A brief history of viral internet music

(Credit: Far Out / Sam Fender / Press YouTube / Eyestetix Studio)


A few months ago, there were many musicians who publicly complained that labels were pressuring them to make their new tracks trend on TikTok. As Halsey tearfully explained, “Basically, I have a song that I love that I want to release asap, but the record company won’t let me. I’ve been in the industry for eight years and I’ve sold over 165 million albums and my record company says if they can’t fake a viral moment on TikTok, I can’t release it.”

TikTok is a shortcut to mass promotion, and youth culture’s need to be “trending” is a great way to ensure that a song permeates society at large. The thing is, it’s not very good for art. However, when you look at things purely from a business perspective, the trend is only looking at empirical evidence, and on the surface, a viral trend can be very profitable for labels.

The seeds for this were first planted in the very early days of the internet. The first viral track dates back to the pre-internet days of 1987. Rick Astley had a big hit with “Never Gonna Give You”, then he was gone. Like many things left over from the 1980s, it was isolated as a piece of old culture destined to become a tricky pub quiz answer in years to come.

Then in 2006, a message board service called 4Chan was born. One of the site’s moderators thought it would be funny to replace all uses of the word “egg” with “duck” on the site. Before it became a problematic breeding ground for unwanted political discourse, the site was known for its irreverent humor, largely occupied by young people freeing up anonymity in the unregulated online realm.

A thread on the site happened to be about “eggs”, so this particular talk page became the “duckling” thread. When people wondered what a duck bird could be, an anonymous user created a picture of a duck on wheels. The image later caught on and created a niche where memes still thrive: Do you get the joke? Finally, if you know the origin of the confusing image, you’ve made a joke and, let’s say, you’ve been to the club. For frequent 4Chan users, there was something satisfying about it—almost a sense of belonging.

It also had the elitist advantage of being used to poke fun at those out of the loop. In fact, it was a joke that created rickrolling. In March 2007 Grand Theft Auto IV it was so anticipated that the site crashed. So a 4Chan user came up with the idea by posting a link to the video to get desperate fans into the game. However, that connection actually led them to Rick Astley’s big fat hit yesterday. This created a comic society fashion.

Communities are a great thing to target. ‘I’ll Never Give Up on You’ is a prime example. The video has now been viewed by 1.2 billion people. The old hit is dead, now it is one of the most followed hits on the internet and has got millions of hits. It was just a catchy tune and the reason for a society that went crazy in jest. Since then, every other viral video has followed a similar trend.

When Rebecca Black emerged with “Friday” in 2011, initial radio play was minimal. Physical formats weren’t even available in stores. But online, the catchy song’s irreverence caught on. Soon it went from some dark corner of YouTube to the main page. That alone earned it millions of views and catapulted it from nothing — without any real promotion — to 58 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A year later, “Gangnam Style” became the next transition of the trend. This quirk was less of a joke and more of a cultural sensation thanks to its invisible horse dance and adorable tattoo. It soon became the first YouTube video to surpass one billion views. Now there are 4.5 billion views – there are only 7.8 billion people in the world!

So you had the comedy and dance that formed the essence of the early hits, but soon old classics like The Sound of Silence would also find their place. The general term was the transformation of culture into “memephia”. If a song fits that bill, there’s every chance it’ll be everywhere and monetized.

While this isn’t great for art, some musicians have used it to their advantage. Lil Nas X purposefully promoted the track “Old Town Road” this way. Turned it into countless tweets, set up a dance routine, and more. The TikTok community picked up on it and it suddenly became unavoidable online. This exposure meant that it became the longest charting chart in Billboard history. Now, a viral craze has set up a promotional revolution where almost the main selling points are the goal. For better or worse (and probably worse), we’ve come a long way from rickrolling.

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