Viral VS. Substance

April 7, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  50 Comments

Every few years a breakthrough discovery in science will immediately make everything we thought we knew previously completely useless, rendering textbooks, teachers, and training obsolete; like the discovery that Pluto is not a planet, or some physics breakthrough that debunks all previous theories. This is what seems to be happening in music on almost a weekly basis these days, as the industry continues to contract, genres merge, and tastes and trends are subject to wild mood swings.

Rebecca Black

There is no better example of this than the emergence of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” song a few weeks ago. Her success changed everything. She is the first “viral star”, meaning a star born solely from the strength of a YouTube video that has so far received over 88 million hits. She also changed the rules that pop stars can not only be huge despite their lack of talent or artistic appeal, but because of their lack of talent or artistic appeal. So many people hating Rebecca Black helped perpetuate the viral movement, as critics and opponents generated interest just as much as fans. She also moves the needle of lowered expectations even farther into the bad, as now stars like Justin Bieber cannot be considered the worst, increasing their artistic value and appeal by proxy.

The “viral star”, whether a 13-year-old pop singer, a weirdo on the local news in Alabama, or a water-skiing rabbit, poses a threat to an already battered music industry, and to all artists, whether in music, TV, film, etc. Artists used to be the primary generators of entertainment. Now you might get your entertainment from a YouTube video of a complete amateur. That amateur might be appealing because of their remarkable talent despite their unknown stature, or because they are so bad it is amusing. And in the viral world, if you are not abreast of what went viral Friday evening, the you feel left out Monday morning. So instead of people listening to their favorite new music artist on the way to work every morning . . .


An example of Viral vs. Substance is a video for the artist Caitlin Rose. I recently reviewed her new album Own Side Now, whose title track is supported by an original video of the same name. Uploaded Jan. 3rd, it has received around 70,000 hits.

But a video by a little 5-year-old girl singing Caitlin’s original song, uploaded 6 weeks after the original, professionally-made video, has received 228,000 hits.

Without question, this little girl has talent, and her rendition is remarkable. But at the same time, Caitlin is the originator of this song. She had to write and record the song professionally, and outlay capitol to have a video made. Without the one, the other would not exist. The people who posted the 5-year-old’s video were gracious enough to put a link on their video to Caitlin’s original one, and though it’s hard to tell for sure, Cailtin’s original video may have received more traffic because of the viral video link than it would have all alone. Still, the 5-year-old’s version has received over 3 times the attention in roughly half the time. When I talked to Caitlin about it at South by Southwest, she could see it both ways.

“I cried the first three times I watched the video. I love that little girl. But at the same time, it shows where we are at. I wrote the song and had the video made. But at the same time, her video has also brought attention to my video that there may have not been.”

Just like the problem plaguing the media, that anyone with a cell phone camera is now a journalist, anyone with a cell phone camera can now be an entertainer as well. This new model has created a flood of new content, where the task of trying to find the original content with substance is difficult, and quality is diluted across the board. Meanwhile the entertainment industry is being flooded with prospective talent, as shows like American Idol perpetuate the idea that anybody can be a celebrity, diluting and crowding the talent field even more. There is no need to spend any money on entertainment, when we can now entertain ourselves through technology. The end result is less capitol flowing to the truly talented, meaning there are less resources to create truly original and inspiring art, and less attention for that art once it is made.

50 Comments to “Viral VS. Substance”

  • Agreed.

    Have you heard the “Bob Dylan” version of the Rebecca Black song? It’s pretty entertaining.

  • Well written article Trig.

    You hit it right on the head, with the Quanity over Quality (my take on your words), It is the bored office worker, The Kids who have been programed to think that this is how it is supposed to be, and everyone else who just loves to watch a train wreck, that drive up these youtube numbers.

    I think that youtube has as much, if not more, to do with driving down music sales than piracy.

