The Fascinating Rise of YouTube Music Reaction Videos

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If you’ve looked through the “recommended” sidebar while listening to music on YouTube lately, you’ve probably seen them by now: music reaction videos.

I recently came across one that surprised me. It’s a five minute clip of two guys named Zias and B.Lou sitting in a small room, listening to XXXTENTACION’s “Look At Me!” for the first time.

After battling with the pronunciation of his name for a full 30 seconds, they react to the whole song together in real time. Each of the guys has charisma and the whole thing feels genuine and relatable—down to scenes from White Chicks playing on a TV in the background. But that’s not what caught my attention. What blew me away about this specific video was the view count.

Ten million.

To put that number in perspective, ten million views is higher than any traditional media outlet would hope for from a video like this. This has more views than all but three videos on the Complex YouTube channel. Zias and B.Lou’s reaction has four times as many views as the most-watched video on popular music review channel theneedledrop. These are the kind of numbers that most major label artists would be proud to see on a big budget music video.

Ten million views places this video into a whole other category of YouTube. These are Jake Paul numbers we’re talking about.

This kind of thing isn’t completely unheard of, though. Reaction videos first started gaining popularity on YouTube in 2007 when everyone started recording themselves reacting to one of the internet’s first gross-out videos: 2 Girls 1 Cup. Ten years later, a quick search of “reaction videos” brings up pages of videos that each have millions of views. Following recent fair use court decisions that ruled in favor of reaction videos, it looks like these aren’t going anywhere soon, either.

So, what’s going on here? Why are so many people watching music reaction videos?

My first guess was that this was all the result of a quirk in YouTube’s algorithm. Maybe everyone was ending up on these videos the same way I did. Popular music videos sometimes get hundreds of millions of plays on YouTube, so closely related reaction videos could be benefiting from the auto-play “related videos” function to rack up skewed view counts.

It doesn’t seem that’s the case, though. Millions of people are actively seeking these people out and subscribing to their channels. Zias and B.Lou, specifically, have accumulated over two million subscribers and huge social media followings in just over a year of doing this.

Zias created his reaction channel in the final semester of college on a whim after wrapping up a career playing football at the University of Oklahoma. Finding himself with more free time than he knew what to do with, he turned his camera on one day and recorded himself and a friend watching a music video for the first time. Looking back at those first videos, Zias says the whole thing happened without much thought and he credits much of his success to the natural approach.

“Music is just something I’m passionate about,” he says. “So, how we react on camera is how we react off camera. We always clown around. We were really just doing it for fun at first. It kind of just happened. It wasn’t planned or anything.”

After building a small following early on, Zias saw his first big hit when a Meek Mill freestyle reaction went viral. Then, a crafty move during the BET awards gave him a string of follow-up successes that helped propel the channel into a sustainable business.

“The show’s cyphers were on the BET website, but none of them were uploaded to YouTube yet,” he explains. “So, we reacted to the cyphers from the BET website and uploaded them to YouTube. A lot of the people who were searching for the cyphers on YouTube saw our videos first, so a lot of those videos took off and blew up.”

More than savvy SEO moves or YouTube quirks, though, Zias attributes his achievements to the genuine on-screen bond he has with B.Lou: “We got on here as two homeboys in college just doing us. I think people subscribe to us because of our personality and the chemistry we have together.”

So, if personality and charisma is a driving force in the success of reaction channels, maybe people are drawn to these videos because they’re searching for human connection in new ways? If technology is causing people to experience music together in person less than ever, maybe they’re filling their social music needs by watching strangers react to their favorite songs on the internet. It’s a possibility. But, hoping to avoid falling down a hazy philosophical rabbit hole, I reached out to a neurologist in hopes of an explanation rooted in science.

Associate Professor at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, tells me over email that there’s something in our brains called mirror neurons that might explain why people get joy out of watching strangers react to music on the internet.

“Mirror neurons are neurons that are active both when someone makes an action (like grasping a cup) as well as when someone sees someone make the same action,” she says. “Mirror neurons may enable us to automatically simulate other people’s experiences. Thus when we see someone doing an action that is joyful (like rocking out to music), we might share the joy they experience because we know what it feels like to rock out to music ourselves.”

