How digital storytelling on social media is re-inventing the music single

Three powerful trends that explain how artists and record labels are embracing digital

Screenshot from ‘Candy-Candy’ by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

There has been a lot of chatter about how Gangam Style, the hit single by South Korean artist Psy, broke the internet. The video surpassed the maximum number of views that can be recorded by the YouTube view counter. The counter has now been set to an impossibly high number and the odds of surpassing it are pretty small. Well, you never know. Here are three emerging trends that may come to define how singles are released online, and the level of global hysteria they generate.

The rise and rise of the digital single

The single, which is usually a song released separately from an album, has long been used to generate publicity, revenue and drive album sales. Singles were (and in many cases are still) released as vinyl and CDs in advance of the main album release. Since the launch of iTunes in 2003, the digital single has gradually come into its own and interestingly, has contributed to the gradual demise of the album as a unit.

If a single goes viral it can be a
lucrative source of income and publicity.

With the rise of MP3 listening devices, smartphones and digital subscription services such as Spotify, listening habits are increasingly defined by playlists. Depending on the platform, these playlists are user-generated, crowdsourced or automated. They feature a collection of individual tracks from multiple artists based on a theme or concept. The artist or record label earnings are based on the number of views or plays of these tracks. As a result, if a single goes viral, it can be a lucrative source of income and publicity. This has lead to a number of digital trends and formats to release singles online. Interactive storytelling is often at the heart of this process.

The single as a ‘spectacle’ and the resurgence of the music video on YouTube

YouTube is often described as the world’s biggest music streaming service. Many artists, from independents to mainstream, have embraced this platform. This has led to a resurgence of the music video, as a spectacle — from the outrageous to outstanding.

Screenshot from I Won’t Let you Down by OK Go

The latest video by American alt-rock band OK Go, I Won’t Let You Down, features several hundred umbrella wielding dancers and robotic vehicles. The video has received over 15 million views since October 27, 2014. With these numbers and visibility, the YouTube channel is an important source of revenue and lucrative partnerships. For example, the YouTube video for I Won’t Let You Down links through to a website that promises an interactive experience of the single. One of the tabs in this website introduces the robotic vehicle that features prominently in the video.

Product placement in a music video by OK Go.

Every single by Japanese artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is an outrageous visual spectacle. Candy, Candy, the second single released by the artist in 2012, has over 22 million views on YouTube. It begins with Kyari running down a typical suburban street in a plastic petalled skirt, carrying toast in her mouth. The millions of views online have helped her gain an international audience recognition and global album sales.

High-end production values aren’t necessary…
But a good
gimmick makes all the difference.

Cover version of Somebody That I Used to Know — Walk off the Earth

High-end production values aren’t necessary for a video to go viral. But a good gimmick makes all the difference. For example, the cover version of Somebody That I Used to Know by Canadian indie band Walk off the Earth has received over 162 million views. The video features the entire band plucking and strumming a single guitar. Interestingly, when this video went viral, it gave a tremendous boost to the original artist Gotye, both in terms of revenue and reputation.

The single as a multi-channel experience

The Cube, a new way to experience No Fun by The Presets

Australian band The Presets, released No Fun on July 8 this year. The single can also be experienced as an interactive Cube here. The Cube has been developed by Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney and is described as a platform for interactive storytelling. Users can experience No Fun through its individual elements through the Cube. This includes the synth-bass, trance melody, lyrics and visual elements. As a result, in addition to listening to the track on music streaming websites, the Cube version offers an additional interactive multi-channel experience for desktop and smartphone.

This isn’t the first time Google has experimented with interactive storytelling using a music single. In 2010 they teamed up with Arcade Fire to release the interactive film Wilderness Downtown based on the single We Used To Wait from the album The Suburbs. This film was recently included in Digital Revolution, an exhibition on digital culture at The Barbican in London. The full list of music videos released as Chrome Experiments is available here.

The parallel narrative that is ripe for sharing on social networks

Keep Breathing by Ingrid Michaelson was integral to the season 3 finale of Grey’s Anatomy

In the early 2000s, television shows such as the US dramedy Grey’s Anatomy began featuring music singles in lieu of generic soundtracks in key scenes. For example, their use of the entire track Keep Breathing in the season 3 finale had a dramatic impact on indie singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. This is because in the age of multi-device viewing, users tend to search in real-time for artists and tracks when they come across the music in a television show or computer game. This process has been re-engineered to create music videos where the music is incidental but the story is key. The goal is to create a parallel narrative for the artist via social sharing.

Screenshot from the short-film for the track Sleepless by Cazzette

For instance, Swedish duo Cazzette have released a short-film that features their single Sleepless. Click here for the director’s cut, which is just under 7 minutes. The story revolves around a couple on a first-date and has a unexpected twist. The single ebbs and flows throughout the atmospheric film as the story reaches its chilling climax.

Revenue sharing remains a contentious issue.

The music industry was the first to be disrupted by digital and social technology and it continues to be so. Everyone seems to be waiting for new and robust business models to emerge. Revenue sharing remains a contentious issue. But as these examples show, even in the midst of chaos and confusion, digital offers new opportunities for artists to engage with their audience. A multi-channel social media strategy can increase visibility online and this can have a positive impact on the artist’s reputation and ticket sales for live appearances. Similarly, a multi-device approach makes your music more discoverable and easier to be found. There are an increasing numbers of options for artists and record labels to make the transition to become digital first without compromising on their creativity.

About the author
Abhay is digital engagement consultant and is interested in the voice and context that defines our Digital Identities. He works with culture, media and government organisations to develop digital and mobile first strategies. In 2004, Abhay teamed up with Indian music Shubha Mudgal and dutch electronic artist Hygge to release the digital single ‘The 2 Project.’ The single received media attention and critical acclaim in India and The Netherlands. The 2 Project is available on Underscore Records.

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.