A pair of teenagers recently flew to New York to sign a contract with Universal Motown. When they met the record label's president, they demonstrated how they would promote their music -- by flapping their elbows, gliding on their toes and raising up their arms.
It was a catchy set of steps to their song "Crank Dat Batman." "It filled a void in our business plan," says Sylvia Rhone, the label president.
Musical acts, especially unsigned performers, are increasingly turning to dance routines to promote their songs. Those routines are taking off on the dance floor and in endless imitations online, and they're helping to drive music sales. Now every major music company, including Warner Music Group and Sony BMG, is scouring the country to find the next big set of steps. The dance surge is also changing the way labels market their product.
Interscope Records harnessed the biggest dance fad since the Macarena and put a teenager named Soulja Boy Tell'em in the running for a Grammy Award on Sunday. Another Grammy nominee, Feist, broadened her audience with cleverly choreographed videos that inspired a spate of homemade tributes. And the 1990s icon MC Hammer has resurfaced at a Web start-up that spotlights dance styles as they emerge.
From the Lindy Hop to the Electric Slide, dance fads have always gone with popular music. Now, Web video has accelerated their spread and dissolved regional and demographic lines. At a time when even rock bands are recycling disco beats, dance-driven songs are providing some bright spots for the industry, especially in rap, which suffered a 30% drop in sales last year, the worst decline of any genre.
Gimmicky songs could be fueling the industry's flash-in-the-pan problem. Many of the fans are teenagers or younger, and in hip-hop, songs with words that double as dance instructions ("Throw your head back, throw your head then snap") have alienated some seasoned fans who look for lyrics with more bite.
"The kids have taken hip-hop back and the adults don't like it," says Michael Crooms, better known as Mr. Collipark, an Atlanta producer and record executive who discovered the movement's poster child, a 17-year-old named DeAndre Way.
A year ago, Mr. Way was concocting songs after school on his computer in Batesville, Miss. Under the name Soulja Boy, he uploaded them to SoundClick, a Web site where unsigned musicians go for feedback and exposure. An underground following grew, but it didn't explode until he added a dance to the package. He'd seen how dance crazes had launched several Atlanta rappers recently, so he and his friends invented a set of steps that inspired a song: "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." To the sound of finger snaps and a steel drum, dancers bounce back on their heels, ripple their hands, crank their wrists like motorcyclists, then lunge into a Superman pose.
Mr. Collipark, who checked up on Soulja Boy by asking about him at T-ball games, signed him last spring. To help secure a national distribution deal with Interscope, Mr. Collipark projected Soulja Boy's MySpace page on a screen to show executives how many fans were imitating the dance. "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" has sold more downloads than any other song, at 3.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. An instructional video for the dance has been viewed more than 27 million times on YouTube.
The best indication of Soulja Boy's reach, however, are the homages and imitations he has inspired. "Crank That" has been attached to scores of songs. Most have been underground productions that circulate online. But homemade videos in which people crank that Robocop, Forrest Gump or Road Runner -- with moves loosely inspired by the characters -- have become hits in their own right. Universal Motown's "Crank Dat Batman" comes from the Pop It Off Boyz, who were signed to a singles deal, a small-scale commitment that allows the label to release the group's music song by song.
"At the point that we see our audience is creating their own dance videos, that's when we get behind [the artist] in a bigger way," says Amy Doyle, senior vice president of music and talent for MTV. The network offers an online series called "Dances from tha Hood," with tutorials on how to Hyphy or Toe Wop. Ms. Doyle says her online scouts are eyeing an artist from Dallas named Lil Will, whose dance called My Dougie involves preening of the hair and a pluck of the shoulders.
Also on the hunt for tomorrow's Electric Slide is MC Hammer, whose rapid-fire footwork was key to his fame in the early 1990s. Hammer has teamed up with two technology entrepreneurs to create DanceJam, a video site scheduled to launch this month. The goal is to create a clearinghouse of user-created dance videos that highlight regional styles.
Pointing to the success of Soulja Boy and TV shows such as "Dancing With The Stars," Hammer says popular culture is in the midst of "a great dance renaissance." It could be seen as a vindication for an artist whose career decline coincided with the rise of gangster rap, which emphasized killer attitude over killer steps. "Everybody should understand that he who controls the dance floor controls the business," he says.
When it works, a routine can spark that most coveted of music-industry phenomena: the crossover hit. Some people have complained that the lyrics to "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" are sexually charged. Still, Soulja Boy appeared on "Live with Regis and Kelly," where the talk-show hosts tried to mimic his rhythm. A diverse range of dancers has helped "Cupid Shuffle," an R&B song with a relatively simple step-and-kick dance, sell about 312,000 copies. At Wild Bill's, a country bar in Atlanta, dance instructor Rose Haven teaches the Cupid Shuffle in her weekly line-dance classes.
Jive Records, part of Sony BMG, recently tried to spark a dance fad with Lil' Mama, a 17-year-old rapper from New York who scored a radio hit last year called "Lip Gloss." For her follow-up, built around the melody from a children's song, Lil' Mama came up with a dance called the G-Slide. The label hired a marketing company to seed the accompanying video on popular Web sites, where viewers were encouraged to submit their own videos.
The campaign was designed after the label's success with a St. Louis rapper named Huey, who emerged last year with a song called "Pop, Lock and Drop It." A suggestive dance, demanding deep knee bends, helped the song make the jump from clubs to YouTube imitations. The track sold about 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
When James Eichelberger, an A&R director for TVT Records, traveled to Chicago last spring to scout a group called Dude 'N Nem, he had Chicken Noodle Soup on the brain. That was the title of an out-of-nowhere hit from 2006 with a goofy refrain ("chicken noodle soup with a soda on the side") and a rhythm that invited dancers to hop side to side. At a club, Mr. Eichelberger started to feel good about Dude 'N Nem's prospects when he saw dancers' legs go blurry to their song "Watch My Feet." "You could lose weight doing that dance," he says. So far, just 9,000 copies of the song have been sold.
Irv Gotti, founder of The Inc. Records, says he only takes note of such dances when his 16-year-old stepdaughter shows him one. Professionally, he says he's passing on music made for the younger set. "I judge music on the roll-up to the club," says Mr. Gotti, whose real name is Irving Lorenzo. "Imagine me pulling up to the club in the Bentley with Soulja Boy blasting. I'll get laughed at."
While choreographed routines are still rare among rock artists, more of them are making music to fill dance floors. Popular groups such as LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Justice and Daft Punk feature beats, samples and electronic melodies that often overshadow lyrics.
A major exception to the rule has been OK Go, a power pop group. In singer Damian Kulash's backyard, the band executed a set of moves that could have been cribbed from a '90s boy-band. The video spoof scored online and OK Go followed it up with an even more elaborate routine. In the video for "Here It Goes Again," the four band members use moving treadmills to leap, high-kick and strike poses.
That got them, and their treadmills, a slot on the MTV Video Music Awards. More recently, the Canadian singer Feist widened her reach with a pair of choreographed videos, including one involving airport people movers.
Mr. Kulash says his band embraced its dances as "a way to push back on the confines of seriousness in rock 'n' roll." But when it's time to promote OK Go's next album, Mr. Kulash says the dance strategy will be weighed carefully. "You can quickly feel like you've become your own marionette."
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