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Treating Viral Videos Like a Virus January 21, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues.
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When the music industry and the free internet collide there is bound to be problems. Back in October, we discussed Radiohead’s decision to release their 2007 album In Rainbows, solely online (at first) for a consumer-named price. How they got around the contract with their record label or convinced label execs that this was a good idea, we’ll never know. We also noted that this unprecedented strategy did not hurt record sales in the least. Of course, Radiohead is a chart topping, well established band. But what about Ok Go – a band formed in 1998 who credits its success on the viral nature of its offbeat music videos? Frontman Damian Kulash notes that upon presenting the “A Million Ways” video (a video that received 10 million hits), “the head of the digital department said, ‘If this gets out, you’re sunk.'” (Mashable.com). But Wikipedia notes that, “Oh No gained popularity for its first single, ‘A Million Ways’, thanks to its video, which proved to be a viral Internet phenomenon in the fall of 2005.”

By now we all know what “viral” means –that a video/meme/song/article etc. gains vast popularity by being posted to social networking sites, reposted and discussed on blogs, and forwarded via email. By what are the keys that lead to viral status? While I can’t name the je ne sais quoi that led millions of people to repost “David After Dentist”, “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” or “Charlie Bit My Finger”, I can tell you the one factor these all share is that they are free to distribute. So what happens when you can’t spread these videos anymore? What happens when studio execs decide to lose the “embed” button on YouTube? Well, this is exactly what happened to Ok Go and Damian Kulash (via an interview with Mashable) has a lot to say on the matter, most of it, calmly.

Kulash points out that, “it’s just a redistribution of numbers and that’s the kind of stuff that basically matters to the marketers, and to a certain degree it affects our careers, because…it is better for us to have 40 million hits on one site than one million hits on 40 sites.” But is that what will happen? Isn’t the nature of viral memes to spread across the internet so that, for instance, someone who does not frequent YouTube, might serendipitously stumble across the video via Digg or Buzzfeed? If the video is still free, but limited, why are the suits limiting it to one site? Are they being paid by YouTube (or the ads on YouTube)?

Kulash’s calm acceptance of changes to YouTube is a fast departure from his stance earlier in the article, particularly when he notes that, “The thrill…was that there was no middleman, and now we’re dealing with exactly the fact that there’s somebody stopping us from having the video embedded the way we want it to — the middlemen have returned.” Still, Kulash is a working man and realizes that if he wants to make money there must be some concessions.  He notes that, “the line between owning music or streaming music or hearing music has gotten so blurred, and is only going to get more so, operating on a system that basically looks at music as discrete units that people individually own is just getting silly.” His solution? “Larger rights organizations” and a “legitimate marketplace for music online”.  But how, Kulash, how? While there might not be any clear answers now, more questions are sure to arise if the rumors are true that Apple will be creating a free live music streaming service based on their acquisition of Lala.

The New York Times has made their stance public. What’s yours?

Read the full interview by Mashable here.