Gimme Five: Things the Music Industry Can Learn from ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

Parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic recently found himself at a crossroads: He had a new album, Mandatory Fun, to promote, but how? Just over 30 years ago, the answer was simple: have your music video aired in heavy rotation on MTV. In Yankovic’s case, he would also produce an accompanying comedy special called AL TV, through which he would showcase his videos and conduct hilarious faux interviews with popular artists.

Once MTV ceased airing videos, Yankovic was forced to choose another promotional platform. Thus, in 2006 he turned to the internet by releasing the clever parody “White and Nerdy,” which lampooned Chamillionaire’s “Ridin.’” Yankovic’s self-directed video propelled the track to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him his first Top 10 hit. While the song illustrated his consistent ability to cleverly skewer pop culture, it also demonstrated the power of the viral video. Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter users would post links to the clip, sparking renewed interest in Yankovic’s work and introducing him to a new generation. His subsequent release, 2011’s Alpocalypse, sold well but did not garner the same buzz as “White and Nerdy.”

For his latest release, Yankovic decided to fully harness the power of social media by launching the “#8videos8days” campaign, which involved issuing a new video every day that showcased a Mandatory Fun track. Facebook and Twitter fans swiftly passed around the links and, by July 23, he had reached an impressive achievement: His album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first comedy album to top the charts since 1963’s My Son, the Nut by Alan Sherman. In just a week, Yankovic scored the first charttopping album in his long career, and is enjoying an astounding career resurgence.

While these are impressive personal achievements for Yankovic, what can the music industry in general learn from his success? A number of important lessons emerge from this triumph, ones that demonstrate how technology and direct communication with fans have transformed the business.

Here are five things …

THE BEYONCE MODEL EQUALS SALES: In other words, creating videos for each song helps promote the music and gives consumers more “bang for their buck.” In a world where fans mostly listen to singles and albums through mobile devices, it makes sense to include visual accompaniment for optimal viewing on phones, tablets, computers, and some Mp3 players. In a July 12, 2014 appearance on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” Yankovic stressed that he was not mimicking Beyonce — he pointed out that he created videos for every Alpocalypse track in 2011 — yet record-breaking sales for her self-titled 2013 visual album surely did not go unnoticed. By emphasizing the clips, Yankovic gained exposure for his music and the entire album.

BIG BUDGETS AREN’T NECESSARY: Not in the social media world. Look closely at the videos for “Tacky,” “Handy,” “First World Problems,” and “Foil” — the settings were quite simple, did not feature Broadway-style choreography, or include special effects. Unlike 2013 clips like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” no shock tactics such as nudity or strong language were used. Instead, simple “green screen” effects, a few celebrity cameos (mostly personal friends of Yankovic), Yankovic’s hysterical facial expressions and elastic dance moves, and his intelligently funny lyrics were the stars. Yes, his other videos — “Lame Claim to Fame,” “Word Crimes” and “Mission Statement” — all included extensive animation. Yet even the surely expensive graphics had a homemade charm to them, but remained cutting edge. In other words, content still matters, not just bombarding viewers with expensive special effects or outrageous images.

BE FLEXIBLE WITH PRICE POINTS: To ensure sales, Yankovic and Amazon briefly priced the Mandatory Fun download at $5.99, a move that surely helped propel the album to No. 1 in just a few days. Sticker shock, even for Mp3s, constantly frustrates fans and indirectly encourages illegal downloading. Temporarily offering a lower price encourages newer listeners to take a chance on the entire album, as longtime fans will most likely pay full price. By selling music and videos at a reasonable cost, Yankovic demonstrated that he cares about providing value to consumers.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO PARTNER: Nerdist, College Humor, Funny or Die, and Yahoo Screen hosted and created the videos; in some cases, the sites aired the clips exclusively instead of relying on platforms such as YouTube and Vevo. Why did Yankovic choose this route? According to Ad Age, his record label refused to pay for promotional videos — forcing Yankovic to find alternative funding sources. He approached the channels even before he had written the songs, figuring he would spread the wealth, so as not to overburden one portal with production costs. These content portals funded the productions and kept any ad revenue generated; in turn, Yankovic promoted his work on a large scale. In just a week, all eight clips garnered more than 20 million views, earning the sites ad revenue and hits as well as a No. 1 album for Yankovic.

FINALLY, QUALITY CONTENT IS KING: While savvy media marketing has clearly reaped huge rewards for Yankovic, these techniques cannot replace quality material. Mandatory Fun delivers on this level, with Yankovic turning in some of his most inspired lyrics to date. Who else but “Weird Al” could use words like “nomenclature” (from “Word Crimes”) and deliver ingenious lines like “I got 99 problems but a switch ain’t one” (“Handy”) or “But then I deal with fungal rot, bacterial formation — microbes, enzymes, mold and oxidation” (“Foil”)? Since he first appeared on mentor Dr. Demento’s radio show with the parody “My Bologna,” Yankovic has shown a knack for writing silly yet intelligent comedy. He refers to his brain as a “pop culture Cuisinart,” telling the New York Times in 2011 “I just feed it as much input as possible and mix it all up and see what comes out.”

Dismissed in 1979 as a one-hit-wonder after making a minor splash with “My Bologna,” Yankovic has defied early predictions of a short-lived career. His success with Mandadory Fun proves that he is not only an intelligent songwriter and comedian, but also a savvy businessperson. As the music industry bemoans declines in CD and download sales, it should study Yankovic’s marketing strategy as a new model for boosting sales figures.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.