On July 21st, “Weird Al” Yankovic finished up his #8videos8days project through the Wall Street Journal, where he released a music video for “Mission Statement”, a song about business jargon. That video wrapped up an impressive week for Weird Al. His decision to scatter new material all over the web made him a hot topic on the Internet, and his forward-thinking approach has drawn plenty of commentary.
At the same time, there seem to be a few aspects of the Weird Al discussion that aren’t drawing enough chatter. In particular, much of the talk around Weird Al’s #8videos8days project reduces him to a parody trailblazer who is attempting to reclaim his appeal on an Internet replete with imitators. This is a big part of the discussion, but Weird Al’s unique distribution strategy offers some tips for any artist–big or small, serious or not–who wishes to effectively distribute his or her music in the age of YouTube.
First, a bit of necessary history for those who haven’t yet read about the thought process behind #8videos8days: In 2006, Weird Al released Straight Outta Lynwood, his 12th studio album. Straight Outta Lynwood was Weird Al’s first release to debut after YouTube’s 2005 launch and its rapid rise to popularity, and the album’s lead single, “White And Nerdy“, went viral (and featured a Key and Peele cameo years before they became online video trailblazers in their own right). Today, a hit song on the level of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin” (which serves as the inspiration for “White and Nerdy”) would generate hundreds of parodies, but in YouTube’s early years, Weird Al’s approach remained novel. That novelty didn’t fuel “White And Nerdy” on its own, but it certainly contributed to the video’s 86 million views.
Fast forward four years to 2010 and Weird Al’s next album, Alpocalypse. The lead single that time around was “Perform This Way“, a take on Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way“. Weird Al’s drag-fueled video still proved popular, but by the time it arrived, viewers had already been privy to highly-trafficked “Born This Way” parodies from Bart Baker, Barely Political, Steve Kardynal, and several other popular YouTube channels. This oversaturated landscape hurt “Perform This Way”. It has only drawn 16 million views to date, less than one-fifth the view count of “White and Nerdy”.
When it came time for Weird Al to release Mandatory Fun, his 14th (and perhaps final) studio album, he was well aware the double-edged effect YouTube had on his popularity. The challenge for me is in finding new ways to be funny,” he said in a Reddit IAMA, “as well as finding ways to differentiate myself from the millions of other people now doing parody videos on YouTube.” That approach led him to #8videos8days, which has proved an effective approach. Just a week after its release, Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” already has close to ten million views. It will certainly eclipse “Perform This Way” soon.
In searching for a way to remain relevant as a parody artist in 2014, Weird Al may have stumbled onto something much bigger. He has evolved Beyonce’s visual album into something more adaptable, and those who pay attention can reap for the benefits. Let’s break Weird Al’s strategy into three elements:
A month before he released Mandatory Fun, Weird Al made a guest appearance on Epic Rap Battles of History, a move that reintroduced him to the channel’s 10.5 million subscribers. Then, when it came time to release his eight videos, he spread them across eight different channels, including Nerdist, CollegeHumor, and Funny or Die. This online video tour served a financial purpose (which will be explained below), but it also acted as a promotional tour of sorts. The best comparison for Weird Al’s ubiquitous Internet presence is the rash of relevant videos that pop up every time a blockbuster movie approaches its release date.
This “promotional YouTube tour” has become a fairly common practice in the film and video game industry, but Weird Al’s decision to apply the concept to an album release is an original one. While his tour was mostly limited to comedy channels, musicians who wish to use YouTube as promotional tool have plenty of options. There are thousands of cover artists, parodists, and commentators who would welcome a chance to collaborate with a musical artist in support of a new album.
Popular artists have no problem paying out of pocket to receive buzz on the Internet, but smaller acts may struggle to scrounge up the same funds. For that class of artist, Weird Al’s financial strategy is worth considering. In an interview with Stuart Varney of Fox Business, he explained that he spread his eight videos across eight different channels because it allowed him to shoot them all for free. “They’re looking for content and I’m looking for a video,” he explained, “so we partner and it’s kind of a win-win situation.”
In a world where most major music videos debut on VEVO channels, Weird Al’s decision to cut costs by working with eight different distributors seems very efficient by comparison. He is essentially trading potential ad revenue for production costs, which makes sense on both ends. For a musician with an album release on the horizon, gained awareness will, at least in theory, make up for lost ad revenue; meanwhile, channels that are tailored to reap the benefit of online video views gain a new piece of content to share with their suscribers.
Reframing the Album
Weird Al has been clear about his intention to move away from the album release model post-Mandatory Fun. “I really don’t think the album format is the most efficient or intelligent way for me to distribute my music anymore,” he said on Reddit.
He’s right and he’s wrong. On one hand, yes, the Internet is now the center of the music industry. The number of people who will listen to Mandatory Fun on YouTube, Spotify, and other platform will easily eclipse the group that will actually buy the album or pay to see Weird Al in concert. It’s unclear how exactly the buzz created by #8videos8days will translate to sales, but it seems right to use the Internet as a starting point and move out from there.
At the same time, if #8videos8days proved anything, it’s that the album is still very valuable, not necessarily as a physical vessel, but as an event. The release of Mandatory Fun gave Weird Al the ability to recapture a massive an audience at a scale he would not have achieved with just one music video. He created his own “tentpole” event, just like Christmas or The Oscars or the release of the next big film. In doing so, he tapped into the YouTube community’s dominating paradigm and reasserted himself as the parody king–all on a small budget.
For that reason, I hope Weird Al has more albums left in him. A few years from now, I would love to see another week just like this one.