Ten months ago Ross Ching was a new graduate from film school in San Diego. "The economy had tanked, nobody was hiring and I had nothing to do," he says. "I had this idea for a music video. So I made something and put it on the internet."
The video was for "Little Bribes" by the alt-rock band Death Cab for Cutie. He chose, in his own words, to "blatantly infringe upon Death Cab's copyright" and make the video without any endorsement. There are home-made efforts for famous songs all over YouTube, most are best avoided, but Ching's effort was a small delight: using time-lapse photography techniques, he shot visual representations of all 211 words used in the song's lyrics and interspersed them with images of LA. It took Ching 50 hours to make and cost about $100.
In May, he put it on his website, Rossching.com, under the banner "looking for work". It quickly got attention. The music site Stereogum.com ran the video declaring, "We rarely post fan-made videos, but this is too good... Hire him!"
Within days Ching was contacted by Atlantic Records, Death Cab's label. They had no truck with his copyright infringement; in fact, they wanted to buy Ching's work and make it the official video. By September he had been signed as a director at a production company in LA.
The domino effect of Ching's efforts wasn't just serendipitous: allied to a good idea and some luck was a savvy understanding of the web. Before posting it online, he contacted people on Twitter who had large amounts of followers. He gave them a preview of the video; they in turn tweeted about it to their followers, creating a chain reaction.
Alongside this low-level marketing he developed a template for videomaking based on endlessly watching YouTube, all aligned around reducing the temptation for viewers to move on to other online distractions. First, the video should have "something within the first ten seconds that will make you want to watch it past the first ten seconds," he explains. "A lot of people just look at the first ten seconds and then just click away." Next, he looked at ways to sustain interest throughout, as "you're bound to hit boring parts in a video." Finally, he used a song that came in at the three-minute mark – the shorter the video, the greater chance that people will watch it to the end.
On a higher budget than Ching, but still at the smaller end of the spectrum, is the video for Hot Chip's latest single, "I Feel Better", directed by the comedian Peter Serafinowicz. In the first ten seconds, the electropop group are humorously re-imagined as a JLS-like boyband. Over the next three minutes, the video takes numerous strange and surreal turns.
Like Ching, Serafinowicz, who has over 300,000 followers on Twitter, was able to create a swift online buzz for the video. Previously he had also utilised Twitter while shooting the video to recruit extras for the crowd scenes. On the day it was released in mid March, there was an instant receptive audience. It also received glowing attention from the likes of Pitchfork.com, Stereogum and New York Magazine. The video has been viewed half-a-million times on YouTube alone.
"It's very difficult to succeed in going viral, so we're frequently seeing cool bands team up with provocative comedic directors like Tim & Eric and Peter Serafinowicz," says Scott Lapatine, editor-in-chief of Stereogum. "Music discovery now happens online, and we live in a meme culture, so a clever video is one effective way to break an act."
The US pop-rock band OK Go know their way around a clever video. In 2006, for their single "Here It Goes Again", they created an ingenious promo featuring the band in a meticulously choreographed dance on treadmills. It has been viewed 50 million times on the band's official YouTube channel. There's even been a wan imitation in an ad for Berocca vitamin supplements.
This year the band attempted the trick again with two videos for their single "This Too Shall Pass" off their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. The second of these videos has really captured attention. In the month it's been online, the video has been viewed 10 million times.
It is yet another triumph of planning and coordination. In it, a grand Rube Goldberg Machine is enacted – a domino/mouse-trap contraption is set in motion in time to the music, incorporating the band who mime along to the lyrics while taking part in the colourful mess of unfolding events.
It's an impressive feat, perfectly designed to be passed around the internet, but it also highlighted a flaw: OK Go's visuals are memorable, but their music is unremarkable. Indeed, the electro musician Max Tundra wrote on Twitter, "OK Go should record an innovative, exciting piece of music – and make a plodding, nondescript video to go with it." Despite all of OK Go's viral exposure, they haven't sold many records. The band recently split from EMI to set up their own independent label, Paracadute Recordings; it's been suggested that disagreements with EMI on how to distribute their videos was a major factor, but perhaps also poor sales for their third LP played their part.
"The thing about OK Go is that they outdo what they have done before. And that is a hard thing to do. Give them credit for that," says Lana Kim, head of music videos at the Directors Bureau in LA. Kim also hosts a web music show at Thelanashow.com.
Increasingly for producers like Kim, whose company represents several high-profile directors, record labels are naturally seeking conceits that will create online word of mouth. "Often the brief comes in with, 'we want this to be viral, just like such-and-such video'," she says. "You can't force a video to be passed around, so you can't base a successful concept around that. It happens organically, and if something is good, people will share it."
Towering above them all is Lady Gaga. Last week it was reported that with just three videos, "Bad Romance", "Just Dance" and "Poker Face", she had become the first artist to be viewed one billion times online. This figure doesn't include her latest juggernaut, "Telephone", which, since its release several weeks ago, has been watched almost 30 million times on YouTube.
The importance of the visual elements makes Lady Gaga interesting: her music doesn't seem complete until you see the outrageous costumes and watch the daring videos and performances. This might explain the high numbers watching her work; though monumental hype helps too.
"What I appreciate in Lady Gaga's videos is that spectacle that we often don't see nowadays," says Kim. "But you can see the formula: insane costumes, plus almost nude Gaga, plus dancers, plus bright lights, plus saturated colours, plus product placement, plus someone dying."
"Telephone", a lurid tale of Gaga as an inmate in a women's prison turned killer on the run, conforms perfectly to her formula, with the bonus of an appearance by Beyoncé. It also seems specifically designed to create cartoon controversy, much like Lady Gaga's entire career.
With that controversy, its celebrity cameos and an extended nine-minute length, "Telephone" recalls an earlier MTV age when pop stars made grand "event" videos: epic affairs with lavish budgets intended to get people talking, long before they could email links to each other. With most record labels on their knees, such garish events are now rare, and paid for in more roundabout ways. "Major label artists finance flashy mini-movies via increasingly obnoxious product placements," says Scott Lapatine.
Lady Gaga claims that "Telephone" is a commentary on contemporary American culture. However, its biggest statement seems to be about the artist herself: an assertion of the power of her brand that also displays her ear for a pop tune and head for a well-timed web event.
No doubt, many are combing Lady Gaga's videos to try to replicate her success, just as Ross Ching created a formula from watching videos online. But the one constant, as it always has been for the best music videos, is an arresting visual idea.
"Interesting concepts are interesting concepts, regardless of where technology has gone," says Lana Kim. "It is amazing how a good video, as dated as it might be, would still hold up today. Mediocre videos get lost in the mess of the internet. No one wants to forward a link of a boring video to friends."