As 'Gangnam Style' hits 2B YouTube views, music fans should cheer. Really

Psy may be the first to reach that landmark, but YouTube is already planning for a world in which thousands of videos reach billions of views.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
6 min read

SAN BRUNO, Calif. -- Don't tell the suits and squares atop Big Rock, but as Korean pop phenom Psy's breakout hit "Gangnam Style" crosses 2 billion views, musicians dig the YouTube more than ever. Maybe that's because it's where music business has been reborn.

The catchy tune with quirky dance moves is expected to hit its 2 billionth YouTube view sometime early this weekend, possibly even by Saturday morning on North America's West Coast.

It isn't the first of its genre, and despite the ever-snarky world of music critique, it won't be the last. "Gangnam Style" owes its success to hitting a zeitgeist trifecta: the popularity of the video itself, a growing international clamor for Korean pop music, and the rise of Google-owned YouTube not just as a video streaming repository, but as a free streaming music service with a seemingly unlimited number of songs.

Oppan Gangnam Style

Psy's breakout, charmingly sarcastic hit rides the tsunami of Korean pop music, or K-Pop, currently engulfing the globe -- but it's driving it, too. The "Gangnam Style" video currently adds around 2 million to 3 million views per week and then another 2 million to 3 million each weekend, said Isaac Bess, a music partner manager at YouTube, based in YouTube's suburban San Francisco offices.

Psy's "Gangnam Style" leads all YouTube videos by a wide margin. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

By contrast, the No. 2 most-watched YouTube video is Justin Bieber's "Baby," far behind at just over 1 billion views.

K-Pop "has been exploding for 20-odd years, and its export has been more and more successful," said Bess. "'Gangnam Style' really kicked off a massive wave of [K-Pop video] consumption. We now see 90 percent of K-Pop is consumed outside of Korea."

As a genre, K-Pop videos exploded in viewership on YouTube to more than 5.5 billion in 2013 from 600 million in 2010, Bess said. As K-Pop has become more popular, so has YouTube itself.

Watch this: 'Gangnam Style' crossing 2 billion views: How YouTube deals

The de facto home of Internet video has just turned 9 years old, and as of a year ago people were watching more than 6 billion hours of video a month on the video site. That's a 50 percent jump from 2012, and YouTube says that it's far surpassed that number since then.

Of the 1 billion people who watch YouTube videos each month, nearly 40 percent of them are watching via phone and tablet, and 80 percent are watching from outside the US. Collectively, they upload around 100 hours of video per minute.

YouTube wouldn't break out music video statistics, but it's not hard to see how important the site has become to the successful musician or band, and vice versa.

"I think there will be more mega-hits to come," Bess said.

Korean pop music views on YouTube. Google/YouTube

Engineering success at YouTube

"Gangnam Style," which derives its name from a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul but has a sardonic tone that's all Psy, has become the most-watched video of all time in less than two years.

On reaching the milestone, Psy provided CNET with a statement: "Two billion views...They are very honorable and very burdensome numbers...With the appreciation, I will come back soon with more joyful contents!!"

YouTube executives estimate that the video has inspired more than half a million more imitations, parodies, and homages. It was the first video to reach 1 billion views at the end of 2012, and it has garnered almost 100 million more views in 2014.

Psy's also got a second song rocketing up the YouTube charts: "Gentleman" is boogieing skyward with nearly 700 million views in just over a year. It also holds the record for most views in a single day at 38 million views.

"I keep hearing these stories of odd J-Pop [Japanese pop] songs becoming major football anthems in South American countries," said Bess. "How did this happen? We spend a lot of time and money making the recommendation more nuanced."

YouTube music partner manager Isaac Bess stands in front of the video site's logo at its San Bruno, Calif., headquarters. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

It's not just an attention to detail that drives YouTube's side of the success story. As evidenced by encouraging people to take its video quality test, YouTube places a lot of importance on delivering the highest quality streams possible without freezing, said Andy Berkheimer, engineering director at YouTube.

"We're really excited about 'Gangam Style' reaching 2 billion views," he said, "but we are already planning for a world where there's hundreds of thousands of videos that reach billions of views."

Berkheimer said that YouTube's engineering success depends on three factors. It relies on a continuous stream of data on the network, telling YouTube's servers whether the network path is congested or not; adaptive bitrate technology, so that the stream quality fluctuates but keeps buffers and freezes to a minimum; and shrinking the size of the video by using the VP9 codec.

Even with that future-forward technical approach, YouTube doesn't want to alienate any of its users. Berkheimer said that the site will still use the more restricted H.264 codec as "a billion devices" rely on it.

"There will be no singularity," he said.

Psy's success: Signpost to the future of music

A technological singularity might never occur, but musicians appear to have nothing but love for YouTube right now. Much of Psy's success, said Public Enemy producer and music technologist Hank Shocklee, can be attributed to how people have come to view YouTube's playlist feature as a de facto streaming service.

"My son, who's 15, he has a whole different take on what YouTube is," Shocklee said in a phone conversation. "It's his radio station. They find out more about what's coming out faster than anybody. It eclipses any other means of exposure."

Andy Berkheimer, engineering director at YouTube, stands in front of a wall of screens highlighting the success of Psy's "Gangnam Style" at the company's headquarters. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

That exposure not only helps new artists rise, but rekindles interest in musicians who may have fallen into obscurity.

Allan Merrill, who wrote the 1975 rock standard "I Love Rock'N'Roll" with Jake Hooker and their band The Arrows, said in phone call from his East Coast home that YouTube has reminded people that the song existed before Joan Jett covered it in 1982.

"What YouTube does for me is it globalizes my career," Merrill said. "It takes a fragmented career and puts it into a solid ball. I get fan mail from China, and Russia, and the Ukraine -- all over the world. YouTube is great for that."

"People are making fan sites for me in Polish," he said, chuckling.

"This is what the companies want to block, when each one of us becomes important," said Shocklee, whose work has been notable not just for creating hits, but hits with a social message.

YouTube is becoming the connective tissue that links music, musicians, and fans, with YouTube and its parent company Google replacing an invasive middle-man recording label with a more laissez-faire approach.

In some cases, YouTube's Bess said, "we're creating a digital music economy where there wasn't one."

He explained how in Nigeria, a country without the iTunes Store or a CD market, bootlegs are popular, but ex-pat Nigerians in London now can get the latest Nigerian music immediately over YouTube.

"The idea that somebody can sing in Korean and make it the most popular song of all time globally speaks to the power of reducing barriers, the democracy that our platform lets percolate up to the top," he said.

YouTube's Wall of Fame at its San Bruno, Calif., office, showcasing people and characters from the site's greatest hits. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Shocklee agreed. "The internationalization of pop music is nothing new, as Western rock has been liberally borrowing from other styles for decades," he said. "But this latest wave is driven by the democratization of pop, thanks to the cross-national accessibility of YouTube."

The idea that YouTube is simply replacing the big record labels didn't sit well with Shocklee, even if the site is building a more formal streaming music service.

"Musicians are not seeing income from videos, but we've never seen income from videos," he said. "The fact that you can get some income from videos [now] is a big plus," he said, but it's not the point.

To Shocklee, who has helped define a generation of music, the potential of YouTube to reach everybody on Earth will continue to change music even beyond where it is today.

"You're not defined by the studio anymore. Your artist q-rating is not based upon how official your situation is," he said. "It's about how it resonates with the public."

And what musician doesn't want to be heard?

Update, 8:40 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Psy.

Update, 11:55 a.m. PT: Corrects spelling of Oppan.