Four Lessons from “Harlem Shake”

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Now that “Harlem Shake” fever has finally subsided, I think it’s instructive to ask what lessons are to be learned from the wildly popular song that created a cultural sensation. Was “Harlem Shake” just a fluke? Can its success be duplicated by someone else? As we’ve seen with just about every viral phenomenon, there is no sure-fire formula for success. But I believe “Harlem Shake” does show what can happen when an artist creates engaging content that taps into essential human wants and needs, such as our joy of dancing and social sharing.

1. There Are No Overnight Successes

The history of “Harlem Shake” is as intriguing as the phenomenon the song unleashed. For instance, did you know “Harlem Shake” had been a riding a tide of success for nearly a year before it exploded across the world?

Indeed, “Harlem Shake” began as a song recorded by American DJ Baauer and released for free by Mad Decent nearly one year ago.


Baauer never created a video for the song nor encouraged anyone to do so. The 23-year-old Baauer posted the song itself online in 2012 “just to show people.” Throughout 2012, though, without the benefit of video airplay, the song gained a popular following in the dance world. Scottish DJ Rustie featured the song for BBC Radio 1 a year ago. Diplo and Skrillex played the song in their concerts. Through months of hard work and PR representation, Baauer was creating a steady success. Of course, in February 2013, when fan-created 30-second videos of “Harlem Shake” exploded across YouTube, the song became the Internet meme we all know today, literally all over the world — which is how “Harlem Shake” immediately became more than a dance hit.

Consequently the song, already in circulation for months, became a popular iTunes download and rose on singles charts in critical markets such as the United Kingdom and on the all-important Billboard Hot 100. The popularity of the song also received a boost when Billboard began including weekly video streams in its hallowed charting process.  On February 26, Warner Bros. Records formed a deal with Mad Decent to distribute “Harlem Shake” worldwide, which added to its global appeal. By early March, “Harlem Shake” had sold 1 million digital units and inspired fan generated videos in offices, dorm rooms, and homes everywhere, as these examples demonstrate.

2. Everything Old Is New Again

I believe that “Harlem Shake” succeeded by tapping into a popular phenomenon that pre-dates the Internet: the dance craze. Popular dances, ranging from the Twist to the Charleston, have captivated the world for decades. The Twist, for instance, caught hold in the 1960s, triggered by a popular Chubby Checker song by the same name.

In fact, Chubby Checker continues to keep the Twist alive: in 2012, 4,000 people in Germany set a world record by dancing along with the golden oldie star while he sang the song. “Harlem Shake” taps into our apparently in-born passion for dancing en masse, too. Of course, “Harlem Shake” inspires people to create their variations rather than ape a rigid dance step.  But on the other hand, so did the Twist: it inspired spin-off dances such as the Mashed Potato and the Funky Chicken.

Not anyone can create a dance craze, though. The dance has to be fun, easy, and engaging, as “Harlem Shake” certainly is. And the fact that the song was easily sampled and edited into 30-second video snippets was critical to making it shareable, especially on mobile devices, the preferred content sharing platform for the all-important millennial generation.

3. Artists Need Influencers

“Harlem Shake” didn’t catch on all by itself. Important influencers helped the song gain a broader audience. As I mentioned, DJs and artists like Skrillex helped the song itself become popular in 2012. “Harlem Shake” exploded as a cultural sensation a few months ago, when a YouTube comedian named Filthy Frank posted a video on his own DisastaMusic channel. Filthy Frank’s video (posted February 2) contained the original template that fans have emulated everywhere from “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to the everyday workplace.

From there, more influencers joined in the fun, including But Filthy Frank was the catalyst for the Internet meme. On his YouTube channel, Filty Frank claims, “My life is pretty much going nowhere so I do this.” But for someone whose life is going nowhere, his content is going everywhere. His video content is seen by 186,177 subscribers totaling 65 million video views.

Filthy Frank played the role of the rock and roll DJ of the 20th Century who elevated songs to a broader audience. The DJ isn’t dead — the role has simply morphed. And the DJ is needed now more than ever to help a song rise above the digital noise, as are record labels and brands like Google — which this post by Kevin Ashton on Quartz articulates nicely.

4. Artists Can Make Money in the Digital World

Has “Harlem Shake” made any money for Baauer? Well, the news is largely — but not completely — good. As reported by Andrew Hampp of Billboard, Baauer and Mad Decent are earning revenue from the song and user-generated videos because of a YouTube Content ID service and a company named INDmusic, which monetizes video vides via pre-roll advertising. MSN Money says that Baauer and Mad Decent make $6 for every 1,000 views — which adds up to serious money when you consider that the song had enjoyed 175 million views by mid-February alone.


But as The New York Times reported, Baauer is learning a lesson about song rights in the wake of the success of “Harlem Shake.” Rappers Jayson Musson and artist Hector Delgado are seeking compensation from Mad Decent because apparently Baauer used snippets of their own content in “Harlem Shake” without their permission. According to The New York Times, a small label like Mad Decent lacks the legal resources to ensure that its content is free of copyright problems and relies on producers and artists to police themselves. At any rate, “Harlem Shake” has created some residual fame for a an artist like Hector Delgado — and Baauer may lose some of his royalties in the process.

What’s Next?

Brace yourself for a slew of “Harlem Shake” imitators, some of which will come from individuals and some from businesses attempting to create branded content.  Many will die quick deaths before you and I ever hear of them; others may be foisted upon us for a spell and then forgotten. The next “Harlem Shake” will succeed by creating engaging content that connects with everyday behaviors such as dancing and sharing. As Kerri Mason of Billboard writes, “‘Harlem Shake’ is more than a meme or a hit; it’s a moment of cultural convergence — of hip-hop meeting dance and pop, of consumer technology enabling creativity, of offline socializing leading to online social sharing. It’s the newly of-age and independent millennial showing the world how to dance to his beat, in the form of young Baauer.”

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