Hashtag songs are here. Just in the past month, we've seen three major artists -- Busta Rhymes, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez -- tack the number symbol all too familiar to Twitter and social media users to the beginnings of their songs. Will.i.am's new album title has a hashtag in front of it; so does Miley Cyrus' soon-to-be-released "We Can't Stop" on its single artwork. But does adding a hashtag to a song even do anything? And how, exactly, did we get here?
First, some history. The advent of the hashtag as it's used today obviously happened during the rise of Twitter, but Twitter did not implement a search function until 2009, so marking words or phrases with a hashtag (#) became a shorthand way for the site's users to group topics or messages. The hashtag has become a form of colloquial expression, used both online and in the real world to append any phrase to a category or movement. Charlie Sheen's "#winning" might be the best (or worst?) example of this.
The first song in hashtag history to reach the Billboard charts was keytar-wielding dance-pop act Cobra Starship's single "#1Nite," which hit No. 23 on Bubbling Under in August 2011. The third single from the band's fourth (and most recent) album, "Night Shades," has sold 91,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
According to Cobra Starship frontman Gabe Saporta, the idea to add a hashtag came at the last minute.
"The song was originally just 'One Night,'" Saporta tells Billboard. "But as we were writing down a track listing to be sent out to the press, our manager Alex Sarti [of Crush Management] suggested we should add a hashtag so that we could be an automatic trending topic, and [the band] thought it was such a good idea we just jumped on it without really thinking twice."
Saporta says that, to promote the song, the band engaged fans on Twitter by asking them to talk about "that one night you can't forget," thereby tying a song to a particular topic or movement. The effort was a success among fans (#1Nite did become a trending topic for a brief period), but it left some confused radio DJs declaring, "Coming up next, it's 'Number One Night!'"
With a Top 10 single, "Good Girls Go Bad," recently under its belt, Cobra Starship was actually a fairly high-profile act to adopt the hashtag single at the turn of the decade. Most of the acts that immediately followed were less well-known, and seemed to use the hashtag to conjure buzz for themselves instead of sustaining it. As early as July 2010, a single and video called "#Shawtbusshawty" appeared online by an entity called Be Your Own Boss Entertainment, which produces animated comedy sketches and videos. The absurd video, featuring animated caricatures of Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy, has an astounding 34 million views on YouTube and has sold over 19,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
First appearing in late 2010 on Soundcloud and then as an official release in February 2011 was Oakland-based hip-hop duo Wallpaper.'s "#Stupidfacedd" (80,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Soundscan). New Orleans rapper Curren$y adopted the hashtag affix with "#Jetsgo" (11,000 sold), from his sixth album, "Weekend at Burnie's" (released April 2011). Also in 2011, a group of Atlanta-based rappers called Rich Kidz took a scorched-earth approach to hashtagging, releasing an album, "Straight Like Dat 2," in which every single title from the album was preceded by a hashtag. The most popular single from the album, "#WhyUs," sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
During this relatively short time period, online social transactions changed quite a bit -- as is typically the case with everything Internet-related. Anyone who thinks hashtags are only important in the realm of Twitter is missing the bigger picture of how tags have proliferated across the broader social networking landscape, as well as their use as metadata labels which are instrumental in connecting topics on blogs.
"So many platforms are using the hashtag in their search/trend system that it helps ensure visibility," says Jason Feinberg, head of digital strategy at Epitaph Records, in an email. "You can't talk about [hashtags] on Twitter or Instagram without it helping in search and ultimately engagement."
Hashtags are now also used to group topics on Instagram (which, remember, is owned by Facebook and not Twitter). Using a hashtag when posting to Tumblr adds it as a tag for the post, which is the primary mechanism Tumblr users utilize to filter and discover new content. For example, pushing an Instagrammed picture tagged #dog to Tumblr and Twitter automatically adds the picture to the "dog" category on all three networks.
So when artists create a hashtag song, it's not just a stunt to become a trending topic on Twitter; rather, it's a neat trick to get their content into the multiple online feeds that their fans may digest on a daily basis. It can also provide a way for marketers to grab interesting analytics and produce engaging visualizations, like Will.i.am's #willpower Twitter visualizer.