    Whats a newcomer without a major label push gonna do to compete with youtube, When artist with big money behind them are not fairing so well? Hopefully the trend will reverse itself, but I wouldnt count on it.

    • That’s a real good point Nathan, about YouTube’s effect on the music industry. I have never downloaded even one bit of pirated music from the internet. Not that I am completely against it in certain circumstances, like when a non-caring label lets a classic album go out-of-print. But if there’s something I want to hear and don’t have at hand, YouTube probably has it in one version or another. So I go there and can listen to it without having to buy it.

      • It’s just a catch 22. Youtube gives someone the opportunity to view and hear artists but also changes the shape of the traditional music industry by allowing for someone to bypass purchasing. That’s why it’s more important to me to attend the live shows when I can. That’s where I form my opinion moreso than on Youtube.
        But it’s so cool to pull up videos I would never see otherwise. Youtube must be the new MTV without a VJ.

        There’s a new concept for you Triggerman. Offer a video hour of real country. I’d dig it!

        • I have to admit that the way I engage with music lately is by listening to Pandora, podcasts, SCM LIve, and maybe some special Public Broadcasting radio shows (or before I let it lapse – XM radio) and when I hear something interesting, I look for the artist on YouTube. If I find a series of videos I enjoy, I listen to them…sometimes I go to Reverbnation or MySpace to hear more of the band. I never download…I never order a cd.

          If I go to a live show, I ALWAYS buy the merch. I go to a lot of shows. I travel far and wide to go to shows. So this is how I support artists. I would like to hear how others engage with new music…do people go to record stores anymore? Do they order cds online often? My practices may be unique to my lifestyle…I’m super busy and have 3 kids to spend money on so I have to be careful about when and where I drop cash on music. I imagine most people are that way. I can’t tell you, however, when the last time I walked into a Target was and purchased a cd…probably decades ago…

          If YouTube went away, I’d be lost. lol…

  • Thing is, there’s nothing to stop it. Napster and the advent of music piracy forever crippled the old way of doing things in the industry. Sure, that sucks, but the old way wasn’t so cool either.

    As an artist, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a shame Rebecca Black is making all that cheddar while touring artists struggle with $3.75 gas prices. But also as an artist, it’s kinda exciting to see what happens next. Good or bad, change is gonna happen. Adapt or die, I reckon. Cheers Trigger.

    • It has leveled the playing field between signed and unsigned artists. That’s a good thing. It has also flooded the marked with crap that has no business being consumed by the masses. That’s a bad thing.

      • My perception is Youtube has given unknown artists a platform that never existed before. The crap was already out there in the mainstream via reality television and the big record companies, and continues to be. Your thinking could also apply to the internet itself and social networking too. We all now have access to things that were unfathomable 20 years ago. With the good comes the bad, as with every aspect of life in this mortal coil.

        As someone who lives on the other side of the planet I am super grateful for all the mediums mentioned above. Living on an island in South Pacific we are very isolated. It took my grandfather 6 months to get here via boat from the old country 100 years ago. Now I can have access to just about anything via the internet in 6 seconds.

      • DON’T take this as a criticism or as me attacking you…ok?

        But why do you think that you need to mediate…or anyone needs to mediate…”quality” for the “masses”? The masses will consume whatever they are told to consume if they are truly the masses, right? If they think not for themselves, they will drink the kool aid. If they think for themselves, they aren’t the masses…they are independent people who form their own tastes and likes/dislikes. If they are “fans” or “superfans” they will seek out more than even the average listener.

        I just don’t get any attempt to try and make mainstream music better. It will never be what those with discriminating taste want it to because that isn’t what sells. You have to have an “ear” to hear or an “eye” to see quality. If you don’t have it…if you haven’t tried to develop it…you won’t understand “quality”…

        • I believe that every human has the right to be exposed to good art, even if they are part of the “masses” or “spoon fed” or are just fundamentally stupid from a physiological standpoint. In fact these individuals are the ones that probably would have the most to gain from good art, and probably deserve it more. And once you decided who has a right to be privy to good art, you have entered the realm of elitism. Good art has been appealing and popular to the masses before, and I will have faith that it will appeal to the masses again. And if not, then I will create a record that at least someone tried to get it to the masses.

