The week of March 15, 2015

How YouTube killed the one-hit wonder

By Rae Votta

We all know what “Gangnam Style” is, but have you heard of “Hangover” or “Gentleman”? While Psy’s breakout hit became a global phenomenon that garnered more than 2 billion views on YouTube, he’s far from a one-hit wonder. You may not know his latest tracks, but on YouTube, they still rack up more views than videos from mainstream heavyweights like Rihanna—and in less time.

Psy’s post-“Gangnam Style” success isn’t the exception; it’s the rule now. If video killed the radio star, then YouTube killed the one-hit wonder.

Traditionally, the definition of a one-hit wonder was a song that gained significant chart status on Billboard through a combination of radio airplay and commercial sales, only for the artist to then completely disappear from public view. That’s the formula that got us “Mambo No. 5” and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” as well about a dozen VH1 Where Are They Now countdown specials.

Those Billboard charts look a lot different these days. Streaming services were factored into the equation in 2012, followed YouTube video views in 2013. No longer did a song have to break out of viral popularity to the radio or TV to make a chart impact.

If video killed the radio star, then YouTube killed the one-hit wonder.

The inclusion of YouTube views made an immediate impact on the charts in February 2013, with the No. 1 debut of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” on the Hot 100 chart. The song’s success wasn’t tied to the single’s music video, but to the viral videos that sprung up around it. Thanks to YouTube’s content ID system, any use of a track is flagged and included as part of its streams, making songs that go popular on YouTube because of viral jokes or as cover songs ripe for chart inclusion. Even singular viral videos can affect the charts; Soko’s “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow,” for example, debuted at No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 after appearing in Wren’s viral “First Kiss” short film in 2014.

“User-generated views count,” added William Gruger, social/streaming charts manager for Billboard. “When someone is covering a song, that’s sort of an engagement thing. If your song is good enough to listen to, that’s something. But if I’m going to take the time to make my own video of that, or a lot of people are taking the time, that’s a very significant engagement. That’s what we’re really able to capture. It’s a whole different way [of] participating in the music.”

Of course, chart success isn’t what’s eliminating the concept of one-hit wonders. It’s the structure of YouTube itself that has eased the burden of the dreaded follow-up single. Subscriptions, viewcounts, and likes on a video all influence YouTube’s algorithm, so when an artist’s next video comes out, the system is already primed to prioritize it. And subscribers on YouTube are a dependable return audience, eager to check out new releases and suggestions from the stars they follow on YouTube and Twitter. In a way, YouTube’s subscription structure levels the playing field, rewarding artists who develop loyal fanbases and affording them the opportunity to pursue new projects at a slower place.

Let’s get back to Psy. The telling part of his success is what happened after “Gangnam Style.” While Psy was already big in South Korea before “Gangnam Style” hit in 2012, the song drove him to a global phenomenon. “Gentleman,” his next release,” broke records for the most views in a single day—38 million—and tallied 200 million total in the first week, according to YouTube.

“There’s huge hits on radio, and there are huge hits on YouTube. The difference on YouTube is there a mechanism of retention there,” Gruger said. “The recommendation algorithms are going to serve me the next single because I liked the first one, which doesn’t happen on radio.”

That’s why someone as polarizing as Rebecca Black (the singer behind the viral sensation “Friday”) can take their 15 seconds and turn it into a budding YouTube career, for better or worse. That’s also why acts like Carly Rae Jepsen, who attempt to transition to the mainstream, will always circle back to YouTube.

There can be diminishing returns, for sure, but there are still returns.

Need further proof? Look at Sofia Grace, the pint-sized viral video star who gained national attention via Ellen DeGeneres and is now releasing original music. Her “Best Friends” video toppled established acts, thanks to her digital buy-in.

“[‘Best Friends’] had more views in the first week than anything recently put out by Gwen Stefani, Fergie, Mariah Carey, and Madonna,” explained Gruger. “Those are all artists that came to fame in the radio prime. Madonna has huge hit singles, and those are huge hit singles because of radio. When you’re an Internet artist, you’re able to have this fanbase that follows you online and is not waiting for a company to distribute your music on a legacy media outlet.”

There can be diminishing returns, for sure, but there are still returns. If a song flops on the radio, it’s 86’d. On YouTube, 100 million views on a first song can easily translate to tens of millions on the follow-up just by virtue of name recognition alone. YouTubers who’ve crossed the 1 million mark in subscribers regularly average over 100,000 views per video. And since a video lasts forever, there’s a long tail effect at work, with the view count (and advertising revenue) steadily accruing over time. That’s part of the reason why Psy is still on the streaming Billboard charts, 97 weeks strong: People are still watching “Gangnam Style.”

“There’s huge hits on radio, and there are huge hits on YouTube. The difference on YouTube is there a mechanism of retention there.”

What does the loss of the one-hit wonder really mean? There’s something to be said for a flash-in-the-pan cultural moment that comes out in the wash. Would we have wanted Right Said Fred tweeting us about his newest single? Sure, technically, “the Freds” still exist and are making some money off their singular hit, but they’re doing it to the tune of 7,460 followers. Psy commands 3.9 million. Even if he can only convert 10 percent of his followers into viewers of a new project, that’s a respectable number in the digital economy that brands and media notice. At the very least, it sustains his ability to keep producing content.

In the end, you could cling to being a one-hit wonder in the modern days, but that simply means you’re failing at the new definitions of being a popular musician. If you’re opting into the pop machine, even independently, there’s no excuse to fade away in 2015.

Screengrab via Psy/YouTube