Monetizing a Meme: A Case Study on The Harlem Shake

by Zachary McDowell and Mike Soha

This is an abridged draft of a paper we are developing for publication. We invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please honor that it’s being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission.


At its peak, the Harlem Shake meme was immensely successful at both generativity (generated nearly 4,000 YouTube videos uploads per day), and popularity (it only took about 40 days to reach 1 billion views on Youtube, half the time that it took “Gangnam Style”). It is safe to say that the “Harlem Shake” rapidly surpassed the status of a “simple” internet meme and found its way as pop culture phenomenon, inspiring countless hours of creative endeavors participating in an “internet dance craze.” During this “internet dance craze,” the rights owners of the song that formed the musical accompaniment of the meme quickly realized the profit potential of the phenomenon, profiting handsomely from this opportunity through the architecture of control provided by YouTube.

“Harlem Shake” offers a case study to explore the contentious relationship around ownership, authorship, labor and sharecropping in the contemporary digital age through an examination of how the viral meme emerged and spread, its monetization, and the subsequent rise to stardom of the song’s composer.

Making of a Viral Meme

On May 22, 2012, Baauer (the musical alias of Harry Rodrigues, a 23 year old American DJ and producer) released a track titled Harlem Shake. Released as a free download by the label “Mad Decent,” the song was well received within it is genre; Pitchfork awarded it “Best New Track”, describing it as having “an irresistible appeal” and “a purely visceral pleasure”, and the New York Times referred to Baauer as a “rising talent.” Although somewhat popular in the EDM world, the viral spread of Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” emerged not from inclusion in DJ set lists or radio play, but from a YouTube video posted eight months later.

On January 30th, 2013, “Filthy Frank”, the YouTube persona of a 19 year old Communication major in New York, uploaded a new video titled “FILTHY COMPILATION #6 – SMELL MY FINGERS.” The video began with a 19 second clip of Filthy Frank and three friends, all dressed in skin tight spandex body suits, dancing to Baauer’s Harlem Shake.

A few days later, a group of Australian high school students (known on YouTube as TheSunnyCoastSkate) uploaded “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)”. Building off of Filthy Frank’s 30 second crazy dance, TheSunnyCoastSkate’s version featured a lone person wearing a motorcycle helmet dancing much like Filthy Frank along to the 30 second clip of Baauer’s Harlem Shake. When Baauer’s track drops the line “do the Harlem Shake,” the video jump-cuts into a crazed dance party of extreme silliness (and much pelvic thrusting). TheSunnyCoastSkate’s use of the jump cut further set the template for the coming dance phenomenon.

Perhaps sensing something important was happening, merely two hours after TheSunnyCoastSkate uploaded their video, Filthy Frank uploaded “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)”, featuring the short original dancing scene. This was followed by “The Harlem Shake v2”, based on the video from TheSunnyCoastSkate and uploaded on the same day by YouTube user PHLOn NAN, which was picked up and posted by the influential web-culture site BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s posting of “The Harlem Shake v2” helped to garner it 300,000 views in 24 hours. Nearly at the same time, a post of “The Harlem Shake v3 (office edition),” by Maker Studios, was upvoted to the frontpage of Reddit, generating additional momentum. By February 7th, the generative power of the Harlem Shake meme had spawned remakes from all over the world (Norwegian army, playgrounds, offices, and many dormitories).

The meme reached a fever pitch by February 12th, and within a week began to peter out, with many pronouncing the meme “dead” after mainstream TV programs and corporate advertisers had begun co-opting the meme. To date, Filthy Frank’s “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)” has received more than 52 million views on YouTube, TheSunnyCoastSkate “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)” more than 26 million, and PHLOn NAN’s “The Harlem Shake v2” more than 12 million.[i] The video creators all credited each other for inspiration, acknowledging the importance of each of the pieces within the generation of the Harlem Shake meme.

Weeks after the meme climaxed in popularity and noting the strange series of events that he inadvertently set in motion, Filthy Frank tweeted at Baauer:


Baauer didn’t respond.

Dance Craze as Meme

While the speed with which the Harlem Shake meme was born, spread, and died was remarkable, dance crazes are nothing new. The Tango, The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Hustle, and The Macarena are just a few of the dance crazes that swept through the dance halls, living rooms, and discotheques of the US, and around the world throughout the 20th century. These were memes in the pre-Internet, Richard Dawkins sense of the term; pieces of culture that successfully spread, replicated, and transformed into popular phenomena.[ii]

For example, The Hustle’s origins go back to a Puerto Rican dance style that emerged in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. In this case, a grassroots culture provided the raw cultural material for a dance style, or “dance meme”; as musicians caught on and expanded its reach, The Hustle crested as a national dance craze and was cemented into national culture through a blockbuster movie.

