'Harlem Shake' was one big Google commercial

Corporations built the seemingly spontaneous meme and lined their own pockets as a result.

By Jason Notte Apr 1, 2013 10:56AM
Flashmob dancers participate in the Harlem Shake in front of the Berlin Cathedral in Germany on February 20, 2013 (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
 Wow, so that Harlem Shake meme was a real blast, wasn't it? All that organic nostalgia, all that spontaneity? Boy, didn't it just make you feel alive and motivated?

Good. That's what a commercial is supposed to do.

Belkin general manager Kevin Ashton counted the suckers born during every minute of that "Internet phenomenon" and showed off his results to Quartz. As the title of his findings points out, Americans didn't make the "Harlem Shake" go viral, "corporations did."

Ashton explains: "The myth of the 'Harlem Shake' is that its viral spread was spontaneous, not directed by financial interests -- a pop culture, popular uprising."

It all started with a college student named George Miller, who posted a video of himself and his friends dancing to "Harlem Shake" by a little-known DJ called Harry Rodrigues, or "Baauer." The dance they were doing isn't even the actual Harlem Shake popularized by Diddy, Mase and others in the late 1990s but just some random moves done for laughs.

The Harlem Shake portion of Miller's video got looped into another video posted by a friend, was lampooned by some kids in Australia and then some more in Florida. By Feb. 7, however, Time Warner (TWX) subsidiary Maker Studios, which specializes in squeezing money out of YouTube videos, made an imitation of one of the Florida kids' videos and promoted it on several YouTube channels and on Twitter.

Afterward, Baauer and his record label Mad Descent began promoting the video on Twitter and YouTube as well, making $6 for every 1,000 views. Companies including IAC/InterActiveCorp's (IACI) CollegeHumor and Vimeo started cranking out their own versions in an attempt to drive traffic to their sites. Finally, on Feb. 13, Al Roker did his own take on the "Harlem Shake" for Comcast (CMCSA)-owned NBC's "Today" show, prompting The Atlantic to declare the meme dead.

So who got paid in this deal? The most correct answer is Google (GOOG), which turned the disparate "Harlem Shake" videos into YouTube views and ad revenue. Another answer is Google's investors, which include Fidelity, T. Rowe Price (TROW), BlackRock (BLK) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM). A chunk goes to Warner Bros. for the song's distribution rights and to Time Warner for its partnership with Maker Studios.

Miller didn't get rich off of this, and neither did Baauer. Companies that were well off before became even more so just because Americans forwarded "Harlem Shake" around. It was "Call Me Maybe" without Carly Rae Jepsen to pay, it was "Gagnam Style" without a savvy musician like Psy owning all the distribution and royalty rights.

In short, "Harlem Shake" was corporate cash for something these companies didn't have to expend any effort to produce. Congratulations, humorous college kid, you just made Google a free commercial and maintained the status quo.

More on moneyNOW

Apr 1, 2013 1:54PM

Interesting that Mad Descent gets $6 per 1000 views on YouTube, while the average person who posts their own video, that they spent the time and effort to create, only gets paid about $1 per 1000 views on YouTube. 

Apr 1, 2013 11:06PM
There is nothing that prevents anyone from getting a piece of the action by becoming a Google investor too.
Apr 2, 2013 7:42PM
I posted when it first came out as the next big thing that it was nothing more than hype being created.
Apr 2, 2013 3:09PM
I thought the Harlem Shake was a black and white that you got at Friendly's!
Apr 1, 2013 10:33PM

Youtube is a corrupt corporate enterprise? WHAT A SURPRISE!

Apr 1, 2013 8:55PM

Such an idiotic analysis. There were over 400,000 views of the initial videos before any commercial

video were posted. There  were also over 50,000 Harlem shake videos uploaded. This was a phenomenon like no other. People were not just viewing they were participating.

Apr 1, 2013 1:07PM
So I guess google paid off the hundred million or so people who watched and enjoyed the video as well as the 50 thousand or so who created their own videos and uploaded to youtube. Paranoid much?
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