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YouTube’s music reaction videos have permanently changed cultural critique

As former journalists find huge success in exploring this new form of media coverage, Robert Blair asks what 'reaction videos' mean for the future of music journalism

In a world where anyone with a camera and WiFi can reach millions, one of the most notable by-products of YouTube’s rise to a 1.8 billion strong community has been the ‘reaction video’. Spearheaded by channels like The Fine Brothers, what began as an intriguing social media anomaly that pitted elders against Grand Theft Autoor exposed kids to antiquated technologyhas developed into a career in itself for enterprising creators and journalists.

Retooled from a novelty and into an informal brand of cultural critique, the ‘music reaction video’ in particular has seen exponential growth in recent years, enabling early adopters such as ‘Zias!’ to amass over 370 million views since his inaugural upload in September 2016.

Built around capturing that first encounter with new material, this content often rivals the views of the music itself and can command a subscriber base that eclipses the reach of many longstanding media institutions. As countless admired, yet financially unsuccessful, music sites shut down, music reaction videos are producing the number of hits professional, traditional blogs could only dream of. 

The commonality lies in the fact that none of them have any formal training in media reviewing, and yet they have inadvertently became sought-after voices in music discussion.

Immediate by their nature, there has been a desire to quantify the reach of these videos as a simple case of strategic thumbnails or mirror neurons fostering familiarity, but this falls short of explaining why creators have kept audiences coming back. Even well-established traditional online news outlets have tested the waters in this new-age review form, releasing their own viral versions – BuzzFeed being the most prominent here.

In the view of Brian ‘Z’ Zisook, editor-in-chief of hip-hop authority DJ Booth, the appeal is the product of a wider cultural shift and it is here to stay.

“With the rise of social media, destination websites and blogs no longer really exist. People scroll their feeds and click on what gets their attention. In this vein, reaction videos are the perfect antidote,” he explained, indicating that a viewer’s “inherent  laziness” makes watching a video far easier than reading an article.

“And by reacting to a subject with a hyperbolic stance/position, you’re inviting both super fans and haters alike to weigh in,” he says. “There is no more ‘traditional media’ in 2018. The publishing industry is making no money and people are losing their jobs on the daily. Writers, editors and videographers are doing what they need to do to survive in what has become a barren landscape.”

Given this grim prognosis, it may go some way to explaining why Britain’s premier ‘reaction’ exports are actually products of the very industry that ‘Z’ sees as struggling to retain its foothold. The brainchild of former video game journalists at Imagine Publishing, Jon Denton and Simon Miller’s ‘Rock Reacts’ launched in February, and has already amassed over 190,000 subscribers and 24 million views. Much in the same way as ‘Z’, Jon sees the appeal as the product of a previously unbridged gap in the market.

“It was just borne out of us becoming fans of this type of video and then figuring out a way of potentially doing it together. Personally, I believe music reaction videos are a fantastic solution to the problem I’ve always had with traditional reviews – music is so esoteric that I’ve never been able to enjoy a written review until after I’d heard the album or song in question,” Jon told me.

With many videos billed as a ‘metalhead reaction to hip-hop’, avid viewers have been able to watch their aptitude for the genre increase in recent months. To Simon’s mind, the audience’s investment in this process has been an integral part of their channel’s success: “It’s the intrigue of seeing two guys who know nothing about the genre dipping their toe in, I think, and that’s doubly so on my end. I knew nothing about hip hop before we started Rock Reacts. There were popular Drake tracks I’d never heard, but today I can not only tell a Drake song from miles away, but even know his hip hop feuds. There’s something fascinating about seeing an utter novice get educated in front of your eyes, and that’s what we’ve done, even if by accident.”

As far as the future prospects of reaction videos as a cultural media form goes, it is clear that believe it to be more than a mere flash in the pan,

“I definitely don’t think it’s a bubble that will burst, but I do think we are already into the ‘third phase.’ There are some very big channels who got there first, and I think we have managed to catch the very tail end of the second phase”, believes Jon. “Now we’re seeing new channels pop up daily and it’s going to be trickier for them to find an audience, but far from impossible.”

“I just want to keep growing”, remarks Simon, “and hopefully get to the stage where we can be respected throughout the music industry in whatever guise that may be. It’s got to be entertaining both from our point of view and the audience. That’s why we started Rock Reacts”, he concludes, “and hopefully what will keep it going for many years to come.”

While it’s not yet known whether the respect that Rock Reacts seek will ever be granted to them by the media industry, what is clear is that music reaction videos have gained a foothold in the media sphere and are fulfilling a need that audiences weren’t even aware they had.