Will Viral Video Kill the Music Video?

The first video ever shown on MTV was for the The Buggles’ song Video Killed the Radio Star. Given how successful amateur videos have been lately at boosting record sales, an appropriate song for the modern age might be Viral Videos Killed the Music Video Star. Of course if there were such a song, a video of it would be found on YouTube, and it would probably be made by someone who had nothing to do with the song other than liking it.

Historically, music videos were promotional vehicles that ran on outlets like MTV. Big budgets were spent on lavish productions that would ideally captivate watchers, prodding them into buying the accompanying single/album. But while music videos have proven enormously popular on YouTube, earlier this year the video-sharing giant got embroiled in skirmishes with the record labels and rights holders over costs. The end result of that bickering is Vevo, a forthcoming satellite site founded by YouTube and Universal Music that will showcase — and monetize — music video traffic.

But what if plain ole users prove more adept than the pros?

There were two instances recently that illustrated the power of viral videos to move music sales. The more famous example is the JK Wedding Entrance Dance, which featured bridesmaids and groomsmen dancing down the aisle to the Chris Brown song Forever. The wedding party video has been watched more than 12 million times on YouTube. More importantly, the rights holder put a link both in the video and on the YouTube page that gives people the option to purchase the song from Amazon and iTunes.

YouTube didn’t share any hard statistics, but the company revealed on its Biz Blog that the click-through rate for the song was twice that of other click-to-buy overlays on the site. Additionally, the JK video had a halo effect and increased the click-through rate on the official Chris Brown video by some 2.5 times. And Forever, which at the time of the JK clip’s release was over a year old, zoomed back up the music sales charts, hitting No. 4 on iTunes Singles and No. 3 on Amazon’s best-selling MP3 list.

Another example came from, of all places, a fish tank. Granted it was Kuroshio Sea, the second-largest fish tank in the world. Canadian filmmaker Jon Rawlinson shot the sea creatures in it going about their day and set the video to the song Please Don’t Go by the band Barcelona. The result was a quiet, beautiful, Zen-like experience that has been watched more than a million times on YouTube since July 15, and nearly 600,000 times on Vimeo. The band Barcelona was so taken with the clip that they posted their own video response to it. And though they wouldn’t disclose any hard numbers either, Barcelona credited the video with boosting their album sales and concert attendance.

What both of these clips highlight is how a low-fi, homemade video can be a marketer’s best friend. The only problem for the music labels is that recreating such levels of success will be darn near impossible. These videos attracted views in part because they were random surprises and in part because they weren’t trying to sell anything. They were just ways to celebrate music that people genuinely enjoyed. The lesson here is that if the labels free their iron grip on copyright claims and let the music play, there’s gold (records) in them viral hills.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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