Artist and social media influencer Ka5sh doesn’t feel like strictly making artwork and songs for memage is a great idea. “I think that’s probably the worst way to do it,” he says. “Because sometimes you can tell. I think if you’re going to do something weird for the sake of being weird, do [it] for sure, because we’re in a really crazy attention economy and we’re being bogged down with so much stuff. If you want to stand out, you’re going to have to do something that other people haven’t seen before or heard before. But if you’re doing it with the intention of, like, ‘I’m going to make something that’s so funny that people are going to try to make it a meme,’ that’s dumb.”

Ka5sh speaks from a place of expertise. The rapper and now TV writer was one of the first influencers helping labels and artists go viral. In 2017, he spoke to NBC for a revelatory piece about being a “professional meme-maker.” For rap fans, always skeptical of industry plants, cooked stream numbers, and other signs of shady industry machinations, finding out that labels were engineering memes at first seemed like an exposal. One reply on NBC’s viral tweet about Ka5sh succinctly read, “holy shit.” But that’s since become business as usual. As another tweeter noted, “Companies always gotta keep up with social media and tech these days.” That’s where influencers and creatives like Ka5sh come in. He told NBC in 2017, “I’ve literally survived off of meme money this whole year.”

According to Ka5sh, influencers “in my day were getting 100 bucks for our shit,” but he estimates that “big” TikTok users are now getting “$10,000 minimum, maybe $20,000” from labels to play a song in their TikTok clips. “There’s so many millionaires off of this shit,” he says. “The TikTok kids [have] learned that this shit costs money. They have unionized.” 

Ka5sh is mostly out of the game now, but he will occasionally work with a label if they’re offering him “real money.” He says that the market is now so saturated that agencies like Against the Grain (ATG) have popped up to organize the playing field by linking influencers with artists and labels. 

ATG was founded in 2018 by Omid Noori and Ramzi Najdawi. They’ve contributed to the viral success of songs like Saweetie’s “Tap In,” BMW Kenny’s “Wipe It Down,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” MASN’s “Psycho!,” and Ashnikko’s “STUPID” featuring Yung Baby Tate, which have been played in over 10 million user-generated TikTok videos as of August 2020. 

“If you don’t have any social presence, people don’t even know you exist.” – Lil Gnar

ATG has a roster of around 500 creators, including TikTokers and influencers, who they work with to help artists and labels create campaigns around songs. Noori says their outlook is simple. “[The label or an artist] comes in and says, ‘Look, this is my song, here’s my budget. Here’s some of the assets that we have. And then here’s any ideas we might have,’” he explains. “And then our job is to go through that, and go through some research of what’s worked with them in the past. Obviously if we work with them, that’s a little bit easier. And then we come up with the best campaign of what we think is going to help that particular song. And then secondary to that obviously is to try and help that artist actually build fans through it.”

Najdawi says that some jobs require them to devise original content, but other times they use what an artist already has in the public sphere. 

“Sometimes [a client] might have a specific creative or idea they want to execute, and they come to us with it,” he says. “And we put that in motion and put together the best fit of pages or influencers to help amplify that. And on the flip side, sometimes there’s things that are working for some of these artists, but they don’t necessarily identify it as an opportunity. Like, one of our artists had a video of her singing to Billie Eilish from years ago and it went viral on TikTok. Taking that type of content and amplifying it on other social platforms helps connect the dots across the board for various different aspects of just awareness in an organic way.”

ATG has a hefty internal roster of influencers, but they’re also willing to collaborate with other agencies if the campaign calls for it. “For us, we just want the biggest thing possible for that song,” Noori proclaims. “Whether we take 100 percent credit or no credit, that’s always been our model.” 

Both Ka5sh and ATF acknowledge that not every campaign works. For all the brainpower and research they invest in every campaign, the resulting meme ultimately depends on the randomity of what teenagers find cool. And sometimes even if a meme pops, it might not help the song. 