The original Harlem Shake, the 1990s dance style from which the Harlem Shake meme inadvertently takes its name, emerged collectively from the unique hip-hop culture of Harlem, and was utilized and transformed by hip-hop artists who brought the dance into the mainstream. Other dances similar to the Harlem Shake emerged in that time period, such the “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which combined the dance styles of Harlem Shake and the Toe Wop.[iii]

Nobody “owned” the Harlem Shake, The Hustle, or the Chicken Noodle Soup dance styles. They didn’t have any authors. Both emerged collectively, emanating out through the smaller communities and into mainstream community. This process mirrors much of hip-hop music in general, which has historically relied heavily on sampling, remixing, sharing, and collaboration between artists and borrowing from other genres. Understanding the collaborative and networked spread of dance crazes helps us understand the similar, but much faster and more global spread of dance memes in the digital era, and the tension between social and economic capital in creative spaces.

Monetizing of the Harlem Shake

Baauer and Mad Decent have profited handsomely from the Harlem Shake track. Not only did the meme bring incredible exposure to the song Harlem Shake, eliciting hundreds of millions of streams through YouTube and audio streaming sites, but the attention also prompted sales of over a million digital downloads from iTunes. Additionally, the timing was perfect for Baauer, as Billboard had just re-vamped their metrics for the Billboard Hot 100 chart to include YouTube hits. Due to the explosive popularity of the meme, Baauer’s Harlem Shake rocketed to the #1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and stayed there for five weeks. The value of being able to derive both global fame and revenue from the Harlem Shake meme was so great that Diplo, head of Mad Decent noted that the phenomena “saved the label” which he claimed was headed for financial ruin.

YouTube’s new copyright profit-sharing system, known as Content ID, helped Baauer and Mad Decent even further. Victor Luckerson, in Time, describes how Content ID works:

“Through a service called Content ID, YouTube automatically trawls its servers looking for copies of copyrighted materials that owners have asked to be protected. Users of the service can then have these copies removed from YouTube, do nothing, or have ads sold against the videos if they qualify for monetization.”

Content ID gives rights holders the choice between trying to profitably harness the creative (and free) energies of users on YouTube, or blocking any use of their material. The Content ID system splits the ad revenue profit between YouTube and the rights holder, each receiving somewhere between 40-50% (some cases may enable a small portion, around 4 or 5% to go to the video creator/uploader).

It is unclear exactly how much money Mad Decent & Baauer generated from Harlem Shake videos on YouTube. However, it can be reasonably estimated from the roughly 250 videos of one million viewers or more that Mad Decent could claim through YouTube’s Content ID, that Mad Decent’s ability to harness the meme through their copyright privileges netted them, in direct revenue from YouTube alone, at least a few million USD.[iv]

From the perspective of Mad Decent and YouTube/Google, the Harlem Shake meme was a potent and harness-able force. Content ID allowed Mad Decent to harness millions of hours of creative free labor, and profit handsomely. The millions of hours of creative labor that went into producing the tens of thousands of Harlem Shake meme videos were a creative undertaking the scale of which not even the largest record companies could muster. While no one person created the Harlem Shake meme, the ability of Mad Decent to control and profit from the phenomena through Content ID gave them a kind of de facto ownership of the collectively produced meme, as they remain the majority profiteer.

Ownership & Authorship

Baauer’s EDM song, the Harlem Shake itself depends heavily on sampled music. Two of the most crucial samples which form the base of the song (and the dance meme) “do the Harlem Shake” and “con los terroristas,” are samples from two different songs, used without attribution or permission. While answering questions in a Reddit AMA, Baauer was asked where he got the “con los terroristas” sample. He responded as if he didn’t know, remarking:


Despite Baueer’s ignorance (feigned or not), Redditors quickly figured out the origination of the sample, posting to his AMA thread:


It is curious whether Baauer really had no idea where the sample came from, or if he was intentionally feigning ignorance as he knew that now that his song had gone viral along with the meme, there would be scrutiny of its copyright infringements. As Redditors pointed out, the “con los terroristas” sample comes from a 2006 song “Maldades” by Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Héctor “El Father” Delgado. In a radio interview, Delgado noted that he only learned about this Harlem Shake meme when a friend phoned him to tell him, and that he was planning on suing Baauer for the unlicensed use of his track. The other key sample comes from the 2001 song “Miller Time” by Plastic Little, a relatively unknown rap group. The clip “do the Harlem Shake”, from which Baauer titled his own song and forms the key moment for the meme when the beat drops, has its own rather strange story. Plastic Little’s Jayson Musson, who wrote the lyric, explained in an email to The Fader that the line is based on bloody fist fight he had with a graffiti artist, to whom he danced the Harlem Shake after beating. The lyric is “And if you bring a 40 bottle to battle me/ I’ll just punch you in the face/ then do the Harlem Shake.” Due to the unlicensed sampling, Baauer’s label Mad Decent, a small independent label, had to cut deals with both Delgado and Musson.

