If you haven’t already contributed to the 1.8 billion YouTube views of the song “Baby Shark,” watch it now. Sorry in advance: It’ll get stuck in your head rather quickly.
What is this earworm and where did it come from? Who is behind this viral hit — and what kind of cash are they rolling in now that everyone and their kid knows the song? Who are those kids, and who came up with that brilliant key change?
We reached out to the creators to find out more. As it turns out, the question of who created it is so complicated, numerous parties are fighting over the ownership rights.
The very basic words of “Baby Shark” looks to be inspired by an old nursery rhyme. There’s a version in France called “Bebe Requin” and in Germany called “Kleiner Hai,” and the latter video — a grainy YouTube video of a German woman, Alexandra Müller, singing the song — laid the foundation for the poem’s success. Müller’s version was given a techno remix and became a flash-in-the-pan viral hit in Germany.
From there, things get tricky. Today two parties find themselves tangled in a copyright lawsuit over who created the song, though both tell me they had no knowledge of Müller’s version prior to recording.
Johnny Only, a kids’ musician with a YouTube page touting a modest 4,360 subscribers, claims to be the originator of “Baby Shark.” He says he knew the song from performing at campgrounds, where the song was rarely written down “since half the fun was improvising the lyrics and motions.” Since he performs for a younger audience, Only says he changed the lyrics to be more kid-friendly and transformed the “chanted version of ‘Baby Shark’ into the musical cohesiveness of a song complete with background music, melody and harmony. I added my musical style, a musical ‘bridge,’ driving beat, guitar, waves and change of tempo.”
Meanwhile, Pinkfong — a producer of children’s entertainment, similar to Nickelodeon in Korea — released a version of the rhyme in November 2015, which has now racked up nearly 2 billion views.
According to Kevin Seunghyun Yoon, marketing manager at Pinkfong’s parent company, SmartStudy, Pinkfong merely took an old nursery rhyme and added catchy beats to it. “We focus on finding rhymes that are easy for children to sing along [to],” he says. “In the planning stage, we put weight on how easy the rhyme is for children to sing along, and how natural it would be when the rhyme is actually spoken out by children.” He adds that they then put a “fresh twist” on a “traditional singalong chant by adding upbeat rhythms and fresh melody.”
Pinkfong’s version is simpler than Johnny Only’s. There’s no bridge, it’s a little easier to sing and there’s even a chord change, adding a suspenseful minor sixth.
The Initial Release
After seeing the song gain popularity at his live shows, Johnny Only uploaded the song to YouTube in 2011. “The video was filmed in my sister’s house and her pool as an idea for a fun family activity,” he says. “At that time, I didn’t know much about copyright law, and I didn’t think that my version of ‘Baby Shark’ song could be protected under the copyright law.”
Pinkfong argues that its direction is more than just adding catchy tunes. The company is trying to create kid-friendly K-Pop — a massively popular genre of music in Korea that’s slowly finding footing in the U.S. “Pinkfong’s songs aren’t like your everyday nursery rhymes,” Yoon says.
Johnny Only may have published it first, but Pinkfong’s song is unquestionably more popular. Yoon tells me the video’s success was unexpected. Pinkfong’s version was recorded in November 2015 and uploaded as just one of 4,000 songs and stories they produced. “Baby Shark” garnered several million views and didn’t stand out much from the rest. The company believes it “really went viral when teenagers and adults started catching on,” says Yoon, “thanks to the #BabySharkChallenge.”
The #BabySharkChallenge, according to Yoon, was a happy accident. Pinkfong had nothing to do with it starting, but K-Pop superstars certainly did. “Because of its catchy tune and fun dance moves, fans across Asia began to upload videos of themselves dancing to Pinkfong’s ‘Baby Shark’ with a hashtag #BabySharkChallenge,” says Yoon. “Even K-pop stars like Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet, Black Pink, Got7 and [YouTube comedian and Playboy Playmate] Amanda Cerny have joined the challenge.” (Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet and Black Pink have more than 15.6 million Youtube subscribers combined.)
“The viral campaign was very organic,” Yoon explains, before asking me to “check out the link to our Thank You video,” where the company enlists the original child actors to say thanks to all the #BabySharkChallengers for making the song a huge hit.
After all, the song helped put Pinkfong on the map. Yoon says that over the past 12 months alone, its YouTube page has generated 5.7 billion views and 13 million subscribers.
The production company is taking advantage of the song’s success, recreating more than 100 versions of the songs in 11 languages, “as well as different beats such as EDM, Halloween, Valentine’s, Christmas carol, etc.,” Yoon says. Plus, the company is working on “licensing, merchandising and live shows around the world and will be launching long-form content such as Pinkfong Wonderstar 3D animation series for linear TV, as well as the Baby Shark movie.”
Yoon adds that he’s unable to disclose how much revenue the company has made from the video due to company policy, but he says the song is ranked as “No. 1 children’s music on iTunes, Apple Music, Google Play and Amazon,” as well as “No. 33 in the list of All-Time Most Viewed YouTube Videos.”
So what happened to Johnny Only while the song was going viral? What was it like to watch a production company take your tune and spin it into viral gold? He doesn’t remember exactly when he recognized Pinkfong’s version, “but when it started to become popular, I thought that it was very similar to my song.”
Though he concedes that “the current popularity of ‘Baby Shark’ comes from the popularity of Pinkfong’s version,” he says, it’s “really cool to see that the song is worldwide popular and it’s really fun to know that I played a part in that.
“But also, I’m sorry that many people think that ‘Baby Shark’ song was wholly created by Pinkfong. That part makes me feel kind of sad.”
Johnny is currently suing SmartStudy for copyright infringement, but whatever the courts finally decide, the song has already done its damage.
Seriously, someone send me a catchy song to get this goddamn song… out… my… head do do do do do do…