          I don’t identify with a tribe, or believe that tribal mentality is a good thing.

          • I wasn’t claiming that the masses don’t have a right to good art or that they don’t deserve it…as a matter of fact, what I was giving them is agency to choose. I believe that good art is out there. The “masses” have just as much of a right to choose it and to seek it out as I do. I don’t have amazing resources…nor do you…but we seek it out and find it. If we can do it, why can’t “they”?

            I feel like the move to make mainstream music quality music is a bit paternalistic. Who are “we” to decide what is good and bad for others? Why not let them seek out what they like just as “we” do?

            I’ll argue that in general, whenever “good art” was appealing to the “masses” in history, it was not often regarded as good by the elite at that time. In other words, in history, there are pieces of art or music WE today consider to be beautiful or of great quality. And yet, these works, if they appealed to the masses, would not have been considered good by the standards of the elite at that time.

            I don’t think that tribal mentality comes into play here. I am really wondering WHO decides what is good and what is bad and what gives that “who” the power to be the one who decides this? Why is Rebecca Black a shitty singer? or why does that video suck? Someone decides the criteria of “excellence” and “quality”…they aren’t universally agreed upon and accepted by humans everywhere.

            This article by Laura Bohannan is a really nice exploration of cross cultural understandings of art. I like to refer to it in my own mind when I am thinking that there is somehow a universal understanding of art. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1966_08-09_pick.html

  • that’s the sad state of america today, in every aspect of life. nobody wants to work for anything. they just want it handed to them.

    • Its probably more so the short attention spans of most americans now days, as opposed to having it handed to them.

      But on a Brighter note, today is thursday but tomorrow is “friday, friday.”

  • Ha. This is probably my most-favorite topic you’ve ever covered Trig.

  • It’s so overwhelming at times to think of all the viral stuff that clogs up the internet. I try not to subscribe to it. If someone says look at this cute kid, I might look at it for a bit. Too many parents seem to push this stuff, i.e. beauty pagents and such. If a child has true talent then cultivate it but all this youtubing stuff just gives me a headache mostly.

    It’s just the way I feel. I haven’t seen Rebecca Black’s video and I won’t unless by accident. It just doesn’t interest me.

  • Got a link to that water-skiing rabbit?

  • I can honestly say I’ve never heard of Rebecca Black until now. The same for Justin Bieber until he became super popular and was all over my television. I really don’t see the fascination with either one but then again I’m not 12 year old girl (as far as I know anyways.) It’s sad that a site like Youtube can skyrocket such trash into mega stardom, but at the same time without Youtube I may have never bought a Hellbound Glory album, or Nellie Wilson album, or Steve Earle album… you get my point. Youtube can be a great tool to help get artists out there. I bet struggling artists have a touch more success with sites like Youtube, etc. It gives them a platform to get there music out to the masses. For me Youtube is just something to consume my time when I should be working. Yes I’ve checked out the Leprechaun in Alabama, Charlie the Unicorn, and countless others but it would never replace the album of an up and coming or established artist. At least for me anyways. I definitely see your point though. I guess my point is Youtube can be good or evil…it’s just a shame the EVIL goes on to make millions of dollars while the good struggles to pay there rent.

    • I don’t consider YouTube evil at all. It’s kind of the “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument. YouTube is just the landing page for many viral campaigns. The campaigns themselves, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and video texting, and the people pushing them is what makes them viral. I guess the argument I am making here is that moving forward, will the Leprechaun story in Alabama replace original artistic expression, because people want tohe quick and fast and catchy thing instead of the thing with substance.

