How Psy, Carly Rae Jepsen and Other Musicians Rode Viral Video and Social Media to Stardom (INSIDE STORY)
It was the tweet heard 'round the world.
No big deal, just Justin Bieber telling his fans last December that a song he'd heard on the radio while visiting his native Canada -- Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" -- was "possibly the catchiest song I've ever heard." And that Twitter blast, just 84 characters long, was enough to make Jepsen famous. Well, that and a funny video that lent itself to countless imitations and parodies, along with that initial catchy tune, eventually the anthem of the summer of 2012.
And then there was Psy, the other seemingly out-of-nowhere sensation, whose tune "Gangnam Style" also had an eye-grabbing video, featuring funny scenes and you-can-do-this-too dance moves. In the space of a few weeks, the South Korean rapper has gone from zero to nearly 300 million "likes," making his clip the most popular YouTube video of all time.
Is there a formula for using viral video and social media to become a pop star? Not necessarily; as Psy's oddball, largely Korean-language clip proves, there's no telling what the public will embrace. Still, there are a few concrete steps you can take. As Psy, Jepsen, and other viral stars have discovered, one of those steps is befriending Justin Bieber.
What else does it take to become a social media singing star? Here are some of the steps.
1. Be original. "There's no formula," Hollywood Reporter Music Editor Shirley Halperin told Celebuzz. "Once it's been done, there's a challenge to find the next cool thing." Of "Gangnam Style," she noted, "The foreignness makes it really attractive because it’s a culture with which we're not really familiar." The novelty factor has been turning YouTube stars into viral hitmakers at least since OK Go's treadmill dance on 2006's "Here It Goes Again," Halperin said. It worked for Jepsen, too, with "Call Me Maybe"'s narrative clip about an endearingly awkward girl (Jepsen) trying to catch a guy's attention, only to have him give his number to one of her male bandmates.
2. But not too original. Pop duo Karmin rose to fame on the strength of its videos of cover versions of current hits. With an eye toward what was trending in Google searches, the band's carefully tagged videos became hits among viewers looking for familiar songs. "We were uploading originals at first,” Karmin's Nick Noonan told Forbes. “No one was watching them."
3. Have a Danceable Beat. Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" seems custom-built for dancefloor fun, from its almost percussive string hook to its chorus about a gal giving a guy she just met her phone number. Same with "Gangnam Style," featuring the kind of moves that could launch a new dance craze. "When it first came out, I think the big discussion among insiders was, is it the dance or the song? The video or the music? The consensus was that it was the dance, the look, the visuals, that made it just so much fun to watch," Halperin said. "The other thing is that it reminded me right away of MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This.' We forget how huge that was. The album sold 18 million copies. That and the Macarena are big records because people can dance to them. So ['Gangnam Style'] is the digital version of 'U Can't Touch This.' I've heard a lot of dance DJs incorporate this into their mixes in cool ways. It doesn't sound as hokey mixed with a cool beat."
4. Get Bieber on Board. Bieber, of course, may be YouTube's biggest musical success story. It helps that he's had savvy management, in the form of Scooter Braun. It also helps that he's willing to leverage his own social-media popularity to help artists he likes. For Jepsen, there was not only his epic tweet, but also an ad hoc video Bieber made of himself and girlfriend Selena Gomez lip-synching "Call Me Maybe." And he also signed her to his Schoolboy label, run by Braun. Braun was quick to sign Psy, too, when he started breaking stateside this summer. Even Karmin got some advice from Braun, who's been able to convince the industry that there are more Biebers out there on YouTube, waiting to be turned into lucrative hitmakers. "We got a chance to talk to Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, and he was saying he had a hard time getting Justin Bieber signed because a lot of labels didn’t believe in views translating into sales,” Karmin manager Nils Gums told Forbes. “Now, that has actually been a proven model." Said Halperin, "Scooter Braun, hats off to that guy for making the most of the moment. He's like Simon Cowell."
5. Hit the road, and hit iTunes. Granted, having 300,000,000 likes on YouTube doesn't necessarily earn you a penny. What makes money is touring and digital downloads. Karmin used YouTube to develop an e-mail list of potential customers for iTunes singles. Psy, too, has been able to translate YouTube fame into iTunes sales. And touring, as always, is where musicians make real money, without having to give the lion's share back to their labels. Plus, it's where they prove to fans that they're not just manufactured video stars. Another revenue stream likely to earn big bucks for the likes of Psy and Jepsen: licensing, as advertisers, movies, and shows like Glee seek to borrow some cool points by using their hot-right-now tunes.
6. Be good. Remember the cautionary tale of Rebecca Black. She became a viral sensation out of novelty -- because no one could get over how uniquely awful the song "Friday" and its clip were. To be fair, she was a 13-year-old girl, and no one expected her to have the depth and refined talent necessary for long-term staying power. We'll see if 26-year-old Jepsen and 34-year-old Psy have more than one hit apiece in them, depending on whether they can write more songs as good as their initial hits. It's not even necessary to have enough good songs for a whole album, just a handful that can be released over time. Of Psy, Halperin said, "Will the guy be able to sell albums because of this fluke hit? There's no guarantee. But it's a singles market these days. You sell the song while it's hot."