YouTube Views: We all need them. Musicians need to have their songs heard to grow their fanbase and reach more people. As part of my YouTube experiment, I want to see what the most popular videos are, and why they’re so popular. I’m going to analyze each one of the top ten videos and discuss how they were made. We’ll also discuss the lessons we can learn from each of them and see how to apply their success to you.
Let’s talk about a few things first: These are the top ten videos currently, as of writing this post. I won’t be updating this so please don’t come at me with how I’m wrong in the future. I’d rather make a new post about current videos than edit an old one. Even if these don’t remain the top videos, there are still plenty of lessons to learn from them!
The Most Popular YouTube Videos of All Time: An Analysis
It should be encouraging to musicians that 9 of the 10 most viewed videos are music videos. There are plenty of potential listeners and fans hanging out on YouTube. Hopefully this post will give you tips to find them.
If you want to see my video recap of each of these (including a reaction to the non-music video on this list), here it is:
This post will go in-depth into each video and try to analyze why each was so popular. Of course, no one can really determine what makes a video go viral, but I think studying the ones that did will give us some valuable insight. Read on if you’re curious!
10). “Roar” by Katy Perry
2.54 Billion Views
This took two days to film at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. It looks absolutely beautiful. There was a lot of build-up hype to the video. A 21-second teaser was released August 25, 2013, and a behind-the-scenes video released on September 4th. the actual video was released September 5th. An extended behind-the-scenes video was released November 14th.
The song itself had some criticisms that it sounded too much like “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, and the video had a TON of criticism. The first was that it was terribly cheesy and “too safe.” The second and bigger complaint was the use of animals in the video. Perry’s argument to this was that the American Humane Associaton was present during the shoot and stated, “After reviewing the reports, we believe that the Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media were followed and that no animal was harmed.”
Here’s my thing (allow me to climb on my soapbox for a moment): I DON’T CARE THAT ANIMALS WEREN’T HURT IN THIS SPECIFIC VIDEO. THE POINT IS THAT YOU SHOULD NOT HIRE ANIMALS AS ENTERTAINERS. You don’t know what condition they are kept in when they’re NOT on set, or the rigorous and often tortuous trainings they go through. You are hiring these animals and padding the pockets of their trainers, who likely acquired them through the animal trade and you’re allowing this practice to continue through using them. I do not care that they weren’t hurt on the set, that’s entirely beyond the point. I’m not a fan of this video for this reason alone.
The Lesson: DO NOT USE ANIMALS in your videos unless they are your own, that’s #1. Also, do a lot of buildup for your videos. Release teasers and behind-the-scenes videos. Pick a beautiful location and half of your visuals are done already.
9). “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
2.57 Billion Views
This took 3 days to film and was released on August 18th, 2014 on the same day the song was released. It was groundbreaking in that it made Taylor Swift the first female to get over 2 Billion views. She is also the highest viewed female, and the last one to be on this list, which is sad. Of the top 10, the only two females are in the bottom two.
This video also had a lot of criticism for the cultural appropriation factor. Swift is seen twerking and attempting to dance in other non-white forms of dance, and the video also had the unfortunate release date of right around the Ferguson riots. Swift and her director, Mark Romanek, argue that the entire video was supposed to be a parody and was intended to be a light-hearted look at music video cliches. Romanek also stated that they “cast the best dancers that were presented to us without much regard to race or ethnicity,” which…ouch. You should probably have some regard for race and ethnicity, especially in America. I understand he was trying to argue that they weren’t thinking about racial boundaries, but I think that’s the exact argument here. Still, the controversy either didn’t hinder or even contributed to the video’s success, so take it however you want.
Another part of this video’s success was that it was a totally new direction for Taylor Swift. She was transitioning from a bubblegum country image and moving into edgier pop, working with Max Martin and revamping her image. A lot of people were curious about this new direction, which I think contributed to the video’s success.
The Lesson: Controversy isn’t always a bad thing, but if you’re an American artist you should definitely at least be aware of the cultural importance of your piece. If you’re releasing a video that’s a different genre or feel from what you normally do, use that as hype for the video.
