If you have connected to or even thought about the Internet once in the past week, you have probably already seen a dozen covers of an inane little pop song called Friday. The original video, in which the song is sung by a pretty teenager called Rebecca Black, at first appears to be a parody of current pop-rap music, in the style of I'm on a Boat and other Lonely Island skits.
It's about a girl getting ready for school. Her voice Auto-Tuned to that bubbling mercury sheen that Top 40 music now requires, she sings that when the bus comes she must choose a seat, and then, crescendo: "Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday, Today it is Friday, Friday ... Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterward."
It's funny, but then not quite funny enough - you keep expecting it to get more extreme, but the punchline never comes. About halfway through, you realize with a sick feeling that it's not a parody at all. So what is it?
The parodies of the non-parody, when they came, were mostly folky versions, kids in their bedrooms with guitars making the days-of-the-week sequence as earnestly poetic as they could. It's just funnier as folk.
A blogger found the makers of the original video: a Los Angeles-based company called Ark Music Factory. It specializes in music videos of teen or pre-teen girls singing catchy electronic dance numbers - these are the legions of girls who would kill to be Lady Gaga, or at least to sit on her lap onstage.
A debate ensued about what exactly this production company does, how it differs from all other record labels, and what the ethics of it might be. For it seems pretty clear that it's the musical equivalent of a vanity press: Wealthy parents have a talented daughter, and they pay this company a large fee to style her; this fee pays for the professional-looking video (with all the necessary accoutrements of pop-rap, including a luxury car and a club scene) and an appearance at the company's Vegas-style talent show (also filmed and put online). Ark Music Factory will then represent the singer if any concert promoter comes calling.
This is not significantly different so far from what any large record label does. Musicians always have to pay for the production of their own videos - from their earnings. That's long been a sore spot among artists, but it's still standard practice. You have to pay a lot for promotion in any creative business.
Even in publishing, where the writer is not charged for promotion costs, authors are encouraged to do as much self-promotion as they possibly can, which increasingly includes the production of a video trailer for the Web. And, even in publishing, the idea of self-publishing is less horrifying now than it ever was, since e-books are inexpensive to produce and distribution deals with e-providers easy to arrange.
It is going to be difficult to scorn self-publishing in an intellectual environment that devoutly praises the virtues of entrepreneurship as part of the artistic process. And yet there is a subtle difference between being an entrepreneur, which means creating your own promotional campaign and managing your own distribution, and paying someone who says they're going to make you a star if you pay them.
So many vanity or "subsidy" presses are still just icky. They take money from a writer for a book they know has no chance of receiving any media attention, let alone any kind of audience. They do some minimal promotion and give the author a bunch of bound copies for friends. This is what distinguishes vanity music labels from ambitious ones, too: Most record labels are at least hoping to make money by selling music to an audience, not by simply collecting payments from its artists.
But hang on a minute. In this case, the promotion of Rebecca Black actually worked. She is now internationally known (for being made fun of, but fame is fame). Even the mindless song is now well known. And what if the parents are not at all naive; what if they know full well the video is just a lark, a queen-for-a-day gift, like a massively expensive karaoke machine? New technology makes it relatively cheap to star in your own movie - and it's more fun than a novelty mug with your face on it.