“BMW Kenny’s ‘Wipe It Down’ [was] one of the biggest trends on TikTok ever,” Noori says. “Mariah Carey and Will Smith posted it. But that song didn’t get 100 million streams, whereas we’ve had other campaigns that pop off on meme marketing, and they have 50, 60, 70, 100 million streams because it just connected. And people, when they heard it, they wanted to see more.”

Noori says that “a really good engaged meme gets a million plus views [but] might not connect that well because it’s about the video being funny” and “any song could have worked in the background.” But he believes memes that include the artist or have more synergy between the song and meme are “more beneficial” to helping the artist. 

Both Warner and 300 say they’ve hired creators like Ka5sh and agencies like Against the Grain. Corbett-Rice says “[Warner] has worked with agencies in the past” but now they mostly rely on their internal team of creators. Bass says that 300 also has an internal digital team that works with the marketing department and “takes the lead a lot of times on our influencer strategies.” But it was also “very important for us to build a network of IG blogs and influencers that we could go to directly.” She explains that she has group chats with external agencies, creators, and influencers, where they talk through ideas and figure out how to amplify songs. 

Both marketing VPs say digital marketing starts as an internal process. Bass recalls that 300 began brainstorming the digital marketing for Young Thug’s Punk six months before its October 2021 release, and discussed promoting Slime Language 2, which was released in April 2021 as early as the winter of 2020.

Corbett-Rice says that Warner’s marketing department likes to start brainstorming campaigns roughly six months to a year before rolling out a single. “When you have an artist and you understand what’s coming out, you can kind of build a full campaign out based off of what you know you have coming through the pipeline,” she notes. “And if there are partners that we can partner with to create content and brand strategy around some of these tracks, that’s ideally the timeframe that we like to work with.”

Saweetie went viral cruising the LA streets with Paris Hilton in February 2021. The IG-curated video showed the two doing each other’s makeup, eating burgers, and posing for pictures together while “Best Friend” played in the background. Corbett-Rice says the clip was brainstormed beforehand, and was a collaborative process between Warner marketing and Saweetie’s team. Corbett-Rice already knew Paris, and realized her public friendships with fellow socialites like Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian made her the “ultimate best friend.”

“It was like, ‘Hey, let’s do something with her,’” she says. “But then Saweetie and her content team came up with the actual script. We filmed it. And then it went viral over the internet. So it’s as simple as that. Just kind of being like we have this song, what can we do?’ And brainstorming those ideas.”

Both women agree that some artists are easier to collaborate with than others. Corbett-Rice says that while Saweetie is hands-on about social, “there are some artists that you may have to really help [in terms of] brainstorming things that they may not see themselves.” She recalls recently helping convince Wale to make his first TikTok after being reluctant to. 

“We were at his video shoot, and I was like, ‘Let’s just do a TikTok of you doing transitional pieces with you and your clothing,’” she remembers. “And he was always like, ‘I don’t want to do TikTok. I’m not dancing. I’m not that kind of guy.’ And I was like, ‘You don’t have to dance. You have so many sneakers and clothes.’ And so I was able to convince him on set to get into sharing TikToks. He comes from an earlier generation [where] social media wasn’t their priority. So that was a moment [where] I was so happy to be able to just get him to say, “Hey, let’s do a TikTok.” We got tons of support. People were reposting and excited that he was on TikTok.”

Wale’s come-up as an artist was in the late 2000s, when viral marketing was a novelty instead of a necessity, and a lot has changed since then. Executives like Bass and Corbett-Rice, who have both created culture moments with some of today’s most viral artists, can help bridge the gap. Corbett-Rice has been in the game for “almost 20 years,” starting out at Def Jam South and Disturbin The Peace in college, and Bass has been working in marketing since 2007. They’ve both worked their way up to become senior marketing executives at major labels, and agree that marketing is a completely different ballgame compared to when they first started. 

