The Road to a Billion Views on YouTube Is Getting Shorter All the Time


Psy Backstage at the Billboard Music Awards 2013.

Hit songs are taking less and less time to reach the once-mythical milestone.

More than eight years after the viral success of the YouTube clip “Charlie Bit My Finger,” the most-viewed uploads on the platform are now dominated by artists’ official music videos.

PSY’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit “Gangnam Style” became the first to reach one billion views on YouTube in late 2012, then broke YouTube’s view counter late last year as the most-watched video on the site.  Since then, eight more songs have broken the one-billion barrier, all of them music videos for hit singles, most recently Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” which hit the "unicorn" mark on Sept. 15.  Justin Bieber’s early Ludacris-featuring hit “Baby” takes the runner-up position behind “Gangnam Style,” followed by Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (featuring Juicy J) and “Roar,” Enrique Iglesias’s Spanish version of “Bailando” (featuring Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona), Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” and “Uptown Funk.”

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PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was not only the first YouTube video to reach one billion views, it was also the fastest to get there, taking just 160 days. Following it is the clip for Taylor Swift’s second 1989 single, “Blank Space,” which made it to a billion on July 8, 2015, 240 days after its official release. (“Blank Space” is also the fastest upload to reach one billion views on VEVO; “Gangnam Style” was not on VEVO until its release on Universal Republic in late 2012.)  

Justin Bieber’s “Baby” had the longest climb of the nine, taking over twice the time -- 1,474 days -- than that of the next-longest climb, Katy Perry's "Roar" (686 days). The extended climb-time is unsurprising, given the video's age. Six of the nine were released in 2014 -- and the fact that more people are using YouTube every day.

The nine unicorns still attract an impressive number of eyeballs each week: Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” accumulated the lowest amount of impressions among the group in each of the past two months, but still exceeded 14 million additional views between mid-July and mid-September (according to data provider Next Big Sound). The top two songs, “Gangnam Style” and “Baby,” are currently seeing the least-sharp decline in views, with the former drawing just over 19 million monthly hits (down just 1.93 percent from two months ago) and “Baby” actually up more than 4 percent in the past month, steadily achieving over 11 million views monthly. Behind them is the Spanish-language version of Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailando,” featuring Cuban stars Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona, which dropped 3 percent in velocity over the past month.

“Bailando” is still seeing the highest number of views per month among the nine uploads, despite being more than eighteen months old. The video generated more than 42 million impressions between mid-August and mid-September. It also became the first Spanish video to reach one billion views; the English version with Sean Paul adds an additional 150 million to the song’s total. Iglesias’s sustained popularity on YouTube shows the large presence of Latin stars on social media. Next Big Sound’s summer 2015 industry report highlighted the presence of Latin artists on Facebook and the engagement of their fans there; YouTube shows a similar trend, with artists such as Shakira, Romeo Santos, Don Omar and Pitbull placing their hits among the platform's most-watched clips as well.

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Interestingly, most of the videos experience a noticeable increase in views each Saturday, dipping during the week, particularly on Mondays. While not many studies have been published regarding YouTube view statistics, making it difficult to concretely determine the causes of this weekly occurrence, it can be inferred that factors like the amount of free time on the weekend, social gatherings like parties where music is played, and the use of these songs in weekend events like televised games and chart countdowns would convert to higher-than-usual YouTube plays.

Six of the nine most-watched videos were released in 2014, with both “Blank Space” and “Uptown Funk” having been on YouTube for less than a year at the time of writing. An auto-updated playlist of the most-watched videos on YouTube reveals clips for singles that are even newer, including Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s smash hit from this spring, “See You Again,” which very recently leapfrogged LMFAO’s visuals for 2011’s “Party Rock Anthem” as the platform’s tenth-most-watched video. More recent hits by Sia (“Chandelier”) and Ed Sheeran (“Thinking Out Loud”), each received Video of the Year nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards, are present in the top thirty as well.  This is evidence supporting the claim that more people, especially younger listeners, are using YouTube as a platform for listening to new music. A recent Edison Research report has YouTube in the lead among young listeners as a source for keeping up-to-date with music, with 83 percent of survey respondents aged 12-24 including it as a source, ahead of word-of-mouth recommendations (77 percent) and more the use of more music-focused platforms like Pandora (70 percent), AM/FM radio (57 percent), and iTunes (41 percent).

Though they have a long way to go before unseating “Gangnam Style” and its 2.42 billion views and counting, it may not be long before more of the videos for this year’s hit singles join this growing herd of unicorns.