Basically, when we see Zias and B.Lou get excited about a song, we feel excitement, too. And when they joke around with each other and talk about the music they’re hearing, we feel like we’re a small part of that connection as well.

Some of the appeal of reaction channels may also come from human curiosity about how people outside of our social circles feel about the music we’re interested in.

Cameron Haller has seen this first-hand with his CUFBOYS channel—most well-known for its “Mom Reacts” videos. The concept is fairly simple: Cam invites his mom Tammy over to the computer and plays her rap songs from artists like Lil Pump, Ugly God, and Lil Xan.

“I used to watch reaction videos before creating my channel,” Cam says. “It was cool to see what other people were thinking about things I was interested in. But when you add my mom to it, people are like, ‘Wait, what would that lady think of this shit?’ People are interested in that combination.”

“I’m not versed on what’s happening in this world at all,” Tammy explains. “It’s all new to me. And it freaks me out. Occasionally people will say, ‘Oh, yeah, that was staged.’ But nothing ever is. I’m a pretty passionate and opinionated person. I’m always going to say what I think. Because if not, I’m not being authentic.”

Tammy’s thoughts on a wild new wave of underground rappers from an older, more conservative perspective than their core fan base has proven to be compelling hook for a reaction channel. After starting the series with “Mom Reacts to Bones” in February 2016, the CUFBOYS channel now has over 100,000,000 total views.

It’s also turned Cameron and Tammy into active participants in the hip-hop scene that they’re reacting to. If you’ve listened to Ugly God’s The Booty Tape, you’ve already heard each of their voices. Ugly God used clips from one of their reaction videos as a minute-long intro on “Welcome To The Booty Tape.”

As the worlds of YouTube and hip-hop continue to become more intertwined by the day, owners of big reaction channels have started to shift from casual observers to legitimate influencers.

Zias says major labels started reaching out with business offers back when they “only” had around 100,000 subscribers. As the channel continues to grow, he’s been able to turn it into a thriving business that pulls in money from label partnerships and paid sponsorships in addition to YouTube ad revenue.

Reaction channels have also begun to transform into powerful platforms for music discovery. Forward-thinking labels understand that a reaction video on Zias’ channel can introduce new music to millions of listeners. Rappers like Nipsey Hussle have even started working out deals with Zias so they can host their official music videos directly on his channel.

Reaction videos aren’t just places to see real-time opinions about music any more—some of these channels are starting to launch new artists’ careers. The best example of this might actually be B.Lou himself. He’s been freestyling at the beginning of videos since first joining Zias around a year ago, and fans kept asking him to release full songs. So he started sharing his own music videos on the channel.

“We have a big ass platform that’s based on music,” Zias says. “You can compare it to Worldstar or any other music outlet out there. So, after all the freestyling we were doing at the beginning of the videos, there was a lot of demand for us to put out music. Why not? We have the opportunity and the platform, so we might as well put out stuff and see what comes of it.”

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. B.Lou’s songs are racking up millions of plays and, if his recent Instagram posts are anything to go on, he’s already being courted by major labels.

Cameron Haller’s decision to play up-and-coming artists for his mom has helped turn his channel into a place people can go to discover new music as well.

Longtime friend and fellow CUFBOYS member Landon Cube has seen his promising music career helped in part by an association with the channel. Cameron has also developed a track record of befriending and supporting artists like Lil Skies long before they see any kind of major success.

“With Skies, the link-up was so natural,” Cameron says. “We just randomly went to our vacation spot in Maryland and met him. It wasn’t planned and now Skies is on top of the world, basically. It’s snowballed to the point that I have a small part in all of this and it’s pretty wild.”

As the internet continues to evolve, new forms of media keep popping up from unexpected places. In 2018, we’ve reached a place where some music reaction channels on YouTube have bigger followings than traditional media outlets.

“I’m not a big reality TV show person, but I think it’s sort of like that,” Tammy Haller says, trying to put into words why so many people watch these videos. “I think it’s just the natural curiosity of people. They like this type of music already, and they want to know what this kid and his mom think about their favorite songs.”

“If you think about it, we’re just sitting down listening to music and giving our reactions,” Zias says. “But it’s opened so many opportunities for us.”

“We have real value in the music business now.”

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