Speaking of the Black Eyed Peas frontman and marketing machine, Will.i.am has taken the "hashtag music" concept to new heights by placing a hashtag in front of the name of his most recent album ("#willpower") and single ("#thatPOWER," featuring Justin Bieber). Will.i.am is clearly not messing around with traffic opportunities -- after all, his name is the domain to his official website, which might be one of the best Internet-y gimmicks out there.
In this case, the "hashtag album" strategy didn't necessarily help Will.i.am sell more albums (43,000 to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan), but that's also because Will.i.am is much more of an artist whose sales are song-based. "Scream and Shout" featuring Britney Spears from "#willpower" has sold over 3 million copies to date, and "#thatPOWER" passed 569,000 units during the May 25 charting week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Whether or not "#willpower" was a blockbuster album was besides the point for the hashtagging movement; Will.i.am is a recognizable artist working with some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, so his relentless hashtag use has naturally inspired other top-line artists to follow in his footsteps.
Since the beginning of May, we've seen a streak of hashtag songs -- some finessed in how they are titled, while others proudly waving the hashtag flag. "#Beautiful," the new duet from Carey and Miguel, came out on May 6 and sold over 113,000 downloads in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "#Beautiful" is already a commonly used hashtag (for instance, my dog is #beautiful). According to data provided by Attensity Media, the hashtag "#beautiful" was used on Twitter an average of 25,000 times a day over the two months leading up to the release of the single. When Mariah dropped the song, that number spiked by 280% to 95,000 uses of "#Beautiful" on May 6, not all of which might necessarily be song-specific. That number quickly dropped down close to the norm by four days later.
Days earlier, Busta Rhymes donned a fake patois and teamed up with Pharrell Williams to drop "#TwerkIT" on May 3. Like "#Beautiful," "#Twerkit" is already a commonly used tag; after all, kids these days love twerking. But unlike "#Beautiful," this tag is centered around a particular movement, mostly used to share a dance move popularized by Diplo's "Express Yourself" and later Miley Cyrus). Usage of the #TwerkIT hashtag increased by over 1000% the day of the song's release, but quickly dropped back down to only 400 uses a day.
Finally, Jennifer Lopez opted for a similar approach to Busta Rhymes with her hashtag single "#Liveitup," named for what one might call an epic night out with friends. The track, which features Pitbull, currently stands at just over 1.2 million views on YouTube. Upon its May 8 release, use of the "#liveitup" hashtag on Twitter spiked from an average of 500 uses a day to 22,000, an increase of 4300%.
So what are the takeaways? The volume of increase around a hashtag usually correlates with the relative popularity of the artist involved, which is why the Carey and Lopez songs received much higher volumes of engagement than Busta Rhymes' latest track. This is, of course, expected. Furthermore, songs with titles are derived by how the hashtag is uniquely used within the social media world -- rather than as just a general term -- do more to excite fans, because artists are able to own the phrase that their hashtag song title inspires. "#Twerkit" and "#Liveitup" have much higher percent increases in the amount of buzz generated than Mariah's "#Beautiful," suggesting that Busta and J. Lo have done more to "claim" those terms, since they were barely used at all before their songs debuted.
The correlation between hashtag songs and sales, however, remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that an artist doesn't necessarily need to name their song with a hashtag in order to create a hashtag-laden online movement. J. Dash, the artist who made the song "WOP" that got Miley Cyrus twerkin', regularly appends his tweets with #WOP or #wopnation. Robin Thicke's video for "Blurred Lines" (featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams) prominently displays #Blurredlines and #THICKE throughout. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis regularly use #sharkfacegang, which first started as a joke, to unite fans online under a common hashtag banner. None of those artists actually titled their songs with a hashtag, but have used them as a key promotional tool.
Hashtag songs are here, but not necessarily to stay. Artists inspiring conversation and empowering community among their fan bases is a long-running practice. Today, the hashtag is just one way to do that. Tomorrow, it might be something completely #different.