Last June, a little-known Brooklyn DJ named Baauer released an EDM track called “Harlem Shake” on a free website without much fanfare. By earlier this month, it had become the latest Psy-level mass phenomenon: Skydivers, underwater stormtroopers, newscasters, Power Rangers, rapper Fat Joe, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and more than 100,000 others have all posted clips of themselves performing a wacky, spastic dance to Baauer’s beat. When Billboard changed its chart criteria to include YouTube data this week, “Harlem Shake” went straight to a historic Number One on the Hot 100. As you might suspect, that much buzz is big business: Thanks to more than 400 million YouTube views overall, according to music-business estimates, the 23-year-old producer (born Harry Rodrigues) and his record label will earn $400,000. “It’s a little bit of a strange one,” says Jasper Goggins, manager of Baauer’s label, Los Angeles-based Mad Decent Records. “But everything involved in ‘Harlem Shake’ has been a little bit strange and new and confounding.”
The funny thing is that Baauer’s own video for “Harlem Shake” never came out – the only official version on YouTube is an audio-only track that’s been viewed more than 14 million times. Mad Decent actually commissioned a video last summer, shortly after its Jeffree’s imprint posted the track, but the final product wasn’t worth putting out. “I wouldn’t say it was a disaster, but it was something we’re not happy with, so we just shelved it,” Goggins says. “Because of the expense lost on that, we were hesitant to make another video.”
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Bad luck turned to good after YouTube comedian Filthy Frank’s dance version went viral on February 2nd, drawing 17 million views and hundreds of thousands of copycats – more than 70 “Shake” videos have at least 1 million views each. Because YouTube allows artists, labels and publishers to monetize songs through its Content ID service, Baauer and Mad Decent were able to generate income from both the original track and the cover versions – not to mention the 262,000 in subsequent digital-song sales during a single week in February.
Some in the music business warn that the cash stream won’t last. “Better not quit their day job,” says Jamie Kitman, manager of OK Go, who know something about viral music videos.
But Matt Johnson, half of rock duo Matt and Kim, says the “Harlem Shake” notoriety will draw deserved attention to Baauer. “I’ve loved that song for a while and the stuff Baauer’s been doing,” Johnson says. “There’s a certain energy that’s created in the 30 seconds that’s part of that song and everybody else’s videos. You don’t need to have dancing skill or learn a long routine.” Matt and Kim posted their own copycat video on February 11th, after performing the song live in Troy, New York; Johnson found a box he’d used to store socks and underwear and used it as a helmet mask per “Shake” tradition. So far, their video is up to nearly 9 million views of its own.