The issue of authorship and sampling has long been a contentious one in the music industry. As an artist only well known within his genre, Baauer could easily get away with unlicensed sampling, as many artists have. The Harlem Shake meme rocketed Baauer not only into the mainstream, but pushed his song “Harlem Shake” to the #1 spot in the charts, as well the #1 selling track on iTunes. In light of the Harlem Shake meme causing such a ruckus over unlicensed sampling, Dorian Lynskey, writing for The Guardian, asks if “cut-and-paste Internet culture can continue to flourish on the Internet”. Dorian notes that historically over the past few decades, legal battles have increased over unlicensed sampling, pressuring mainstream artists to avoid sampling unless they can afford the licensing rights up front. Sampling in music reached a breaking point in 1991, when hip-hop artist Biz Markie lost a lawsuit and rights over his song Alone Again due to “heavy sampling.” In the end, only artists on major (wealthy) labels could afford the sampling rights for their songs, while small or independent artists would have to go without sampling, stunting one of the most prevalent elements of early hip-hop.

Digital Sharecropping?

Given the struggle to have a more free and open culture through more permissible copyright policies, the Harlem Shake experience can generally be seen as a mostly positive example. YouTube’s Content ID system seems to be a big improvement over the status quo, as it can be positive for both artists and users, professionals and amateurs alike. In this case, an artist was able to decide to freely allow users to remake, remix, and share the meme which utilizes his song. Users took take part in a fun and exciting activity, and Baauer received massive recognition and financial revenue while tens of millions of people enjoyed watching and participating in a global meme.

However, the basic premise of ownership, even with the more flexible potential of systems like YouTube’s Content ID, still poses larger issues for digital culture. The fundamental problem of copyright does not ‘fit’ the way culture is created. The whole idea that Baauer has, or should have, the exclusive right to be a kind of copyright decider on YouTube is, at least, problematic. Although YouTube considers Baauer the “author,” not only is his song a remix of prior samples, genre, and culture, but the force behind the virality of the phenomena lies with the likes of Filthy Frank, TheSunnyCoastSkate, Redditors, and everyone else who contributed to the collective formation of the meme, not to mention the thousands who reproduced and shared the meme, making it a global phenomenon. A meme, due in part to its seemingly accidental, authorless collective creation, cannot be owned or “authored” like a song. Just like the Harlem Shake dance, the Harlem Shake meme is a collectively produced cultural phenomena. This is not to say that this kind of authorship grey area is new, but what is new is that we can see the process happen more clearly, in real time. In short, the memetic nature of digital culture highlights the process of production, rather than a finished, authored product, as well brings to light the labor of the accumulated hundreds of thousands of hours that went into the production and reproduction of the Harlem Shake meme.

In many ways, this is a kind of “so what” question – who cares that Baauer will make from YouTube’s Content ID? Before Content ID, copyrighted material in YouTube videos was met with takedown notices, which makes this seem like a major step forward for cultural participation on YouTube. However, while systems like YouTube’s Content ID seem to comprise some form of a solution (or at least a compromise) it doesn’t address the root problem of digital cultural production: amateur and noncommercial remixes, mashups, fan videos, etc are still acts of copyright infringement, still a form of “theft”.

As the Internet and digital culture transforms further into the “walled garden” model of social applications and platforms, harnessing of vast pools of free labor for profit increases without bound. What Nicholas Carr refers to as digital sharecropping gets more complicated with Content ID, as the amateur producers are not simply sharing their baby photos or status updates, but creating semi-professional music videos as participatory culture. The eagerness with which corporations are now co-opting memes for marketing purposes seems to suggest that amateur and noncommercial culture seem to be increasingly tied to or hybridized with corporate marketing strategies, further commercializing every aspect of internet culture.

The concept of digital sharecropping is a slippery one. Alexander Galloway, in The Interface Effect argues that “[i]t is impossible to differentiate cleanly between nonproductive leisure activity existing within the sphere of play and productive activity existing in the sphere of the workplace,”[v] and, in this arena of monetizing activities of indecisive spheres, the distinctions between commercial and noncommercial, professional and amateur that characterize cultural production on the web remain as blurry as ever. Nicholas Carr wrote about the idea of digital sharecropping in 2006, in a debate over the Web 2.0 era:

“By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.”

Clay Shirky further clarifies Carr’s concept, arguing that although the critique of digital sharecropping is not entirely appropriate for many of the Web 2.0 platforms (as those who create the value for Yelp, Amazon, Facebook, etc., are spending their leisure time to create and share material based on their interests) it can apply when a platform allows for the exploitation of noncommercial and amateur work, which YouTube, especially in this case, seems to be profiting handsomely from. YouTube’s own FAQ on Content ID makes it clear: “In most cases, you can’t monetize a video that has a Content ID claim. Instead, the copyright owners can choose to monetize your video.” Although these might be labors of love, people not directly involved with their creation are harnessing these vast troves of labor, therefore engaging in a new form of digital sharecropping by copyright holders that fully profit from the labor of others.