      • I’m sure you’ll always have people looking for that cheap and free thrill. Those that really don’t appreciate music, movies, art, etc. But hopefully there will always be the other half that have enough respect for the artist they would be willing to invest in them, emotionally and financially. I went to McDonalds tonight and bought two smoothies for six bucks and I was thinking to myself… damn I should have skipped the smoothies and bought an album on Amazon. That’s just the way this crazy brain works.

      • Trig, you approached me with this question once about Facebook…guns vs people as evil that is. I’m actually studying this right now for my dissertation: the way that Facebook impacts individuals’ experience of community. A fundamental question underlying my study is whether or not technology in and of itself can be evil or beneficial or if it is just how folks use it that is in question. When you think of biotech for example, there are many benefits that can come from genetic engineering…and a whole lot of scary shit like The Island of Dr. Moreau.

        This “Friday” video is interesting. My sister’s children first introduced my children to the song. Every one of them laughed at it. They thought it was ridiculous and the singer was untalented. And yet, they watched it over and over and over again. I’m not sure what this phenomena is rooted in…is it that people experience a sense of community in disliking and making fun of something together? Isn’t this at the heart of the hipster irony phenomenon? Or is it that it has a certain charm that some girl can randomly use her father’s resources and connections to manipulate the system in order to get a bunch of people to watch her video? Do we all believe that maybe someday this could be us?

        There’s an interesting documentary called: Starsuckers http://www.starsuckersmovie.com/

        You may find it interesting. It speaks to what you are writing about here…

        • I obviously have brain fry right now…I used the word “interesting” about 100 times in this post. Sorry for that.

          All of this is not only “interesting”, it challenges our sense of how one determines “talent”, “quality” and “success”.

          I had a cool conversation with a lady in my town that I do a mother-daughter book club with. She runs our local artists’ cooperative gallery. It is a showcase for local visual artists. She explained to me that she never approaches her work with the gallery with a lens of criticism. She has an amazing faith in the local populous to support artists that are “good”. She sees engagement with art as something personal and individualized. Her take is that people will buy what they like. It is somewhat of a laissez-faire capitalist approach: let the market dictate. If everyone in Dayton LOVES something that art critics think is shit: so be it. If they love something that art critics agree is fantastic: so be it. I found her approach very unique in the over-critiqued world of fine arts.

    • As a side note. Youtube makes a ton of cash from ad revenue. No one ever goes to youtube to look at the youtube logo.

      Maybe if youtube hits resulted in a sharing of ad revenue to the uploader, or original content provider, Maybe that would help. As it sits now, youtube does nothing, pays nothing, and gets rich doing nothing.

      I dont hate R Black for being a one hit wonder. I do Hate the song. But even she isnt paid for the youtube hits. She is only paid when the stupid a-holes that see it go to itunes and buy it.

      • However you also pay nothing to upload videos to Youtube …

      • fwiw: Youtube does pay if you’re in the partners program.

        per: http://www.google.com/support/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=72902

        “There are no guarantees under the YouTube Partner agreement about how much, or whether, you will be paid. Earnings are generated based on a share of advertising revenue generated when people view your video – the more views you get, the more money you’ll make. Please review the agreement for more details.”

  • If I had a dime for every time I clicked on a youtube link for a live video of a band I like, only to find out there’s only one camera and the audio is completely blown…I’d have about 35 more bucks of spendin money.

    • NLindsay… I completely agree. That frustrates the hell out of me. Maybe Youtube needs to start filtering stuff out based on quality alone.

      • NO! That’s the beauty of it. It is not mediated or policed for quality. As soon as you have someone filtering the quality of stuff on YouTube, you will have an industry driven machine that does nothing but produce the same crap over and over again…look at MTV.

  • Rebecca black sounds like she ate kermit

    • Several friends on facebook had posted this in light of it’s awfulness, then Trigger did however I had no compulsion to watch it whatsoever until Joe said it sounded like she ate Kermie so I HAD to. Damn you Joe and the horse you rode in on! You are so right. It’s sounds like Kermie after he’s had an operation to remove his voicebox and he needs one of those creepy handheld devices that are held up to the throat to speak. So it’s like electronic-tranny-Kermie.

