Indiepocalypse: Harlem Shake Edition

After four weeks topping the Billboard Hot 100, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” was replaced this week by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” the song that inspired the Internet meme.

As I wrote last month, Macklemore is only the second unsigned artist in Billboard history to reach the #1 slot, the first in two decades.

And now, with a new #1, another record’s broken: Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” is the first song from a largely unknown artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Since 1958, only 21 songs have ever debuted at #1. Of those 21 songs, only four were from artists appearing on the Hot 100 for the first time, all from artists with extensive mainstream media exposure — three American Idol contestants (Clay Aiken, Fantasia and Carrie Underwood) and a popular artist going solo (Lauryn Hill). Source: Billboard.

I’d wager this is another first: “Harlem Shake” is the only song to ever debut at #1 on the Hot 100 without significant radio or TV airplay. This is solely an Internet phenomenon, gone deeply mainstream.

This is in no small part because of major changes incorporating YouTube views into the Billboard Hot 100 formula, introduced this week in response to the viral success of “Gangnam Style.”

This week, a report surfaced that Nielsen will start tracking YouTube and other digital plays too.

Billboard and Nielsen are just acknowledging a long-overdue reality. Radio and cable aren’t the future, and if you’re focused on tracking them, you’re looking at an ever-shrinking window of behavior.

But seriously, who cares what Billboard and Nielsen think anyway? Aren’t the charts irrelevant? For most purposes, probably.

But like winning an award, chart success is a symbol of reputation. Recognition from a reputable source tracking sales or viewership opens doors for artists, especially important if you’re independent.

It’s one thing for Amanda Palmer to raise a million dollars from Kickstarter, but having her album debut in the Billboard top ten shows that there’s demand beyond her most hardcore early supporters. This gives her team the power to negotiate everything from distributors to concert venue contracts.

And when other artists see that indie artists can find legitimate mainstream success on their own, others will follow. This is already happening on a small scale, but it’s only going to get accelerate.

A couple weeks ago, I went to see Ben Folds Five’s reunion tour here in Portland:

I joked about it on Twitter, but I’m not sure many knew I was serious. The reformed Ben Folds Five is unsigned.

After releasing their first three albums on Sony, Ben Folds Five decided to fund their album on Pledge Music and release it independently.

They easily could’ve released it through a label — Ben Folds is still signed to Sony/Epic for his solo work and Darren Jesse through Bar/None. Why do it all on their own?

Because they could.


    I don’t mean it’s anonymous or unattributed, I said it was Baauer throughout the post. My point is that he’s largely unknown, by far the least-known of the artists to debut on the Hot 100 at #1.

    Thanks for clarifying, makes a lot more sense. I’m sure I’ve seen artists that are unknown have a big debut, but debuting at #1 is quite a feat.

    I wonder what the debut would have been if Billboard had changed their rules a few weeks ago?

    I’m gonna assume the Billboard Hot 100 either equals best selling songs or “hot” songs.

    Adding YT views to the mix would be weighted, wouldn’t it?

    If those views are translated into sales of the song then 1 million plus views shouldn’t mean that much…unless, the metric of HOT means “hot”–awareness. Putting aside the fact that simply viewing or listening to something on YT (or other sites) equals Everyone Loves Item, it isn’t about selling. It would be more akin to radio plays or requests on the radio.

    Legend has it Jimi Hendrix went out on a Friday and bought “Sgt. Peppers” and by Sunday night he took the stage to perform the entire album in front of some Beatles, some Stones, Clapton and others. He listened to the album at least 30 times over the weekend. Then he just did his thing as only Jimi could do his thing.

    In YT numbers, Jimi Hendrix equals at least 30 (which is ironic if you consider he didn’t live to see 30, but that’s tasteless humor).

    So, does even 1 million equal 1 million on YT?

    How do you feel about the YouTube hits counting on Billboard? How are they weighting the views? Think about something like Thriller selling 50 million albums over 30 years and Psy or Bieber getting 50 million hits in less than a year.

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