sample that signals a death rattling bass drop and summons drums straight out of Helms' Deep to battle against the cheapest sounding synth horn until it all lurches momentarily to a halt to make room for the sweetest (if not first) rhythmically sampled tiger growl. Sounds tight, right? It is. It's also a pretty typical dance track, that sixteen bar intro repeats about three times and that's about all there is to it. That's not a diss; you would shake your ass to it at a party, but if it came out say last May and got a great review on Pitchfork, you still wouldn't buy it unless you were a DJ.
Great. So why is it everywhere all of the sudden?
At the beginning of February, YouTube user TheSunnyCoastSkate uploaded "The Harlem Shake v1(TSCS Original)," a response video to another YouTube user FilthyFrank's video. Both videos use just the first sixteen bars of the song and last about thirty seconds. The former, however, set the format that all other videos would follow. This is so serious that über-nerd community reddit.com has published guidelines to creating a correct Harlem Shake video.
Interestingly FilthyFrank has taken the hipster way out and deemed himself "over it all." It looks like he will return to making spastic vids of himself playing multiple roles and flailing around on the ground to the sounds of really, really bad dubstep. That's fine because the Harlem Shake is bigger than any one YouTube user.
After the initial clips were posted, more than one hundred video interpretations of the Harlem Shake had been uploaded. YouTube's trends blog indicated that by last Friday more than two thousand different versions of the Harlem Shake had been uploaded. That's two thousand different sets of at least five to ten people all over the world made their own video for the same song. Even crazier, most videos were averaging views in the hundreds of thousands. By Tuesday, February 12, YouTube calculated that over 12,000 iterations of the video existed creating over 44 million views of that catchy as hell sixteen bars of Baauer's "Harlem Shake."
It's a viral video. Big whoop. Hold on, not so fast...
As you know, this not the first time that imitation vids have caught on. Last summer "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen achieved ubiquitous status with the help of viral vids by football cheerleaders and ROTC teams. The difference here, though, is the short length of video and the desire to follow an established format. It is easy to cast and shoot a video. The hardest thing seems to be coming up with something clever for your friends, co-workers or teammates to be doing once the beat drops. One of the great rules of the internet is: "Be Exceptional." This is a watershed moment because the template leads everyone that wants to to the edge of exceptional, and all they have to do is come up with something, (anything,) surprising, funny, or mildly clever; and boom -- you are exceptional, too.
Okay, so why is this viral phenomenon so noteworthy?
The other big difference here is the money. Right now we can clearly establish two revenue streams for the Harlem Shake: YouTube's content ID system and an old fashioned idea called record sales. According to Billboard.com, earlier this year Baauer's record label (the Diplo owned Mad Decent imprint) inked a deal with a company called INDMUSIC.
Now when you upload a personal video to YouTube and use a copyrighted piece of music, instead of banning your video, YouTube, in concert with companies like INDMUSIC, identify the music and as your awesome video accrues views, pre-roll commercials that generate revenue for the owner of the song. It's taken almost a decade, but it seems like YouTube and business are starting to understand how the internet works, and the enormity of it.
In the case of "Harlem Shake" just shy of 15,000 people have made an awesome video featuring that copyrighted work, and each of those videos is getting hundreds of thousands of views every day. The idea of generating revenue as YouTube partner is a business model for many creative artists, and Mad Decent is quoted in the Billboard piece as stating that their business depends on YouTube revenue, which considering all the plays, would have been enough, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the pre-roll -- the record started selling.
So, wait, the song's actually making money?
Yep. Lots of it, it appears. Last Sunday night, as the coolest people on Twitter were predicting a nod to the Harlem Shake on the Grammys (didn't happen) and making jokes about Baauer breaking the internet (they had no idea), and this week, "Harlem Shake" checked in on iTunes Top 100 at #51. By Tuesday, it had moved up to #31. By Wednesday it was at #19. Thursday, it entered the Top 10, and right now, it's sitting at #1 on iTunes.
So, what are the long term implications here?
So to recap: In fourteen days, a dance track with no lyrics came from nowhere to outsell new music form Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, and Bruno Mars because of YouTube. iTunes does not release exact sales figures, so we can only speculate how many thousand downloads you have to move to get to the top spot, but rest assured: It's more than the song has sold in the almost eight months since it was released.
Harlem Shake is #1 on iTunes!!!
— Baauer (@baauer) February 14, 2013
Usually viral videos do not have a strong influence on sales. The Lonely Island are the kings of viral music videos, with the added benefit of being broadcast on SNL. "I'm on a Boat" is now platinum, and the video is sitting at just over 24 billion views. Every single Harlem Shake video is generated by someone who has nothing to do with the song but everything to gain by promoting it. In the days since the meme has become popular anyone looking to raise the profile of their YouTube channel has made a video. Most of those channels have received more subscribers (which, by the way, YouTube pays you for, copyright be damned!) This has supercharged what is usually a slow burn for viral videos.
Combine pure capitalism with smart policy from YouTube and links to purchase the download placed on most videos by INDMUSIC, and things look good for Baauer's baby. It took "Gangnam Style" most of the summer to cross over into traditional media. Back then, viral video makers saw a longer road to gratification. With such a short road to payoff, is it any wonder the Today show, Anderson Cooper and Jimmy Fallon have all done Harlem Shake videos within the first ten days of the meme? Now celebrity has shown up in the form of Matt & Kim, and the models of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Along with the celebrity come the inevitable backlash, as trolls all over the web are lining up to show us all how much they don't get it. The death of the Harlem Shake has been predicted for the last 48 hours, and in that time the views on the most popular videos have more than doubled.
Once this meme has run its course, what matters most is that a working template has now been established that has shown great success. From now on, fans will be able to be a real part of the success of their favorite band. In the near future, the viral video will be as common as licensing a song for a commercial. Record labels and artists now see there is a viable way to saturate the web. Whatever artists have to do to get you to turn off everything else and pay attention to their song, that's what they will do. That means that the next Harlem Shake is right around the corner, and it's bringing a bunch of imitators with it.
The Harlem Shake is dead. Long live the Harlem Shake!
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