How Lyric Videos on YouTube Became Music's Hottest Star

100 million views for less than $1,000? Major and indie labels are making big money and reaching young fans as DIY-style clips hit the streaming service.

In the 1966 documentary Don't Look Back, Bob Dylan is featured in what, at the time, was an innovative music video. As the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays, Dylan unfurls cue cards that correspond to the lyrics. The clip became a beat culture moment aped by many artists since, the visual suggesting a connection between hearing a song and reading lyrics.

Today, as YouTube has replaced MTV as the primary outlet for music videos, the lyrics-only clip has become one of the most important marketing tools online, with a few generating more than 100 million views without a single shot of the artist. Unlike elaborate MTV-style videos (a 1998 clip for "Victory" by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs cost his label $2.5 million), lyric videos are dirt cheap, and the words add an element beyond what fans get on radio or Pandora. "It's an immediate and effective way to introduce new music," says Cee Lo Green, a lyric video pioneer with his 2010 single "F-- You," which racked up 11 million views. "It was a very smart thing that Cee Lo did," says Larry Mestel, Green's manager and CEO of Primary Wave Music. "And now, it's a mainstay."

For both major and indie record labels, what was once an occasional stunt has become a mandatory step in a song's rollout -- "a given," says Trevor Kelley, vp global digital marketing at Disney Music Group. Disney's Hollywood Records has devoted big energy and resources to crafting compelling lyric videos. Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack" lyric video has more than 12.6 million views, and her most recent clip, a literal visual interpretion of "Neon Lights," garnered 2.6 million views in its first two weeks.

The popularity of lyric videos, especially among the under-25 set, grew organically in the YouTube community before the labels pounced. "Kids were creating their own versions of them, and at some point, the views got staggering enough that people like myself said, 'Why are we not involved in this process?' " says Kelley.

The cost of a lyric video varies drastically, but the general range is from essentially free to a few thousand dollars. Ian Harrison, vp marketing and creative at Hopeless Records, says it's rare for the label to spend more than $800: "We usually spend less." For bigger stars, labels also produce a traditional video.

And the content can be monetized, thanks to YouTube's ad revenue sharing program. "Revenue for an All Time Low band video with 30 million views is not especially significant," says Harrison ($150,000, according to one expert). "But if you have 1,000 or more pieces of content on your channel, those monthly revenue sums for each video start to really multiply." One source estimates a major label like Warner Bros. Records, whose YouTube channel boasts 1.2 billion views and includes lyric-only and traditional clips by such artists as Green Day and Linkin Park, stands to earn $25 million a year from video views.

Although some artists do appear in their lyric videos -- or create the clips themselves -- there is still a notable dropoff in quality between even a high-end lyric video and a traditional video. But in a DIY, Web-clip culture, that's part of the point. Danny Lockwood, senior vp creative and video production at Capitol Music Group, who calls Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" the label's "first very successful lyric video," notes that these clips also have a more practical purpose for fans: "To learn the words to their favorite new song."

The popularity of lyric videos also corresponds to sales, giving labels an early indicator of a hit song. Perry's recent lyric video for "Roar" has garnered more than 62 million views since mid-August and has sold 3.6 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Avicii, signed to Universal, unveiled a lyric video for "Wake Me Up" in late July that now has 146 million views. His single sales: 2.8 million.

Not everyone is a fan, however. "I want to call it a temporary trend," says Charlie Walk, exec vp of Republic Records, home to hits by newcomers Lorde and Ariana Grande (Grande's "The Way" lyric video has earned just 6.5 million views compared to the single's official clip with 115 million). "When you didn't have any other content, a lyric video was a quick way to get to the point," he says. "I'm not sure it's a game changer."

On the other hand, Jennifer Fowler, senior vp digital marketing at RCA, says her company has experimented with making lyric videos for entire albums. Among the test subjects: Pink and Pitbull. "We've found them to be a tool for achieving success," she says.

Green, however, sees the virtue of lyric videos more poignantly. "The naked lyric," he says, "doesn't lie."