Baauer’s ‘Harlem Shake’: The Global Hit That Started With a One-Off Single Deal

Baauer

Phil Knott

The Internet is full of free downloads, but most don’t end up topping the charts like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” The single was brought to market through a label as uncommon as the track’s quirky success story.
 
Jeffrees, a sub-label of Diplo’s Mad Decent, released the track last year through its usual structure: first for free, via a non-exclusive deal, then as a paid download. The unique approach that not only bolstered the tune’s indie credibility, but worked for the label too (to the extent that yesterday Warner Bros. announced a deal that will see it distributing and providing other services for the single).

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“All we want to do is put out more music,” says Diplo. “We don’t want to concentrate on one artist and build their career; we want to put out records we love that are unique and forward-thinking.”
 
Created less than a year ago as a forum to sign passion projects outside of the typical deal structure, Jeffrees allows Mad Decent to associate itself with hot young talent, as quickly and nimbly as they create potential “Harlem Shakes,” and to satisfy the current dance market’s desire for constant new music. And it solves some business problems too.

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“We were at a crossroads with what we did,” says Mad Decent label manager Jasper Goggins. “We signed artists like Rusko and Bosco Delrey to album deals, but we were having the most fun doing one-off singles.”
 
While the non-exclusive aspect is unexpected, especially in the context of “Harlem Shake,” it relates to the core ethos of the brand. “We don’t want to hinder anybody’s growth,” Goggins explains. “The idea was like, let’s say you do this single with us, you end up getting some notoriety, you become a bigger artist and want to do analbum somewhere else. We’re not going to stop you from putting this song on your album.”

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There was also the practical matter of resources. “We were paying so much money in legal fees,” Diplo says of the pre-Jeffrees signing process. “The artists were sending their cousins who were lawyers to negotiate with us for hours and hours. I can’t afford to pay my money to do these deals, so we said let’s just do a one-page contract that works and is fair. It’s non-exclusive, we have no control of the records, but we build the buzz and let them go on their own.”
 
Jeffrees also allows Mad Decent to take risks in how they promote each release, even testing the market for a particular artist. “If you don’t get a big response when you’re giving something away, you’re probably not going to get a good response when you try to sell it,” says Goggins.

Even outside of “Harlem Shake,” this business model is actually working. “Part of it is just the economics of scale,” Goggins explains. “If you release enough of these things and you’re able to monetize it across different platforms, eventually it starts to make money. It’s like publishing money -- the pennies kind of trickle in.”

Monetizing isn’t an afterthought either. Every YouTube upload is optimized for ads and “aggressively” shopped for licensing. Based on the kind of traction a given song gets, it can eventually be up-streamed for individual sale, or as part of an EP collecting several Jeffrees tunes, which is how “Harlem Shake” got to iTunes (it was on Jeffrees Volume 3, released last June, and was re-released as a single on January 8). “Once we started selling it, people were happy to go buy it because they were aware of the song, and they wanted it,” says Goggins.
 
It remains to be seen if the Jeffrees model could work beyond the confines of a fairly unorthodox label like Mad Decent. Goggins notes that the genres they works in -- the “really cutting edge stuff” that Diplo himself is drawn to -- lend themselves to a non-traditional release scheme, finding an audience who isn’t finding new music in a traditional way. In many ways it reflects the influence of hip-hop, where artists release free mixtapes as method of self-promotion. Jeffrees, Goggins says, “is just taking those ideas and applying it to the label, rather than letting the artist do it on their own.
 
Diplo emphasizes this role reversal, saying “it’s not about the label being in control. It’s about an artist like Baauer and what he does -- not like us in the back, thinking about a guerilla marketing plan.”
 
As it has for Baauer himself, the first big success of Jeffrees has caught the team pleasantly by surprise.
 
“All of our moms are like, constantly texting us about seeing it on 'Anderson Cooper' or the 'Today Show' or wherever,” Goggins laughs. “All of us are just totally mind-blown about the success.”