Saturday, February 8, 2014

YouTube: The new supermarket of style

Supermarket of style is a term I encountered around Y2K while living in England. It was being used to describe a mixing and matching of imagery and identity that flew in the face of many of the accepted ideas about subcultures and scenes. Rather than adhere to a single look or motif, there emerged a new tendency to bring together elements that previously would have been the conceptual equivalents of oil and water. Rigid ideas of fashion had given way to less rule-bound, more individualistic combinations.

And looking at a list of the most viewed videos of 2013 on YouTube led me to think about styles of entertainment in a similar way. Where there was once a certain amount of cohesion and predictability to the things that were popular there is now huge variation. Some of this is because YouTube, unlike radio or television, transcends borders; and some of this may be because YouTube works on the self-serve model, not the broadcast model, so demographic segments aren't as delineated as they once were.

What we end up with in the case of the year's most viewed artists on YouTube is a list that sent me to the search box several times. So here's what I'm thinking...why don't we do a walk through of them together and see what we learn as we make our way down the aisles of this new supermarket of style.

At first glance the average person would probably look at the list to the left and go okay, Psy, the Gangnam guy, first person to crack a billion views on YouTube, so not a big surprise. Though Gangnam was a 2012 phenomenon he had some follow up songs and videos in 2013, one of which, "Gentleman", has received over 600 million views. Compared to Gangnam, only a modest hit, but how about letting a viral video star catch a break.

Next on the list, Macklemore. Check, same thing. Everyone knows his breakthrough hit "Thrift Shop" (chronicled in detail right here on the blog) and the various follow up songs. Same for Bruno Mars, who is one of the finest pop stars of our time, as evidenced in his 2014 Superbowl halftime show performance. So far so good. 

And then things start to get a bit surprising. I knew EDM (Electronic Dance Music) sensation Skrillex was popular, I just didn't realize he was that popular. Over 1.3 billion views on YouTube and many of the videos aren't even videos in the traditional sense, they're just montages or stills set to music, posted by fans, and monetized ads and/or links to buy the songs on iTunes. Next, we have Boyce Avenue. Who? Yes, I asked the same thing. Turns out they have 5 million subscribers on YouTube, over 1 billion views, and according to a claim on their YouTube channel are 'the most viewed independent band in the world'. They first made their mark doing cover songs on YouTube and now have moved on to doing their own compositions, a similar path taken by YouTube stars Karmin. (Ed. Note: For more on the phenomenon of cover songs on YouTube, see this earlier blog post.

Then the fun really gets going with Matty B. He's a 10 year old boy who seems to be the Pat Boone of kid rap and pop, covering songs by One Direction, Maroon 5, Robin Thicke, Rihanna, and more. Roll your eyes all you want, but the kid has 2 million subscribers, 800 million views, and is currently on a U.S. tour

Next up Ylvis. What's a Ylvis? How is it even pronounced? I have no idea. Apparently Ylvis is everywhere, but haven't been on my radar. They're the biggest thing to come out of Norway since A-ha, and I can say wholeheartedly I don't get it. 

After the little kid and the Norwegian guys in the Davy Crockett caps we have Lindsey Stirling. A cute ragamuffin of a violinist, and again with the cover songs. LMFAO, Macklemore, Imagine Dragons, and more. Haven't heard of her either? No matter. She's got 4.2 million YouTube subscribers and more than 540 million views.

Moving to the last two on the list...up next is Big Bang. I know what you're thinking. Never heard of them either. But isn't that why we're here? To find out what those darn kids are doing on their iPads, or more accurately, your iPad.  Big Bang is a K-Pop, or Korean Pop, group, with close to 800 million YouTube views. This is their most popular video, currently closing in on 100 million views.

And finally, coming in at number 10 we have The Lonely Island. The name didn't ring a bell but the material did. This is the comedy troupe of Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg and two of his friends from Junior High, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Remember "I"m on a boat", featuring T-Pain? That was them. Those Andy Samberg/Justin Timberlake digital shorts seen on SNL? That was them too. In 2013 The Lonely Islanders set the acronym of the decade to song, and gave us this.

So, to review, in our YouTube Top 10 for 2013 we have:

-  3 bona fide pop stars, the kind you hear on the radio and see on TV (Psy, Macklemore, Bruno Mars)
-  3 people or groups who found large scale YouTube fame primarily doing cover songs (Boyce Avenue, Matty B, and Lindsey Stirling)
-  Electronica/EDM whiz Skrillex
-  Those Norwegians singing about foxes 
-  1 Korean pop powerhouse
-  1 American comedy troupe, built around a TV star.

Many think of streaming music services such as Spotify and Pandora as the radio of today but I think it's YouTube that may have the most valid claim to this mantle; and if this most viewed artists of 2013 list is any indication the platform is bringing us more genres, more variety, and more unexpected hits than any radio station, or streaming service, ever has or ever could. 

A big part of the beauty of demassified  media is that we, the audience, now have the ability to vote with our clicks. And as a demassified, dispersed audience we can participate in the making and proliferation of hits, large and small. That means the videos mentioned in this post, but also the millions of videos clicked on daily that may only get thousands of views, but are still able to reach a larger audience than they ever could in the broadcast/mass media environment. That is not to say the field is completely leveled or that there is an absence of marketing machinery behind a number of these YouTube stars. There often is. The Internet is not a magical shower of nonstop pixie dust. But it does play an important role in populating the shelf space in the supermarket of style with almost endless choices.

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