With high quality video cameras on most smartphones, and digital production tools available previously only to professionals now available for free on most personal computers, what was previously seen as a labor of love can now easily cross over into noncommercial amateur production, blurring distinctions yet again between work, play, amateur and commercial. YouTube’s Content ID’s refusal to allow producers to monetize thousands of videos (and millions of hours of work), instead granting rights to monetize (or ban) soley to a copyright claimaint seems, at very least, problematic.

Not to say that the copyright holders don’t have a stake in the monetization, but as we have illustrated, the meme itself is more than a small track that was composed by DJ from things “found on the innerweb,” and those amateur laborers deserve recognition. Of course, this is not a new story by any stretch of the imagination. As Andrew Ross notes, “each rollout of online tools has offered ever more ingenious ways of extracting cheaper, discount work from users and participants,”[vi] and Content ID, while at first glance seems a step in the right direction, only assists in extracting additional profit from free labor.

YouTube as Internet Dance Club

In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in The Hybrid Economy, Law Professor Lawrence Lessig notes of YouTube that “No site—ever—has more quickly become central to popular culture.”[vii] From the very beginning, YouTube provided a platform for people to post and share dance videos, styles, techniques. Today the dance crazes of the world spread virally through the social media networks of the Internet, rather than late night dance halls. Among other things, YouTube can act as a worldwide dance club. In the digital age have progressively gravitated towards participating in both the celebration and transformation of cultural phenomena online, and, as always, people want to dance. Transforming the open platforms of the Internet into more closed systems of profit extraction threatens one of the basic bargains of culture: people celebrating and enjoying culture without having their “labors of love” directly dictated and exploited for profit for copyright holders. Especially not those who only indirectly or even accidentally contribute to a cultural phenomena like a dance meme. YouTube’s Content ID system, or more important, the idea behind the system, sets up a rationale for increasingly aggressive for-profit harnessing of noncommercial and amateur cultural creation, creating platforms of digital sharecropping that change the basic bargain of social/noncommercial use of culture. What we have in this case is the establishment of a troubling new normal for the amateurs of YouTube: your content will be sharecropped or blocked.

YouTube’s Content ID gives front-end control to rights holders, leaving them in the position of dictators (benevolent, if we are lucky), blocking or harnessing the incredibly productive power of collective labor. While Content ID does not seem to immediately hinder “amateur” content production, the underlying problem of giving exclusive control to authors and rights holders over viral phenomena and memes that they didn’t create (and whose exposure they already benefit from), further leverages the genuine production of social capital into a system of commercial exploitation. Digital sharecropping and the leveraging of cultural memes for profit appears as an endless source of economic growth potential for this burgeoning industry. While the the individual instances of sharecropped labor may be negligible, the normalization of digital sharecropping as the new cultural bargain of the Web becomes widespread, those individually negligible instances amount to an incredible assemblage of unacknowledged labor which reinscribes the core environment of the Internet from one of open cultural production and vibrant social capital to one that may be ignoring both current and historical labor systems.



[i] There is a video timeline of the Harlem Shake meme, “The Evolution of the Harlem Shake Video” from Hardfest available at:

[ii] The Selfish Gene (1989) R. Dawkins

[iii] Notably, YouTube’s first Internet dance craze was “The Chicken Noodle Soup”, which became popular among teenage hip-hop fans. The dance craze spread thanks to hip-hop enthusiasts emulating the dance on YouTube (with millions of views), and linking to their videos on blogs and Internet forums. Soon the dance was performed by kids in the suburbs and was even performed by Justin Timberlake in drag on Saturday Night Live.

[iv] Adding up all of the views from the 250 Harlem Shake meme videos with over 1 million, we get over 1,382,000,000 total views (counted in November, 2013). It is difficult to estimate how much revenue was generated per video, as we don’t know the exact CPM (cost per 1,000 views) rate which advertisers were charged, given that CPM often varies given the country of origin and video (users in wealthier countries typically are priced at a higher CPM). Generally speaking many YouTube videos receive a CPM of around $2. At $2, these 250 Harlem Shake meme videos would generate roughly $2,764,000 total in ad revenue. Given that YouTube takes about 45% of revenue, this would leave around $1,520,200 for Mad Decent. According to MSN Money however, Harlem Shake videos received a CPM of $6, which would generate roughly $8,292,000, of which $4,560,600 would go to Mad Decent.

[v] Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. 1st ed. Malden, MA: Polity, 2013: 135

[vi] Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory., 13–32. London: Routledge, 2013.

[vii] Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press HC, The, 2008: 195