Going Pop, Going Viral

In today’s digital age, viral videos are all the rage. From LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” to the ultra-popular PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” millions of viewers have witnessed the fuss. Marching bands are getting into the act with clever show ideas that get filmed and shared all over the web.

Photo by Ed Crockett

If you wanted to enjoy a college marching band halftime show 10 years ago, you’d either have to see the show in person or buy a recording.

With the Internet, marching bands, whether intentionally or not, can spread their brand to new audiences and work off of a whole new medium. Even casual fans can now enjoy viral shows with a click of the mouse or a touch on their phone.

In 2012, The Ohio State University Marching Band from Columbus, Ohio, performed a video game show that has been viewed by 14 million (and counting). How does a band make it big online? There are several factors.

Involve the Students

Much of the success of viral marching band videos can be attributed to the design and concept of the show. For the Ohio University Marching 110 from Athens, Ohio, the idea for its 2011 “Party Rock Anthem” and 2012 “Gangnam Style” shows all came from the input of students. Both heavily featured the well-known dance moves from the original music videos combined with the band’s militaristic style and have reached millions on YouTube.

“Usually I’ll keep up with what’s going on currently, and I’ll ask the students if they have heard it,” says Dr. Richard Suk, director of the Marching 110. “Sometimes they will come up to me and say that ‘Oh this is really popular right now,’ and I will look at the video to see what it’s all about.”

While Ohio State recently gained widespread national attention for its video game show, The Pride of California at University of California Berkeley did a video game show that was also well-received in 2007. The Cal Band is very student-driven, and all of the show ideas come directly from band members themselves.

“We solicit input from everybody in the band starting in April,” says Robert Calonico, director of the Cal Band. “There are several ideas that are pitched, and we choose the best one. That year, the video game show idea had been floated around and wound up being the most popular pick. The great thing about that show was that the students all came together and developed the drill, the music, and what video games they wanted to profile in the show. I thought they did a great job with it.”

Please the Crowd

Another reason why these kinds of marching band shows have become so popular is that the subject matter is something that relates to the crowd. Concepts such as video games or musical hits like “Gangnam Style” all resonate well with current pop culture and, in turn, create an enthusiasm that gets the crowd watching and sharing it with their friends.

Ohio State makes every effort to do a show that it knows can be a crowd pleaser. “I think with something like the video game show, it touched on all demographics,” says Chris Hoch, assistant director. “You had something that both the college-aged football crowd and the regular crowd could enjoy and appreciate. We try to do a variety of shows in order to appeal to many different groups.”

Consider Role Playing

Sometimes a marching band will go so far as to incorporate props and persona from an existing viral video into its halftime show. In the case of the Michigan State University Spartan Marching Band, its 2009 “Technology Show” saluted various technological innovations, such as the iPod, cell phone and YouTube. For the YouTube portion, Michigan State invited a lookalike of YouTube celebrity Gary Brolsma, better known as the “Numa Numa Guy,” to conduct the song.

Brolsma had gone viral in 2004 for an amateur webcam video of his distinctive, fist-pumping spoof of the Romanian dance song “Dragostea din tei” (informally called “Numa Numa”) by the group O-Zone. The “Numa Numa Guy” for the Spartan Band was not actually Brolsma, but a lookalike that was a doctoral student at the college. He is now a band director himself at Colorado State University.

“It was great seeing the crowd do the dance with us and get into the show,” says John Madden, director of the Spartan Marching Band. “It was one of the highlights of that year. We’re a band that has a military-style origin, and most of our shows reflect this except for one. We always do a fun show every year that will be a contrast from the shows we usually do. The ‘Technology Show’ that year was one of those kinds of shows. It’s something that the crowd can go, ‘Did the band just do that?’”

Harness the Power

With the success of viral videos, marching bands are now able to reach people that they couldn’t before. “We already were pretty well-known around the school and among the college bands,” Suk says. “This success of our halftime shows, though, has allowed us to reach new heights in terms of recognition and getting more people interested in the band. It also has the student body expecting more shows that are just as entertaining, which sets a challenge for us.”

Ohio State’s video reached out on a global scale to alumni and fans who wouldn’t otherwise be expected to see it. “There was a young lady who graduated from Ohio State, and she was teaching English in Egypt,” says Jonathan Waters, marching band director. “She showed the video to everyone in that class, and all of them except one person said that they had seen or heard about that video—and this was in Egypt. I couldn’t believe it. It’s amazing how global something like this can become. It’s just remarkable.”

Madden believes that viral videos should be let to go on their own and not have the band control too much of it. “I remember we had a complicated drumline arrangement in our band called ‘Martian Mambo,’” Madden says. “A lot of people raved about it, and eventually we discovered someone did a piano arrangement of ‘Martian Mambo’ that we were not aware of. It was really nice to see someone doing something like that on their own, and we didn’t control it or anything.”

Calonico believes that videos can be used to showcase other ensembles as well. “We can set up a video link where people can come watch all of the bands that we have to offer here at Berkeley,” he says. “It’s something that can get a band more attention while appealing to different segments of the population.”

Though none of the bands say that they planned on becoming viral, what all of these videos have done is put marching bands into the public eye. With attention from Sports Illustrated, the Huffington Post, CNN and CBS News, millions of people are able to watch, especially those who perhaps have never been exposed to marching bands before.

“What I think our video game show did and the success of it allows us marching bands to be given a limelight that it usually isn’t able to get,” Hoch says. “The students have been working so hard on these shows, and for them, it is nice knowing that all their work and dedication are being recognized by their peers around them on such a public scale.”

About the Author

Jeremy Chen is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.