What Most Artists Don't Understand About Creating Viral Music Videos

Posted by Eric Bernsen on Oct 13, 2015 08:00 AM
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Everyone wants to go viral these days, and who can blame them? Some independent artists have become internationally known in a matter of mere days or weeks as the result of one successful single or music video. The latter of these two options is the more likely scenario in an era in which visuals dominate the digital landscape. However, the concept of what makes a video go "viral" tends to be misunderstood.

The saying "it takes years to blow up overnight" applies to most artists who achieve viral success, because word-of-mouth marketing is a technique that's perfected over time. There's no magic secret to having your video reach six-digit numbers. This accomplishment stems from an extreme case of fans rapidly sharing a music video that's unlike anything they've ever seen before. As much as you desire to be in control of your art as a creator, it's the pulse of the general public that decides what content "goes viral."

George Howard, an esteemed music business expert, does a nice job of explaining what causes virality to occur in his blog post, "The Marketing Money Can't Buy":

"It’s not possible to manufacture something that goes viral. Viral-ness, by its very nature, is no longer being promoted by the creator of the product/song/etc., and, therefore, the creator is not in control. If we could manufacture viral products at will, we’d do it every time. Additionally, if we could do it, it wouldn’t come as such a surprise (I’m looking at you Double Rainbow) when something explodes virally.


Part of the nature of something spreading in a viral manner is that it’s unexpected. This unexpected quality aligns closely with a key element of something going viral: it must be remarkable. Pulling that word apart you get its root: remark. We must always remember, that as is stated in The Cluetrain, "Markets are conversations," and conversations require topics of interest; topics that are remark-able."

Keep this idea close to heart when crafting a storyboard for a video with your directing team. "Going viral" should not be at the forefront of your decision-making process when organizing a visual strategy, but rather expanding your artistic ambition in order to create something that's stunning. A steady grind will ultimately lead to the coveted views and shares artists desire. With this in mind, here are five strategies you can implement as an indie artist that, while they obviously can't guarantee or predict a viral success, will certainly help increase your chances of achieving internet notoriety on YouTube and beyond.

1. Put your personality on display

This comes before anything else because it's a general rule of thumb as an artist. If you want your music to directly connect with listeners, it should be crafted in a way that allows people to get to know you as a person. This applies to all types of musicians, and the trait is one that should be put on full display from a visual perspective. Whether you're putting all your emotions out on the table (e.g., Drake) or showcasing the brutal realities of your upbringing in a dangerous neighborhood (e.g., Kendrick Lamar), every shot you take should be an accurate depiction of what you represent as an artist.

All artists have their own unique story, and while personality may not make its face fully known in audio form, music videos are the perfect opportunity to show the world who you are as a person, which in turn makes your product more memorable and more likely to reach a wider audience.

2. Establish a strong connection between the lyrics and visuals

As an independent artist, you can't afford to put so much hard work and effort into a music video and not have it make sense. When picking out a song to create a visual for, take the proper time to envision in your head how you can bring your lyrics to life. This doesn't mean that you should over-analyze every word and make sure it somehow makes its way into a shot, but be selective in your considerations, as you determine which aspects of the song will resonate powerfully with the viewer. This attention to detail is key, because smart fans will pick up on the cleverness you implement, which will further enhance their appreciation for you as an artist.

If you're a rapper, don't waste your time making a video of you rapping in front of a nice car with a group of scandalously clothed women beside you. If you're a rock band, do more than shoot a video of the group having a jam session in a garage or basement. Originality draws attention to your work, and originality is found in the verses, bridges, and hooks that compromise of your music. If you don't even know where to begin when plotting a new music video, a good place to start is your own words.

3. Avoid lyric videos

While our previous point was focused on the power of your lyrics, it's not recommend to release a lyric video if you have aspirations of going viral. With every lyric flashing about throughout the entire course of a visual, it's easy for a viewer to get lost trying to read the lyrics rather than focusing on what may be going on scene by scene. It's easier to succeed with a lyric video when you have a bigger budget, but for an indie artist who doesn't have a major-label-sized wallet, work to create something that's void of distractions and focused on the appropriate scenery and the story that's unfolding with every line.

4. A limited budget doesn't have to mean limited creativity

As an indie artist, you may come up with a great visual idea, but think to yourself that you don't have the means to make it a reality. That mentality won't get you very far with your music career (or anything in life, for that matter). With the right team around you and a directing crew that's willing to put in the hours to make sure your vision is executed, the resources you seek will start to populate naturally. Whenever a video concept comes to mind, place it alongside your means and see how you can work as a team to be innovative in order to accomplish every step of the visual plotline.

The best videos that go viral tend to come from the zaniest parts of our imaginations, so don't hesitate to be different and let your artistic creativity flow naturally. Not every indie artist may be able to take a concept such as making an extravagant rap video (yet spend no money on it) the way comedic rapper Lil Dicky recently did, but we all have the ability to take a wild idea and bring it to life. Talented artists, talented teams, and talented directors take what they have, make it work for them, and grow their capabilities as time goes on and goals are achieved.

5. Tap into current trends

Some may label this reason as the "easy way out," but it can be quite difficult to successfully pull off: many indie artists have attempted to create viral music videos fueled by celebrity namedrops and current trends, and many have failed. It takes all of the above strategies for this last concept to work, but the fact remains that videos tend to spread rapidly when they're associated with a hip trend in society or a well-known name. Whether you create a song with a naturally infectious chorus that connects with the youth of your city or aptly title a track after a famous actor (such as "Michael Cera"), there are a number of ways to add extra flavor to a visual that allows it to be both fan and blog friendly.

Don't imitate based off the success of others, but always be observing the work of others who are on a similar level of acclaim and what they've done to take their careers to the next level. Regardless of what your age is, staying current with the young generation of fans who live and breathe music will allow word-of-mouth marketing to work its magic, and "virality" can begin to take natural form once your perfect your craft from a visual point of view.


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Eric Bernsen is a marketing/public relations professional and music journalist who specializes in the genre of hip-hop. You can find more of his work at HITPmusic.com (where he is an editor/writer) as well as HipHop-N-More.com, where he contributes album reviews. Follow Eric on Twitter @ebernsen.

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Topics: youtube, Music Business 101, Marketing & Promotion


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