How The Harlem Shake Went "Viral:" A Case Study in New World Marketing

On March 28th, 2013, Kevin Ashton published a fascinating account of how The Harlem Shake became an online sensation and the #1 song in the US - making real money for Old World media companies and New World filmmakers alike.

As students in my Film Marketing and Intellectual Property Rights classes know, The Harlem Shake was not only spread from "amateur" fan to fan.  There was a big push from Maker Studios, one of the new breed of MCNs that has recently evolved as middlemen - helping filmmakers to make, market and get sponsorship for their online videos - while  making money for themselves: So much money (no longer just "potentially") that Maker is now partly owned by Time Warner and other MCNs are getting backing from insiders like former Fox head Peter Chernin.

As Kevin Ashton explains: "People who post videos make up to $6 per thousand views in return for letting YouTube show ads on their videos. When a new video is uploaded, YouTube automatically checks for matches to copyrighted material. Copyright holders can block videos or share advertising revenue. Maker got paid every time someone watched its video. Mad Decent [the record label behind Baauer's dance track that is copied every time a new video is made] got paid every time someone viewed any video featuring Baauer’s song."

"What has changed?"

"Google’s YouTube, not Apple’s iTunes, is now the dominant force in music. Nearly 2 billion music videos are viewed on YouTube every day. When Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 on Feb. 20, only the 21st song in Billboard’s 58-year history to do so, and the first by a previously unknown artist, it was because of YouTube. This highlights a broader point: Google has amassed unprecedented power as a medium. It is massive, global and central. In addition, its claims about viewership are not audited. Television, radio and newspaper audiences are measured by independent entities like Nielsen and the Alliance for Audited Media. Advertisers can be reasonably certain how many people are seeing their messages. Google’s and YouTube’s audience claims are not measured independently. Everyone initially involved in driving traffic to the “Harlem Shake” had the same incentive: to increase the number of views. Unlike other media, there were no checks and balances except YouTube’s own secret view verification system. Google regards clicks and views as a “currency,” and take pains to get the numbers right, but unlike most other mass media, its figures are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers."

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