The Best Kept Secrets Behind Viral Distribution

The path from obscurity has always been a treacherous one for artists, and the internet has only multiplied the competition.

But successful bands are frequently adept at finding and energizing their core audiences online, and that means manipulating a growing number of digital outlets and formats.

If a group or song is hot, fans will spread the action organically, and the snowball sometimes builds overnight.  But bands are frequently savvy at seeding the excitement, and that almost always involves video content.  “Video is key,” said David Dorn, a senior vice president at Rhino Records, speaking to a group of students, executives, and reporters at UCLA on Wednesday.  “Right now, online, video is what everybody is interested in.  And if you are working with a new band, you have to make sure there are enough video assets.”

During the session, Dorn also pointed to the importance of other types of content, including images and MP3s.  Fans are simply ravenous for fresh content, including video – and that is a demand that must be satisfied.  For artists and labels, that means filming the band on the road, offering live clips and interviews, and uploading studio outtakes. “Document it, because that’s what the fans want,” Dorn assured.

Most motivated artists are already saturated within a number of online and video-specific outlets.  But what is the secret to winning the seemingly hopeless attention game on YouTube?  “Anyone can get 5-10,000 views,” explained Larry Weintraub, chief executive of Fanscape.  “But if you want to get into the hundred-thousands or millions, you’ve got to court some controversy.”

That often includes a combination of “sex, killing, drugs, and violence,” something few would argue with.  Of course, the content involved must be aligned with the image of the group, though edginess and controversy are great viral lubricants.  That will cause more fans to embed the videos into their profile pages, share links online, and boost rankings on YouTube.

At some point, the momentum starts to multiply in a highly decentralized way.  The executives tossed around a number of tips-and-tricks for sparking that result – including intelligent mega-tagging – though the best viral path starts with core, dedicated fans.

Weintraub pointed to a major shift towards smaller, dedicated groups of followers, a targeted core that will provide the “bread and butter” for sustained success.  The executive referenced a concept by Kevin Kelly (kk.org) known as “1,000 True Fans,” a philosophy that states that bands can succeed by cultivating a smaller core of followers.  “Sometimes we have to just get the initial one thousand fans,” Weintraub explained.  “It’s one fan to one thousand fans, and if you do it right, that could turn into a million fans.  But many of them will be peripheral.”

And one other thing – the content must be great, an obvious lesson sometimes overlooked in discussions like these.  “The quality of the music has to be there,” said Jeff Semones, president of M80. “You can expose a ton of people to a piece of crap, but it’s still a piece of crap.”

The discussion happened within a class conducted by longtime industry executives Lenny Beer (Hits), Jeff Jampol (The Doors), and Jeff Sturges (Universal Music Publishing Group).  The class, “The Music Business Now,” held its final class on Wednesday before adjourning for the semester.  More information at myspace.com/233962706.

Report by publisher Paul Resnikoff in Los Angeles.