8). “Sugar” by Maroon 5
2.64 Billion Views
This video features Maroon 5 crashing several weddings, and apparently, most of it was real. Only the grooms were told that they would be crashing, but they were not told what band it would be. Adam Levine was not too sure about the idea, wondering what would happen if the guests weren’t Maroon 5 fans. The solution: After performing “Sugar,” they would perform an acoustic version of “She Will Be Loved” just for the bride and groom. Which…doesn’t seem like a real ‘solution’ to me. If they aren’t fans, I don’t know why this would make up for crashing the wedding.
It turns out, most of the grooms wanted to cancel the wedding crash a few days before the shoot. They were then told that it was Maroon 5, and “most of them were fans,” which, lol ok. Not surprisingly, the video was released to mixed reviews. There were accusations that several of the weddings were staged, with some of the actors coming forward to confirm. The final consensus is that “at least two” of the weddings are real. And I mean…really, who cares? If it’s staged, so what? Are we really affected by that fact? They weren’t racist and they didn’t hurt any animals so if staging a wedding is their biggest flaw, that’s fine.
The Lesson: Involve a lot of people. If you have fans, see how you can get them involved in the video. You could totally stage a wedding if you have the budget! Might be kind of cool.
7). “Sorry” by Justin Bieber
2.95 Billion Views
This one is interesting because Beiber doesn’t even appear in the video. The entire thing features the ReQuest Dance Crew and The Royal Family dance crew from New Zealand. The director, Parris Goebel, stated that they all did their own makeup and most of the clothes were hers. She also dances in the video.
There wasn’t a lot of information on this one, and the video didn’t really have any controversy or criticism. I think the bigger reason for the song’s initial success was how it fit into Bieber’s career. He had just come off of a string of bad behavior incidents and did not have the best reputation. This album was a totally new feel for him, turning his saccharine pop music into something that felt more real and raw.
All of the album’s songs had dance videos released in a series called “Purpose: The Movement.” It was part of a promotional package for the entire album as a whole, but for several reasons (including the success of “Sorry” as a single and the way it fit into Bieber’s timeline), this video remains a clear winner.
The Lesson: Think about your video in terms of your own timeline. What is happening in your life right now, and how can you make that connection with your audience? Also, it never hurts to have a fun 90’s style dance party.
6). “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
3.1 Billion Views
So far, I didn’t get sick of any of the songs or videos when they first came out. The same cannot be said for this one. It was played SO MANY TIMES on Detroit radio that I wanted to drive my car into a tree to just make it stop. It’s a good song, I can see why it was so popular, but holy god I had enough after a while.
The video itself isn’t really anything remarkable; it’s just Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson and the Hooligans (Mars’ backing band) walking around the street. I think it was more the song’s overall popularity that made the video so popular in turn.
The Lesson: Obviously a good PR and marketing team for your song can go a long way. If you can’t do that, you can focus on making videos for your most popular songs, since people will want to see the video after they already like the song.
5). “Masha and the Bear: Recipe for Disaster”
3.18 Billion Views
I am honestly so confused as to why this video is in the Top 10. It’s the only one that isn’t a music video; it’s a children’s cartoon in Russian. While it’s no secret that kid’s YouTube channels are among the most popular, I just don’t see what makes this particular video so huge. There are many other Masha and the Bear videos and so many other kid videos. There are rumors that this video’s success is due to ‘bot views,’ but I guess the same could be said for any of these videos and we wouldn’t really know. But whatever I guess, congrats to the Russian cartoonists and their YouTube millions.
The Lesson: Anything kid-related is huge on YouTube. If you like pandering to that crowd, it’s a good way to earn views and money. I don’t know whether or not bot views are worth it, but I plan on researching this and letting you know in an upcoming post.
4). “Gangnam Style” by Psy
3.17 Billion Views
This video went viral in August 2012 and by September was a Guinness World Record winner for the most “likes” on YouTube. In America, people either loved or hated it. I think a lot of people are just determined to hate popular things, so that accounted for a lot of the hate. In Korea, the video and song was criticized for being “vulgar.” I don’t speak Korean so I have no idea what the words are, but here’s a sample:
A girl who is warm and humble during the day
A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee
A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes
A girl with that kind of twist
I’m a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
A guy whose heart bursts when night comes
That kind of guy
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Yes you, hey, yes you, hey
Now let’s go until the end
Oppa is Gangnam style
….Wow, SUPER VULGAR. My eyes can’t take such vulgarity. I mean I guess I don’t know what counts as vulgar in Korea so maybe it’s different, but this is like, G-Rated to me.
