It begins with rumblings of a must-see YouTube clip. You proceed to click the link and waste five minutes of your busy work day watching. Before you know it, you have shared the link with everyone you know, and have seen it more times than you’d care to admit. It’s a viral video.
These videos, racking up view counts in the hundreds of millions, have become a mainstay of the age we live in—from fake twerking terror a la Jimmy Kimmel, to a mass eruption of the Harlem Shake. It seems a week doesn’t go by where there isn’t a clip you just have to watch, in fear of being the lone diner at a dinner party, who doesn’t know what the fox says.
But are viral videos a blip on the radar, and do they all see the same life-cycle and longevity? How often do they catapult artists to an unprecedented level of success, and perhaps even land them a management deal with Scooter Braun? Looking at the data behind different viral videos, it seems content and context have a definite impact.
From Established to Superstar
Gotye, Macklemore, and Robin Thicke, were all relatively established artists before their music videos helped catapult them to global success. Gotye, mostly known in Australia and New Zealand, had a decade-long career behind him. The Heist was by no means Macklemore’s first album, though it was his initial collaboration with producer Ryan Lewis, and Robin Thicke, well Robin Thicke used to have long hair.
In each of these cases, they released music videos that caught on online. The intricate visual stop-gap footage and haunting soundtrack of "Somebody That I Used To Know" reached its peak of success in the U.S. in February 2012, Macklemore’s romp around a thrift shop helped The Heist reach unprecedented levels for an independently produced album, and "Blurred Lines" catapulted Robin Thicke to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for pretty much the entirety of summer 2013.
The similarity in the unfolding of the popularity of these videos is striking. While “Somebody That I Used To Know” was released in July 2011, it was not until a few months later that the video started to gain traction. In the case of both “Thrift Shop” and “Blurred Lines,” the ball started rolling early on, but the time it takes for all three videos to go from about 200,000 daily views, to around 2 million before peaking and then slowly waning is about 4 months. Both Macklemore and Gotye now count a total number of views around 430 million, and though Thicke is nearing 200 million at present, he is bound to catch up in the life-cycle of the video.
Shaking It Up
Then there is the “Harlem Shake” – a viral phenomenon based not on the artist’s visual content, but on the mad frolicking of four young men donning body suits in a 36 second snippet. While that initial clip alone has garnered close to 50 million views, from there the concept exploded, with thousands jumping on the bandwagon and creating original shake videos of their own, at army bases, in offices, and on airplanes. This resulted in hundred of millions of YouTube detections for Baauer, who had released the song half a year before, and all of a sudden found himself topping the Billboard Hot 100.
In this case, the rise in popularity is tantamount to an explosion. The “Harlem Shake” reaches a peak of close to 20 million views in a single day on February 15th 2013, compared to about 4,700 views on the date that the spoof clip is released less than a fortnight before. Over the next six months, Baauer racks up more than 418 million YouTube detections for the track, which is a 158,000% increase over the previous six-month period.
The Perfect Storm
Undoubtedly the most popular of all viral videos, is the infamous “Gangnam Style” from K-Pop sensation Psy, which launched an out-of-control online wildfire in the summer of 2012. In the first six months, the video attracted an average of 6.8 million views a day, reaching peaks above 20 million on several occasions. More than a year later Psy’s official YouTube channel remains the most watched, and “Gangnam Style” the top track. So what exactly caused the craze allowing an artist never heard of outside South Korea, to become a phenomenon of this measure? Was it the content? The gallop dance? The catchiness of the tune?
Comparing “Gangnam Style” to Psy’s follow-up release “Gentleman,” which was accompanied by an equally over-the-top music video featuring the pop star and a band of pretty ladies doing yet another ridiculous dance, saw a very different release trajectory. The video spiked to about 40 million daily views in the initial phase, before interest subsides within a month. While Gentleman has seen more than 550 million views since the release about 6 months ago, this pales in comparison to the 1.2 billion “Gangnam Style” attracted in the first half year, and outside of the initial release “Gangnam Style” still attracts more daily views that “Gentleman.” It’s not just the content.
The latest viral phenomenon to blast on to the scene might offer a bit more explanation. This is the inadvertent success story of two young Norwegian brothers, whose comedic promotional video for their late-night television talk show has millions of YouTubers asking themselves, “what exactly does the fox say?” In a month, the EDM-spoof from Ylvis has attracted more than 80 million views, close to 2 million of which came in the first three days, and over the weekend the video hit its current peak at close to 3.5 million daily views. It remains to be seen whether “The Fox” will maintain the same sort of viral longevity as “Gangnam Style,” but early numbers are in a similar range.
So what do “Gangnam Style” and “The Fox” have in common? Both videos exemplify the perfect storm of virality. Not only is the soundtrack undeniably catchy, and the visual content hysterical, but there is an added element of surprise. Viewers are as interested in finding out what all the fuss is about, as they are in figuring out who on earth these phenomenons out of obscurity are.
Photo Credit: Screen Grab from “The Fox” Official Music Video
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Liv Buli is the resident data journalist for music analytics company Next Big Sound. Buli is a graduate of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and her work has appeared in Newsweek Daily Beast, Forbes, Billboard, Hypebot and more.