Boston musician Christopher Brown tells us what life is like after 2.5 million YouTube Hits.
So I created a meme.
It wasn’t my intent. People approached me afterwards asking how I “made it” go viral. I didn’t do anything of the sort. It was an accident; I was just the right person at the right time with the right content. I suppose that’s how all viral content works. But then I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
A few weeks ago, I created a video that went viral and has to date been viewed nearly 2.5 million times. It’s a simple concept: an unedited clip of Teletubbies in black and white set to the brooding pulse of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” I got the idea when Vanyaland, one of my favorite music zines, reposted a heavily contrasted black and white still from Teletubbies from Reddit. The still more closely resembled four demonic imps marching towards the gallows than the soft-spoken simpletons with which we are more familiar. Vanyaland’s Michael Marotta noted the similarities between the still and the Anton Corbijn-directed music video for “Atmosphere.” Amused by the similarity, I did a quick check and saw that no one had yet made a clip combining the two. So I did, sent a link to Vanyaland who promptly shared it, and a couple dozen views turned into a few hundred and things started getting a little nuts.
In the grand scheme of things, memes as they exist now are a relatively new phenomenon. They are a product of this new era of the internet in which the smartphone has replaced the newspaper during morning commutes and untold dollars of productivity are lost in the workplace due to Facebook and Buzzfeed. They’ve existed for some time to a lesser degree – remember that intolerably irritating dancing baby? But things have really ramped up in the past few years. We now live in a world where we can find endless amounts of fascination by videos featuring a Russian gent singing a wordless song while strutting around like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, or a fella who may or may not be on acid getting a bit too emotional about seeing a double rainbow.
To underline my point, I own a t-shirt with a photo of the former, and a cursory search of YouTube reveals the latter has influenced dozens of songs ranging from relatively unknown artists to pop singer Katy Perry. We truly do live in interesting times.
So with this in mind, what is it actually like on the other side of the shares and hashtags? To be blunt, it’s all right. In the grandest of schemes of things that can happen, I’d rate it a 6/10. Maybe 6.5 as that grand scheme tends to trend towards the negative. You hear from folks you haven’t heard from in a long time, and most of them are really polite and you’re glad you hear from them. You hear from people you talk to all the time and they offer suggestions about how to follow up the meme. And you hear a lot through comments and articles and Twitter from people you don’t know, usually in the positive. Really, you hear quite a bit from individuals. It’s sincerely kind of nice, and the shelf life of a meme is so short lived that the novelty dwindles pretty much in sync with interest in the creation. Oddly, you don’t hear much, if anything, from organizations. I was contacted by two publications out of dozens that shared the video.
To answer the single most common question I’ve been asked, there’s not a whole lot in the way of money that comes with a meme, particularly one that consists entirely of Intellectual Property that I do not own (this did not stop YouTube from putting their own ads before the video). However when I passed the video along to Michael at Vanyaland, he offered me some brilliant advice: put my name on the video, and put my band’s information everywhere possible as I had temporary free publicity.
As a result, my musical projects Vary Lumar and The Difference Engine both enjoyed a good amount of new ears and Likes and Follows. To me that’s more appealing than the tens of dollars this sort of thing would likely accumulate.
Another frequently asked question is how I feel as a musician who has spent countless hours honing my craft and playing shows to the other bands on the bill and their significant others and spending who knows how much money on equipment and studio time and rehearsal spaces about the fact that something that took me three minutes to create overshadows everything else I’ve ever done. Short answer is I’m not too affected by that. The longer answer is that I created something that a lot of people found funny. A lot of struggling comedians don’t get that chance and I, a random musician, drew the lucky straw. It’s pretty cool to think I could have brightened someone’s day with something so silly. And the aforementioned bump in activity for my bands was great. A lot of people I don’t know now have music I wrote/co-wrote/played on on their hard drives. They didn’t before all of this.
There are certainly negatives to this sort of thing. It’s minor, but you’ll definitely need to charge your phone a lot more often, or at least disable automatic email retrieval. And there’s going to be some backlash ranging from eloquent to extremely rude. In my case, I heard quite a bit of grumbling that the video was not my idea. Fair enough, it wasn’t. But I was pretty up front about that. I did it first is all.
Also popular was the “This guy is ruining this song” or “This is so disrespectful to Joy Division’s legacy” line of thinking. I’m a big Joy Division fan, and I have been for years. I’m fascinated by Ian Curtis and his tragic legacy, and the band is one of my biggest musical influences. Curtis’ suicide is a perfect example of the fact that there is some really unfathomably awful things happening in this world. We live in a world where murder, disease, and war are an everyday reality. If taking a song that I love and putting it against a video where the context shifts to humor for others then I’m frankly glad I did it. I think we can all use a few more laughs and to not take ourselves so seriously.
In hindsight, one of the best behaviors I adopted right away was repeating the mantra of “this will be over tomorrow” in my head. It allowed me to enjoy each day, and if the next day brought more pats on the back or Vary Lumar downloads, then I genuinely viewed it as a bonus. While fan-edited videos and now even toys inspired by the video are still popping up (note to the toymaker – please send me a set! I will be eternally grateful), the video has – for all intents and purposes – died its internet death. Fortunately I had been preparing for that from day one and I was never disappointed.
Now that everything is all said and done, things have remained largely unchanged for me. I still have a day job, and most of my coworkers aren’t even aware that I created the video. I still enjoy making music with Vary Lumar, and the band has a slightly wider audience than before. The video may hit 2.5 million this month, it may not. I don’t really care as the ride up to this point has been fun and funny in equal measure, and you can’t ask for much more than that from the internet.