The Lesson: Be vulgar? I don’t know. This video went viral and was a worldwide sensation, but was not Psy’s first song (this was his 18th single, to be exact). So I would just say keep plugging away at it, because your 18th single might be your break.
3). “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran
3.59 Billion Views
This is another song that I liked when I first heard it, but after 17 trillion plays on the radio, I would have gladly paid Ed Sheeran whatever amount I needed to make it stop. I absolutely hate the lyric “I’m in love with the shape of you, you push and pull like a magnet do.” Like…what? What does that even mean, Ed Sheeran? You really couldn’t think of any other lyric that rhymes with “you??” Come on dude. That being said, it’s understandable why the song was so popular. It’s catchy.
A lyric video was first released with the single, which has over 777 million views. A few weeks later, the official music video was released. It took several months but became one of the fastest music videos to reach a billion views (Adele currently holds the record as the fastest video to reach a billion).
The Lesson: Write a good song and people will forgive your nonsensical lyrics. Also, you can use a lyric video as a promo for an upcoming video. It will give you more views and more press.
2). “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth
3.63 Billion Views
There was a lot going on for this video. First, there was the tragic and untimely death of Paul Walker, who died in a vehicle accident. He was an actor in the Fast & Furious franchise, and this song was released for the 7th movie. The lyrics perfectly fit the tragedy and the video shows scenes of the new film throughout.
The song itself was huge. It was nominated for 21 awards and won 8. It was the best selling song of 2015.
One interesting and confusing part of this song is that it was actually Charlie Puth who wrote most of it, and yet it’s listed as “Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth.” Puth and a co-writer sent it to Atlantic Records and after Universal Pictures wanted to use it, they then brought in Khalifa. I guess maybe they went with the bigger name as the lead artist? It’s just weird that you would be a featured artist on your own track.
I guess initially they didn’t even want him to sing it, but here he tells “The Talk” that he wouldn’t give them the song if he couldn’t sing it (I couldn’t find this interview anywhere so I’m not even sure if this was true, but it would make sense).
The Lesson: There’s a lot to unpack here, but if you can write an emotional and uplifting song about a tragedy, people generally respond positively to it. Having a song in a major movie is another great help (get a publisher!) and working with bigger artists is also a good idea, even if that means you have to pretend like they’re featuring you on your own track.
1). “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee
5.27 Billion Views
I know this makes me a basic white girl, but I didn’t know about this song until the Justin Bieber version came out. That version is actually a remix. The original was released in January 2017 and the Bieber version was released in April of the same year. The Bieber version is said to have pushed the song higher on the charts in English-speaking countries, but that’s weird because Bieber sings mostly Spanish in the song.
Even without Bieber, the song did pretty well in America. It debuted at number 2 on the Hot Latin Songs chart and was a number one hit on the US Latin Digital Songs chart. It peaked at number 44 before the remix came out. That version hit number one a few weeks later.
The music video was filmed in Puerto Rico, which is where both Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are from. It also features Zuleyka Rivera, also from Puerto Rico, who won Miss Universe in 2006. She agreed to be in the video because she said it was the “best song she’d ever heard.”
The Lesson: Again, a lot to unpack. You’ve got a collaboration with two popular Latin artists, then adding a major pop star, then a video with a former Miss Universe. If you can do any of that, go for it, but you can make smaller changes to help boost your views. Collabs are always a good idea because you’re bringing their fans over to your video as well. You may not know Justin Bieber, but do you know a local band with a loyal following? Maybe you don’t know any supermodels, but do you know any local dance studios or small modeling agencies? You can scale any of this down to fit where you are right now.
Hopefully this list will give you some ideas for your own videos! I’m curious to know which of these are your favorite and least favorite. Let me know in the comments!