On August 28, MTV will throw the 2011 installment of its Video Music Awards, honoring achievements in the art form that used to make up the majority of its programming. While it’s all too tempting to note the irony that the channel has been marginilizing videos in favor of longer-form programming for nearly two decades now, the fact is that the music video as a pop culture force is in good health these days, with or (more often) without MTV’s support.
The internet, broadly, has helped revive excitement around the music video, but credit can be specifically given to YouTube. The music video probably reached its nadir of interest and influence around 2005, just before the site exploded into popular consciousness and made streaming video more accessible both to watch and to upload. Not only do major-label stars finally have a place for their big-budget videos to be disseminated in a mass way resembling that of MTV’s heyday; new artists have an unprecedented universal portal for their own low-budget clips, a development that’s launched a constellation of stars from Justin Bieber to Kreayshawn and Pomplamoose.
Since 2007, the VMAs have routinely given Video of the Year nominations to up-and-coming artists, critical favorites, and internationally popular artists who’d only experienced moderate success in the U.S.—Justice, the Ting Tings, Florence and the Machine. This year, the curveball nominee was an American, the divisive upstart rapper Tyler, The Creator, whose offbeat clip for “Yonkers” gained a following online thanks to the Odd Future crew’s critical buzz and Kanye West’s Twitter co-sign, with little to no airplay on MTV or other video channels. And so Tyler is, in effect, the YouTube-boosted grassroots choice, up against big hits by Katy Perry, Adele and Bruno Mars, as well as a star-studded short film by music video pioneers the Beastie Boys.
But let’s look for a second at the idea that “Yonkers” is the YouTube candidate. It currently boasts about 18 million views, which is pretty impressive for a song with no radio presence. The videos for “Firework,” “Rolling In The Deep” and “Grenade” all have well over 100 million views. (Bringing up the rear is the Beasties’ “Make Some Noise,” which has only 3 million, plus another 3 million for the half-hour film it’s excerpted from.) Early in the year, when “Yonkers” first crossed the million views mark, Tyler tweeted, with his usual garish approach to capitalization and blunt word choice, “I Just Went Platinum On Youtube. Fuck.” If Tyler was platinum then, is he 18 times platinum now? And is “Firework” 224 times platinum?
Strictly speaking, of course, there is no YouTube Platinum. Platinum records are awarded by the Recording Industry Association of America, and its equivalent organizations in other countries, for sales certifications. In the U.S., a platinum album or single has sold (or shipped, rather) a million copies, but in other countries “platinum” refers to a much smaller figure that varies on the size of the population or the strength of the sales market; it ranges from 300,000 in the U.K. to a piddly little 4,000 in Uruguay (and, surprisingly, only 20,000 in China).
Most people using the phrase “YouTube Platinum” are bragging about reaching a million hits, generally Americans who are used to the word “platinum” signifying one million—even Urban Dictionary agrees. And frankly, that just sets the bar too low. Only a few dozen albums and singles go platinum every year, and each does so because a million people actually made a choice to purchase a piece of music with legal tender. Hundreds, if not thousands of videos rack up a million views annually; the view count represents each time a person clicked on a page, whether they only watched five seconds of it or the whole thing, and whether they watched it once or rewatched it every day.
The RIAA doesn’t and likely never will issue platinum certifications for YouTube views the way it does with digital single or ringtone sales. Billboard currently publishes charts for AOL Radio, Yahoo Video, Yahoo Audio, and MySpace Songs, and ranks the most popular artists on social networking sites with the Social 50 chart, but does not specifically track music consumed on YouTube. But assuming that YouTube stays top dog of the streaming-video world for the foreseeable future, it seems inevitable that its metrics will serve as a standard yardstick for popularity. So it might be good to think about what unit of measurement would be ideal.
There are, inevitably, divergences between the popularity of music on YouTube and on the Hot 100, but not as many as you might think. The current top 10 in music pretty closely mirrors the upper reaches of the Hot 100 with the exception of reggaeton star Don Omar. (YouTube stats are worldwide, and not limited to American users like the Billboard charts.) Likewise, the top 10 most viewed music videos of all time on YouTube are primarily songs that were huge hits in the U.S., with the exception of Sharkira’s World Cup anthem “Waka Waka.” The all-time top two that currently represent the ceiling of how popular a music video can get are Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” at 600 million views and counting, and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” trailing at 400 million. YouTube is relatively young, so recent videos have an advantage; Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is still probably the most famous music video of all time, but even after Jackson’s 2009 death drove his back catalog up the sales charts, the YouTube views for “Thriller” are at just 93 million, putting it on roughly equal footing with Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow.”
Comedy, intentional or otherwise, is the driving force behind a lot of YouTube’s most popular videos, some of which are musical. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” racked up 167 million views before being pulled from the site and sold enough copies on iTunes to pop up on the Hot 100, but it was hardly a genuine chart hit with gold or platinum digital sales. And sometimes a song can be a relative flop in pop chart terms, but still rack up pretty impressive YouTube numbers, especially if the artist is known for sexy dance moves and eye-popping visuals: Gaga’s “Judas” has 95 million views, and Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls)” has 75 million.
The twenty or so songs in 2011 so far that have sold more than two million digital single have a pretty wide range of ratios between digital sales and YouTube views. The biggest, Jennifer Lopez’s “On The Floor,” is at a staggering 348 million views, putting it right behind Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie” as the fifth-most-viewed of all time. But where Lopez has over a hundred YouTube views for every single sold on iTunes, the ratio is more like 10 to 1 for Ke$ha’s “Blow,” which has only 24 million views—apparently unicorns and James Van Der Beek aren’t so attention-grabbing after all. (I should note, by the way, that all the view totals I’m citing are generally for the official VEVO video of each song, since any hit song has countless unofficial videos on YouTube—lyrics videos, fan edits, remixes, andvlogger singalongs—that each generally have negligible view stats. The exception here is the viral video of Keenan Cahill lip-syncing to Jeremih’s “Down On Me” alongside 50 Cent, which has 37 million views compared to the official song’s 58 million.)
Since people seem to like having “platinum” represent a nice round number with a 1 and a lot of zeroes behind it, I’d like to propose that we define YouTube Platinum from here on out as 100 million views. That would make it a slightly more exclusive club than platinum singles or albums; only about 10 new videos have crossed that threshold in the past year, and maybe a couple dozen more overall. But given that YouTube will probably be around and acquiring more users for a while, it’s good to keep a high ceiling, so that the distinction doesn’t lose value with inflation; when someone (probably Justin Bieber) becomes the first pop star with 10 billion views on a video, we can designate it as YouTube Diamond. By my suggested metric, Tyler, The Creator would only be one-fifth of the way to YouTube platinum, but maybe he’ll get a little closer if he wins that VMA next week.