How Ariana Grande's 'Thank U, Next' Became a Viral Video 'Event' in the Streaming Era

Not long ago, it was possible – and even expected – to flip on the television and watch a string of music videos in a row while not having to choose, or care, which videos you were watching. That was the whole point of MTV and VH1, before the lack of musical content on either channel became a long-stale joke. If you turned on MTV in 1990 and there was Madonna, you watched Madonna. If it was Aerosmith, you watched Aerosmith. If it was Vanilla Ice, god help you, you watched Vanilla Ice or you reached for your remote.

YouTube and the streaming era have completely transformed the way we view music videos as consumers -- most notably in that we no longer have to comply with a pre-programmed channel of artists to sit and watch at any given time. We choose not only when to watch videos, but also which ones to watch and how many – which means most people only engage with the artists and videos they absolutely want to see and that are being talked about, and not much else. As the comedian Louis Virtel deadpanned on Twitter, “It’s so weird that music videos aren’t dead, we just agree to watch one new one every three months.”

Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” is one such music video, becoming one of the most impactful viral events in YouTube’s history. Shortly after its premiere on Friday afternoon, it broke the record for most Vevo views (55.4 million) in 24 hours, surpassing BTS' "Idol" and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” Three days later, it broke another record for the fastest time to reach 100 million views, surpassing Adele’s “Hello.” It even led to a spike in Amazon Prime streams of the movies (Mean Girls, Bring It On, Legally Blonde, 13 Going On 30) that “thank u, next” paid homage to.

It’s to be expected that an Ariana Grande video will perform well on YouTube. But not every pop video shatters records held by Taylor Swift and Adele, or creates a flurry of memes on social media. The success of “thank u, next” can partially be attributed to its cultural touchstones (“bend and snap,” anyone?) and some savvy social media usage from Grande and her team. But the video’s release also marks a shift in how YouTube markets their video premieres – not just as on-demand products to be shared online, but as high-profile “events” that reintroduce the idea of experiencing the same videos as a community. Other artists, such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, use exclusive platforms like Tidal for this reason; YouTube, and “thank u, next,” are trying to achieve the same experience while retaining access to the widest audience possible.

Does this mean YouTube is attempting to recreate the excitement of event video premieres from the classic MTV days? They’re certainly trying for a similar feel in the digital realm. YouTube, of course, can’t take sole credit for the success of “thank u, next” – much of that came from Ariana herself, along with the video’s genius concept of recreating iconic scenes from female-centric movies of the early 2000s. But by looking piece-by-piece at how “thank u, next” became a viral sensation, it becomes apparent how exactly YouTube and other video platforms are attempting to market videos as collective “events” in the on-demand streaming era.

How it all started

While working with Grande on the music video for her previous single “breathin,” director Hannah Lux Davis listened to a new song demo that would eventually become “thank u, next.” “It wasn’t even finished yet, and it was like missing a verse, [but] we were listening to the song and my first reaction was, holy shit, you went there,” Davis said in an interview with Jezebel. “It kind of redefined what a breakup song was, in a grateful way.”

With a desire to “switch gears” from the somber tone of the “breathin” video, Davis and Grande began discussing potential video concepts and kept bringing up films they loved from the early 2000s, such as Mean Girls and Legally Blonde.

“It was just a really quick back and forth of just, oh my God that scene and that movie and that outfit,” Davis told Jezebel. “And it was never supposed to be us recreating these movies; it was always like how can we make it Ariana Grande, how can we put her spin on it.”

Production and social media

Production on the “thank u, next” video began immediately after the release of the “breathin” video on November 7. After a “really fast” shooting process that involved cameos from Kris Jenner, Jennifer Coolidge, and several of Grande’s former Victorious co-stars, the first teaser for the video appeared in the form of an Instagram post on November 19.

As more photos and teaser clips for “thank u, next,” began rolling out on social, including a behind-the-scenes video and a trailer, representatives from YouTube Music began meeting with Grande’s management team at SB Projects to coordinate a release strategy, according to Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s Global Head of Music. “They stayed close to our team to keep us informed as they worked to get the video finished in time to be premiered on Friday,” he tells Billboard.

This kind of steady online build-up to a video by a pop star isn’t unique -- Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Katy Perry all have traditionally done extensive social media campaigns for their premieres -- but because the “thank u, next” single was already released, Grande could include the entire song in her BTS video, driving more traffic to it and increasing the interest in the eventual music video premiere.

YouTube Premiere

The “thank u, next” video appeared on YouTube through a new feature known as YouTube Premiere, first introduced on the platform a little over a month ago. As the name suggests, the feature allows artists to premiere their video in the form of a livestream, complete with a one-hour countdown clock to the actual premiere time and a chatbox to the right of the video widget. And because Premieres are set well in advance, fans and subscribers of the artist can set reminders for themselves on YouTube for when the video will drop.

The intention is to make video premieres on the scale of “thank u, next” into even larger, shared events across platforms, attempting to mimic the social aspects of MTV television premieres of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Cohen tells Billboard that he hopes to see more excitement surrounding video premieres thanks to these livestreams, likening them to the next TRL: “It’s a shared experience, as opposed to the isolated, video-on-demand experience.”

In a statement to Billboard, Scooter Braun, the founder of Grande’s management team SB Projects, echoes a similar sentiment. “The 'thank u, next' launch was special for a lot of reasons, one being that everyone came together to celebrate this huge moment on YouTube and Ari was right there celebrating with them,” he wrote. “It was exciting to see so many fans tune in together.”

It’s unclear how much of an impact the livestream itself had on the anticipation towards, and the eventual viewcount of, the “thank u, next” video. What we do know, according to YouTube’s stats, is that 829,000 unique viewers were watching and participating in the livestream at its peak, making it the largest viewership that YouTube Premiere has received since its launch. It would be unsurprising if, using Premiere, YouTube continued to push this “event” strategy for high-profile music videos going forward.

How it performed

While Grande’s video was a massive hit, it was also an unusual one in terms of video statistics. JP Evangelista, Head of Content, Programming and Marketing at Vevo, notes that the percentage of views for “thank u, next” that came from YouTube’s search engine, as opposed to social media links or related videos, was much higher than average.

“More than one third of the views from the video are coming from [YouTube] search,” JP Evangelista, Head of Content, Programming and Marketing at Vevo, tells Billboard. “So there was high organic interest in the market to seek out this video and find it and search for it.”

One theory for why so many people were searching for “thank u, next” directly on YouTube stems from the highly involved social media discussion surrounding its release. In the hours following the premiere, plenty of GIFs, brief clips, and memes of the video were being shared on Twitter and Instagram, but not as many links to the video itself, meaning those who wanted to participate in the moment would have to seek out “thank u, next” on their own.

Evangelista also believes the nature of the video’s content played a huge role in how people ultimately went searching for it online: “Just given the groundswell of celebrity appearances, especially Kris Jenner and others within the video, those have heavy excitement for people in the marketplace and lots of consumers flocking to YouTube to search for it once they heard it was out.”

To go back to the two YouTube records that “thank u, next” broke – most views in 24 hours and fastest time to 100 million views – the timing and release of the video also differs greatly from previous record holders. Both Adele’s “Hello” and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” were singles that premiered alongside the video, and both artists hadn’t released new music in the previous 18 months. Neither was the case with “thank u, next”: the single was released and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 weeks before the video premiered, and it tailed a string of singles from Grande’s most recent album Sweetener, released just this past August.

In other words, the popularity of “thank u, next” didn’t come from an artist’s long-awaited return to the spotlight. It was because the song and video, to paraphrase Ariana herself, was engineered to be a smash.