      • Band name of the day: Electronic-Tranny Kermie!

  • I think It is “sad”. I thinks it represents another family trying to find a retirement program off their kid! What the hell happened to so called “child labor laws”? “ooooh hoo, look what my kid can do?, Got an offer?!”. I like YouTube for what I can find about bands and/or their songs…but I think they cross the line with these kinda “cutesey” brodcasts…what the hell happened to copyright violation?

    • I agree with you on this. It is like that “America’s Funniest Home Videos”…let’s take a video of our kid falling off the swing and landing on his or her head and maybe we can get college paid for for that kid by winning a competition!

      Children are routinely exploited in our culture. It makes me laugh really that we look down our moral noses at other cultures where kids work in sweatshops or don’t attend school because they are working the family farm.

      Here are a few movies/docs I’ve watched that explore these topics if you are interested:


  • What are yall talking about? It’s Friday! What a great song!!!! I wonder if she will hook up with Michael Jackson Montgomery for a duet! Any who I’m rocking this song today cause its FRIDAY!

  • “She is the first “viral star”, meaning a star born solely from the strength of a YouTube video that has so far received over 88 million hits. She also changed the rules that pop stars can not only be huge despite their lack of talent or artistic appeal, but because of their lack of talent or artistic appeal.”

    I would say just just the new Will Hung.

    • LOVE Will Hung!

      • you would…

          • haha… looks like he let all of his success go straight to his stomach

          • I know right? My favorite comments from that clip:
            “That Fat Guy Ate William Hung!” and “he should quit singing and turn sumo”.

  • I’m constantly reminding myself and others that your whole life is now on tape. It doesn’t seem to alter our behavior though…thankfully, no one cares enough…ahha

  • Oh man….That Friday song is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

    And I thought I was a bad songwriter.

    It HAS to be a joke. It has to be. And if it is,it’s the greatest joke of all time.

    If it’s not,well…that’s why I drink.

  • This version of Friday is MUCH more appropriate!


  • In my opinion, YouTube is just another nail in the coffin of respect for each other. There is a big difference between an independent band, or even an established artist posting their creation on YouTube officially, and a “fan” posting whole cuts or concert videos without permission of the artist, no matter how well intentioned. One is public relations, the other is piracy. The number of artists who make part of their living through internet sales has been growing exponentially. Posting a sample of a song, as is done on Amazon or iTunes, is appropriate, but posting the entire work takes money from the artist’s pocket.

    Many bigger artists refuse to allow posting of anything at all on YouTube for financial or artistic reasons. I have spoken with some artists who don’t like fans posting concert video without permission because there is a chance they might be putting something up from an off night, or put up a song that is a work in progress before the artist is ready to release a finished product. I recently had an encounter with a YouTuber keyboard potato who had posted a song which we were trying to sell on our website and digital retailers. The excuse given was that it was no different from playing the song on the radio. Yes, it is different, legit radio stations pay royalties for songs played, internet posters do not.

    • I see your view James but you have to remember there are many approaches and viewpoints to this. Like it or not, the YouTube phenomena is here to stay. It’s a fantastic way to find things, get a glimpse at a new artist, etx. I don’t care for all the overnight sensationalism stuff but that’s the kind of world we live in. Tomorrow it will be the Saturday girl. And then there’s always Tuesday.

      The piracy vs. promotion can be debated until you’re blue in the face. I really enjoy seeing clips sometimes. But nothing will ever take away from the live performance. Being there and soaking up all the senses. It will always outdo YouTube for me.

  • Autotune can make anybody a star. I wouldnt be suprised she gets signed to a pop country label.


    • you made me LOL ;)

    • Everyone knows Pluto is Mickey Mouse’s dog. Duh!

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