YouTube, the “Harlem Shake,” and Pay-to-play on the Internet - Demand Week


By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The basic premise of the Top 40 isn’t rocket science. As the ever-reliable Casey Kasem always reassured us, these were the 40 most popular songs in the nation. Back before Kasem’s retirement in 2009, the criteria for popularity specifically referred to radio play – how many times a song had been requested from pop station DJs across the US. Now, times have changed: we’re told what may or may not be the most popular songs for most of the country by the American face of reliability, Ryan Seacrest.

The “may or may not be” and “most of the country” caveats here are necessary disclaimers not just because we live in an advanced age where the radio is no longer how the average teenager discovers music anymore (in this regard, terrestrial radio is usually the last to know); but because, in light of this fact, the wizards behind the Billboard charts are scrambling to find ways to more accurately portray pop consensus in a shifting mass media environment.

Earlier this year, Billboard decided to start counting YouTube views as part of calculating their ‘Hot 100’ song chart. On paper, it makes sense – how can we talk about the universality of “Call Me Maybe” without touching on the video’s millions of views?

By comparison, TRL counted the millions of times the love of a boy band hit compelled teens to log on their home computers, find the MTV website, and click a button that said “VOTE.” They couldn’t count how many times their audience had actually sat through the whole video in question. Similarly, the iTunes Store can keep track of how many people have legally purchased a song (still a nebulous fraction of the audience who manages to acquire it) – but they can’t count how many times you’ve played it, if at all.

In which case, YouTube is the closest we can come to a musical meritocracy, right? If only it were that easy.

A month before Billboard began using YouTube plays to calculate Top 40 hits, YouTube confiscated 156 million views from assorted Lady Gaga videos. The reason, they charged, was that her record company had hired a private firm to inflate the number views those videos obtained.

The incident was not far departed, ethically speaking, from the radio payola scandals brought to light in the early ’00s by then New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer. If you ever asked yourself why Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real” or Good Charlotte’s “Hold On” were ever hits, it’s because their record companies bribed radio DJs to play them. (Though, note to elitists: Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” was also among those songs in Sony BMG’s pay-to-play scheme.)

An even more recent incident over questionable corporate influence over popularity occurs with the case of the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon.

Kevin Ashton is the General Manager of the consumer electronics firm Belkin, as well as the co-founder and former executive director of the MIT Auto-ID Center. He’s largely credited with coining the phrase “The Internet of Things,” and frequently contributes writing for Medium, Quartz, and The Atlantic Monthly magazine. He’s recently wrote a report for that showed how corporations — not we the people of the internet– popularized the “Harlem Shake” viral video.

As Ashton’s timeline goes, shortly after amateur YouTube comedian and American college student George Miller posted a video of himself and a few friends awkwardly dancing to a little known EDM track, their page began garnering a few thousand views. Plus, an exciting reaction from the great current of YouTube users that not every posted video inspires: imitation.

For at least few days in late January 2013, George Miller had earned himself intermediate success in YouTube enterprising: a little over 100,000 views, and some modest flatterers. As usual, the popularity only tapered off from there. By the Super Bowl, the “Harlem Shake” was inside joke to a few hundred thousand people with an internet connection, and one that was about a week old at that.

Had the Super Bowl this year been your average game that would have been the end of the story. Then it happened.

Only two minutes into the second half of the game, the television delay suddenly cut to a wide angled and skyward shot of the Louisiana Superdome with half of the stadium in darkness. A restless nation of sports fans and casual observers turned from the monotony pervading television coverage of a mid-game power outage and took to their computers and mobile devices. Twitter arguably hadn’t seen so much excitement since Election Day.

According to Ashton, the power outage in St. Louis awoke the sleeping giant of the advertising industry, causing many insiders to rethink their relationship with social media departments and large-scale cultural events. In an effort to strike while the iron was hot, a usual list of suspects set about trying to find the next big meme that would keep America’s ever-flaky attention span.

These included three distinct media and marketing companies: Maker Studios, who shot the first professionally produced imitation of the “Harlem Shake” video within a week of the Super Bowl; Mad Decent, the record label backing the “Harlem Shake” song and DJ who fashioned it; and IAC, the parent company of a few well known entertainment sites (College Humor and Vimeo) that promoted the imitations.

Through their unspoken collusion, plus the added boost of spotlight from media filters like BuzzFeed and Al Roker, a song that was initially considered a commercial failure became the latest fad in the nation. What was particularly strange, though, was how of the thousands of imitations that cropped up in the two weeks following the Super Bowl were sponsored by businesses looking for extra advertising – something unseen in past viral video sensations, from “Double Rainbow” to Antoine Dodson’s News Blooper.

The same goes for socially driven mega hit pop songs like “Call Me Maybe,” “Single Ladies”, and “Gangnam Style.” Promotions for those songs came in some cases from imitations by the cast of Saturday Night Live and other entertainment sources, not a shadowy, loosely connected advertising network.

Also in typical form, just as the endless stream of videos and the associated dance routine therein began to sicken the mainstream, the radio finally took notice. The “Harlem Shake” single by Bauuer (the Brooklyn producer otherwise known as Harry Rodrigues) shot to the top of the charts a few weeks later, on Feb. 20 – just after Billboard announced they’d start counting YouTube plays. For the first time since the dawn of the viral pop song hit, much of this secondary bubble in activity the “Harlem Shake” trend, backed by business bankrolled imitations and synergistic page views, was what helped catapult the song into the coveted #1 slot.

Like J-Lo’s payola scandals and Lady Gaga’s fabricated views, the advertising interest and production investment in the “Harlem Shake” trend inflated it’s popularity to the point where the real popularity of the song comes into question.

“We’re still not capturing this notion of view choice in the same way you would with something like Nielsen ratings or certainly record sales,” Ashton tells BTR.

“You can be fairly sure if someone pays 99 cents to download a song on iTunes, they like the song. If you’re Nielsen, you’re somehow observing what channels people choose to watch and what shows they choose to watch,” he continues. “The YouTube situation is slightly different because if you happen to like the Miami Heat, and there they are dancing to this song you don’t particularly care for, you may watch the video anyway. You may watch it with the sound off. You may not be watching it because you happen to like that song, and that may count to that song’s ranking in the [Billboard] Hot 100.”

Did people watch the video because they liked the song, or the dance? What does it mean if people were being paid to make the videos by businesses looking to sell their products to a larger audience under the pretense that doing this dance and having your friends video tape you doing so was the bee’s knees?

If so many people follow along, does that mean people even like this trend? What do they even like about it? The song? The dance? Making a video of themselves doing a dance?

For Ashton, that’s where comparisons between “Harlem Shake” and schemes like payola or fabricating twitter followers end. (“I don’t see any evidence of any deliberate manipulation by anybody,” says Ashton of the “Harlem Shake” trend.)

Yet the damage is done. Like Wall Street, for profit colleges rolling in student loan debts, and the once completely untainted middle-of-the-road coverage of MSNBC, pop listeners can no longer trust the steadfast All-American institution that is the Top 40. Gone are the days of “Mmmmbop” and “La Macarena” when at least if the zeitgeist chose what couldn’t seem more senseless, docile, and benign, we could sleep soundly knowing it was because someone truly loved it.


For more with Kevin Ashton, check out his interview with Matthew DeMello on this week’s Third Eye Weekly, BreakThru Radio’s premier current events podcast.