“I’m not going to name names, but we all know some people that came on the game around the same time I did around 2018 that done burnt their whole career out going viral back to back to back, to the point where people don’t even take you serious.” – Lil Gnar

Corbett-Rice says “the huge difference [between now and then] is obviously [that] a lot of marketing in the past was street promotion. Concerts were a huge way of marketing and having that closeness with fans, whether it was meet and greets or going up to radio stations in every market and going to the club. And obviously visuals were still very important back then too. When I first started there wasn’t an Instagram and Facebook stuff like that. There was MySpace and some of those other apps, but they weren’t as huge drivers as the platforms that we have now.”

Rapper Lil Gnar is coming up in an environment where staying in the public consciousness is a matter of going viral—a lot. The skater-turned-rapper stays on the pulse of what’s trending, whether he’s spelling out “die bout it,” his upcoming album name, in cash, or tapping into JulYe-mania by tweeting, “Kanye got him a hellcat n a white girl w a fat ass. welcome back to the streets.”

“If you don’t have any social presence, people don’t even know you exist,” Gnar says. He thinks meme marketing works not only because it’s engaging, but because people are tired of being advertised to in traditional manners. 

“I think [memes are] funny, they’re relatable, and they’re easy to grab onto,” he says. “Not everybody wants to see all day, ‘Yo, I dropped a new song, go listen to it,’ just straight in their face like that. Sometimes people feel like they’re pushing it on them too hard. They want to see some other content.”

Gnar realized before even getting into rap that he’d need to go viral in order to create a platform and differentiate himself from a sea of young artists. He used his skating skills to his advantage, uploading videos of him doing tricks while his music was playing in the background. Once he bought a Porsche, he incorporated that into the videos to create even more memorable clips. 

“[That combination] was shit people wasn’t really used to,” he says. “And so people kind of gravitate towards that, and checked out the song and shared.” But he didn’t OD on trying to capture the public’s attention. For Gnar, his marketing strategy is about bringing attention to his music, but not relying on it to the point where people are tired of seeing him. 

“You’ve got to pick and choose,” he explains. “You don’t want to burn yourself out. I’m not going to name names, but we all know some people that came on the game around the same time I did around 2018 that done burnt their whole career out going viral back to back to back, to the point where people don’t even take you serious.”

Ka5sh points out that artists have to be discerning about how much they engage with their virality. Sometimes it works, but other times, he says, it can feel too forced and opportunistic. “It’s like a double-edged sword. Because it can make people like you a lot, or it can make people think that you’re corny for trying to cash in on it. It just depends on what the meme is, and then how it’s being used. Because you could crash the virality of it by getting a part of it too early and then just ruin the momentum of it. It’s a delicate dance.”

From the label side, Bass says that 300 tries to avoid forced content by planning ahead, as well as making sure their viral campaigns are a natural reflection of the artist and times. She says Gunna’s Wunna album is a prime example of all three elements. Instead of asking Gunna to do traditional promotion amid the pandemic, the label reached out to prominent social media astrologist Hood Healer and ended up creating “Wunnascope,” an online horoscope predictor. 

“When Wunna dropped, we were in the middle of the pandemic and I didn’t dare come to him with a plan [like] ‘You’re going to go live every day leading into your project or you’re going to do this,’ because that’s just not who he is. So we had to develop ‘Wunnascope,’ another way to engage online and get that traffic. So I would say the first thing we do is check ourselves to make sure that this is something that’s authentic to the artist before we present it.”

Signed artists benefit from the insight of experts like Corbett-Rice and Bass and agencies like Against the Grain. But for an indie artist like Gnar, whose content is entirely up to his imagination, he has to trust his own instincts. “You just got to know yourself,” he says. Some people’s line of what’s cool and what ain’t differs. Some people will do stuff that ain’t necessarily the coolest, but they feel like it’s cool. You know what I’m saying? So everybody’s line differs a little bit. There’s a cool and a corny line in everybody’s head.”

