The video begins with an airplane and a beautiful woman reflected in a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses.
A few seconds later, the upturned face of Korean pop star Psy comes into view and a pulsing beat kicks in as he sings the line that made him a global phenomenon: “Oppan Gangnam style.”
When it debuted on July 15, PSY’s off-the-wall music video and signature horse-riding dance moves catapulted him into stardom.
“Gangnam Style” has spent six weeks at the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and its creator has been a guest on programs ranging from “Saturday Night Live” to the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Earlier this month, Psy was awarded South Korea’s Order of Cultural Merit.
And it's all because of YouTube.
At its height, “Gangnam Style” was seen more than 1.75 million times a day on YouTube. With more than 665 million views so far, it is now the site’s second-most popular video, joining a Top 100 list composed almost exclusively of music uploads.
The success of YouTube content such as “Gangnam Style” has radically changed how people consume music, said Zach Bridges, 32, an instrumentalist with local indie rockers The Nim Nims.
“YouTube is an incredible tool,” Bridges said. “If you’re camping and you want your buddy to hear a song you heard, you can go on YouTube and hear it right there. Any time I want to hear a song or show a friend a new band, I don’t go to a social-media site or their website anymore; I go to YouTube.”
According to YouTube, the service is used by more than 800 million visitors a month.
The significance of such a large potential audience is not lost on bands. Music has had a significant presence on YouTube since the site’s launch in mid-2005. Some of the service’s earliest runaway hits were music videos.
In 2006, guitarist Lim Jeong-hyun, a South Korean, like Psy, recorded a rock cover of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” that became one of the site’s earliest success stories with more than 90 million views. The view count was high enough to earn mention by news outlets such as The New York Times, National Public Radio and ABC’s “20/20.”
In 2008, a 13-year-old Justin Bieber was discovered after manager Scooter Braun saw his YouTube videos and was impressed enough to seek him out. Bieber’s now a global superstar, and his “Baby featuring Ludacris” currently is YouTube’s most-viewed video with more than 797 million hits.
The advent of relatively inexpensive video recording equipment and editing software has all but eliminated cost as a barrier to entry for artists to create music videos. As a result, many more bands are releasing videos to promote themselves than ever before.
Such was not always the case. In a 1995 story about big-budget music videos, Entertainment Weekly listed the production cost for TLC’s “Waterfalls” at “a million [dollars] or so” — or $1.5 million when adjusted for inflation. With more than 5 million views on TLC’s official YouTube channel, “Waterfalls” remains popular.
However, with just a few catchy hooks, clever choreography and a half dozen treadmills, Chicago alt-rockers OK Go produced a low-budget film for the song “Here It Goes Again,” which garnered more than 45 million views. The original video was eventually removed by record label, EMI, but a second, label-sanctioned posting in 2009 has been seen an additional 15 million times.
A NEW KIND OF PROMOTION
The low cost of creating videos has made recording them all-but-mandatory for artists who wish to be taken seriously, said Kunstruct, producer with Natural Habitz, a local hip-hop group which has uploaded five music videos to its YouTube channel since 2009.
“YouTube has been a big help to us,” he said. “Labels check for professional videos. If they look ... like they could be on MTV, it can really help to drive sales of your project.”
In the last year, local punkgrass artist Strung Like a Horse has released two videos to Vimeo, an artist-centric video site similar to YouTube. The band celebrated the online debut of its second project, “Gyspy Jane,” this summer with a video release show at Rhythm & Brews. The video recently passed 5,000 views.
With so many bands now able to self-produce their own albums, having a high-quality video has become the best way to stand out, said lead singer Clay Maselle.
“It’s just how you reach people right now,” he said. “The idea is to get people to pay attention to our music, and that’s the best way to do it.”
REACHING THE GLOBAL AUDIENCE
Through its YouTube videos, Natural Habitz also has reached a much broader audience than it might have otherwise.
“[Videos] help people see who you are, as an artist, and see your brand and get into you as an artist,” Kunstruct said. “Those really help push a product and sell [it] better.”
Sometimes, that reach extends around the globe.
According to the site’s statistics, YouTube has been localized in 43 countries and in 60 languages. Seventy percent of the site’s traffic comes from outside the United States.
The success of “Gangnam Style,” which is sung primarily in Korean, is indicative of YouTube’s ability to market music not only outside a band’s hometown but across the world. Brazilian singer Michel Teló’s “Ai Se Eu Te Ego” and Puerta Rican reggaeton artist Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro ft. Lucenzo” are also among the site’s most-viewed videos.
Being able to see a band helps its music to translate, even if the audience doesn’t understand the words, Kunstruct said.
“The visuals have helped [us], especially to reach those people who are not familiar with Natural Habitz and who are in Japan or Russia or the Czech Republic,” he said. “When you get that kind of love ... from overseas, it’s just crazy. It’s shocking, but it’s awesome.”
THE NEW MTV
In recent years, YouTube increasingly has reached out to music listeners by adding additional features such as automatically generated genre playlists and new artist recommendations based on viewing history.
Ultimately, however, it is ease of use that makes YouTube and other online video services so appealing, Bridges said.
“What you used to do ... is watch six hours of MTV to catch the video of the band you liked,” he said. “Now that everyone has some version of a smart phone or tablet [computer], it’s become really easy to say, ‘Oh, listen to this band,’ and pull it up 10 seconds later on YouTube. It’s right here at your fingertips.”
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...