Atlanta Rapper Silento's Road to a Label Deal, Chart Success: Professional YouTubers

Courtesy of YouTube
Silento, "Watch Me."

Silento is a 17-year-old rapper from Atlanta whose single “Watch Me” has become a social media dance anthem, currently taking over the Internet. The track climbs 27-25 in its 13th week on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (dated June 6), while simultaneously moving 13-10 to break the top 10 for the first time on the Streaming Songs with a 14 percent rise in streams in the week ending May 24 (according to Nielsen Music).

“Watch Me” is huge on Vine -- where users upload their own short dance videos accompanied by "Watch Me," much like the Shmoney Dance -- but the biggest contributing factor to its Billboard chart ranking comes from the song's popularity on YouTube. (65 percent of the song's chart points on the Hot 100 in the most recent week are derived from streaming activity.) YouTube accounts for 89 percent of the 7.4 million streams the track earned in the most recent tracking week, powered by the sum of many user-generated videos, created by fans re-interpreting the dance themselves and with their friends. All are driving “Watch Me” and Silento’s popularity.

It’s known at this point that both Vine and YouTube dance trends can yield great successes for artists, as measured by the Billboard charts. Twerking helped FiNATTiCZ' "Don’t Drop That Thun Thun" peak at No. 5 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs and Bay Area rapper Sage the Gemini chart two songs on the Hot 100, with "Gas Pedal" (No. 29) and "Red Nose" (No. 52). As mentioned, Bobby Shmurda's “Shmoney Dance” helped his single “Hot Boy” break the top 10 of the Hot 100. The “Whip Dance” helped T-Wayne recently peak at No. 9 on the Hot 100 with “Nasty Freestyle.” Dance choreography crews on YouTube helped Beyonce’s “Partition” debut on Streaming Songs at No. 49.

What might not be so well-known is that artists and labels are beginning to leverage organized, professional networks of YouTubers in order to distribute a song to wider audiences in a way not dissimilar to how songs are “worked” to traditional radio. This is exactly the case with Silento.

In April, TuneCore -- a company that distributes songs to digital and streaming platforms -- partnered with digital media company DanceOn for the #WatchMeDanceOn campaign. DanceOn was launched in 2010 by CEO Amanda Taylor from the living room of her apartment on the Lower East Side in New York, and boasts Madonna, Guy Oseary and Machinima CEO Allen DeBevoise among its co-founders.

“I was trying to make a proof of concept that dance as a category was worth programming through YouTube and social video in general," says Taylor. "YouTube ended up awarding us with a multi-million dollar grant." Taylor started DanceOn with original programming, curating dance sequences from popular videos, then built up a dance-specific community far before the other multi-channel networks (MCN) like Maker Studio and Fullscreen. According to DanceOn, their network reaches more than 20 million YouTube users.

For the #WatchMeDanceOn promotion, DanceOn structured paid deals (that differ per channel) to the channel partners that were interested in the campaign (around 25 percent of the 200 it reached out to). Those channels, some of which have millions of subscribers, then created an original dance video featuring the song. These included YAK Films, whose #WatchMeDanceOn video was seen more than 20 million times across digital platforms.

Heaven King, who has appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, has garnered more than 10 million views to date.

For videos that were monetized through Content ID, which includes the 7.3 million U.S. plays the track received this week that count towards its Billboard chart ranking, Tunecore was there to collect revenues on the ads run on the user-generated contributions within YouTube.

"Watch Me" works so well because the track is essentially an amalgamation of several pre-existing dance trends, each of which are called out in the track. There's the "whip," which is mentioned previously as leading to the popularity of folks like T-Wayne. The "Nae Nae," which was developed from Atlanta-based crew We Are Toonz, has firm roots in hip-hop culture. The "Superman" move is Soulja Boy's "Crank That," and "Stanky Legg" comes courtesy of GS Boyz. Each of these moves works together in harmony to give a broader range of listeners something that to identify with and latch onto. "I felt like it had a "Harlem Shake" potential," says Taylor. "There was something about the song that had a kind of call to action to it."

Leveraging an MCN like DanceOn is different than approaching a traditional source of advertising. “With digital media in general, it’s a smarter way to get engagement or transactional metrics,” says Taylor. “You’re reaching a different, millennial -- or younger -- audience that is more active. There’s this perspective that there’s a big community of superfans where people really want to engage with things and not just be passive viewers. So a lot of the promotions we do mobilize a scaled number of people, some of them being content creators and others doing things with that content.”

What’s most interesting about the success of “Watch Me” is just how much the track took off once DanceOn’s #WatchMeDanceOn campaign kicked off on April 13. The track’s digital sales have nearly tripled, from 17,000 the week of April 19 to 42,000 units sold the week of May 25, according to Nielsen Music. Weekly streams have increased as well, from just over 4 million in the U.S. to the 7.3 million it earned in the most recent charting frame.

The success has paid off. On May 1st, Silento was signed to Capitol Records.

"DanceOn's campaign was one of the biggest factors in helping make my single a viral dance hit," said Silento in a statement to Billboard. "It went from steady to spiking in a matter of weeks... shoutout to DanceOn for all the support and help!"