Monday, February 12, 2007

Viral Video Infection

This is sort of “part deux” for my preaching to the choir post from last week.

Several commenters here and on antville took me to task for not acknowledging the power YouTube’s “viral video” effect. It is true I neglected to include the upside of video sharing in the last post. I was lazy, the post was already long and I believe viral videos are much, MUCH less infecting than many people believe.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press and movable type – it was decades before someone came up with the idea for page numbers, so those original, un-page numbered books were far less useful than they would be once “book OS technology” had the kinks worked out. Today, we are in that “no page numbers yet” stage for the internet. The technology exists, but the way it will REALLY be used once it becomes fully integrated into our lives has not yet been established. In 2007, the intratubes (and viral video) are still in their pre-adolescent stages and there is no way to know exactly how they will turn out.

Reason #1 why I largely dismiss the power of viral videos:
They have not made anyone on the music-making end of things much money as of yet. The YouTube guys are billionaires, but that hasn’t helped Weird Al make any scratch off of “White and Nerdy” despite the fact that the web clip has been watched more than 6 million times. Clicks are NOT cash. Attention does not pay the bills. (Hey, I love it when my blog gets an extra hundred hits, but I can’t use that to pay my rent, unless my landlord starts taking GoogleAd Sense.)

Part of this is on the music industry. Why can’t record companies turn people sharing video clips into a living for recording artists? Because labels are run in old fashioned ways by old fashioned people. Maybe someone will turn this around, but that looks to be a long ways off.

Reason #2 why I largely dismiss the power of viral videos:
Even hyper-successful viral videos have made little to no impact at retail. OkGo is the best example to date of the positive power of viral videos and even they have not been all that successful. Here is a blurb from their (press release-ish) wikipedia page:

"After the band's performance at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, their album moved up to #2 on the ITunes Music Store album sales charts (as of September 3, 2006). Their album sold 8,250 units in the following week, a 95% increase over the prior week, rocketing from #87 to #69 on the Billboard 200 album chart, the highest position ever achieved by any OK Go album to date."

Wow, I would not call moving from 87 to 69 “rocketing,” especially following an appearance on the VMA show. This is NOT all that impressive to me – or the record labels, either, I would imagine. These numbers are very good for a small indie band and all that, but if this the BEST case one can make for viral video it is not a very strong case at all.

The treadmills video has been watched over 11 million times and OkGo even won the Grammy for video of the year (as well they should have, IMO) so they have gotten lots of attention – too bad more people didn’t actually pay for the music. This is not a rip on OkGo – but rather pointing out that the concept of viral videos, even in the best of best of best case scenarios – has a long way to go. OkGo created something great (along with a far better written and far more market friendly song than most viral visds are attached to) that points the way to where the industry might/should/will go in the future. But Ben Franklin and his kite getting over with the key, is still a long way from people having electric bug-zappers on their patios.

Many, many bands have tried to get the same viral video buzz and only OkGo has turned their clip into mainstream attention. Bands expecting YouToogle to make them stars is like school kids expecting that they will be NBA/NFL stars when they grow up. It might actually happen to a tiny handful of athletic hopefuls, but the percentages are not in the kid’s favor. AND (to extend the metaphor oven further) the OkGo example shows that the rare kid that does make the pros will spend his time on the bench earning the league minimum salary. Kids are better off studying for a career other than sports if they want to stay above the poverty line and bands are better off trying to get signed to a major label and go about things the more “traditional” route if they wanna stay above the poverty line.

The viral video might (and I stress "might") help out a baby band that few have heard of, but it holds almost no value for an established band or artist - like Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance or Ludacris. The music industry, as currently constructed, is set up to make money off the later kind of artists - not the unknowns. To the music industry, viral video looks like something that "helps panda bears manage their stock portfolio" - a solution to a problem they don't know or care about. The music industry is definitely changing, and possibly to something where pandas need to check their mutual funds, but I doubt viral videos will still be the rage when that happens.

Reason #3 why I largely dismiss the power of viral videos:
Because people on the internet think it is a sure thing. When everyone tells me something is a can’t miss deal, (eToys, anyone?) I get very suspicious.

"Viral video" is the kind of catch-phrase that jumps into marketing vocabularies - ala synergy, click-through, tweens and so on. There is certainly some value in all these concepts, but when they become "hot" - they get over-used and beaten into the ground in the rush to apply their new media-ness to any and every situation. Remember when CD-ROMs and those added value CDs were going to change the record retail game? Maybe viral video will be the thing to make that change, but so far, I see zero signs that it has happened.

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Viral videos are like viruses in that we don't fully understand them. We don't know why some succeed and some fail. You just have to be sure to wash your hands and keep your fingers our of your orifices. Or is that just with the flu? Anyway.

I think it's near impossible to manufacture a viral video. For every success, there are way too many failures. Which is really no different from the success ratio of music videos or music itself. So, viral videos should be considered an aberration. 30Frames is right, as usual: Viral video is a bullshit term advertisers and marketers throw out there: Charge a lot of money, spend almost nothing on production and then absolutely nothing on distribution (thank you YouTube). When it flops, it's nobody's fault but the viewers.

OK Go: Without the "treadmill" song this band is done. First album tanked. Second album was dead in the water until that video. OK Go are a household name now. Your mom knows who they are. Might not have moved an insane amount of CDs (not that it should've) but the band is in a much better place, both in term of their finances (touring = money) and the guaranteed chance to make a 3rd album.

I kind of see Ok Go as a Barenaked Ladies sort of group. Nothing terribly exicting as far as the music goes, but a good bunch of funny, compelling personalities. Nobody may be listening to the BNL hits anymore, but they're always good for a laugh on a VH1 Best Whatever Ever clip show. Same deal with OK Go. Nobody gives a shit about the music, but they're entertaining.

I have to wash my hands now. I feel dirty.
I agree with some of what you're saying, but again you're missing some of the point.

As stephen is saying, you can't engineer a viral video. We all seem to agree on this. Aim for it, and you'll fail.

The main thing here though is to disregard viral, which indicates Blair Witch style fluke-ness.

With the layoffs at MTV and overall news coming out of there, what we have to realize is that something like youtube, with per view payment (maybe) and ad revenue coming is the replacement for MTV.
even if OKGO is not moving units, they are still making good money through other revenue streams due to their viral. they're saavy enough to capitalize on this.
This is great info to know.
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