So, how does one make sure they’re on the right side of that line? How have memes become such a part of our cultural lexicon anyway? Law professor and former intellectual property lawyer Shontavia Johnson tells Complex that “there’s a whole science about memes.”

Johnson wrote an insightful piece for The Conversation, called “Memetics and the science of going viral,” where she explained that “memetics suggests that memes have existed for as long as human beings have been on the planet” and that scientist Richard Dawkins theorized they can be “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and ways of making pots or building arches could all be memes.” 

Wikipedia refers to memetics as an “approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer” which “describes how an idea can propagate successfully.” In other words, anything from a P emoji to a picture of an exasperated-looking Pooh Shiesty can communicate specific information in lieu of words. That’s why someone simply posting, “Lil Baby on ‘Want and Needs’” with a picture of women standing in purses, communicates an idea to everyone who understands “in their bag” as a colloquialism. Mastering the right combination of timing and relatability helps a meme resonate with a wide swathe of people—and go viral. 

As Johnson notes, memes will evolve as people do. “One of the hard things about memes is that it’s not really something that’s consistent,” Johnson says. “What some scientists have said is that we can give memes categories. Things can be broken down into their smallest part, whether it’s a catch phrase, or a picture, or a video, they don’t really have easily defined boundaries. We can see the Deborah Cox challenge, which is just 30 seconds of a song, or you can see a GIF, or Arthur with his fist balled up on Twitter. I think the internet is making it easier to figure out what the boundaries are, but memes, unlike a lot of other things, [still] may not have clearly defined boundaries. I think the culture gets to decide, and that’s what makes it the most interesting to me.”

Johnson says that successful memes generally have three “tricks”: being easily imitated, being useful to people, and answering a question that humans find interesting. And that’s been the case even before the internet. 

“When Run DMC hit the scene, they always wore Kangol hats, the black horn rimmed sunglasses, and Adidas,” Johnson says. “When ‘My Adidas’ came out, the next week every kid wanted some shell-toed Adidas, they had the Kangol hat. Run DMC created a whole movement. Back then, which I think is a little bit different from today, it wasn’t like, ‘OK, we going to drop this song about Adidas, and we’re going to dress like this because we want to get a brand deal.’ It was just like, ‘This is who we are. The culture said, ‘OK, this is something that I want to be a part of. This is something that I want to replicate.’”

Now, someone wearing that iconic outfit automatically communicates a reverence, or at least acknowledgement, of ‘80s hip-hop. That’s memetics. As Johnson said, memes can be difficult to define, because they have no specific language, but they’re widely understood. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint how meme marketing will evolve from here, because of the constant flux of social media apps, features, as well as the public’s taste. But the people who can keep the masses’ attention through the language of memes will continue to succeed. And as Ka5sh predicts, the noise on social media will only increase (and get more ridiculous) in the future. 

“[Meme marketing] is going to be even more chaotic than it ever was before,” he says. “Stuff is constantly going viral all the time and it has a shelf life of maybe a week or two max before we forget about it. So in order to cut through that stuff has got to become more and more absurd. We’ve seen that in the past a couple of months. Like we were just running on crates and falling off and we were just like, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’”

Hopefully no labels start advising to risk their spine to go viral, but they’ll continue to find ways to capture the culture with their viral marketing. 

“I think for right now, with us still dealing with the uncertainty of how open the world will be, I think that [meme marketing] will continue to be creative,” Corbett-Rice says. “It’ll adjust to where we are in the space of culture. And I think that those things will play into how artists roll out their marketing from a social perspective. I’m curious to see the artists who weren’t into social media marketing, how they will start to understand the importance of it. I think over time artists will really start to, and they [already] have. I’ve seen a lot of artists that were not social before who have gravitated to either TikTok or IG Reels, things like that. I think it’ll start going into the space of creativity, whether it is on TikTok or Instagram. I think artists are really understanding the importance now, or starting to.”