Back in the rickety old days of the original YouTube, nary a legal song could be found on the video-sharing website. (At least, that sounds about right – I don’t even remember the original YouTube.) However, over time, the music industry and its good friends at Vevo pulled together a legitimate way to bring music videos to YouTube audience. One niche that took a while to fill, however, was that of lyric videos. Song lyrics are often difficult to understand, with all the screaming, mumbling, and background music getting in the way, and fans looking to find out what exactly singers were saying had to find words in back alleys – unofficial websites, which are often atrociously wrong: for instance, “every night I find someone like you”, (as opposed to “never mind, I’ll find”) which gives Adele quite a short attention span, or “Save me from the breakdown, make it out of looseness” (as opposed to “don’t be afraid, we’ll make it out of this mess”), which is – well, I have no idea how someone came up with that.

A still from a fanmade lyric video for Justin Bieber's "Love Me". Apparently, those are words. And 5 million people watched them.

The problem with fan lyrics translations is also that you can’t actually listen to the song while reading what you could easily call “broken word” poetry. So fans decided to make their own spectacularly tacky, misspelled fan videos sketchily pasting the song over eye-exfoliating backgrounds (can you still see after watching that? Congratulations). With no other option, people watched them – excessively. But the music industry needed viewers to watch the authentic thing, so fan-made lyric videos needed to lose traction. The trouble, though, was that the traditional music video is costly, takes longer to make, and is only produced for a handful of songs per album. People wanted to hear music and read the words at the same time, without witnessing a train wreck of the English language while hearing distorted, pitch-adjusted music (complete with a surprisingly presumptuous “fair use” disclaimer in the description). The industry’s solution? The polished, perfected art form known as a lyric video. Here’s how lyric videos have worked:

  • They give viewers both the studio recorded version of the song, as well as the official lyrics that go with it.
  • They come out sooner than music videos, if the latter come out at all. This gives listeners an earlier chance to get exposed to the music. Fans are happy. (Check out the duo Karmin, whose entire album “Hello” is on YouTube in official lyric video form.)
  • A lot of them are, to be honest, rather well-made. Quality lyric videos have translated into lots of views. (See Swift’s “Eyes Open”, Maroon 5’s “Payphone”, and Katy Perry’s “Dressin’ Up”).
  • More people listening to the music means more people buying it.

Let me explain this last point. Taking the example of Maroon 5’s “Payphone”, we can first confirm that people would rather choose to watch the official lyric video (which features, incidentally, an entire illustrated sequence) than neon-blue lightsaber-lyrics on a black background (one of the first few entries on YouTube when you search for the lyric video). The view counts? 33+ million versus under 5 million. (My guess is the 5 million is for people who can’t access Vevo from their country or who still struggle with using the Internets).

So people are watching these lyric videos. Are they buying the music? Evidence seems to point to the fact. Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has had a lyric video since last month, but no music video yet – and it’s already made #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. For Katy Perry, lyric videos are a tried and tested formula – see “Dressin’ Up”, mentioned earlier (which has about 3 million views despite never having been released as a single), or “Part of Me”, the latter of which was a huge success (it debuted at #1). Even Madonna is doing it.

The embracement of lyric videos by the music industry is such a positive sign because it shows that industries are taking listeners’ demands seriously, and adapting in an effective way. Some of these lyric videos, art forms in and of themselves, clearly took a creative team to pull together, and have paid off in millions of views. It’s a win-win for fans and singers. The former are getting more music for free, and a nice new way to listen, while the singers are getting more and more acquainted with Mr. Franklin. Lyric videos are evidence that the old-guard music industries aren’t quite broken – at least, not yet.


Photo credit: Still from YouTube video “Justin Bieber- Love Me Lyrics” by user “scbjlovescows”, uploaded November 8, 2009.

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