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The surprising rise of YouTube lyrics videos

A user-generated trend catapulted to industry-embraced phenom, low-budget clips displaying song lyrics are starting to eclipse their big-budget brethren -- and may address a yearning lost in the streaming shift.

A part of 5 Seconds Of Summer's "Don't Stop," which won the "Best Lyric Video" award at last week's MTV Video Music Awards. Screenshot via YouTube

YouTube has a new megastar, with the number of eyeballs it can draw putting it in the same ranks as Psy, Justin Bieber and LMFAO: Simple words plus music.

Befitting the Google-owned video site, with its roots in user-generated clips, lyrics videos began as fan-posted songs with the words displayed and little other visual ornament. The watershed moment for mainstream, music-industry adoption of the type came in 2010 with Cee-Lo Green's video for his breakout hit, which editorial standards preclude CNET from spelling out explicitly. Since then, lyrics videos have snowballed from grassroots pastime to outright phenomenon.

More than industry fad, the category reflects how streaming, and specifically YouTube, is becoming the go-to place to listen to music first and repetitively. Some artists and insiders say it may also be feeding the need for a specific facet of expression for artists and desire for immersion for fans that the digital transition has lost as album art and record sleeves fade into obscurity.

YouTube crescendo

More and more, YouTube viewers are turning the massive video site into their own personal DJ. Of the 100 most watched videos on YouTube, 96 of them are music. (The ones that aren't could best be categorized as bizarre viral anomalies.) The Google site is poised to take advantage of its own sheer force in the music industry by launching it's own Spotify-like rival subscription streaming service, reportedly called YouTube Music Key.

One of the clean sections of Cee-Lo Green's lyric video. Screenshot via YouTube

"Fans use YouTube as the radio as we move into a music-streaming culture," said Danny Lockwood, senior vice president of creative and video production at Capitol Music Group, part of Universal. "Often, the lyric video is the first piece of content to be released -- as it's quicker and less expensive to produce -- and if it becomes the predominant place to hear the official version of the song, fans will click on that piece of content multiple times just to hear the music."

In the past few years, streaming services have become recorded music's brightest spot of revenue growth. Last year, revenue from subscription and streaming services rose 51 percent to top $1 billion for the first time, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Those sales countered a slide in sales of physical goods such as CDs and a slight decline in digital music download revenue.

Lyrics videos have ridden the same wave.

YouTube said that it hosted about two days worth of lyrics-video content -- clips with "official audio" in the title -- in the first 8 months of 2011. In the same period this year, that amount jumped to 81 days, accounting for 590 million views this year alone. Searches for "official audio" and "lyric video" have skyrocketed. Vevo, the online music-video service partly owned by major labels and YouTube itself, had fewer than 400 lyrics videos in its library through the end of 2012. Now it has five times as many.

For its Video Music Awards in August, MTV picked "Best Lyric Video" as its socially selected award category, in which fans could determine the winner by voting through Twitter, Vine or Instagram. The previous year, when the category was "Best Song of the Summer," MTV received 11.8 million votes. This year, the network received 166.2 million votes for the top lyric video.

Rhyme and reason

So why are lyrics videos so popular? The format is as old as music videos themselves, with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as a landmark, early example.

For labels, it's a way to keep people listening to the official product on a platform that would otherwise be flooded with unsanctioned alternatives. Lyric videos have become the standard video release to coincide with an audio track's availability, serving as a placeholder until the official, high-budget version can be produced. In cases like Katy Perry, some lyrics clips are generating more views than their big-budget counterparts.

Two old-school examples: Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," from 1965 (top) and the Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers," from 1988. Screenshots by CNET

For artists, like Scarlett Rabe, the form provides another creative outlet. She made two videos for her single "Battle Cry" but the lyric video was the one that "got all the love, even though it was about $600 to make," she said.

"All the fans said seeing the words flash on the screen, it made the song so much more powerful, and I agree," she said. "It just encircles you with the meaning, rather than if someone is twerking or whatever mayhem is happening in the official video."

For fans, Doug McVehil, the senior vice president of Vevo content and programming, said his gut tells him people simply like to know the words. "Lyric websites continue to be very popular even though they're the ugliest websites out there," he noted.

Lockwood at Capitol Records said the format harkens back to his formative age, falling in love with music. "When I was growing up and lyrics weren't available in the album package, I would hand write them from listening to a song over and over. It was always annoying when there were those one or two words you couldn't completely understand," he said. "you wanted to know exactly what the artist was trying to say."

It may also feed into an art form long associated with music that has shrunk as the industry shifted from physical products with artwork to ephemeral digital files. "It's the new liner notes experience, having another outlet or another thing that you can give to your fans, since you don't get to make album art," Rabe said.

Colin Helms, senior vice president of connected content at MTV, said that for a generation of music fans that have grown up after a record or CD store ceased to be a routine part of discovering music, the lyrics videos may be replacing the lost avenue to becoming absorbed by a song.

"Sitting back and looking at the artwork on the back of the album, that's gone away," he said. "The idea of a lyric video is kind of like a step back into that world."