You Didn’t Make the Harlem Shake Go Viral — Corporations Did:
Who wins? The "Harlem Shake" originated with a drunken man named Albert Boyce dancing at Harlem's Rucker Park basketball court in 1981. It was sobered up by children in the bleachers and became a popular dance in the hip-hop community. When Boyce died in 2006, the dance had found its way into some rap songs and videos. In 2012, Harry "Baauer" Rodrigues sampled one of these songs, Plastic Little's "Miller Time," and dropped it onto a piece of electronic dance music made in a style called "trap" that is only somewhat related to hip hop. The song was a commercial failure until student George Miller included it in his YouTube video. As the "Harlem Shake" moved from the Rucker to Al Roker, Alice Rivlin and beyond, money moved too: to Google, where more searches and more views mean more dollars, and its large investors like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Blackrock, and J.P. Morgan Chase; to Warner Bros, which owns global distribution rights for the recording; and to Time Warner, with its part ownership of Maker Studios.
Relatively little went to Philadelphia, where Thomas Wesley Pentz, the minor Svengali who signed Harry Rodrigues, collects royalties from Warner Bros., every time a recording is purchased, and from Google, every time the song sells an ad. Harry Rodrigues will benefit, although not as much as many may assume, and he will have to share what he gets with the people whose work he sampled. Boyce, the no-collar black man on the corner who gave world culture a twist, gets a little credit and no reward. George Miller, the originator of the whole thing, gets nothing.
The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts, not creators of content.